Apple MacBook Air (11.6 inches)
Apple's $999 MacBook has a lot in common with the Surface Pro tablet under the hood, rocking a similar dual-core Intel Core i5 CPU, 4GB of RAM, and a 64GB SSD. Sound familiar? Apple's baby MacBook also weighs in at a feather-light 2.3 pounds, which actually makes it a hair lighter than a Type Cover-equipped Surface Pro. The 1366 by 768 resolution isn't as high as the Surface Pro's, but the pixel count holds up well on such a small screen, and the display is nice and vibrant.
How it compares to the Pro: These two titans stack up remarkably well, going toe-to-toe in virtually every area. Sure, the Surface Pro holds an edge on the display resolution front, but the MacBook Air offers a virtually flawless keyboard and glass-covered touchpad. The important questions to ask: Do you need the touchscreen tablet-first functionality of the Surface Pro, and more crucially, do you want Windows 8 or OS X?
Also, you have to appreciate the delicious irony of Microsoft's tablet most closely mirroring Apple's flagship ultraportable--especially since the Surface Pro (with a Type or Touch Cover) costs more than the MacBook Air.
Lenovo IdeaPad U410
Okay, we've already compared the Surface Pro against a gaming machine, a hybrid, and a Mac--but how does it stack up against a straightforward Ultrabook? Finding a suitable comparison model was a bit of a challenge, since many of the more enticing slim-and-trim Ultrabooks retail for much more than $1000. Instead, we settled on the Lenovo IdeaPad U410, a capable Ultrabook that actually costs significantly less than the Type Cover-equipped Microsoft tablet.
Spec-wise, the $879 Lenovo IdeaPad U410 actually holds up pretty well, offering a low voltage Core i5 processor, discrete (and lightweight) Nvidia GeForce 610M graphics, and a hefty 8GB of RAM, along with a 750GB hard drive augmented by a 24GB SSD cache. The 14-inch display's 1366 by 768 resolution lags far behind the Surface Pro's pixel count despite the IdeaPad U410's larger screen surface area, however.
How it compares to the Pro: The Lenovo IdeaPad U410 delivers a pretty potent bang for its bucks, but a couple of key points differentiate it from Microsoft's top-end tablet--notably, the Lenovo machine's lack of a touchscreen, its clamshell form factor, and its 4-pound, 0.8-inch heft, which strains the Ultrabook definition and makes it far more bulky than Microsoft's slate. You'll find other Ultrabooks with slimmer builds and sharper screens if you shop around, but they cost well north of $1000.
Lenovo ThinkPad Twist
The Surface Pro's biggest potential audience will be business-traveling professionals, who already have a touch-friendly travel option in the Lenovo ThinkPad Twist hybrid. As part of Lenovo's business line, this tablet-slash-Ultrabook packs a bevy of useful business-focused features paired with the beloved keyboard and pointing stick that the ThinkPad line is known for.
Like the Surface Pro, the $899 ThinkPad Twist packs a dual-core Core i5 processor and 4GB of RAM, though it opts for a 500GB traditional hard drive paired with a 24GB mSATA SSD companion drive rather than Microsoft's pure SSD solution. As is the case with all of the $1000-ish laptops examined here, the 1366 by 768 touchscreen display isn't nearly as pixel-packed as the Surface Pro's.
While we found the ThinkPad Twist to be a solid package overall, its battery life was absolutely atrocious, giving up the ghost in just 3 hours, 15 minutes in our admittedly stressful battery test. (Anecdotally, the charge lasted about 5 hours during normal use.) That isn't a big advantage for the Surface Pro, however. As we mentioned earlier, Microsoft doesn't expect its tablet to last much longer on a charge.
How it compares to the Pro: The Surface Pro offers a much better display and speedier (albeit smaller) solid state storage, and it does so despite being 1.5 pounds lighter than, and nearly half as thick as, the ThinkPad Twist. Lenovo's laptop counters that with an amazing keyboard, discrete graphics, and a cornucopia of business-specific features, including a full-sized ethernet connection, a SIM card slot, a 4-in-1 card reader, and a pair of USB 3.0 ports. Plus, it's more than $100 cheaper than the Surface Pro.
In a nutshell, the Surface Pro holds the edge in portability and prettiness, but the ThinkPad Twist is pretty portable in its own right and offers better business-focused productivity chops. (Just watch out for that battery life.)
Surface Pro or Surface Amateur?
The Surface Pro's utility all depends on how you look at it. As you've seen, Microsoft's tablet holds its own against similarly priced laptops, stacking up competitively if you're looking for a Windows 8-equipped travel companion that's even more portable than an Ultrabook. Simply put, there is no other PC that crams as much power in so little space.
That alone would be meaningful, but the Pro also stands out by being among the least expensive Windows laptops with a 1080p display. Only a handful of bulky competitors offer as many pixels for less.
As we've said before, however, calling the Pro a Surface product may limit its adoption. It's easy for the layperson to see the Pro as an expensive tablet rather than as the affordable and unique Windows 8 convertible that it really is, and Microsoft will have a challenge convincing consumers that a Windows tablet is worth a significant premium over an iPad or Android alternative. The Surface Pro may be an Ultrabook in tablet's clothing, but the marketing department in Redmond will likely have to find a simple way to convey that difference before the genre-busting device starts flying off store shelves.