My PC using friends are sometimes on the fence — should they buy a Mac this time around or stick with a PC? And now, especially with Microsoft’s flurry of Microsoft Surface Pro 3 commercials that poke fun at the MacBook Air, the question is: Should I get a MacBook Air or a Surface Pro 3?

That’s an interesting question because it compares what is fundamentally a tablet with a notebook, but it’s silly to answer without considering the Lenova Yoga 3 Pro. Why? The super bendy Yoga 3 Pro is a notebook first and foremost — and it is thinner and lighter than a MacBook Air. It folds back on itself to run like a tablet, too. As I see it, the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 and Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro are the real contenders for the PC vs MacBook Air discussion — which is the comparison that Microsoft’s competitive marketing efforts are pounding, too.

Here’s my take and how I help people make this decision:

Form Factors at Work and Play

Ultimately, anyone asking if they should get a MacBook Air or a Surface Pro 3 is usually thinking about the form factor first. They know they want something light, portable, and with enough power to run real PC or Mac apps. And yet, the lure of a touch-screen tablet option is hard to ignore. The MacBook Air doesn’t have a touch screen at all.

So the question is, what do you really need most? A tablet or a notebook computer?

The only reason to get the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 is if you want to be able to do a lot of touch-app work or play on a tablet. You mostly want a tablet and will just need the keyboard cover and kickstand for those occasional times you need to do some serious typing. If you plan to do work on a Microsoft Surface Pro 3 that requires a lot of typing, sure, you can mess around with the (thoroughly decent) Surface Pro 3 Type Cover, but I don’t believe the effort to train yourself with it is worth losing the space and stability of the Yoga 3 Pro’s built-in keyboard. Of course, you can shell out about $200 and pick up a Surface Pro 3 Docking Station and connect a real keyboard and larger monitor to it, which is a costly but nice option to have. It definitely helps bridge the gap between office and mobility.

If you expect to spend most of your time actually working for long hours, the Yoga is hard to beat. It gives you the ability to tap and swipe with tablet apps, but the core notebook form factor means you can settle in and work on it –likely in a more effective way.

Do You Really Want an All-in-One Device?

This is the hardest question of all: Do you really want an all-in-one device? On the surface, it looks cool. But in reality? You have to figure out your work and play requirements . . . and imagine yourself in various situations. Will you use your device on the couch? For what? At a coffee shop? For what? At the airport? For what? In the kitchen? At your desk? How much time will spend in those situations? Will you be sharing the device?

As you imagine these scenarios, you’ll get a better picture of how you might realistically use a Surface Pro 3 or Lenovo Yoga or MacBook Air. Picture yourself using them in the places you’ll use them, doing the things you want to do.

This little exercise might change your first impressions.

Meanwhile, What About the Tech Specs?

The tech specs don’t really mean that that much here. Seriously. The slight differences in performance are the least of your concerns in finding the right solution for you. The Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro is just a half-inch thick, slightly thinner (and lighter) than the MacBook Air. The Surface Pro 3 is similarly smaller . . . and yet, once you get under 3 pounds and as thin as .68 inches (MacBook Air) . . . you’re arguing over slight differences. The processors are similar, too, but on paper the cost-to-value ratio of what you can get packed into a Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro seems to win out . . . until you realize that the maximum battery life in a Yoga 3 Pro is 7.2 hours while a MacBook Air gets up to 12 hours.

The screens on the Yoga 3 Pro and Surface Pro 3 are sharper than on the MacBook Air, packing in more pixels . . . unfortunately, the MacBook Air does not yet have any sort of Apple Retina-quality display. (If you want that, stepping up into a 13.3 inch MacBook Pro is actually a pretty smart move if you’re willing to gain an extra pound of weight and lose a bit of battery life.)

Back on track: The Surface Pro 3 is better if you want a Microsoft-oriented tablet experience first with the ability act like a full PC, too. The Yoga 3 Pro is better if you like the idea of a touchscreen notebook that also folds into a tablet . . . and you know you’ll want to do more serious work.

The MacBook Air is best if you’re not tied a Microsoft operating system for some reason . . . and want to use a notebook more than a tablet. That’s the form factor piece.

MacBook Air vs Surface Pro 3 vs Yoga 3 Pro

But wait, isn’t there a lot more to figure out than which hardware form factor you want to use? Oh yeah, and it’s a big one: Do you want to live in a Microsoft world or an Apple world?

Microsoft’s Windows 8.1 operating system is way better than it used to be, but in my experience, it’s a system of sacrifices. Sure, you get touch and sure you get a PC OS . . . but the feeling as you’re actually using the system is one of compromises — you don’t get the best possible tablet experience . . . and, arguably, you don’t get the best possible PC experience either.

Obviously, hard core Windows fans will feel differently about this. I’m an Apple-oriented enthusiast with a pragmatic nature to these questions. I don’t care if you buy Windows. I appreciate Microsoft for creating an alternate vision of computing — a do-it-all sort of effort with an OS that takes on a different logical approach than what Apple is up to.

On the Surface, you’re going to have fewer tablet app choices than you will with an iPad. So if you really want a tablet, you may end up in a situation where you wish there was a more active and deep tablet app innovation environment going on that the Apple iOS world enjoys (the Apple App Store is packed with high-quality apps). If a tablet is really the core need here, I would recommend that you just take the leap and get an iPad Air 2 . . . and choose a third-party iPad keyboard solution to add to your iPad Air 2.

If it comes down between the MacBook Air and the Lenovo Yoga Pro 3, you’ll likely be happy no matter what you choose. Personally, I think the Mac operating system — Mac OS X Yosemite — is slickly integrated, well thought out, fast, effective, and elegant. I think that overall, it’s easier for people to learn, and it’s easier for them to use it safely and securely.

More importantly, Apple’s vision of computing is based on devices that do their one thing really well . . . and seamless work with other devices that do their one thing really well. So an iPad is a tablet, first and foremost, while a MacBook Air is a notebook, first and foremost. Apple is not blending its operating systems so that Mac OS X will let you touch and swipe it. But if you start work on a tablet or iPhone, you can move that work over to your MacBook Air super easily — and vice-versa.

Apple isn’t pushing a one-device-that-can-do-everything agenda.

Which Environment Do You Want to Buy Into?

Ultimately, what your choice comes down to is if you want to be an Apple person or a Windows person. Do you use an iPhone? If you do, stick with Apple. The continuity of your devices, apps, and media will all come together in easy, delightful ways. If you don’t have an iPhone, going Microsoft is probably a more natural path for you.

The reality is, the choice you need to make isn’t about the hardware form factor at all — it’s about which world of apps and media would you rather work and play in? Apple or Microsoft?

Ultimately, to most people — not to die-hard fan boys — any of these three device choices are good ones. They are all excellent devices. The Surface Pro 3 is the best tablet that has a PC operating system built-in. (The iPad with a keyboard comes close, but ultimately, its multi-tasking capabilities and lack of split-screen options can bog down under long-term, heavy notebook-like use. Still, the iPad is the best tablet.) The Yoga Pro 3 is the best multi-function laptop that can flirt with acting like a tablet. And the MacBook Air is still the best lightweight notebook that doesn’t have an identity issue.

All of them will let you do a hellacious amount of work — and play. In other words, think back to how you want to use the device in certain situations. Consider if you’re biased for or against Apple in a big way. Then go with your gut choice. It really is that easy. You’re not choosing a husband or wife here, just your next wicked cool device.

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About the author

Chris Maxcer

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I've been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and I still remember the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. I'm a big fan of elegant gear and great tech, but there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. Online I like to call out cool stuff on Wicked Cool Bite and blog with my buddies at Man Makes Fire. To catch me, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at the url of this site.