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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  • walkman - Friday, October 26, 2012 - link

    Did anyone else go back and check the byline for this article? I highly respect Anandtech reviews but this one was written with a glibness and giddiness that seems very uncharacteristic. If it wasn't Anand I would write it off as a MS PR hack, but it is so I'm trying to keep an open mind. Anand review are usually very late so it's also surprising to see this detailed review so quickly. He likes RT so much he makes sound like he will like better than Win 8. Perhaps he has a bias for MS (I do) so he's just excited to see MS get back in the game vs competitors. Reply
  • twotwotwo - Saturday, October 27, 2012 - link

    The Atom/ARM head-to-head is awesome. Noteworthy that the Exynos 5 Dual in the Chromebook got a 711ms SunSpider score (in another site's test) compared to the 714ms for Atom here, and x86 usually smashed on SunSpider in the past because of its wider memory interface. (Of course, I'm implicitly comparing Google's JavaScript VM against Microsoft's too, not just the chips. And someone actually buying a Windows tablet might go Atom just to get Windows 8 and legacy app compatibility instead of RT.)

    Bet I'll hear more about the ARM-meets-Atom thing in your Chromebook review. For me as a user, seems like the big deal is that mobile architecture wars are on like Donkey Kong; only good news for me.
    Reply
  • MrSpadge - Saturday, October 27, 2012 - link

    Wow.. imagine we could get this pixel density, IPS and almost 1:1400 static contrast on any regular laptop display! It may not beat the iPad3 display.. but in absolute terms and especially compared to what we usually get any 500€ or 2000€ machine this is just gorgeous!

    I also can't understand people wanting an even higher resolution stating "but Apple's got the higher dpis". Personally I find 1366 x 768 to be very crisp and borderline too small at 11.6", so there'd be no benefit of going smaller but drawbacks (scaling, power consumption, cost). I don't think the trade-off would have been worth it.
    Reply
  • johnsmith9875 - Tuesday, October 30, 2012 - link

    But does Surface run in Portrait mode? Does the hardware have the position sensors and does the software check for those? I've seen it only being demonstrated in landscape mode. Reply
  • crispbp04 - Monday, November 05, 2012 - link

    Yes, it is beautiful in portrait and landscape Reply
  • bhima - Tuesday, October 30, 2012 - link

    Haswell + Win8 x86 will be epic. I don't care about RT. In fact, it feels like Microsoft is hedging its bets with RT vs its x86 Surface tablets. Here's hoping x86 stays around so you can actually use software you already own, have real application choices and have a truly seemless integration between tablet, notebook and desktop... not just some fancy looking sync software. Reply
  • Silma - Monday, November 05, 2012 - link

    Congratulations on the most informative review of the Surface I read to date.

    Surface seems exciting although a sub FullHD screen and only 2GB of RAM are a big turnoff.

    I am looking forward to reading your review of the Surface Pro when it becomes available.
    Reply
  • ezrasam - Thursday, November 08, 2012 - link

    Revolution of the decade. Reply
  • ijabit - Tuesday, November 20, 2012 - link

    I can confirm that I had the exact same problem outputting video to my 42" plasma. The poor quality was very noticable and one of the main reasons I returned it (we watch a lot of netflix streaming from a PC). I never had a problem with my (super slow) Asus laptop and HDMI out. Reply
  • bogieworf - Wednesday, November 28, 2012 - link

    I personally used the new Nook HD + before returning it and replacing it with the Surface. My wife owns the iPAD 3. Here are my thoughts about the devices.

    If the Nook HD+ (9" model) isn't the perfect e-Reader, it is close to it. Anything larger would require two hands. The case that BN offers for the Nook allows standing the Nook either upright or sideways, and the software is great for reading. Unfortunately, BN's tech support leaves much to be desired and I was forced to return the device because they could not find out why one of my daily newspapers was not being automatically downloaded each day. Sad, really, because I REALLY like the device. But make no mistake, this is an e-Reader first and secondarily everything else.

    Going from the Nook to the Surface, the Surface is much more expensive and much more versatile. Windows R/T is a pretty slick piece of SW. Love the Tiles being able to re-arrange them and the updates that appear in the Tiles. Is the Surface as good a reader? No, its too big as you need two hands to hold the device. Is it an more than adequate reader? Yes.

    The Surface is a tablet designed primarily for media consumption and secondarily for productivity. It is currently THE tablet to own if you value productivity. Word, Excel and Power Point come pre-loaded. The keyboard that doubles as a cover is a great design as is the built in kick stand. This device has the advantages of the much touted Yoga in a much smaller, thinner and lighter package. The iPAD simply does not compare as a productivity device and the Tiles with auto updating makes iOS seem dated. Is the iPAD the better media consumption device? Yes. The display and apps place the iPAD well in front of the Surface, but the more you value productivity, the more the Surface makes sense.

    But understand, the Surface offers a light version of productivity for most people. If productivity is your first concern, something the size of a convertible (12.5" or more) would be much better. The Yoga, for example, would be a good productivity device while still being thin and light enough to secondarily offer decent media consumption and portability. But the Yoga is not a device you are likely to pull out during your daily commute, at least not on the subway. It is too big and cumbersome for that, the Surface is not.

    Taken for what it is and what it offers, the Surface is a great device for the right person. You need to appreciate the Surface for what it is and what it was designed to do, not for failing to be something it was never intended to be. If nothing else, MS should be credited for re-thinking the tablet space and not producing another iPAD wannabe. This is a very well thought out and executed product..
    Reply

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