Performance

There are two aspects to Surface’s performance that we need to discuss: the user experience and then quantitative performance metrics.

User experience is equal parts hardware and software, and this is one area where Microsoft really delivered with Windows RT. Frame rates are solid and stable, easily delivering what appears to be 60 fps for UI transitions. If you try to push the hardware too much, RT seems to completely drop animations vs. animating choppily which seems to be the right tradeoff to make. Overall that doesn’t seem to happen all that frequently.

Scrolling down web pages is also very smooth, although you can get IE to behave very jittery if you hold your finger in the wrong place on the screen while scrolling. There are some rough edges with the RT UI but overall it’s still very good.

I’d say in terms of smoothness of UI, Windows RT on Surface is much more like the iPad (or Windows Phone 7.5) than most Android tablets. Jelly Bean does complicate things as it really fixes a lot of the UI performance issues that hampered Android. Even then I’d say Surface’s UI responsiveness is among the best.

Application launch times are another thing entirely. Nearly every application I launched took longer than I would’ve liked on Surface. I can’t tell if this is a hardware issue or a software optimization problem, but application launches on Surface/Windows RT clearly take more time than on an iPad. I timed a few just to put this in perspective:

Application Launch Time Comparison
  Boot Web Browser Mail Maps Games Center / Xbox
Apple iPad (3rd gen) 32.0s 1.0s 2.4s 1.1s 1.9s
Microsoft Surface 27.7s 2.6s 7.1s 5.0s 5.0s

Now once apps have been launched, switching between them using Windows RT’s excellent multitasking system is just awesome. Apps fly in with little to no lag and the process is just great.

The only other user experience issue I have with Surface has to do with CPU utilization when using Office 2013. Surface, like all Windows RT tablets, comes with a free installation of Office 2013 Student & Home Edition. Surface also happens to use a quad-core NVIDIA Tegra 3 SoC, featuring four ARM Cortex A9 cores running at up to 1.3GHz. At least for the Cortex A9 generation, I don’t know that Microsoft could’ve used anything slower. Simply typing quickly in Microsoft Word maxes the single threaded performance of Tegra 3’s ARM Cortex A9 cores. I’ve seen CPU usage a high as 50% when typing very quickly, but mostly it tends to sit between 20 – 40%. Switch to notepad and max CPU utilization drops to sub 10%. This says more about Office 2013 than the performance of NVIDIA’s Tegra 3, but there are not a whole lot of spare CPU cycles to go around with Surface.

This brings us to the next part of the performance discussion: quantitative performance analysis. Windows RT/8 will likely bring balance to the tablet benchmark scene, but all of the folks currently working on benchmarks are targeting a late 2012/early 2013 release. We will eventually see everything from PCMark to GLBenchmark ported to Windows RT, but until then we’re left in the same situation we have under iOS: relying on JavaScript benchmarks to characterize performance.

With only two Windows RT tablets in our possession (ASUS’ VivoTab RT and Surface), this section would be pretty bare. To rectify this problem I phoned a friend who let me borrow a soon to be released Clovertrail (Atom Z2760) based Windows 8 tablet. To avoid getting in trouble with the specific manufacturer of this tablet I’ll refrain from posting photos or calling out the device by name, but we’ve talked about it on the site before.

As a recap, Clovertrail is the x86 alternative to ARM for Windows 8 tablets. The Atom Z2760 integrates two 32nm Saltwell cores running at up to 1.8GHz. Each core is Hyper Threaded so the entire SoC can work on four threads at a time, similar to NVIDIA’s Tegra 3. The GPU is Imagination’s PowerVR SGX 545 running at 533MHz. The SoC features a dual-channel LPDDR2 memory interface. NVIDIA’s Tegra 3 has a single channel LPDDR2 interface running at a 1500MHz data rate in Surface.

On the user experience side alone, the Clovertrail tablet is noticeably quicker than Surface. Surface isn’t slow by any means, but had it used Atom hardware it would’ve been even more responsive.

Putting all of this into numbers, we have a collection of JavaScript performance tests, some of which were used in the iPhone 5 review. Note that all of these tests were run using IE10 in Windows RT/8 thus making the comparison less about software and more about hardware differences:

JavaScript Performance
Time in ms (Lower is Better) Kraken SunSpider RIA Bench Focus
Intel Atom Z2760 33855.7ms 714.9ms 3872ms
Microsoft Surface (Tegra 3 1.3GHz) 49595.5ms 981.1ms 5880ms

Across the board Clovertrail manages a 30 - 50% advantage over Tegra 3. Granted we’re not looking at power consumption here, but the Clovertrail tablet I’m comparing is even smaller/lighter than Surface for what it’s worth. We’ll have battery life numbers for it in the coming weeks.

Principled Technologies, apparently featuring some of the same folks who were responsible for building the old Winstone benchmarks from over a decade ago, actually put out the first cross platform Windows RT/8 benchmark with some help from Intel. Despite Intel’s influence the test appears to have no native code, instead relying on just a heavy workload of large images and videos for its tests.

TouchXPRT 2013
Time in Seconds (Lower is Better) Photo Enhance Photo Export Video Transcode MP3 Transcode Photo Slideshow Creation
Intel Atom Z2760 210.83s 73.93s 53.91s 98.66s 85.81s
Microsoft Surface (Tegra 3 1.3GHz) 306.12s 116.36s 87.27s 160.99s 125.06s
ASUS VivoTab RT (Tegra 3 1.3GHz) 312.14s 109.89s 89.69s 155.84s 122.65s

The large files used in the workload do a great job of showing Atom’s memory controller advantages over that used by the Cortex A9. The results here likely overstate the Clovertrail performance advantage a bit (I’m not sure how much 1080p video transcoding you’re going to be doing on Surface as compared to web browsing) but the results tend to agree with what our browser based JavaScript tests show: Intel’s Atom Z2760 is considerably faster than Tegra 3 here.

I understand that Microsoft needed a good launch vehicle for Windows RT, however I really would have liked to have seen an Atom version of Surface. An Ivy Bridge version is in the works, but it’s also a bit larger. An Atom version could retain the same chassis size/weight, but deliver tangibly better CPU performance. Again we’ll have to wait to see what battery life looks like for these Clovertrail tablets before really deciding whether or not Atom would’ve been a better fit.

Battery Life Windows RT
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  • milkod2001 - Wednesday, October 24, 2012 - link

    With zero X86 apps compatibility Surface RT is just another tablet with keyboard running on outdated T3 with average/crappy display . All that for 600 bucks :( Reply
  • tipoo - Thursday, October 25, 2012 - link

    With full Microsoft Office and a keyboard that's a few millimeters thick, plus great xbox integration. Depends on what you prioritize. Reply
  • A Geologist - Wednesday, October 24, 2012 - link

    I’ve been following Anandtech pretty much since you started and this is the first time I’ve felt I needed to comment, and then actually made the time to leave a comment. First off thanks as always for an excellent review. I think the review is pretty clear that this product is intended to be Microsoft’s interpretation of a tablet class device. Everybody who’s complaining about a lack of features seems to want this to be a laptop or ultrabook replacement, which it clearly isn’t, and everybody who’s complaining about the screen seems to want it to be an iPad. To all the people complaining about journalistic bias, most of the criticisms you bring up are directly quoted from the article. Do you not see the clearly untenable position you are arguing from? If you possess the ability to read and understand what is written, it’s fairly obvious that the features, strengths and limitations of the Surface RT are all well written about.

    I hope I speak for the silent masses who don’t normally participate in the vacuous echo chambers that are web comments sections (I will admit that there are some very good commenter's on Anandtech though), whey I say thanks for the informed, intelligent, insightful and accurate reviews and news articles that make Anandtech the great site that it has been over the years.
    Reply
  • IKeelU - Wednesday, October 24, 2012 - link

    You spoke for me, that's for sure. Though I'm no stranger to commenting, most of the comments to this article are baffling/hateful. It's playing out like some weird black comedy and all I'm missing is the popcorn. Reply
  • faizoff - Wednesday, October 24, 2012 - link

    I agree with your comment @A Geologist.

    If you look across the comments there are those who find the review biased towards Windows and want more issues to be reported. There are comments that find the review biased towards Apple.

    So it's become 'pick your bias and show your selected outrage.'

    I have always liked the reviews done on this site and regardless of what OS or device I use or prefer I enjoy reading features and charts and experiences and get a really good perspective of products.
    Reply
  • damianrobertjones - Wednesday, October 24, 2012 - link

    "The biggest issue I have with recommending Surface is that you know the next iteration of the device is likely going to be appreciably better, with faster/more efficient hardware and perhaps even a better chassis. "

    Then you might as well not buy an iPad or most certainly shouldn't have purchased an iPad 1
    Reply
  • turnipmaster - Wednesday, October 24, 2012 - link

    The iPad 1 didn't offer a noticeably inferior user experience than it's closest rivals at launch thought, especially as it didn't have any:) Reply
  • AEdouard - Wednesday, October 24, 2012 - link

    It's a sleek device, but I really wonder if anybody can crack that market considering the huge barrier to entry that is the ecosystem. Apple is so well established in that space that Microsoft should have taken the Google route and try to get some space by pricing the device really low.

    On top of that, the Surface has a few issues :

    1. That screen looks nice, but the resolution is lacking. This is a geek erection shrinker and could reduce early adoption by us nerds
    2. There is some performance issues, even in the main UI. Hard to accept that when vanilla jellybean on the Nexus 7 and the iPad are always smooth (in the main interface at least)
    3. Lack of apps (that chicken and the egg thing)

    But I hope Microsoft can pull it off. I really like the UI and the push for more functionality on tablets.
    Reply
  • N4g4rok - Wednesday, October 24, 2012 - link

    "1. That screen looks nice, but the resolution is lacking. This is a geek erection shrinker and could reduce early adoption by us nerds"

    I think most nerds would be looking at the surface pro as it is. Any higher resolution, and that Tegra would have a hard time. And a faster SoC would have driven the price up.
    Reply
  • elerick - Wednesday, October 24, 2012 - link

    I expected no less, great review! I am an exchange admin with my company, is there any way to review the functionality within a enterprise environment? At present we are forced to use a middle ware for "activesync security" can we expect any advancements with data security on the surface? Reply

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