Microsoft bet against Intel with its new surfaces - and lost

The latest Surface hardware from Microsoft is now available in the world, and it is clear that the biggest gamble the company has taken with this year's models – a step beyond the market-dominating Intel processors – has not been completely resolved. .


The focus on non-Intel chips was a major part of Microsoft & # 39; s Surface Surface announcement of 2019. The company did its best to introduce the new, co-developed Ryzen Surface Edition processor for the 15-inch Surface Laptop 3. that was specifically optimized for Microsoft design. And the ARM-powered Surface Pro X, with a next-generation design and an adapted variant of Qualcomm & # 39; s Snapdragon 8cx chip, was supposed to represent the future of the Surface.

Unfortunately, the reviews have arrived and experience has shown that none of those custom chips have come out the way Microsoft had hoped.

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Let's start with the Ryzen Surface Edition chip from the Surface Laptop 3 from AMD. Microsoft said the new chip was primarily intended to provide higher speeds and improved graphics performance, thanks to an additional core. But as my colleague Dan Seifert noted in his review, the AMD chipset still struggled with most games and even with playing simple 4K videos. More importantly, the AMD chip was crushed in a head-to-head competition when it came to exporting video against the 13-inch, Intel-powered Surface Laptop 3, which due to its size has more thermal limits and cheaper than the larger model.

The rivalry between AMD and Intel is a long-term technology. It has been re-ignited in recent years by a relatively stagnating delay from Intel in sending its next-gen chips using its 10nm process, combined with an uplifting AMD that actually ships competing products with its Ryzen line. It has led to more competition in the processor space with AMD and Intel, who for the first time in years put heads on premium products such as the ZenBook 14 from Asus or the Surface Laptop 3.

But the performance on the Surface Laptop 3 shows that AMD's hardware still has a way to go before it can challenge Intel's supremacy here. Intel has finally begun sending its 10th-generation Ice Lake chips (found in the Surface Laptop 3), which are taking a major leap forward in performance and battery life, and are likely to be an important factor in helping Intel take the lead preserve.

On paper, AMD's controversial collaboration with Microsoft is one of Intel's biggest nightmares: a major laptop manufacturer implicitly telling customers that the Microsoft-approved option for their flagship laptops is AMD's chips, not Intel's. But the performance gap shows that Intel still seems to be better than AMD when it comes to raw power.

Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge


Then there is the Surface Pro X. Thinner and lighter than even the already compact Surface Pro 7, it is an ARM-powered laptop whose existence serves as a charge against Intel's failure to break into the mobile space in the past two decades. With a modified 7nm SQ1 processor that Microsoft built together with Qualcomm to specifically improve CPU and GPU performance over a normal Snapdragon 8cx, it is assumed to be the precursor of a new type of computer – one that is thin, light, powerful, durable and always connected to the internet.

But we've been hearing promises from ARM-powered laptops for years, and the shipping hardware is not yet delivering on these promises. The first waves of Snapdragon laptops made no impression. Qualcomm promised to do better last December when it announced the 8cx – a special processor for Windows instead of a redesignated – but so far the Surface Pro X is the only hardware that has so far actually been with the chip (or a variant thereof) ) will be delivered ).

Again, the idea is convincing on paper. A laptop that can run all your regular laptop software, but with the battery life of a day, immediate start-up options and always connected LTE from a phone or tablet? Everything on a computer that is thinner and lighter than a traditional laptop? Who wouldn't want that?

Unfortunately, the Surface Pro X seems to prove once again that the dream of an ARM-based Windows laptop is still a half-baked idea. App compatibility is still a major issue, the performance is not great and the critically acclaimed battery life is not always as good as promised. Much of this comes down to 32-bit app emulation: when apps are designed to run on ARM, the Surface Pro X actually does pretty well. But those apps are few and far between – the hardware may be there, but the software is not. And if history from the past is something to continue, Microsoft may find it difficult to get developers on board.

This is all in what the selection frame product should be for the ARM-based Windows computer, a device built by Microsoft with a custom processor built to its specifications. As Microsoft – who brands Windows and should have a greater impact on developers building new apps for its platforms – can't an ARM-based Windows laptop get well, what hope does Samsung or Dell or any other hardware company have?

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Microsoft seems to be aware that these new processors are not magic bullets. The company still sells Intel-powered surfaces in every form: the 15-inch Surface Laptop 3 offers an Intel processor (at least for business customers) in addition to the AMD range. And the Surface Pro 7 still exists to offer traditional Intel chips in a tablet-like device for those who are not convinced of the Surface Pro X.

It is also not the end of the fight. ARM apps are likely to improve as more developers jump on board, which will solve a large part of the battery and performance issues. The next chips from Qualcomm will also be faster and more energy efficient, with even faster network connectivity – especially with 5G around the corner that only makes ARM-powered devices more attractive compared to their traditional counterparts. AMD will continue to close the gap between its laptop processors and those of Intel, especially as more software begins to optimize for AMD hardware.


But that's not true today, and if you buy a Surface product in 2019, the answer is the same as every two years: buy the Intel solution. And while that is great news for Intel, it is a disappointing start to what could have been a more competitive era when it comes to the chips that form the heart of our computers.