Is Microsoft's Surface Pro waiting on Intel?

SurfaceClock
SurfaceClock

One of the curious things about Microsoft’s Surface announcement is the release timetable. The Windows RT model is expected to arrive at the same time as Windows 8; but the Surface for Windows 8 Pro, running real desktop Windows, isn’t due until three months after that, which probably means after Christmas.

Is this delay a deliberate tactical move to give Metro a boost? After all, early Surface adopters will now have no choice but to buy into the RT ecosystem. But if that were the intention it would have made much more sense not to announce the Surface Pro (as I shall call it) at all. It makes no sense to show off the flagship Windows 8 device and then voluntarily hold it back so as to miss the biggest shopping season of the year.

It seems more likely that the Surface Pro simply isn’t going to be ready in time for the Windows 8 launch. But why not? It surely can’t be a software delay – by that time the OS will be officially compatible with millions of desktop and laptop configurations worldwide. And since Microsoft has already announced confidently that the Surface RT will be ready to launch alongside the OS, it clearly has manufacturing capacity in hand. So what exactly is causing the hold-up?

Why are we waiting?

One possibility is the screen. The Surface RT is expected to use a 1,366 x 768 10.6in display, but the Pro squeezes a Full HD screen (i.e. 1,920 x 1,080) into the same area. This gives it a pixel density of 208 PPI – very close indeed to the 220 PPI of Apple’s Retina-equipped MacBook Pro. That’s a big selling point for the Surface Pro, but panels like this aren’t exactly commonplace: in fact, we’ve never previously seen one in any device, anywhere. If Microsoft’s high-DPI panels are being custom-made to a bespoke specification, this could conceivably be slowing things down.

The other explanation I see as possible is a bit more fanciful, but more exciting. If you’ve a long memory (or if you’ve listened to this week’s podcast) you may recall that attendees at last year’s Microsoft BUILD conference were invited to try an alpha version of Windows 8 running on Samsung-branded Sandy Bridge tablets. Barry Collins was cautiously impressed, but warned that battery life was a weakness: “Three to four hours is simply not going to cut the mustard in a market where the iPad lasts an entire working day,” he noted.

"20x power savings"

It's perfectly plausible that Intel could step up its timetable to provide a first batch of Haswell chips in January

Since then, Sandy Bridge has been die-shrunk into the slightly more power-efficient Ivy Bridge. But the real game-changer could be Intel’s as-yet unreleased Haswell architecture. Built on the same 22nm process as Ivy Bridge, Haswell will bring aggressive power-management, not only within the CPU but also for the chipset and other internal components. Speaking at last year’s IDF, Intel CEO Paul Otellini predicted that the evolution from Sandy Bridge to Haswell would slash overall power consumption by a factor of 20 – exactly the sort of boost x86 tablets need to compete with the iPad.

Is it possible that Microsoft is holding out for Haswell? With Ivy Bridge barely out of the gate, it seems absurdly early to be talking about its successor. But leaked Intel documents from the first quarter of this year suggested that Haswell would be released as early as March 2013. For a major partner project such as the Surface Pro, it's perfectly plausible that Intel could step up its timetable to provide a first batch of Haswell chips in January.

(At the Surface presentation on Monday night, Mike Angiulo did say that the unit he was demonstrating was using Ivy Bridge: but the devices that eventually go on sale won’t necessarily have the same specification. Microsoft’s official information sheet says nothing at all about processors.)

Intel and Windows 8

Clearly, this is speculation. But it’s a given that Intel and Microsoft are, at some level, at least talking about Haswell. Speaking at last year’s IDF, Intel CEO Paul Otellini declared that, with Windows 8 in development, the timing of Haswell “couldn’t be better.” He went on to promise: “Working with our partners at Microsoft, Windows 8 on Intel will transform the personal computing experience, not only on Ultrabooks but tablets.”

Cynics such as me have remarked that, in the process of creating Windows 8, Microsoft hasn’t been above borrowing a few ideas from Apple – not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that. Under the circumstances I wouldn’t bet against a January release for the Surface Pro that surprises us all with the latest and greatest Intel hardware – and turns the established tablet market upside-down.

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