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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  • jonyah - Tuesday, October 23, 2012 - link

    That's where Surface Pro comes in. I think pretty much everyone would go for the Pro if it were available day one, which is why they've delayed it. Core i5 power (though less battery life) and x86 compatibility will make it a winner.....i think.

    I hate windows 8 for any normal machine, though it may be nice in a tablet form. I'm still waiting to be able to actually play with one first.
    Reply
  • Zink - Tuesday, October 23, 2012 - link

    $900+ is too much for most people. Ultrabooks are amazing but sales numbers are poor. Sales are much higher on $500 laptops and tablets. The Surface Pro is also a bigger fan cooled device that won't offer the same battery life so the experience suffers there.

    I think the killer devices are the Atom tablets at $500. x86 and faster than ARM but with the same form factors and price. Asus is pricing at $600 for their VivioTab RT with battery/keyboard dock. I'd like to see 1080p too but maybe another product or manufacturer.
    Reply
  • shompa - Wednesday, October 24, 2012 - link

    *hint* Ultrabooks sell well: Macbook Air.
    PC can't compete with Apple at the same price. Today's ultrabook are priced same as Apple (but usually with larger SSD and/or faster processors).

    That is like a BMW priced same as a Skoda. Most people buy BMW.

    That is why Android tablets can't compete at the same price point as Apple.
    That is Surface will have a hard time.

    The rumour where that the Surface would cost 199 dollars, and that would have been a hit. (But OEMs would hate MSFT even more). The 199 price would work since people have to buy apps from MSFT paying them 30% on each app. MSFT subsidise Nokia phones and Xbox360 when it was release. This is a tactic they used many times before.

    And I believe that Surface will head that way. We will see a 50% price cut within a year.

    I really want to use Surface. But from the looks of it: its a nerd/corporate machine. The usual MSFT market. Wont sell 100 million.
    Reply
  • Hoekie - Wednesday, October 24, 2012 - link

    Why? Get the cheaper 32GB version and pop in an SD card if price is an issue.

    Looking at the first reactions from people around me, Surface will be hot selling.
    Office + Multiuser + Light + batterytime+ touchcover+port connections. Actually a no brainer. In fact the 32GB no cover version is sould out everywhere including Germany.
    Reply
  • vision33r - Tuesday, October 23, 2012 - link

    MS will have to give away Xboxes again to move this after the initial batch of early adopter orders are filled. Reply
  • N4g4rok - Tuesday, October 23, 2012 - link

    Care to elaborate? Reply
  • MadMan007 - Tuesday, October 23, 2012 - link

    translation: "I don't like MS and/or Windows 8 but don't have anything useful to say." Reply
  • LancerVI - Tuesday, October 23, 2012 - link

    That was an extremely accurate translation. Bravo to you sure and thanks for the lulz. Reply
  • shompa - Wednesday, October 24, 2012 - link

    MSFT have given away many Xbox360 so sell Windows phone. MSFT have done similar things many times spending tens of billions to take market share and then start to charge more money.

    Surface wont fly of the shelves. After the first batch MSFT needs to do something. Giving away Xbox360 is cheap for them

    Later we will see a price cut. Up to 50% within a year. It will also be intresting if MSFT follows Apples "1 year" bump cycle or a more aggresive "pc/Android" bump cycle. iPad4 have 400% faster CPU and at least 800% faster GPU. A6 is as fast as Intel per clock cycle. (and yes: I understand that A6 is dual core and intel is quad + clocked much higher. But the fact is that A6 is as fast per clock cycle. ARM will replace X86)

    Surface is not a mass market product. It cant compete with the sub 300dollar 7 inch tablet market. It will have a hard time compete with Ultrabooks and Ipads.

    A MSFT product that cost the same as an Apple product have never sold.

    Surface +
    -its more of an PC. It could be the only computer
    -Office
    -Kickstand
    -the covers are great
    Surface -
    Pricey 600 dollars for ancient hardware.
    Reply
  • maximumGPU - Wednesday, October 24, 2012 - link

    i would love to borrow your crystal ball some day! Reply

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