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ARM-based Surface: why Microsoft has to bet big on this processor – The Verge

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Of everything Microsoft is rumored to be announcing this week, the ARM-based Surface is far and away the most important thing to my mind. This is not what I would have told you a month or two ago, honestly. It’s surprising because there are really important storylines for everything Microsoft is set to announce. Let’s just strafe a few of them before digging into ARM.

Take the Surface Pro, for example. Microsoft hasn’t changed the overall design in years, so it feels overdue for a bezel-killing update. At the very least, Microsoft will hopefully bow to the inevitable and include a proper USB-C port on it.

The potential dual-screen device hits on so many long-running Microsoft stories I can’t even begin to list them all. There’s the ancient history of the Courier concept, the old history of Microsoft trying and failing to make Windows Phone successful, and the recent history of hardware boss Panos Panay hinting that Microsoft needs to do something in mobile, even if it’s not specifically a phone.

You’ve also got Lenovo out there showing how to make a foldable PC feel like a prototype, but can Microsoft make something that feels mainstream? A lot will ride on the rumored “Lite” version of Windows — which has its own dubious Windows S mode predecessor to leave behind, and potential competition with Chrome OS to look ahead to.

Then there’s the Surface Laptop. Any heads-up competitor to the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro is worth paying attention to right now. Sure, Microsoft has the Surface Book line, but the Surface Laptop line is much more mainstream. It also, as I’m sure we’ll be reminded of this week, has an excellent keyboard. Plus, the idea of Microsoft potentially leaving Intel processors out of one of its flagship devices is definitely going to cause a stir.

So why, with all those rich veins of tech analysis to mine, am I most interested in the ARM-based Surface? Because it’s the future of mainstream Windows computers, and Microsoft had better not screw it up.

The benefits of switching to ARM are manifold. The main one is battery life, which is often rated above 20 hours for a laptop. That’s substantially better than anything Intel currently has to offer. It also makes it significantly easier to add LTE options (and, presumably, 5G) to hardware. ARM processors also tend to run cooler than x86 processors, which frees up manufacturers to experiment with different (read: thinner and lighter) form factors.

So: longer battery life, easier cellular integration, and thinner devices. As nice as the Surface Pro can be, there is a limit to how much it can improve in those areas, and that limit’s name is x86.


The Samsung Galaxy Book S, an unreleased laptop using Qualcomm’s 8cx processor
Photo by Chris Welch / The Verge

The switch to ARM is also exciting precisely because we know of a tablet that runs on an ARM processor that’s so fast and powerful that it flat out smokes comparably priced laptops in benchmarks. That tablet, of course, is Apple’s iPad Pro. It’s so fast that everybody has been assuming that Apple will switch the Mac over to an ARM processor sometime soon.

In principle, there’s no reason an ARM-based Windows tablet couldn’t reach similar heights of performance. And Microsoft will surely feel pretty good about getting the Surface on ARM before the Mac makes the change over.

Microsoft is making the right bet by going with ARM because it needs to find something that can be more innovative than Intel. Getting ARM right simply opens up so many more opportunities for Microsoft than sticking with Intel does. It’s not just making thinner tablets that could go up against the iPad. It’s completely different form factors — that dual-screen device, for example, would be a good candidate.

Chrome OS continues to be a thorn in Microsoft’s side — especially in the education market. ARM could help drive the cost of Windows machines down while keeping overall quality up (that last part is vital so as to avoid flashbacks to the netbook era).

That all sounds great, but you know that there’s a “but” coming. Here it is: to date, ARM-based Windows laptops have been bad. They’re slower and still have some compatibility issues to work though.

So while ARM is the right bet, it’s also a very risky bet. As Microsoft’s first ARM-based Surface, it needs to be fast enough for most people’s everyday use — and I mean without any slowdowns for most tasks. That wasn’t quite the case with the Surface Go, which could handle simple tasks, but was far too easy to bog down. Reportedly, Intel talked Microsoft out of using ARM last year with the Surface Go. Maybe that was right for the Go, but I can tell you from personal experience that it meant battery life has been really disappointing.

With a big processor change and eye-popping battery numbers, I bet more people will be tempted to buy this ARM Surface than the Go. That means more pressure on Microsoft to deliver something that’s fast enough. And that pressure will be compounded because whatever Microsoft releases is bound to end up being compared directly to Apple’s iPad Pro.

So far, we haven’t seen evidence that any ARM-based Windows machine is really up to that challenge.

Supposedly, salvation for Windows on ARM is coming in the form of the Qualcomm 8cx chip. I have no idea if that’s what Microsoft will go with and on top of that, nobody has any idea if the 8cx will really be as good as promised. The only laptop using it we’ve laid our hands on is the Galaxy Book S. Early looks were promising, but nobody has actually reviewed it because it hasn’t been released yet.

Whatever chip Microsoft chooses, it needs to deliver something that can convince lots of users that it’s powerful enough to be their main computer. The original idea for the Surface was to show the rest of the industry how to make better Windows computers. Now Microsoft needs to do it again with ARM.


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