Apple isn't the only company offering ARM-based chips for its laptops. Microsoft was actually there first. Not once, but twice, both with the Surface RT and finally with the Surface Pro X.
But what makes the better ARM system? Which one is more powerful? How do apps work on the devices? In this guide we will answer these questions and many more.
If you are solely into design, there are many differences between the new ARM MacBooks and the Surface Pro X, with the largest being form factor. Microsoft's Surface Pro X is a convertible tablet with a detachable keyboard and a screen that you can touch and colorize with the Surface Pen, while the new ARM-based MacBook Pro and MacBook Air are traditional clamshell laptops.
The Surface Pro X, however, was a massive change for Microsoft. It's made of aluminum with a matte black or platinum-colored finish, significantly thinner bezels, and a larger 13-inch screen than the other Surface Pro devices. It's also thinner and lighter, at 1.7 pounds and only 7.3 mm at its thinnest point. There is also the benefit of the stand which makes it easy to prop up the device and use it anywhere. These features make the Pro X a super portable device.
Contrary to rumors, Apple's new ARM-based MacBook Air and MacBook Pro are not that different from existing Intel-based MacBooks. They have the same dimensions and displays. The MacBook Air with an M1 processor is thin and light, weighing about 2.8 pounds and 0.6 inches thick. The MacBook Pro with the M1 processor weighs about 3.0 pounds – heavier, but not by much.
Both devices have the characteristic aluminum housing, although the Air is available in three colors. All devices feature Apple's new Magic keyboard with the Force Touch trackpad. The displays of both models are 13.3 inches and have the same resolution of 2,560 x 1,600. The MacBook Pro has the Touch Bar for quick access to shortcuts.
Although both systems have an ARM CPU, the MacBooks Surface Pro X and Apple M1 offer very different specifications and configuration options. We still don't know what performance to expect from the M1 MacBooks, so accurate comparisons are not easy to make right now.
The new MacBook with M1 power supply is only available in one configuration. It is an 8-core CPU with four performance cores and four efficiency cores. The GPU has eight cores while the Neural Engine has 16 cores.
We don't know much about the processor's clock speed, but Apple calls it the "fastest CPU core in the world". We know that it is based on the 5nm process, and it allows Apple to package more transistors in the same physical dimensions as older Intel CPUs that are based on 14nm and 10nm processes.
RAM and storage options include 8GB or 16GB of storage and 256GB to 2TB of storage.
The Microsoft Surface Pro X is just as difficult to quantify as we haven't tested it yet. The numbers differ significantly from Apple's offering, however.
Microsoft's SQ2 processor in the Surface Pro X is based on a less dense 7 nm process and is loosely based on Qualcomm's Snapdragon 8cX Gen 2 chipset. That said, it's not necessarily a fully custom chip like Apple's M1. This should mean that Apple's design is optimized for the expected tasks and works more seamlessly with the other bespoke configuration options Apple selected.
This is not a guarantee, but it does indicate that Apple's solution may be more powerful.
Microsoft's SQ2 in the latest Surface Pro X also has eight cores and eight threads. The base frequency is 1.8 GHz and can be increased to 3.1 GHz if necessary. Integrated graphics include the Qualcomm Adreno 690. Microsoft also has a neural network accelerator on board its SQ2 chip for use in gaze tracking.
The Surface Pro X can be configured with 8 GB or 16 GB of RAM. Storage options range from 12 GB to 512 GB. In contrast to MacBooks, the memory can be updated by the user.
On paper, it sounds like Apple's solution will be faster. Apple claims that the M1 on the MacBook Air has twice the performance of the "newest PC laptop chip" (unspecified) at a quarter the power consumption.
One of the biggest issues Microsoft and Apple face with the Surface Pro X and MacBook Air and Pro is app compatibility. With the move to ARM-based silicon, there are concerns about apps working properly. Apple has its own Rosetta 2 emulator to help developers do this, and Microsoft does it through the underlying app emulation on Windows 10, but emulation hasn't been a silver bullet for this problem until now.
Apple will likely have the more powerful suite of applications in the near future. The Universal App Program allows developers to port both iPad and iPhone apps to the Mac. Thanks to Rosetta 2, you can run apps written for Intel-based Macs without updating them. The performance is unknown, but according to Apple, tweaks with the M1 chip will allow these apps to run faster than Intel Macs. Simply put, most apps that run on an Intel-based Mac should run fine on the ARM-based MacBook Pro and MacBook Air.
We'll have to test these out ourselves to confirm the performance claims, but they're exciting nonetheless.
Microsoft had big problems with the Surface Pro X in this area. Although the device is suitable for surfing the Internet or working with Office 365 (Microsoft's Edge browser is optimized for this), the Surface Pro X only works with 32-bit apps. 64-bit apps that most developers are moving to will not work on the device. Microsoft even has a warning about this on its own website. It's up to the developers to recompile their apps to 32-bit to work on the Surface Pro X. Even if it does, there are performance issues with the underlying emulation.
Microsoft has reduced the problem with the SQ2 processor in the top-end 2020 model of the Surface Pro X. As many early reviewers pointed out, the SQ2 processor is faster than the original SQ1. There aren't any major changes though, so the app gap issue still persists and ARM MacBooks offer a distinct advantage.
Microsoft says it is working on 64-bit app emulation for Windows 10 on ARM, but there is still no word on when this will happen.
On the MacBook Pro and Air, the port selection includes two Thunderbolt 3 ports that support USB-4 and a headphone jack. It also supports Wi-Fi 6 as well as Bluetooth 5.
The battery life is 15 hours for web surfing and 18 hours for video playback. The MacBook Pro offers up to 17 hours of web browsing and 20 hours of video playback, and the connectivity is the same.
Microsoft Surface Pro X is a little different. The port selection includes two USB-C ports, a proprietary Surface Connect port for charging, and a nano-SIM card slot. However, the new Wi-Fi 6 standard is not supported and instead stays at Wi-Fi 5. However, it has a Qualcomm modem that can be used to access LTE connections and that is not dependent on Wi-Fi. This is a huge benefit for the portability of the device.
The Surface Pro X has a battery life of 15 hours for typical use. Most reviewers, however, were able to work in practice for around nine hours.
Surface is the best buy for now
New hardware may sound exciting, but it's not fair to recommend it until it's better known. If you're choosing between a new M1 MacBook Pro or Air and the Surface Pro X, the Surface Pro X is your best buy right now. Apple's new MacBooks appear to have the edge in terms of app compatibility, performance, and performance, but have not yet been tested outside of Apple's own labs. The Surface Pro X has the advantages of LTE, plus a touchscreen and a more portable design. Until we test Apple's new M1 MacBooks, the Surface Pro X is the easiest system we can recommend.