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Microsoft says its new laptops are twice as powerful as the MacBook Pro — here's what that means (AAPL, MSFT)

Kif Leswing
Surface Book 2

Microsoft

Microsoft is mounting a direct challenge to Apple's MacBook Pro laptops.

In recent years, Apple's MacBook Pros have been the high-end notebook of choice for those who need a high-performance laptop. 

Now, Microsoft wants its Surface Book to be that device. The company best known for Windows is making direct comparisons to Apple's aluminum juggernaut. 

Here's how Microsoft's corporate VP of devices Panos Panay compared the two laptop brands during a briefing last week:

“The Surface Book 2 is twice as performant as the MacBooks that just started hitting the market now,” Panay said.

“So if you took the 13-inch and compared it to the 13-inch,” he continued, “you’d see [Surface Book 2 is] two times more powerful. That’s the same as the two 15-inches, you would see it two times more powerful.”

“That includes the fact that [Microsoft's laptops] are both delivering more than 30% pixels in both,” he concluded. 

To translate: Microsoft says its laptop is more powerful that Apple's — and it has a higher resolution screen, too. 

But what does Microsoft's claim that its laptops have twice the performance mean? 

Twice as performant

Surface Book 2

MicrosoftMicrosoft's claim is based on two benchmarks: A 3Dmark 11 test, which focuses on graphics performance, and a LuxMark test that scores both the computer's CPU and GPU. 

Basically, Microsoft claims that its computers have faster chips inside. Of course, then it depends on which model is being tested, because both Microsoft and Apple offer several different chip options. 

It appears that Microsoft's tests are comparing the high-end to the high-end — pitting the 13-inch MacBook Pro with the fastest chip Apple offers, the Intel i7-7567U, starting at $1799, against the Surface Book 2 with a Intel's i7-8650U chip.

These are not entry-level models. 

It's easy to see why Microsoft is claiming the victory on the 13-inch model. The processor that Microsoft's laptop uses has four cores, and Apple does not offer any 13-inch MacBook Pro models with a quad-core chip. Basically, a quad-core chip has four different units that can perform calculations, whereas a dual-core chip, like those in the MacBook Pro, only have two. 

Generally, quad-core computers score better on benchmark tests, but whether you need the extra two cores often comes down to what you're doing. 

If you're doing tasks like video editing or transcoding with software that can take advantage of multiple cores, you'll notice a big improvement with the extra two cores. On the other hand, more cores means it uses more power and runs hotter, and if you're just surfing Google and Business Insider, you probably don't need the extra cores. 

In addition, the Surface Book 2 model that Microsoft pitted against Apple has a discrete graphics processors from Nvidia — specifically, the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050. This is a big deal for people who might want to play games, render video, or run any kind of virtual reality.

Apple won't include a discrete chip at all with its smaller MacBook Pro — users have to make due with the graphics processor that Intel builds into its chips. For many people, the graphics card alone will be enough to pick the Surface Book 2 over Apple's laptop. 

Big laptop situation 

Panos Panay

Kif LeswingIt's a little less clear comparing the two 15-inch laptops. Microsoft's test unit had the Intel i7-8650U chip and bigger MacBook Pros use quad-core Intel chips as well, up to the Intel i7-7920HQ, mostly eliminating the cores advantage.

In addition, Apple's bigger MacBook Pros come equipped with a discrete graphics chip, the Radeon Pro 560 with 4GB memory, a comparable chip to the Nvidia GPUs Microsoft is using. 

Microsoft is using "8th-generation" Intel chips, which are one generation newer than the chips Apple's using. They should be slightly faster and more efficient than Apple's chips, simply because they're newer. 

Of course, Apple people may argue that the reason Apple didn't put all this high-powered silicon into its laptops is because it kills battery life. But Microsoft is claiming significantly better battery life than Apple — up to 17 hours for either model. Apple only promises 10 hours of web browsing from its MacBook Pro models — and I personally see less on a daily basis. 

Of course, promises on a spec sheet are just that. Independent analyst will eventually benchmark these new laptops and test their batteries to see how they fare in the real world to confirm what Microsoft is seeing in its test labs. 

But particularly with the 13-inch Surface Book 2, it does look like Microsoft has packed in significantly more powerful chips than Apple. 

Not for everyone

Macbook Pro

Hollis Johnson/Business InsiderAt first glance, the Surface Book 2 and the current lineup of MacBook Pro are very similar, underscoring the fact that Microsoft is not going for the entire laptop market with its two new Surface Book laptops. It's only going for the extremely high-end. 

The 13-inch Surface Book 2 starts at $1499, and the bigger one costs $2499. Apple's are slightly less expensive, with its least expensive MacBook Pro retailing for $1299 and 15-inch models starting at $1999 — although the prices go up when you start picking out options. 

The way Microsoft frames those high price tags is that it's making laptops for "creators." Creators, according to Microsoft, are designers, photographers, coders, and even writers. 

Another way to look at that is that it's targeting people for whom a $3,000 computer makes perfect financial sense — they're spending hours on it per day for years. It would be silly to buy a cheap laptop. 

This has been Apple's market. Apple's laptops have never been dominant in terms of market share — Apple currently hovers around a 7% market share — but some estimates have Apple capturing 60% or more of PC profits

"The PC market is flat to shrinking, but there is growth on the premium space, right where Microsoft is targeting Surface," Patrick Moorhead, Principal Analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy, previously told Business Insider

But Apple's latest high-end laptops have disappointed Apple's own creators. Some take issue with the Touch Bar, a touchscreen strip built into the laptop's keyboard. The Touch Bar meant that Apple eliminated the escape key, which is a button that coders — perhaps the most important "creators" to a big tech company — hit all the time.

Others complained that the fact that the MacBook Pro doesn't have a true touch screen makes certain kinds of app testing or development more difficult. The lack of a GPU on the smaller models means that Apple's laptops can't really do virtual reality or augmented reality development, despite the fact that Apple's senior leadership talks up the technology all the time.

Apple's MacBook Pros still sell a lot — more units certainly than Microsoft's Surface Book laptops. But by giving coders and video editors their checklist of must-have features, the newest Microsoft models will be having even die-hard Mac fans taking a second look at Windows. 

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