Posey's Tips & Tricks

Surface and ARM: Why Microsoft Shouldn't Follow Apple's Lead and Dump Intel

Microsoft's current Surface flagship, the Surface Pro X, already runs on ARM. But as the ill-fated Surface RT showed, going all-in on ARM never did Microsoft many favors.

After several years of speculation, Apple last week confirmed that it will be using custom-built ARM processors in its next-generation MacBooks. These new custom CPUs will replace the Intel CPUs that have been used in MacBooks to date.

As I read Apple's announcement, I began to wonder how aggressively Microsoft might begin adopting ARM CPUs in its Surface devices.

Microsoft has dabbled in ARM processors for quite some time. The company's original Surface RT tablets were based on ARM processors, as is the current-generation Surface Pro X.  That device uses a CPU that was jointly developed by Microsoft and Qualcomm.

So clearly, Microsoft has an interest in ARM processors. The big question is whether Microsoft will ever transition its Surface devices completely away from using Intel processors.

I don't claim to know the future, but I personally can't imagine Microsoft being able to fully transition its Surface line to ARM processors anytime soon. I'm not saying that in an attempt to talk trash about ARM processors; the Surface Pro X has a lot going for it. At the same time, there are at least two big reasons why it won't be a viable replacement for an Intel-based Surface device for most people.

Before I get into all of that, let me first clarify that I haven't personally had enough hands-on experience with the Surface Pro X to be able to give you a first-hand account of how well the device works. What I can tell you is that the Surface Pro X is thinner and lighter than its x86 counterparts. And since the device is ARM-based, it doesn't need a fan, which is nice. The Surface Pro X is also equipped with a really nice-looking 2800x1920 display.

The Surface Pro X has almost nothing in common with Microsoft's Surface RT tablets that were released so long ago. Unlike Surface RT devices, the Surface Pro X feels like a premium-grade device. Even so, it suffers from one of the same shortcomings that ultimately led to the Surface RT's demise: application compatibility.

ARM processors are unable to natively run x86 or x64 applications. The Windows Store does include ARM versions of some applications, but there are relatively few ARM applications available. The majority of Windows applications are designed to run on x86 or x64 systems.

One of the most significant differences between the Surface Pro X and the Surface RT is that the Surface RT was only able to run Windows Store apps that had been compiled for use on ARM-based devices. The Surface Pro X is able to run applications that have been compiled to support the ARM architecture, but thanks to an emulation layer, it is also able to run x86 applications.

According to some people I have talked to, however, these applications tend to run a bit slower than they would on a native x86 device. Additionally, the Surface Pro X is unable to run 64-bit Windows (x64) applications.

So if the bulk of the available Windows applications are designed for x86 processors and the Surface Pro X runs those applications more slowly than they would run on an Intel-based device, why would someone choose the Surface Pro X over an Intel-based Surface device?

While purchasing a Surface Pro X might seem counterintuitive given its limitations, I can imagine a few different reasons why Microsoft has brought such a device to market. One possibility is that Microsoft envisions the day when "legacy" Windows applications will go away and be replaced entirely by Windows store apps. If that day ever comes (and I'm not convinced that it will), then it should be relatively easy for software vendors to offer ARM editions of their applications alongside x86 editions.

Another possibility is that Microsoft is acknowledging the idea that the browser is the killer app on any computing platform. Users tend to spend more time using the Web browser than any other application. Over time, more and more applications will likely be browser-based. Users who primarily use a Web browser (and perhaps Office) could just as easily use an ARM-based Surface device as an x86 device. For those users, the ARM device might make perfect sense, especially given its comparative size and weight.

Earlier, I mentioned that there were two things that might inhibit the Surface Pro X's adoption. Application compatibility was the first one, but the second factor is price. Surface devices have always had a premium price tag. A top-end Surface Book 3, for example, has a retail price of $3,399.99, which is far higher than the price of the average laptop. A base model Surface Pro X currently sells for $999.99, with the top-end model going for $1,799.99. For that price, it's possible to get a really nice x86 laptop that doesn't suffer from the Surface Pro X's application-compatibility limitations.

Going forward, I think that Microsoft will probably place an increased emphasis on ARM devices (maybe even ARM servers). Even so, I think the company has no choice but to continue offering x86 devices. The world simply is not ready to walk away from x86 processors; x86 applications are simply too entrenched to go away.

About the Author

Brien Posey is a 16-time Microsoft MVP with decades of IT experience. As a freelance writer, Posey has written thousands of articles and contributed to several dozen books on a wide variety of IT topics. Prior to going freelance, Posey was a CIO for a national chain of hospitals and health care facilities. He has also served as a network administrator for some of the country's largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox. In addition to his continued work in IT, Posey has spent the last several years actively training as a commercial scientist-astronaut candidate in preparation to fly on a mission to study polar mesospheric clouds from space. You can follow his spaceflight training on his Web site.

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