Microsoft Surface Pro 9: A Tale of Two Chipsets

October 14, 2022 / Ben Bajarin

Microsoft has been embarking on a multi-year strategy to enable Windows OEMs to have silicon diversity. It has been within Microsoft’s best interests to help OEMs embrace multiple silicon partners, not just Intel, to leverage each unique solution for what is has to offer. Microsoft did this a few years ago with AMD, working on a custom chip for Surface Laptop that showcased AMD’s technology and added needed credibility for AMDs solutions in the premium tier of the PC market. Not to give Microsoft all the credit for AMD’s market share gains in recent years, but Microsoft’s endorsement of AMD played a big role in more OEMs starting to adopt AMD in specific designs. Now AMD is being designed into nearly every major OEMs future lineup to some degree.

Microsoft is now putting the gas pedal to Windows on ARM and the move is likely to increase OEMs adoption of Qualcomm’s line of PC-specific chips. Microsoft and Qualcomm have been collaborating for years now on a chip labeled the SQ. On the third variation, the SQ3 (a performance-enhanced chip based on the Snapdragon 8cx Gen3), Microsoft has embraced Qualcomm and Arm across the entire Surface Pro 9 lineup. Which, given they used to have a specific variant Surface Pro X for the SQ chips, indicates a huge step forward. This is a significant endorsement of the maturity of Windows on Arm given Surface Pro is Microsoft’s best-selling product for the enterprise and commercial segments. For Microsoft to make such a move and have the confidence to offer the SQ3 in its flagship product for commercial speaks volumes of Microsoft’s confidence that Windows on Arm is ready for mass market adoption.

Differentiated on Arm
Connectivity is a standout feature of the SQ3 Surface Pro 9 variants. In fact, connectivity, and in this case 5G, remains one of the most differentiated features for Windows PCs on Arm vs. Apple’s Macs. There is a luxury to having an always-connected PC for the utmost mobile workers that is hard to appreciate until you have tried it. Beyond that, we have spoken with large corporations who have deployed connected PCs, at scale, for their field workers and more often than not they remark on how critical connectivity has been for their worker’s PCs. The reality is WiFi can be extremely inconsistent in both coverage and speed. As we increasingly move to a cloud-connected era for mission-critical productivity and collaboration, connectivity itself in PCs becomes mission-critical.

Battery life is another standout differentiator for the SQ3 variants of the Surface Pro. Testing performed by Microsoft has them claiming battery life for the SQ3 variants for Surface Pro at 19 hours. That is ~4 hours more than the Intel versions which according to Microsoft’s testing are capable of 15.5 hours. As always, these results will vary with specific settings, but as Apple continues to push battery life and performance as differentiators for the Mac, having Windows-based designs that are thin, light, performant, and have more than all-day battery life is important.

One of the most interesting moves Microsoft has made with Surface, and with Windows, is to bring to market specific and exclusive features for Windows on Arm. Most of the highlight features Windows is enabling on the SQ3 versions of Surface Pro pertain to AI. Around Camara/visuals features like better background blur, eye focus/gaze, and portrait mode for video meetings. Better background audio suppression and noise cancellation as well are exclusive to the SQ3 variants. Microsoft states these enhanced AI features are capable on the SQ3 due to the neural processor and the chip’s capabilities in TOPS (trillions of operations per second) which is a key performance metric for AI specifically. It will be interesting to see if these differentiated features of Windows on Arm create more pull for the SQ3 variants over the Intel models.

Some have wondered why AMD was not in any new Surface products this year. A lack of an AMD product is not a knock on AMD. Rather, Microsoft is looking to help make the market for Windows on Arm, in many ways they helped make the market for AMD. I fully expect future AMD products with Surface as Microsoft embraces a silicon diversity strategy in their portfolio. What Microsoft Surface laptops, desktops, and 2-in-1s have shown the market is that silicon competition is alive and well. Intel, AMD, and Qualcomm all bring something unique to the table and we should expect every major PC OEM to leverage the advantage of each chipset’s capabilities uniquely in their lineup.

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