As I evaluate the performance of Microsoft's new Surface 2 tablet compared to that of its predecessor as well as the more PC-like Surface Pro 2, I'm reminded of a regular refrain from tech enthusiasts. Why does Microsoft continue to invest in the ARM chipsets that don't run traditional Windows desktop applications? Why couldn't it have made a version of Surface 2 that runs on the Intel Atom "Bay Trail" processor instead?
The answer, as it turns out, is straightforward. Microsoft could have done such a thing—goodness knows its PC maker partners are stepping all over each other rushing such products to market as I write this—but is instead backing ARM in hardware for the same reason it's doing so in software with Windows RT: This, not the Windows desktop, is Windows.
More specifically, this new platform—this new Windows, if you will—has characteristics that truly shine (and work) when you don't have a Windows desktop environment that opens your PC up to all kinds of inconsistencies, purposefully or not. This is a version of Windows that will never slow down, that will never succumb to decades of malicious software expertise or poorly-written drivers.
Microsoft of course provides a version of this new platform for x86/x64: That's how it plans to get the 1.5 billion-strong user base from the past (traditional PCs) to the future (devices). That system, Windows 8.x, is a hybrid design, like Surface. It bridges the past and the future, and has the pros and cons of both.
On the con side, a Bay Trail device with 2 GB of RAM will indeed run Photoshop. And iTunes. And all those other desktop applications that people seem to want. But it will do so poorly and, more to the point, will do so especially poorly when multiple applications are run simultaneously.
Today's Surface 2 comes with a desktop version of Office, but it doesn't allow users to install third party desktop applications, which many find limiting. But this is on purpose, and while the firm won't confirm that the advent of a Metro-based version of Office expected next year combined with further advances on the new platform side of the house will finally kick the desktop to the curb, the writing is on the wall. And those changes are happening first with Windows RT.
Today, Surface 2 is Microsoft's physical manifestation of the new Windows platform. It's a glimpse at where it sees Windows devices as positioned against pure tablets like iPad and the various Android designs, and against traditional PCs. It has some of the same issues that dogged Surface RT, obviously. But the performance is so good, and the consistency and syncing capabilities with x86/x64 Windows 8.x systems so strong, that it may just have a place.
It helps that the hardware is so stunning. While testing battery life by streaming HD video from Xbox Video, I've been struck again and again by the sheer quality of the Surface 2 display. (Not to mention the sheer endurance of this thing, which features astonishing battery life.) At 1.5 pounds, it's as light as the current iPad but sports a full-sized USB port and is compatible with the wonderful typing covers.
These kinds of advantages put Surface 2 over the top in ways that didn't happen with Surface RT. On that earlier system, the compromises simply piled up, with the terrible performance accentuating the other issues with the new platform.
I'm very curious to see how Bay Trail-based Windows tablets and hybrid PCs stack up with Surface 2. But this much is clear: While these systems may offer comparable battery life and performance, those strengths will decline over time while Surface 2 remains consistent.
Ultimately, it will be consumers and businesses that decide which compromise makes the most sense. But I would like to frame that decision in a new way: Choosing Surface 2, or Windows RT, is a decision to compromise the past for the future. But doing otherwise is a decision that will compromise the future for the past.
Surface 2 has renewed my faith and my interest in Windows RT. I'll keep using this thing and see what happens.