Microsoft Surface Laptop Studio vs. MacBook Pro 2021: Which is right for you?

Microsoft Surface Laptop Studio vs 14-inch MacBook Pro, one on each side of the image
(Image credit: Future)

Editor's Note: Microsoft just unveiled a new Surface Laptop 5 and Surface Pro 9 2-in-1 alongside a new Surface Studio 2+ all-in-one desktop. If you like the idea of the Surface Laptop Studio but would prefer an all-in-one desktop version with a 28-inch 4K touchscreen, the Surface Studio 2+ might be for you!

There's more to the Surface Laptop Studio vs. MacBook Pro debate than whether you prefer Apple or Microsoft. Both companies released powerful flagship laptops aimed at content creators in 2021, and the right one for you may have more to do with who you are and what you do than what operating system you prefer.

These devices have earned top spots on our list of the best laptops you can buy because they're well-built, powerful machines with some compelling features. In our Microsoft Surface Laptop Studio review we hailed this premium 2-in-1 as the laptop Windows 11 was meant to run on. When configured with a discrete Nvidia GeForce RTX 30-series GPU, the Surface Laptop Studio has enough muscle to double as a decent content creation station.

However, it has a hard time matching the sheer video editing power of the new MacBook Pro modelss. In 2021 Apple released both the 14-inch MacBook Pro and the 16-inch MacBook Pro, and their unique features (plus the raw power of Apple's M1 Pro and M1 Max chips) make them some of the best laptops for video editing on the market.

If you're having trouble deciding which machine to buy, read on for a thorough breakdown of the strengths and weaknesses of some of 2021's best laptops: the Surface Laptop Studio vs. MacBook Pro.

Microsoft Surface Laptop Studio vs MacBook Pro: Price and availability

At first glance, the 14-inch Surface Laptop Studio would appear to have the advantage over Apple's 2021 MacBook Pros because it's cheaper, with a starting price of just $1,599 compared to the 14-inch MacBook Pro's starting price of $1,999. But the entry-level Surface Laptop Studio has no discrete GPU, which means it won't be able to handle a lot of graphically demanding work like heavy video editing or gaming.

To get a Surface Laptop Studio with enough power to rival a MacBook Pro, you should expect to pay at least $2,099. That gets you a model with an 11th Gen Intel Core i7 CPU, 16GB of RAM, a 512GB SSD and an Nvidia GeForce RTX 3050 Ti laptop GPU, which delivers a decent amount of power. You can pay even more for more RAM or storage, but that RTX 3050 Ti is the best GPU you can get in the Studio.

For roughly the same price ($1,999) you can get the entry-level 14-inch MacBook Pro 2021 packing 16GB of RAM, a 512GB SSD and an M1 Pro chip with an 8-core CPU and a 14-core GPU. That's more than competitive with the $2,099 model of Surface Laptop Studio, and the two laptops are also quite similar in size and weight, so in general we'll be comparing these two configurations in this article.

However, you also have the option of upgrading to the larger 16-inch MacBook Pro 2021 for $500 more. The entry-level 16-inch Pro has a starting price of $2,499, and that model is basically identical to the entry-level 14-inch Pro, except it comes with a more powerful M1 Pro chip sporting a 10-core CPU and 16-core GPU.

Microsoft Surface Laptop Studio vs MacBook Pro: Specs

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Surface Laptop Studio vs MacBook Pro 2021 specs
Row 0 - Cell 0 Surface Laptop Studio14-inch MacBook Pro
Starting price$1,599$1,999
Display14.4-inch 120Hz touchscreen (2,400 x 1,600 pixels)14.2-inch Liquid Retina XDR display (3024x1964 pixels)
CPU11th Gen Intel Core i5-i7M1 Pro (8-core CPU, 14-core GPU or 10-core CPU, 16-core GPU), with optional M1 Max with up to 10-core CPU and 32-core GPU
GraphicsIris Xe (i5 model), GeForce RTX 3050 Ti (i7 model)(see above)
RAM16-32 GB16-64 GB
Storage256GB - 2TB SSD512GB - 8TB
Ports2 x USB 4/Thunderbolt 4, 3.5mm headphone jack, Surface Connect portUSB4/Thunderbolt 4 x3, HDMI, MagSafe 3, headphone jack, SD memory card slot
Webcam1080p1080p FaceTime HD
Tested battery life10.5 hours14 hours
Size12.7 x 9.0 x 0.7 inches12.3 x 8.7 x 0.6 inches
Weight3.83 lbs (i5 model), 4 lbs (i7 model)3.5 pounds

Microsoft Surface Laptop Studio vs MacBook Pro: Design

The design of both the Surface Laptop Studio and the 2021 MacBook Pros impressed us this year, though for different reasons.

On the outside, the Surface Laptop Studio looks very much like a classic MacBook Pro. Its understated matte silver chassis — Microsoft calls it Platinum — is hefty but not ugly, and the flat lid opens to reveal a very MacBook-like keyboard and haptic touchpad stretched out beneath a 14.4-inch display framed by a thick black bezel.

Microsoft Surface Laptop Studio, screen flipped up to face away from the keyboard

Microsoft's Surface Laptop Studio display can flip around in all sorts of interesting ways. (Image credit: Future)

Microsoft made a potentially risky decision to build a fabric-covered hinge into the display of the Surface Laptop Studio, allowing you to pull the bottom of the screen towards you to either tent it over the keyboard like an easel, or lay it flat to turn the Studio into a very heavy Windows 11 tablet. In my experience it takes some time to get the hang of sliding the screen effectively, but once you do it feels natural to move and sturdy when set into place. If you buy a stylus (sold separately), the easel position is slightly more comfortable (at least in my experience) for heavy doodling or note-taking sessions.

Apple took a much less risky approach to the design of its 2021 MacBook Pros. Instead, the company appears to have listened to criticism of MacBook Pros past, updating the design of the 2021 Pros in smart ways. 

While the 2021 MacBook Pro has the same familiar brushed aluminum chassis as its predecessors, when you open it up you'll see that a lot has changed. The Touch Bar is gone, the port array has been improved, and the bezels around the gorgeous mini-LED display have been significantly reduced — though there is now a notch hanging down from the middle of the top bezel where the camera sits. But don't worry, the notch is okay and you get used to it pretty quick.

MacBook Pro 2021 (16-inch) review unit sitting on a patio table

The notc (seen here on a 16-inch MacBook Pro in the wild) really isn't a big deal once you get used to it (Image credit: Future)

So while the 2021 MacBook Pro can't match the advantage of the Surface Laptop Studio's sliding display, it more than makes up for it with a slew of smart design decisions that make it a better laptop, than its predecessor. And while the MacBook Pro's display isn't a touchscreen , its newly-trimmed bezels are much more attractive than the thick black border around the Surface Laptop Studio's screen.

If you plan to do a lot of digital art creation with a stylus or other touch-friendly implement, the Surface Laptop Studio's unique sliding touchscreen might make it a better choice for you than the MacBook Pro. But in terms of size, weight, port options, or just sheer style, Apple's 2021 MacBook Pro is the better laptop.

Microsoft Surface Laptop Studio vs MacBook Pro: Display

Let's talk about what makes the displays on these machines special. Sure, the Surface Laptop Studio's display is cool because it has a unique sliding mechanism, but it's also a bright, colorful 14.4-inch (2400 x 1600 pixels) touchscreen capable of achieving refresh rates up to 120Hz. The fact that it can refresh faster than usual (most laptop displays don't go above 60Hz) means it can support games running at high framerates, but more importantly, it means the screen should be more responsive to touch input, because it can poll for inputs and refresh the screen accordingly more times per second.

Microsoft Surface Laptop Studio open on table

Surface Laptop Studio (Image credit: Future)

In our lab testing we pointed a colorimeter at the Surface Laptop Studio's screen and  found that it can achieve 105.6% of the sRGB color gamut (usually the closer to 100%, the better) and 0.21 of Delta-E (the closer to zero, the better). Our brightness meter registered an average of 487.2 nits across the entire display, though the center got as bright as 504 nits.

By comparison, the 14-inch MacBook Pro's display produced 109.6% of the sRGB gamut and 0.19 of Delta-E. When we pointed our brightness meter at it we registered an average of 487.8 nits across the display with a high of 511 nits, though we were able to get the screen as bright as 520 nits by displaying HDR content. That last part is important because while Apple rates the mini-LED displays of its 2021 MacBook Pros as having a peak brightness of up to 1,600 nits, we weren't able to achieve that in our lab testing, and it's likely you'll only see 520-plus nits of brightness when displaying HDR content.

Apple MacBook Pro 2021 (14-inch)

14-inch MacBook Pro 2021 (Image credit: Henry T. Casey)

Lab data aside, the MacBook Pro's mini-LED display looks beautiful in person. Like the Surface Laptop Studio, it also supports 120Hz refresh rates, and Apple is working on special 120Hz support for Safari and other apps. While neither laptop can display native 4K, the 14-inch MacBook Pro's Liquid Retina XDR display (3,024 x 1,964 pixels) can display more pixels per inch (254 vs 201) than the Surface Laptop Studio.

Here again we have to say that while both laptops have great screens, the MacBook Pro's display is superior to that found on the Surface Laptop Studio. The only exception is for those who want a touchscreen laptop, as the Surface Laptop Studio's unique sliding 120Hz display pairs well with a stylus for on-the-go note-taking or artwork.

Microsoft Surface Laptop Studio vs MacBook Pro: Performance

If you're planning to work, game or tackle big creative projects with your new laptop, performance is key. And while both the Surface Laptop Studio and the 2021 MacBook Pro can be pretty performant machines, the sheer power of Apple silicon give the MacBook the edge in everything but gaming.

Let's talk test results. When we benchmarked our Windows 11 Surface Laptop Studio review unit ( 11th Gen Intel Core i7, Nvidia GeForce RTX 3050 Ti, 32GB of RAM, 1TB SSD) earlier this year, the results were solid but not great. It packs more than enough power for most daily tasks, and it can handle 3D gaming and video editing, but it won't blow your socks off.

Microsoft Surface LAptop Studio ona table playing forza horizon 4

The Surface Laptop Studio can run even reasonably demanding 3D games like Forza Horizon 4 at decent framerates. (Image credit: Future)

When we put the machine through Geekbench 5.4’s multicore CPU benchmark test, the Surface Laptop Studio achieved a score of 5,820. That’s pretty good, but it’s a bit less than what we usually see from laptops that cost more than $2,000. We also tasked the Studio with transcoding a 4K video file down into 1080p using Handbrake, which it did in 13 minutes and 30 seconds. Again, that’s decent but not great, especially if you're planning to use this laptop for a lot of video editing.

That said, our 14-inch MacBook Pro 2021 review unit (M1 Pro w/ 10-core CPU and 16-core GPU, 32GB RAM, 1TB SSD) absolutely blew the Surface Laptop Studio out of the water in terms of lab testing. It achieved an eye-watering score of 12,477 on the Geekbench 5.4 multi-core CPU benchmark, more than double the score of Microsoft's laptop. It blew through our video editing test too, taking just 4 minutes and 51 seconds to transcode that 4K video to 1080p.

The MacBook Pro 2021 (14-inch)

The 2021 MacBook Pro is an absolute beast in terms of performance. (Image credit: Henry T. Casey)

My hands-on experience with both laptops backs up these test results. While the Surface Laptop Studio is a speedy machine that won't let you down in day-to-day work, it can't match the sheer processing power of the 2021 MacBook Pro. However, when playing games the MacBook Pro tends to underperform compared to the Surface Laptop Studio, as many PC games don't have native Mac versions or aren't optimized well for macOS.

Here's a good example: even though it's a few years old, we still use the game Sid Meier's Civilization VI: Gathering Storm (specifically its graphical benchmark test) when testing laptops because it runs on a wide variety of machines. The Surface Laptop Studio was able to achieve an average 66.2 frames per second running the game at 1080p and 57.2 frames per second at its native 2,400 x 1,600 resolution, which is about on par with similarly-priced Windows laptops with the same GPU.

However, the 14-inch MacBook Pro struggled to run the same test. It couldn't run it at its native resolution, or even at a lower 1080p resolution. We could only get it to run at a resolution of 1,512 x 982 pixels, and even at that lower resolution it only delivered an average of 46.2 frames per second.

The MacBook Pro 2021 (14-inch)

The 2021 MacBook Pro has no trouble playing native Mac versions of games like Shadow of the Tomb Raider. (Image credit: Henry T. Casey)

So while the 2021 MacBook Pro is a beefy laptop that can run many modern games, especially if they're optimized for macOS, the Surface Laptop Studio is a better gaming machine overall. However, if you don't care about games, the 2021 MacBook Pro delivers better performance for the price.

Microsoft Surface Laptop Studio vs MacBook Pro: Ports

Having a nice array of ports available is just nice to have, no matter what you're planning to do with your new laptop. It's especially important for professionals who regularly need to do things like hook up to an external display or pull assets off a digital camera, as having the right ports means you won't have to deal with adapters and dongles.

Don't expect a plethora of ports on the Surface Laptop Studio (Image credit: Future)

If you care about having options, the Surface Laptop Studio offers a disappointing port lineup. You get two Thunderbolt 4/USB-C ports on the left side of the laptop, and a headphone jack and Surface Connect port on the right side. Not only is this a meager allotment that effectively forces you to invest in a USB-C adapter or two, it hamstrings your options by locating both USB-C ports on the same side. If Microsoft was set on a dual USB-C setup I'd have much preferred to see one on each side, for more convenient access. 

The MacBook Pro 2021 (14-inch)

The 2021 MacBook Pro delivers the ports pros want. (Image credit: Henry T. Casey)

Earlier iterations of the MacBook Pro had a similar problem, and Apple apparently listened to criticism because the 2021 Pro offers the wealth of port options usually reserved for mid-sized Windows laptops. Both sizes of MacBook Pro offer the same ports: a MagSafe 3 charging port, a headphone jack, an HDMI out, an SD card reader, and 3 Thunderbolt 4/USB-C ports spread across both sides.

The HDMI out and SD card reader should be especially helpful for professionals, and everyone should appreciate the extra freedom of choice afforded by having USB-C ports on either side. Plus, the Pros can charge via either their MagSafe 3 charging port (itself a welcome return) or the USB-C ports, giving you even more options.

That is, quite frankly, a bountiful offering that Microsoft should copy for the next Surface Laptop. If you care about having more than USB-C ports, the 2021 MacBook Pro will serve you much better than Microsoft's Surface Laptop Studio.

Microsoft Surface Laptop Studio vs MacBook Pro: Camera

It took a global pandemic to make us realize that webcam quality matters, especially when video calls are your primary way of connecting with colleagues, friends and family. Luckily, both the Surface Laptop Studio and the 2021 MacBook Pro sport nice 1080p webcams built into their top bezels that won't make you look like a grainy, washed-out mess on your next Zoom call.

Microsoft's Surface Laptop Studio pairs its 1080p webcam with an IR camera so you can log in with your face via Windows Hello. This is an optional security measure, and I usually switch it off because I often wear glasses and Windows Hello has a hard time recognizing me in them. However, the Surface Laptop Studio's webcam is specially designed to support Windows Hello 2.0, a more improved version that's built to be faster and easier to use, and in my experience it works well — I can log into the Studio via Windows Hello very quickly, regardless of whether I'm wearing glasses.

The 1080p FaceTime HD camera in the 2021 MacBook Pro also delivers great picture quality, bringing out much more detail in photos and video. Sadly, you can't use it to log into your MacBook with just your mug, as it doesn't support Apple's Face ID biometric authentication technology. However, the new MacBook Pros do have a TouchID sensor built into the keyboard that lets you log in via your fingerprint.

That said, you can't go wrong between the webcams on these two laptops. While they have slight differences in terms of features and image quality, they're both much better than the 720p webcams we still see on the lion's share of laptops hitting the market.

Microsoft Surface Laptop Studio vs MacBook Pro: Battery life

If you were to look at the battery promises made by Apple and Microsoft, you'd figure the Surface Laptop Studio would last much longer on a single charge. Microsoft claims it can go as long as 18 to 19 hours before hitting empty, whereas Apple only promises up to 11 hours of web browsing or 17 hours of video playback on the 14-inch MacBook Pro 2021.

Microsoft Surface Laptop Studio open with multiple apps running

The Surface Laptop Studio's battery life didn't reach the promised 18 to 19 hours in our test. (Image credit: Future)

Those promises went up in smoke during our battery test, which tasks a laptop with endlessly browsing the web via Wi-Fi with its screen set to 150 nits of brightness. The Surface Laptop Studio lasted 10 hours and 42 minutes in that test, which is less than promised but good enough that you can take it to work or school without worrying about carrying a charger.

The MacBook Pro 2021 (14-inch)

The MacBook Pro 2021 over-delivered on battery life test results. (Image credit: Henry T. Casey)

Apple under-promised and over-delivered by comparison, as the 14-inch Pro lasted an excellent 14 hours and 9 minutes in the same test. While that's actually a bit less impressive than either its bigger 16-inch sibling (15:32) or the older 13-inch MacBook Pro with M1 (16:25) from 2020, it's far better battery life than the Surface Studio, any Intel-based MacBook, and most Windows laptops in general.

So if you care about battery life, the Surface Laptop Studio won't let you down — but the 2021 MacBook Pro will last you a few hours longer.

Microsoft Surface Laptop Studio vs MacBook Pro: Verdict

Microsoft's Surface Laptop Studio and Apple's 2021 MacBook Pro are both marketed as premium laptops well-suited for students, artists, and creative professionals, and for the most part they are. Both are well-built devices that deliver solid performance for the price, with vibrant displays, surprisingly good speakers (especially on the MacBook Pro), and great battery life.

But if you've read through our blow-by-blow comparison, you know that the 2021 MacBook Pro delivers a better value than the Surface Laptop Studio for most people. Apple's laptop has a brighter screen that delivers more pixels per inch than the Surface, it lasts longer on a single charge, and it offers a far more useful port array. Plus, the performance offered by Apple's M1 Pro and M1 Max chips blows the Intel-powered Surface Laptop Studio out of the water — unless you're planning to play a lot of PC games.

If you do a lot of work that requires a touchscreen (or you're planning to), the Surface Laptop Studio is potentially a better value. A model with the Nvidia GeForce RTX 3050 Ti can run more PC games at better framerates than the 2021 MacBook Pro can, and its 120Hz touchscreen works very well with a stylus — especially Microsoft's Surface Slim Pen 2 stylus ($129 sold separately), which launched alongside the Surface Laptop Studio. 

But if you need a new laptop for anything other than those two specific use cases, your money is probably better spent on a new 2021 MacBook Pro. 

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.