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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  • bogieworf - Thursday, November 29, 2012 - link

    While I cannot disagree that it would be better to wait and see how these windows tablet/PCs shake out, this is still an exceptionally well sorted out product for a first try. If you need a tablet with the qualities this tablet has, there is no reason to wait. The next gen will be better (aren't they all, pretty much???), but I doubt that it will be dramatically better. The only competition on the horizon right now is the Lenovo Yoga 11 which will be more expensive, probably heavier, and definitely thicker. I don't think this will be much competition (But I do like the Yoga 13 which is a different device aimed at a different market).

    The next gen will be better, but this is a solid device and it is good enough today to buy IF this tablet meets your needs
    Reply
  • bogieworf - Wednesday, December 12, 2012 - link

    After using the Surface for several weeks and talking with co-workers who are in the market for a tablet/laptop, I have to reluctantly give the Surface a failing grade. MS has positioned the Surface as the productivity tablet. The catch is that you have to offer enough productivity for people to care about your device and buy it over an comparably priced iPad.

    The problem is NOT RT or anything taken out out Office to make it work on the Surface. For the vast majority of people, this is a secondary device and those compromises are fine. Heavy word processing or other productivity will be done on a bigger, more capable device.

    Rather the problem is that many, if not most offices, have some SW which has to be downloaded onto your computer in order to access their network and Surface won't let you do that. That is a MAJOR omission. The Office suite covers close to 100% of what most people would do with a tablet like this, but I HAVE to be able to connect to my office!!!

    A second and basically related issue is that there is no cellular option. This is a highly portable device and I need the option to connect to my Office on the go. That is not possible with the Surface.

    With these two options, the Surface would work for most people as a media tablet with secondary, but meaningful productivity capabilities. Without them, the Surface RT just does not offer enough productivity for most people to prefer this device over an iPad.
    Reply
  • bogieworf - Thursday, December 13, 2012 - link

    Sent my comments to MS regarding the need for the Surface RT to connect to offices. Their response: the Pro will be available in January. While I do not think the Surface is a direct competitor with the iPad, the iPad does set the top price that people expect to pay for a tablet. If you are gong to price your product at the top of the market, you need to make sure the value proposition is there. Just not convinced that the productivity offered by the RT is sufficient to justify the price if you cannot connect the device to your office (or college). Reply
  • Kit Karamak - Wednesday, February 26, 2014 - link

    when paying for iPad, you're also paying for a device that has lots of apps, a vast bevvy of choices, etc.

    The MS Store stinks, let's face it. Some people would rather get a 16GB ipad2 referb with all the apps they know and like, than to get a surface 32GB that has expandable microSD space, because the apps stink. :(

    I have both. I use both for what I intend them for. But not everyone has that option. Then again, having all these gadgets also means I don't own a TV or pay for cable as my trade off. It is what it is. But both devices are great for what they do best. :)

    Of course, I waited until the surface came down to $199 on eBay, and yet I bought the iPad Mini 2 /Retina at full price. Ironically, I'm an Android fanboy lol
    Reply
  • Kit Karamak - Wednesday, February 26, 2014 - link

    Now that you can find the Surface RT on eBay, refurbished by Microsoft with 8.1, for a low price of $199 in mint condition, I've decided to take the plunge.
    I'm glad I did. I'm an aspiring novelist. I type a lot, and 8.1 seems to be quite smooth. It runs great. Typing doesn't slow things down one little bit.

    The first gen RT runs Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas very well, and I can use my xbox 360 controller to play it. In desktop mode, I can have twitter open in the desktop browser, I can have outlook polling for email, I can type a document and have Facebook up all at the same time. Or more if I want. People often say to get rid of Metro UI for desktop w8, and get rid of desktop for Surface RT/2, but I disagree. Having the desktop mode is fantastic for having ten different windows open (or more if you can squish everything down lol), and the RT, for me, keeps up fairly well.

    W8.1 seems to have fixed things people have complained about. I cannot say much more on the subject because I've only owned the tablet for two days, now.

    Touch cover is good, two finger scrolling works fine. Type cover is NOT very good. It doesn't let you use the mouse and keys at the same time, meaning you cannot game; these covers do not handle several key strokes at the same time either. Just two or three. In other words, don't expect to use it as a piano replacement for a piano app, or something like that. (I can't really think of a better example at the moment).

    Battery is good. Brightness and darkness is good. I hate having things bright when I'm reading at night. And while it's kind of weird to read on this monster-length screen, it can get darker than my iPad 4, which is great when you're in a ridiculously dark room (or re-reading /revising in the dark with a Migraine - yeah I've done it).

    moving on, I have to say the microSD card moves fairly quick. As fast as you'd expect from a desktop version of the same thing plugged into a USB2 header on the mobo. It's not searing fast, and it's no slouch either.

    The Microsoft store, for gaming, sucks horribly. If San Andreas wasn't on there, I wouldn't even have anything nice to say at all. But I'll take what I can get. Netflix app is good. Always appreciated, y'know? I wish YouTube had one as well, so that you could watch high def videos for long periods of time in an optimized state but... that's okay. Google only has one app for the MS Store - "Search". And that's it.

    Speakers are horrible. They're loud enough for watching Netflix, sure. but if you play music or crank them for something other than TV show compressed dialogue sound... then they will distort when you've got the volume up. Not badly. But if you listen to dynamically compressed music (any modern rock or rap or pop group), which is dynamically boosted in the mastering process... then you can be SURE it will distort a little. As an example, the first Foo Fighters album (at full volume) does not distort. But the new Falling in Reverse album distorts horribly. The Chronic (Dr Dre) no distortion. New Eminem? ...Crazy distortion.

    RT is supposed to get only 5 points of touch at one time. I have no idea if this is hardware or software based. PRO gets 10, so I've read.

    Also, plugging in a 24" Dell 1920x1080 to the first gen RT works fine. At least for me on 8.1 ... but don't expect to game on it. Use it for writing, or having a website open off to the side, or keeping Facebook open while you watch Netflix on your smaller monitor... or just use it for Netflix on your TV and do nothing on the touch screen.

    I have NOT tried to see if sound is sent out through the HDMI port. I suspect it should, but I haven't yet tried it, as there are no speakers in my 24" Dell. Sorry, gang.

    Finally, battery has been great. It's onpar with my iPad1 and son's iPad mini (1st gen) which have been the best for iPad battery life that I've seen so far (I own the 1, used to own the 2, owned the 4, and an ipad mini2 with retina. The 1 and my kid's Mini1 have the best iPad battery life of the group).

    The surface holds its own easily with the 4 I used to own and the mini/retina I currently use.

    Finally, as a closing comment, I can plug in my Apple keyboard, which has a USB hub, and it will still power a mouse, connected through the keyboard. It powers two devices. I'm quite happy with that. It makes things a lot easier, to be able to bypass the need for a powered hub is huge for me.

    When I'm on the go, I use a Microsoft Bluetooth Entertainment 7000 keyboard. Most of the extra keys work - Volume rocker, dedicated back key, etc. But a lot either doesn't, or isn't marked properly. Fn-F4 has a "home" picture (and when paired to an iPad DOES take you 'home'), but on the surface, it opens the mobile metro version of Internet Explorer.
    Also, the other buttons do nothing (magnifying, favorites, music app, camera button, calling button, gadgets obviously, etc). However, the built in mouse it has on the side works great. So that's awesome. I use that most of all. It pairs instantly. As soon as I turn on the keyboard, it starts working right away with Surface. There's no lag time in re-pairing.

    If you've read this far... well, thanks for reading! I hope it helped!

    I don't know why these websites don't re-review products that have been out for a while. Obviously iPad1 with iOS5.1 and iPad2 with iOS7, and Surface1 with W8.1 are going to work very differently than when they were reviewed. Some things will be better, some will be worse (like battery life on the iPad 4, LOL. Got it became awful later on).

    I'd like to suggest to these tech sites to do a "Where are they now" kind of segment to show people interested in buying older tech (IE from ebay) how these devices stack up.
    Reply

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