Surface Laptop 6 vs M3 MacBook Air: Which is right for you?

Microsoft Surface Lapto 6 vs Apple MacBook Air M3
(Image credit: Microsoft / Tom's Guide)

The Microsoft Surface Laptop 6 made its formal debut yesterday (March 21) during a live-streamed Microsoft Surface event, albeit it in a way that was  tailor-made for business and enterprise customers.

While the first version we met is the Surface Laptop 6 for Business, I expect regular folks such as myself me (a distinctly un-enterprising person, if you peek at my bank account) will have a chance to buy one for home use as well. The Surface Laptop 6 starts shipping April 8, and since it starts at $1,199 it's priced to compete with Apple's MacBook Air M3 ($1,099 to start). 

Given how close these laptops are when it comes to price and size (both come in 13- or 15-inch models), we thought it'd be useful to quickly run down all the major differences between the two, so you can make the best Surface Laptop 6 vs M3 MacBook Air choice for your needs. 

Surface Laptop 6 vs M3 MacBook Air: Price and release date

The Microsoft Surface Laptop 6 starts shipping April 8, 2024, and will be sold in two different sizes, just likes its predecessors: a 13.5-inch model and a 15-inch version. As with prior generations, pricing will once again start at $999 for the 13-inch Surface Laptop 6 and $1,299 for the 15-inch version. 

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Surface Laptop 6 for Business pricing
Intel Core Ultra 5/8GB/256GB$1199$1399
Intel Core Ultra 5/16GB/256GB$1599$1699
Intel Core Ultra 5/16GB/512GB$1599$1799
Intel Core Ultra 7/16GB/256GB$1699$1899
Intel Core Ultra 5/32GB/256GB$1799N/A
Intel Core Ultra 5/32GB/512GB$1999N/A
Intel Core Ultra 7/32GB/256GB$1999N/A
Intel Core Ultra 7/32GB/512GB$2199$2399
Intel Core Ultra 7/32GB/1TB$2399$2599
Intel Core Ultra 7/64GB/1TB$2799$2999

As you can see from the chart of available configs above, the Surface Laptop 6 can get a lot more expensive if you buy one featuring better internals. The top-tier 15-inch Surface Laptop 6 costs roughly $3,000; for that, you get one of the most powerful Intel Meteor Lake laptop chips currently available, 64GB of RAM and a 1TB SSD for storage.

The MacBook Air M3, by comparison, starts at $1,099 (13.5-inch) or $1,299 (15-inch), making an entry-level 13-inch M3 Air $100 cheaper than an entry-level Surface Laptop 6.

Apple's Air is cheaper on the high end, too, because you can't get one with as much RAM as you can in a Surface Laptop 6. The top-tier 15-inch MacBook Air M3 costs $2,499, and for that you get 24GB of RAM, a 2TB SSD for storage and Apple's M3 chip.

So while you'll pay a bit more for the Surface Laptop 6 than you will for a MacBook Air M3, you have the potential to get double the RAM (and half the storage) on the high end. 

Surface Laptop 6 vs M3 MacBook Air: Design

Surface Laptop 6 for Business promo image courtesy of Microsoft

(Image credit: Microsoft)

Microsoft's Surface Laptop 6 looks identical to its predecessors, which can be good or bad depending on how you feel about the design of the Surface Laptop.

I've always kind of liked the simple design of these Windows 11 laptops, but after reviewing the past two models I'm a little bored of the basic clamshell build. On the upside, the Surface Laptop's design feels like a productivity enhancer since you get a nice comfy keyboard and a touchscreen with a tall 3:2 aspect ratio, which can make it easier to parse tall vertical content like code windows, blog posts and overly long emails.

The Surface Laptop 6 is about the same size as its predecessors, too, with the 13.5-inch model coming in at 12.1 x 8.8 x 0.66 inches and weighing roughly 3.06 pounds while the 15-inch Laptop 6 is a heftier 3.7 pounds, as befits its larger 13.4 x 9.6 x 0.67 size.

MacBook Air 15-inch M3 closed in hand

Apple's Airs hold the edge over the Surface Laptop 6 in terms of portability. (Image credit: Future)

That gives Apple's M3 Air the advantage in terms of size and weight, since both sizes of Air are smaller and lighter than the Surface Laptop 6. The 13-inch Air measures 11.97 x 8.46 x 0.44 inches and weighs just 2.7 pounds, while the larger 15-inch model weighs 3.5 pounds and measures 13.40 x 9.53 x 0.45 inches.

No matter which way you look at it, the MacBook Air M3 is smaller and easier to carry than the Surface Laptop 6. Admittedly we're talking a matter of inches and half a pound here or there, but that could make the difference during a long day on campus!

Surface Laptop 6 vs M3 MacBook Air: Display

Surface Laptop 5 outdoors on patio table, websites on screen

The Surface Laptop 5, like its predecessors, had a decent screen that was fine indoors but hard to use in direct sunlight. (Image credit: Future)

Microsoft's new Surface Laptop 6 comes with either 13.5- or 15-inch touchscreen at resolutions that allow it to display up to 201 pixels per inch (PPI). 

That means you get a maximum resolution of 2256 x 1504 on the 13-inch or 2496 x 1664 on the 15-inch, and in my experience that's plenty good enough for getting work done. The displays themselves have also been improved over their predecessors with a new anti-reflective coating that, according to Microsoft, should reduce glare in bright light. I had a devil of a time using older Surface Laptops in direct sun, so hopefully that coating makes a difference!

MacBook Air 15-inch M3 display showing Dune 2 trailer

The MacBook Air M3 offers a great display. (Image credit: Future)

The MacBook Air M3 is capable of delivering more raw pixels per inch, as the 13-inch Air M3 can achieve a resolution of 2,560 x 1,664 while the 15-inch model can hit 2,880 x 1,864. That means both deliver up to 224 pixels per inch, beating the Surface Laptop 6 in terms of raw pixel density.

We'll have to wait until we have a chance to test and review the Surface Laptop 6 to know how good that display really is, so stay tuned for our full testing results!

Surface Laptop 6 vs M3 MacBook Air: Ports

Surface Laptop 6 for Business

The 15-inch Surface Laptop 6 for Business can be ordered with a built-in NFC card reader, an enterprise edge the MacBook Air M3 can't match. (Image credit: Microsoft)

Surface Laptops were never rich in ports, and while things have improved over the years, the new Surface Laptop 6 is still more limited than I'd like.

On the 13.5-inch Surface Laptop 6, for example, you get a Thunderbolt 4/USB 4 port (which supports fast charging via USB-C as well as support for up to 1 8K external monitor via DisplayPort 2.1), a USB-A 3.1 port, a 3.5mm headphone jack and a Surface Connect port for the charger. Microsoft offers all the same ports on the 15-inch Surface Laptop 6, but you get an additional Thunderbolt 4/USB 4 port, which is nice to have. 

Businesses can also order the 15-inch Laptop 6 with an integrated smart card reader, which allows them to be used more securely in businesses that provide employees NFC smart cards.

MacBook Air 15-inch M3 right side showing headphone jack

Apple's MacBook Airs are pretty disappointing in the port department, as not only do you not get many (just two USB-C ports and a headphone jack), but the USB ports are all on the left side (which can cause crowding hassles). The headphone jack is all alone on the right side.  (Image credit: Future)

The MacBook Air M3 offers a more limited port array, which has always frustrated me. On both the 13- and 15-inch MacBook Air models you're limited to just a pair of Thunderbolt 4/USB 4 ports as well as a headphone jack, which is a bummer. 

So while both laptops are a bit disappointing in the port department, Microsoft's Surface Laptop 6 offers a bit more versatility and value since you get that USB-A port as well as a more modern Thunderbolt 4 option. The one silver lining with Apple's Airs is that you get a pair of Thunderbolt 4 on either size, whereas you only get one such port on the 13-inch Surface Laptop 6.

Surface Laptop 6 vs M3 MacBook Air: Performance

Surface Laptop 6 for Business

The Surface Laptop 6 for Business will be one of the first Surface PCs to ship with a Copilot key on the keyboard, though only on select models as Copilot isn't yet available in all regions. (Image credit: Microsoft)

We haven't yet had a chance to put the Surface Laptop 6 through our performance tests, but I can already tell you (based on our tests of Intel Meteor Lake laptops released so far) that it's going to have a hard time beating the raw power of Apple's M3 chip.

That said, you can order a Surface Laptop 6 with a variety of components that can affect its performance. Most notably, you get two CPU options — the Intel Core Ultra 5 135H or the Intel Core Ultra 7 165H.

These are some of the more powerful Intel Meteor Lake chips yet released, and Microsoft is leaning into advertising them as perfect for the "AI PC" future since their onboard NPUs (Neural Processing Units) are optimized for a lot of the work we call "AI" these days. If you were to buy a 15-inch Surface Laptop 6 with the Ultra 7 CPU and 64GB of RAM, I bet you'd enjoy some awfully speedy performance when slinging spreadsheets.

We have had a chance to put Apple's M3 Airs to the test, so we know they're some of the best laptops on the market thanks to the remarkable power and efficiency of Apple's M3 chip. You know you'll get speedy performance when you buy an M3 Air, so the Surface Laptop 6 has its work cut out for it if it wants to compete.

Surface Laptop 6 vs M3 MacBook Air: Audio

Both sizes of Microsoft's Surface Laptop 6 come with Omnisonic speakers that support Dolby Atmos and Bluetooth LE audio, and they should be pretty decent. I've appreciated the quality of sound delivered by speakers on earlier Surface Laptops I've reviewed, and I'm hopeful Microsoft can do even better this time around.

But the sound coming out of the Surface Laptop 6 will have to be pretty good to compete with the MacBook Air M3, which comes with four speakers in the 13-inch model and six in the 15-inch, as well as two force-cancelling woofers. It's not a killer sound system, but for a laptop, it sounds pretty great.

Surface Laptop 6 vs M3 MacBook Air: Battery life

We haven't yet had a chance to test and review the Surface Laptop 6 so we can't say for sure how long it'll last on a full battery, but Microsoft claims you can expect up to 19 hours of usage out of the 15-inch model, or 18.5 hours from the 13-inch version.

MacBook Air 13-inch M3

You don't meet many Windows laptops that can outlast a MacBook when it comes to battery life. Good luck, Microsoft! (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

If the Surface Laptop 6 can actually last that long in our battery test, which times how long the laptop can endlessly surf the web via Wi-Fi on a full battery, then it will beat Apple's MacBook Air M3. 

But I have a hard time believing that will happen, because Windows laptops have consistently lasted hours less than Apple's MacBooks in our battery tests. Case in point: Both the 13- and 15-inch MacBook Air M3 lasted more than 15 hours in our battery test before running out of juice, with the Surface Laptop 5 couldn't even last for 10 hours. 

Since Microsoft claimed the Surface Laptop 5 could last you up to 17-18 hours (depending on size and usage), I don't have a lot of faith that its successor will do much better in our battery tests. But hey, hope springs eternal!

Surface Laptop 6 vs M3 MacBook Air: Webcam

The Surface Laptop 6 comes with a redesigned Surface Studio Camera embedded in the top bezel. The webcam will be capable of capturing 1080p images and video, and It will also be capable of logging you in via facial recognition if you enable Windows Hello.

While Apple's MacBook Airs can't offer the same "log in with your face" functionality because FaceID isn't available on MacBooks, they do come with good 1080p webcams that will give the Surface Laptop 6 webcam a run for its money.

Surface Laptop 6 vs M3 MacBook Air: Outlook

Microsoft's Surface Laptop 6 for Business appears to be a solid Windows laptop without a lot of frills for not a lot of money. The $1,199 starting price means you might consider buying one instead of a MacBook Air M3, and if you love Windows 11 or Microsoft hardware, I could understand why.

But if you don't mind using a MacBook or macOS Sonoma, it's a little harder to recommend a Surface Laptop 6 over a MacBook Air M3. 

Based on our tests of Intel Meteor Lake laptops to date, I think the Air M3 is going to beat the Surface Laptop 6 in terms of performance and battery life, and the Air is smaller to boot. Of course, if you have big hands (like me), you might like a larger machine, but now that the 15-inch Air exists, Apple has a product for you too. 

The one area where Microsoft's Surface Laptop 6 seems way more useful is in big business, where you might love the idea of being able to buy a hundred identical laptops that are all equipped with IR cameras, NFC card readers and copies of Windows 11 Pro linked to your organization. Apple doesn't offer the same value proposition, and it's easy to imagine a regional sales manager going with Microsoft over Apple when purchasing this year's laptops.

Of course, that's specifically what Microsoft marketed during the 2024 Surface event where it unveiled the Surface Laptop 6. So perhaps we just have to wait for the company to make a more compelling pitch on why you'd want to use these new Surface Laptops at home or at school.

But the real answers will come when we get a chance to test a Surface Laptop 6 and see for ourselves just how good a laptop it can be. Stay tuned!

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Alex Wawro
Senior Editor Computing

Alex Wawro is a lifelong tech and games enthusiast with more than a decade of experience covering both for outlets like Game Developer, Black Hat, and PC World magazine. A lifelong PC builder, he currently serves as a senior editor at Tom's Guide covering all things computing, from laptops and desktops to keyboards and mice.