Windows 11 on ARM? Microsoft Surface Pro X appears to answer many questions

The prices for the Surface Pro X start at 93,999 in India for a laptop and tablet hybrid, as compared to the Apple iPad Pro 12.9 with keyboard that costs 99,990
Microsoft’s convertible laptops. (HT Photo)
Microsoft’s convertible laptops. (HT Photo)
Published on Feb 25, 2022 10:41 AM IST
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NEW DELHI: If one were to analyse the observations and perceived proposition early last year on Microsoft Surface Pro X, it would have been very different and the reasons wouldn’t have been a complete commentary on the matter. It would have been more dependent on the ecosystem gaps that would’ve dictated how well it worked or didn’t work for you. Today, as we are well and truly into the Windows 11 development cycle, the Surface Pro X will make sense for some.

In fact, it can be Microsoft’s response to Apple’s dual threat of MacBook Air (with the M1 chip) and the iPad Pro 12.9 (armed with the smart keyboard). What’s common in all these computing devices we have carefully curated for the workstation? The chips that power these very powerful, yet different form factors, are based on a computing architecture called ARM — the Microsoft SQ2 processor and the Apple M1 chips.

A history lesson leading us to the present

ARM, short for Advanced RISC Machines, is how the company develops a family of reduced instruction set computing (RISC) architectures for computer processors. Developed by the British tech company ARM Ltd., the evolving architecture has been around since 1981. Despite several iterations, the focus has always been on portable devices – smartphones, wearables and tablets. This is the space where Intel and AMD were neither able to, and in a way unwilling after a point, to commit resources and compete.

The latest edition of the Surface Pro X takes advantage of the newest ARM architecture for the SQ2 chip, made by Qualcomm. This is, in fact, a variant of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 8cx Gen 2 5G, sans 5G, though you do get LTE variants as well (4G connectivity). This isn’t the latest in the family (the Snapdragon 8cx Gen 3 has since been released), but it isn’t really behind the curve, considering what you’re buying is a versatile and ultraportable computing device.

The Microsoft SQ2 has four cores for high performance, that go as high as 3.15GHz and four cores that are optimised for less intensive tasks, and these will clock up to 1.8GHz. Depending on the variant you pick, you get either 8GB or 16GB RAM, up to 512GB storage.

One eye on the past, gives hope for the future

The real story about the Surface Pro X must be about how Windows and the enormous ecosystem of apps, has developed to where it is now. We had earlier hinted about how this may have been a very different review of the Surface Pro X had it been early 2021. The situation since then has rapidly evolved on the app availability and compatibility fronts. A lot of work remains to be done, but the progress should keep you at ease.

Compared to a time when even basic apps were missing for the combination of ARM and Windows, we now have dedicated versions of Chrome, Firefox, Spotify, Zoom and Adobe Photoshop, to name a few, for the ARM architecture. The apps that are meant for Intel or AMD processors need to be redesigned to run on ARM – with the expectation of better optimisations for battery life, different screen sizes and varying processing power. The new Microsoft Store on Windows 11, which has better stocked shelves than ever before, will help you download the correct app package for your Surface Pro X.

Yet, a long way to go. Apps such as Dropbox still do not have versions for ARM for Windows. Games demonstrate another limitation, though not exactly something Surface Pro X buyers will be concerned with – but food for thought for the larger Windows 11 on ARM positioning.

Also read:Can you limit web trackers on Android, much before Google does it for you?

It’s important to take advantage of subtle benefits

The second big improvement is its refinement. Gone are the erratic performance, sluggish app response and a general feeling that certain apps were causing the system to crawl. Windows improvements and app updates have solved these. Press the power button and it takes a couple of seconds to arrive on the lock screen – this is when Windows Hello quickly does the facial recognition ad logs into the Windows 11 desktop with the blink of an eye.

We are impressed by the speed of Windows Hello’s face detection. It is snappy and less susceptible to failed detection, in case you are looking at it from a slight angle. Even in low light, with just the screen’s illumination lighting up the face, Hello worked.

That said, Windows also needs work. The multiple desktops option (swipe left or right to switch) often stutters, and it takes a few seconds to switch between desktops. This behaviour isn’t isolated to the Surface Pro X, but is more profound on this machine – a needed OS optimisation.

Battery life gains aren’t where they should be

Since mobile platforms have always been the core competence of ARM chips, expectations are high from the Surface Pro X. In our testing, this clocked just under 14 hours on a single charge – this, when we were extremely careful with the screen brightness and cleaning up browser tabs and apps in the background. A more realistic usage dropped the runtime down to around 9.5 hours, which is enough to let you leave the charger at home for a day at work.

That said, we did notice perplexing instances when the battery (fully charged, when powered down), announced itself as completely drained when the Surface Pro X was called upon the next morning. So, think before you travel.

The good thing about evolution is it gets you the answers to questions you pose. No longer will the question about the viability as an option for Microsoft on ARM remain unanswered. The combination has evolved because apps are getting better. And it is still ‘work in progress’, which should see further improvements that also help with battery life.

Yet, as things stand, there is some way to go before this combination matches the iPad Pro or the MacBook Air on the battery front.

A complicated decision involving an Apple iPad Pro

And this brings us to the slightly complicated point of price. The prices for the Surface Pro X start at 93,999 in India. For a laptop and tablet hybrid, also known as a convertible, this is as versatile (in terms of the form factor) as the Apple iPad Pro 12.9 with keyboard that costs 99,990. Discounting the Mac from this discussion, in case you need the tablet + laptop versatility. But this is where you need to think long and hard about what you should be spending your money on.

The form factor similarities aside, the iPad Pro 12.9’s Apple M1 chip is more powerful (and newer), and all apps for the iPad have been refined and honed for the ARM architecture for a while now. In comparison, the Surface Pro X still must complete that cycle. You must also consider that not all your apps or the more mobile versions of your important apps may offer the aforementioned set of detailed functionalities on an iPad, as they would on a Windows PC. The decision will boil down to which bracket your workflow fits in better.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Vishal Mathur is Technology Editor for Hindustan Times. When not making sense of technology, he often searches for an elusive analog space in a digital world.

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Saturday, June 25, 2022