Earlier this year I bought myself a shiny new Mac. This was the first Mac I’d bought since 2015, when I bought the 12in MacBook, a machine which lasted me four years but which was starting to struggle a little with battery life and a few other things.
The Mac I chose was one of the new retina MacBook Airs, the base model. As you can guess from the fact that a Core m3 MacBook was capable being my main machine for four years, I’m not a particularly demanding power user. I’m not running Photoshop, I don’t have to compile code. Mostly, I write, I do spreadsheets, and I browse the web. Mostly spreadsheets.
The Air is nice. Having TouchID built in is great, the keyboard is adequate, it’s fast enough and although it only has 128GB of storage, in the age of cloud applications and sync engines that are smart enough to work out what to sync and what you don’t ever use, that’s actually not as much of an issue for most people as you’d think.
But I don’t love it. Unlike the MacBook, which for at least two of the years I used it was an absolute darling of a machine, the MacBook Air has just always felt a little half hearted. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s probably the first Mac I’ve ever owned that I just don’t love.
Meanwhile on the other side of the Mac/Windows divide, Microsoft has released the Surface Pro X, and it’s as if they basically created a computer purpose-built to press all of my technology lust buttons. It’s light and portable – I love light and portable – and at the cutting edge thanks to its ARM processor. It’s got LTE built in, something I’ve been desperate for on a Mac for years, and something that made me use my iPad a lot. Oh and it’s a tablet too, and I absolutely adore tablets.
I don’t think I’ve prevaricated about buying a computer more than over the Surface Pro X. On the day it was announced, I added it to my basket on the Microsoft store. On the next day, I took it out. Repeat that three times and you’ll have an idea of how much I agonised over whether to buy one or not.
The reviews, when they came out a week or so before release, should have made up my mind that this was not a device for me. And yet… Reader, I bought one. And not just the lowest end one: I went for the fully tricked out 16GB of RAM and 512GB of SSD version, because if this thing is going to be my main computing device for a few years, I want some future proofing.
Pricey. No, REALLY pricey
You are of course paying through the nose for all this. Even for the base model, you’ll barely get change out of £1200 once you’ve bought the keyboard (yes, you need this) and pen. Even if you’re lucky enough to get an education discount, you’re still looking at a machine that starts expensive and moves quickly to the level of pricing that will make trigger automatic offers by your credit card company to raise your limit. If you want the fully-loaded 16Gb of RAM and 512GB storage version, you’re going to pay the best part of £2,000.
What you get for that money is basically what all computers should be like in 2019. Silent, always connected, light, with a great typing experience and an amazing screen. Usable in a variety of modes, and equally adept in all of them. It’s a computer that makes you feel productive.
I’ve always believed that Apple makes the best hardware in the business, and in some areas this is true (the new iPhone 11 is shockingly good). But when it comes to computers, Microsoft now beats it, pretty easily. It’s arguably better than the design of the iPad Pro, and I love that device.
Hardware without software is a paperweight
As an iPad user allow me a moment of schadenfreude: One of the biggest criticisms of the iPad from the Windows community has been its failure to run “real” desktop apps “like Photoshop”. Now, the leading edge of Microsoft devices is something which also can’t run Photoshop.
The good news is that the vast majority of applications that I use on a day-to-day basis are already ported to 64-bit ARM, which means I get good performance out of them. Using ARM applications also improves the battery life: whatever emulation system Microsoft is using to run Win32, it pushes the processor hard enough to significantly decrease how long you’ll be using the Surface Pro X without plugging it in. It’s still not bad – but you’ll definitely get a better experience if you can go ARM-only or ARM-mostly.
By and large, if you’re using ARM applications you’re going to find the experience of using the Surface Pro X really positive. That means most of Microsoft’s own apps, including – of course – Office (but weirdly not Teams), plus some staples like Spotify and WhatsApp Desktop.
The Surface Pro X can also run 32-bit Intel apps… but “run” is sometimes a generous way of putting it. It’s hit and miss whether an app will run properly, and if it does run at all, it can be prone to random freezes and crashes.
iTunes is a good example of this. It’s a Microsoft Store app, and it’s Win32, so it should work fine. But whenever I used it, it would randomly lock up while trying to do innocuous things like switching to a playlist. 1Password works, but the desktop client is slow and painful to use.
However, there’s now an ARM version of the new Edge browser, and Edge lets you run pretty much any web site as an application that appears in your task bar, you can run apps like Apple Music and Slack as web apps rather than their native equivalents. Because Microsoft has got into Progressive Web Apps (PWAs) in a big way, this is actually a good experience. And 1Password has a Chrome extension version – 1Password X – which is almost as fully-featured as the client, which means you can run it as part of the browser since Chrome extensions work well with the new Edge.
The right device for me… but maybe not for you
If you’re the kind of person who lives in Office 365 and browser-based applications, you’re going to find performance on the Surface Pro X is good, battery life is excellent, and built in LTE is wonderful. Microsoft has built the best device for experiencing its own software, and if you live a Microsoft life you’re going to love it.
This describes my computing world at the moment, so unsurprisingly I love this device. Ironically, it was my experience with the iPad Pro that helped me understand the Surface Pro X could work for me. I’ve never had a problem using the iPad Pro for almost all my work and a sizeable bit of play. I’m mostly deep into the Office 365 ecosystem, and the iPad Office apps are good. And I also knew from the iPad that ARM is capable of more than enough performance to support everything I want to do.
And remember too that for three years a MacBook was my everyday carry work machine. I’ve lived the life of USB C-only for a while. I know that performance is less important to me than lightness. The iPad taught me that integrated LTE and an all-day battery was also very high on my list of requirements.
All computers are inherently a compromise between size, design, performance, mobility and ease of use. You can buy a beast of a gaming “laptop” that weighs a tonne but absolutely screams at
So does anyone want to buy a barely-used MacBook Air?