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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  • Mumrik - Tuesday, October 23, 2012 - link

    As someone who picked up a 32GB HP Touchpad for $149 and slapped ICS on it via CyanogenMod, I still don't understand the appeal of this kind of tablet.

    To me, it physically looks absolute great, and blows any iPad out of the waters (but, to be fair, I never liked Apple's designs), but I still don't know why one would buy a $5-600 high end tablet. Why not a compact laptop at that point? We're clearly far beyond a few mobile games, youtube/720P videos and ebooks. Don't tablets make more sense at the lower end?

    For $149, I've gotten a hell of a lot out of my tablet, but these are on the edge of ThinkPad X-series territory.
    Reply
  • Zink - Tuesday, October 23, 2012 - link

    That was a fire sale for way bellow cost so it doesn't really apply to current pricing.

    Tablets don't replace portable laptops, just another option. Both have their trade offs and fit different users, for example my Mom. Many users also have a tablet in addition to a laptop.

    Tablets offer multi-touch for games and relaxed use, battery life, portability, simplicity, and screen quality to name a few benefits.
    Reply
  • Mumrik - Wednesday, October 24, 2012 - link

    The firesale was part of my point, but that general price bracket also now exists as a regular part of the tablet market.

    The things you mention at the end are what I see them do as well, but where does the 500+ dollar tablet fit into that? Unless you want some ultra high definition on that screen, those needs are filled quite well by cheaper tablets.
    Reply
  • PubFiction - Wednesday, October 24, 2012 - link

    I would agree with you but at $499 or higher apple is moving millions of tablets so clearly other people do not seem to think that way. Your comments are basically neither here no there. The usefulness of slate tablets is a side arguement, I do not own them as you said because I would rather just have a real functional laptop. But part of the greatness of windows 8 is that it will finally push vendors to not so much jump into the tablet market but actually functionally merge the laptop and the laptop to a point where they become one device and no one needs to make a decision about one or the other or carry both. Reply
  • shompa - Wednesday, October 24, 2012 - link

    Do you really think its a mass market to hack tablets?

    This is a product for non-nerds and Office.

    (Hint: When you get older you will stop caring about hacking stuff. You want thing just to work. After working 8 hour with computers you want to come home to a computer setup that works. Including that all you family and friends have working stuff since you are support 24/7 for them. Many IT professionals like me solves this by just buying a bunch of macs and hand them out. "now it works. Don't call me for support".
    Building you own PCs are meaningless. You have 1000 dollar extra to buy an Alienware. You also will be interested in pussy. Beautiful designed stuff (like Apple stuff) attracts pussy. And I like pussy even if I am married. (*hint2* never get married). Hacking stuff is a pussy repellant. If they see a home built PC or strange Tablet with strange OS. *poof* pussy gone.
    Reply
  • blandge - Wednesday, October 24, 2012 - link

    This may be the dumbest thing I've seen somebody say on the internet. Specifically the last paragraph. Reply
  • superflex - Wednesday, October 24, 2012 - link

    Or the most brilliant.
    I concur with the OP. Who has time to fuck with flashing ROMs and installing modded OS's. Would you rather OC your CPU and memory with a new BIOS or be hitting some strange?
    I've built plenty of PCs but now the last thing I want to do is go home and fuck around with making sure my OC temps are stable or I have the highest benchmark score.
    Get a life dude. Pussy rules!
    Reply
  • kyuu - Thursday, October 25, 2012 - link

    Yeah, because women just love the sort of person who says "pussy" repeatedly. In the comments of an article on a tech blog.

    Seriously, if you don't like tech, then what the hell are you doing here? Go annoy some people on some pussy blog somewhere.
    Reply
  • Stas - Monday, November 05, 2012 - link

    You sound like you didn't get out of your mom's basement until you hit 21 when your friends eventually got you out to a bar. They hooked you up with a drunk broad so you can finally lose your virginity. Now you're a self-proclaimed frat bro with mad game.
    Hint: normal, developed adult males don't act like a 12-y.o. girl getting the new Justin Beiber CD at the sight of a frisky female. "Pussy" is just something that happens, they get it like they get their coffee in the morning - it's a normal occurrence or even convenience. Remember how, a couple of years ago - in high school, you couldn't stop bragged in class about your dad's sick new Mustang? Well, it's not like that. Bigger things excite grown-ass men - hobbies, jobs they love, personal projects... shit, even politics. And to some, computers and electronics are one of those things.
    But, anyways, you'll get it. Eventually.
    Reply
  • kozlowski - Tuesday, October 23, 2012 - link

    Anand, do you know if Microsoft organically grew the hardware unit that built Surface, or did they buy a hardware team and integrate it into MS? Reply

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