By I-Hsien Sherwood | ( | First Posted: Dec 05, 2012 06:52 PM EST

A Microsoft Surface tablet PC is displayed on a stand during its launch event with Microsoft Windows 8 in New York October 25, 2012. (Photo : Reuters)

The Microsoft Surface Pro comes out in January. Can the ultrabook/tablet hybrid compete with the similarly priced Apple Macbook Air?

The Surface Pro already has issues in finding a niche. It's more portable sibling, the Surface RT, is a true tablet, and positioned to compete with the iPad.

But the Surface Pro is bulkier, heavier, and has a shorter battery life. But it offers a full version of Windows 8, complete with access to third-party applications.

As a tablet, it possesses some drawbacks. The charge doesn't last all day and it's more unwieldy than most competitors. The Surface Pro is really a small laptop, though its optional and removable keyboard keep it from being both productive and portable at the same time.

So the Surface Pro is carving out its own niche, bigger and more powerful than a tablet, but smaller and simpler than an ultrabook.

Against initial resistance, Apple was able to create a market for tablets by convincing people they wanted something bigger than a smartphone but smaller than a laptop. Microsoft is less adept at that kind of marketing, so the Surface might have to run on its merits.

The Surface Pro shines here. Its 1920 by 1080 pixel display has a much higher resolution than the 1366 by 768 pixel screen on the 11-inch Macbook Air. The Surface also supports 10-point multitouch input and a stylus.

The Surface Pro's form factor also compares favorably to the Macbook Air. At its thickest point, the Air is slightly more than two-thirds of an inch thick, while the Surface Pro comes in a just more than half an inch in thickness.

The Macbook Air is just about an inch wider and nearly and inch deeper than the Surface Pro, but its screen is a full inch larger (though with less resolution, as mentioned above).

Both computers are featherweights, with the Surface Pro weighing two pounds and the Macbook Air just a third of a pound heavier than that.

Both come with Intel Core i5 processors and an Intel HD graphics 4000 card, offering much more computing power than a tablet. Both also come with 4 GB of RAM standard.

Operating System
 OS X Mountain Lion is a fine operating system, but Windows 8 is still mostly untested. But the Surface Pro can operate as a tablet for a while and still perform like a real computer.

Hard Drive
 Both the Surface Pro and the Macbook Air come with 64 GB hard drives, with a 128 GB optional upgrade. But the Surface Pro also comes with a microSDXC xlot.

The Macbook Air gets 5 hours of battery life, quite good for an ultrabook. The Surface Pro gets a comparable 4.5 hours, good if the Surface has somewhere to top off, but it's atrocious battery life for a tablet. It also means the charger needs to be brought along for the day, adding to the bulk.

The Macbook Air has a very ordinary keyboard and trackpad. The Surface supports 10-point touch and a stylus. The physical Type Cover keyboard doesn't come standard; it'll cost an extra $130.

The Type Cover is affixed to the Surface Pro with magnets. While that's fine in a normal work environment, it's difficult to operate when on the go, which severely cuts into the Surface Pro's portability.

The $899 baseline Surface Pro is $100 cheaper than the base model 11-inch Macbook Air. But throw in the keyboard and the Surface Pro is more expensive. Toss in upgrades and warranties and the two are pretty evenly priced.

But that's just the least expensive model of the Macbook Air. Three more models await anyone looking for functionality in a tiny form.

And for smaller, more portable workhorses, tablets seem to be working fine for most people. The Surface Pro occupies a very small niche for a group of people who need access to a complete operating system but don't want to be wedded to even the slimmest of laptops.

The Surface Pro still might not be what they're looking for.

Update (12/6): The Surface Pro uses a solid-state hard drive. The article has been edited to reflect this.

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