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The Surface Series – ARM vs. Intel

The Surface Pro pricing details were released recently and with little fanfare.  The Pro model is essentially an expensive Ultrabook that is packaged as a tablet.  The advantages of the Pro model are backwards compatibility with all pre-existing Windows software and more powerful hardware.  Those advantages are going to cost about $500 and half of the battery life.  This is a reflection on the hardware architects (ARM and Intel) more than it is Microsoft or the Surface series of machines.  Ironically the most interesting thing about the Surface Series lies beneath–the–surface… 🙂
To get started started lets nail down a few facts concerning both Windows Operating Systems and the machines:

Task: Windows RT Windows 8
Runs Win32 applications   X
Runs WinRT applications X X
Runs 3D applications X X
Battery Life 8 4
Price $499 $899
Architecture ARM x86


Microsoft has made it clear to developers that they prefer to send the old Win32 driver model off into the sunset and replace it with WinRT model.  WindowsRT and Windows8 both run any WinRT application.  This includes common desktop applications such as Microsoft Office and games or other 3D applications.  Unless running legacy applications is absolutely necessary the benefits of sticking with the Intel architecture and Windows 8 are nonsensical.  WindowsRT machines cost approximately 40% less (50% less when counting in the cost of Microsoft Office), have twice the battery life and can run any application written for the operating system. 
When looking at the landscape in this light the Surface with WindowsRT looks more like a netbook, or laptop replacement rather than the common tablet comparison.  In this scenario using the Intel architecture looks bulky, unfriendly and expensive.  Why buy a $1000 Ultrabook to use Microsoft Office, Citrix applications, Exchange, Lync, or the web when a WindowsRT machine is half the cost, the battery life doubles and it is a more functional tablet?
Intel has been slowly increasing battery performance to create a viable SoC (System on a Chip) competitor to the ARM platform, but are still about a generation behind ARM in performance per watt.  The Intel Medfield chip design does perform comparably well to the current ARMv7 – CortexA9 design.  Unfortunately for Intel most chip manufacturers (NVidia, Samsung, Qualcomm) will be using the ARMv7 – CortexA15 design for their CPU’s very soon.  This is in addition to the ARMv8 64-bit architecture waiting in the wings. 
The desktop and power user market is still dominated by Intel and will be for some time.  Contrary to general opinion Microsoft has created a viable Windows workstation that runs on the ARM architecture.  I highly doubt Intel is worried about an invasion of the desktop market from ARM, but the Surface with WindowsRT is the first product of its kind to cross that line and function well as both a workstation and tablet in one package.  That is a claim no tablet can make, not even the iPad. 

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Brian ODonnell

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