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Microsoft bet against Intel with its new Surface – and lost

Microsoft's newest Surface hardware is already out in the world, and it's clear that the biggest gamble the company has taken with models this year – away from Intel's dominant market – has not been completely discontinued.

The focus on non-Intel chips was a big part of Microsoft Surface's 2019 announcement. The company went out of its way to highlight the new, collaboratively designed Ryzen Surface Edition processor for the 15-inch Surface Laptop 3, which was optimized specifically for Microsoft design. And the ARM-powered Surface Pro X, with a next-generation design and Qualcomm's custom Snapdragon 8cx chip version, should represent the future of Surface.

Unfortunately, reviews are currently underway, and experience shows that none of these custom chips have changed as Microsoft had hoped.

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Let's start with the Ryzen Surface Edition chip from Surface on AMD's laptop 3. Microsoft said the new chip is designed to offer faster speeds and, in particular, improved graphics performance, thanks to an additional kernel. But as my colleague Dan Seifert noted in his review, the AMD chipset still struggles with most games and even basic 4K video playback. More importantly, the AMD chip was crushed in a head-to-head race when it came to exporting video against a 13-inch, Intel-powered Surface Laptop 3, which has more thermal limitations due to its size and is cheaper from the larger model.

AMD / Intel Rivalry is a long-standing technology. In recent years, it has been again a relatively late delay for Intel to deliver next-generation chips that use its 10nm process coupled with the renewable AMD, which actually delivers competitive products with its Ryzen line. This has led to more competition in the processor space with AMD and Intel, which are actually banging their heads on top-level products like the Asus Zenus 14 or the Surface Laptop 3 for the first time in years.

But the performance of the Surface Laptop 3 shows that AMD's hardware still has a way to go before it can challenge Intel's superiority here. Finally, Intel has begun shipping its 10th-generation Ice Lake chips (found in the Surface Laptop 3), which bring big leaps in battery performance and life, and are likely a big factor in helping Intel maintain its lead here.

On paper, the high-profile partnership that AMD has with Microsoft is one of Intel's biggest nightmares: a major laptop manufacturer implicitly tells customers that Microsoft's flagship option for their flagship laptops is AMD chips, not Intel. But the difference in performance shows that Intel still looks better than AMD in terms of raw power.

Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

Then there's the Surface Pro X. Slimmer and lighter even than the already compact Surface Pro 7, this is an ARM laptop whose very existence serves as a blame for failure of Intel in the mobile space over the last two decades. Featuring a custom 7nm SQ1 processor that Microsoft has built with Qualcomm to increase CPU and GPU performance over a regular Snapdragon 8cx, it should be the go-to newspaper for a new type of computer – one that is slim, light, powerful, and durable and always connected to the Internet.

But we've been hearing promises for laptops that have been working with ARM for years, and hardware has not yet fulfilled one of those promises. The first waves of Snapdragon laptops failed to impress. Qualcomm promised to do better last December when it announced 8cx – a dedicated Windows processor instead of a modified one – but so far Surface Pro X is the only hardware to date that actually ships with the chip (or variant)

Again the idea is insurmountable on paper. A laptop that can work with all your regular laptop software but with long battery life, instant charging capabilities and always connected LTE to your phone or tablet? Anything on a computer that is slimmer and lighter than a traditional laptop? Who wouldn't want that?

Unfortunately, it looks like the Surface Pro X once again proves that the dream of an ARM-based laptop is still a half-baked idea. Application compatibility is still a big issue, performance is not great, and battery life is not always as good as promised. Much of this boils down to 32-bit application emulation: when applications are designed to run on ARM, Surface Pro X actually does quite well. But these applications are still few and far between – the hardware may be here, but the software is not. And if there is anything to go by in past history, Microsoft may find it difficult to bring developers on board.

This is all that a product should be based on an ARM-based Windows computer, a device custom-built by Microsoft with a built-in processor to its specifications. If Microsoft – which builds Windows and should have more influence over developers building new applications for its platforms – cannot properly get an ARM-based laptop, what hope does Samsung, Dell, or which and any other hardware company i have?

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Microsoft seems to be aware that these new processors are not magic bullets. The company still sells Intel-powered surfaces in every form factor: the 15-inch Surface Laptop 3 offers an Intel processor (at least for business customers) in addition to AMD's offering. And Surface Pro 7 still exists to offer traditional Intel chips in a tablet-style device to those who aren't convinced by Surface Pro X.

It's not the end of the battle , ARM applications are likely to get better as more developers jump on board, which will solve many battery and performance issues. Qualcomm's next chips will also be faster and more power efficient, with even faster network connectivity – especially with 5G just around the corner, which will only make ARM-powered devices more attractive than their traditional counterparts. AMD will continue to bridge the gap between its laptop processors and Intel, especially as more software begins to optimize for AMD hardware.

But none of this is true today, and if you buy a Surface product in 2019, the answer is the same as it was every other year: buy Intel. And while this is great news for Intel, it's a disappointing start to what could be a more competitive era when it comes to the chips that underpin our computers.

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