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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  • The0ne - Wednesday, October 24, 2012 - link

    A few things that caught my attention that would push me to buy one,

    "Surface is both larger and heavier than the iPad, both design decisions on Microsoft’s part to built a device that could better deal with Windows RT’s multitasking capabilities as well as make room for a comfortable typing area when used with one of its two keyboard covers."

    "Whether or not Surface is priced appropriately really depends on how much you value Windows RT and getting Office 2013 for free. I suspect if you’re already a big Office user, you’ll see a lot of value in the bundle."

    As much as I abhor the ribbon style in Office, I absolutely love the 2013 Office preview, its metro style UI, the fluidity of working around int he apps. Seriously I love this new office, its such a joy to work in them with the "metro" style inclusions. Therefore getting it for free is a nice touch if I consider buying one. FYI, I have all 3 versions running side by side to test (2003, 2010 and 2013) and 2013 is just so smooth to work in I can live with the ribbon bar (with my fully customized custom bar of course).

    As for the weight and comfortable typing, that's even better to use the tablet as a notebook for work and on the road. Can't wait.
    Reply
  • Subyman - Wednesday, October 24, 2012 - link

    It looks like MS is moving in the right direction. I like how they are splitting the difference between serious computing and be very mobile, unlike what Apple has done. Apple totally killed productivity with the iPad and seem to be trying to go back and mend that decision. MS is offering professionals options for typing, but the device is still totally usable by the normal consumer.

    I will be interested once the hardware become a bit more powerful. Win RT looks to be hammering the little ARM processor, but that will be worked out over the next year or so.
    Reply
  • JoeA - Wednesday, October 24, 2012 - link

    Well balanced and written article with positive attributes and things that still can be improved. I’m an early adaptor because I physically work with tech and installs. I’m looking forward to Rev 2 and 3. The transition will not be as hard as some make it out to be. Have fun and yes agreed it’s just different and works very well. Reply
  • Bob Todd - Wednesday, October 24, 2012 - link

    Nice review. While there's always something better around the corner, this feels like really unfortunate timing on the CPU/SOC release schedule. On the low end we've got A9 ARM parts at the end of their competitive life, with A15 around the corner (or S4 Pro here would have been sweet). In the middle ground we've got Windows 8 tablets running a 5 year old Atom architecture that's finally about to be overhauled and shrunk to 22nm. Then on the high end we're not far away from Haswell. All 3 of those should provide noticeable improvements to performance (both CPU/GPU) and/or battery life. I'll definitely purchase a Windows 8 tablet, but it won't happen until the next CPU/SOC refresh. A Broadwell based Surface Pro with Thunderbolt/USB3/high res display...yum. Reply
  • Hoekie - Wednesday, October 24, 2012 - link

    Nah, you can always wait for something better. Development takes time.
    The UI is fluid and that's the most important part regarding time to market for SoC's.
    Reply
  • Bob Todd - Wednesday, October 24, 2012 - link

    Apps are slow to launch. This thing can't really have a higher res panel because of Tegra 3 limitations. The moves to A15 class or the next Atom aren't little 10% spec bumps that we're used to on the desktop side. We're talking about very noticeable improvements to the user experience. S4 Pro devices are going to be available here next week. I'd buy a Surface RT right now with an S4 Pro and a 1920x1080 panel. If they added another $50 for the panel I wouldn't mind. Like I said, there's always something better around the corner, but this thing is making its debut at the twilight of 3 architectures (A9, Atom, Ivy). I'm not saying _they_ should have waited, I'm saying I'm going to wait because they can refresh both RT and Pro versions in a few months with changes that really matter (cpu/gpu/battery life) in a device designed for productivity. Every SOC refresh will get better, it's just that the next ones are major and are so close. Reply
  • Bob Todd - Wednesday, October 24, 2012 - link

    Apps are slow to launch. This thing can't really have a higher res panel because of Tegra 3 limitations. The moves to A15 class or the next Atom aren't little 10% spec bumps that we're used to on the desktop side. We're talking about very noticeable improvements to the user experience. S4 Pro devices are going to be available here next week. I'd buy a Surface RT right now with an S4 Pro and a 1920x1080 panel. If they added another $50 for the panel I wouldn't mind. Like I said, there's always something better around the corner, but this thing is making its debut at the twilight of 3 architectures (A9, Atom, Ivy). I'm not saying _they_ should have waited, I'm saying I'm going to wait because they can refresh both RT and Pro versions in a few months with changes that really matter (cpu/gpu/battery life) in a device designed for productivity. Every SOC refresh will get better, it's just that the next ones are major and are so close. Reply
  • Swift2001 - Wednesday, October 24, 2012 - link

    People like yourfather239 -- interesting nickname -- are trolls. We, the sane people of the AnandTech comments, should be able to kick him off -- or demand attention of the site runner to read the exchange and kick him off. Even a reasonable discussion of racism and the dynamics of it would be okay on another site. But this guy is not contributing a thing. He's a bigot. He should not be rewarded by our attention. Reply
  • OldAndBusted - Wednesday, October 24, 2012 - link

    Then again, your name calling is pretty ugly too. Reply
  • IKeelU - Wednesday, October 24, 2012 - link

    Nice false equivalence, ace. Swift2001's "name calling" can be observed to be accurate, unlike the racist he's calling out. Reply

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