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Posted on June 21st, 2012 by Darien Graham-Smith

Is Microsoft’s Surface Pro waiting on Intel?

SurfaceClockOne 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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16 Responses to “ Is Microsoft’s Surface Pro waiting on Intel? ”

  1. MJ Says:
    June 21st, 2012 at 9:53 am

    Cringley wonders if they will actually make them at all.

  2. Tim Says:
    June 21st, 2012 at 10:26 am

    I don’t buy the screen theory. 1080p on a tablet sounds unremarkable now days. The Acer Iconia A700 for example sports a 1080p display for $449.

    The Haswell theory also seems unlikely given that it is expected about six months after the Surface Pro.

  3. Darien Graham-Smith Says:
    June 21st, 2012 at 11:23 am

    Yes, the Acer Iconia A700 has a similar screen – but how long did it take to get that device into mass production? Early units were demonstrated at CES at the start of January, but it didn’t get an official release until this month and (I believe) you still can’t buy one in the UK. It’s easy to believe that it might similarly take Microsoft six months to stockpile enough panels (the 10.6in format being, as I mentioned, one no one else appears to be manufacturing).

      As for the timing of Haswell: neither Microsoft nor Intel has promised firm dates for anything, but it’s been strongly hinted that Windows 8 will reach RTM in early August. With both Windows 7 and Vista, roughly three months elapsed between the RTM and the retail release, so if that happens again then we’re looking at an early November launch for Windows 8 and the Surface RT. This sounds about right as it leads nicely into the Christmas period. If the Surface Pro launches three months after that, as promised by Steven Sinofsky, that places it in early February.

      Will Haswell be ready by then? A confidential Intel slide, leaked last February, indicated that Haswell desktop parts were planned for “Mar-Jun 2013″: obviously this isn’t set in stone, but it’s clear that the presumed launch date of the Surface Pro is not at all far from the window in which Intel had already intended to launch Haswell. That’s why I don’t think it’s implausible that Intel could accelerate production slightly to accommodate a substantial order from Microsoft.

      I freely admit this theory is speculative, but what’s the alternative? For Microsoft to start selling an Ivy Bridge Surface Pro in February, knowing full well that the architecture will be superseded by a new one with massively improved battery life in a matter of months (or possibly even weeks)? To me that theory makes even less sense.

  4. Surefire Says:
    June 21st, 2012 at 11:44 am

    Yes, Intel ordered coffee and cake and the Surface Pro will be bringing them to the table shortly.

    Or did you mean: “Is Microsoft’s Surface Pro waiting FOR Intel?”

  5. wittgenfrog Says:
    June 21st, 2012 at 12:17 pm

    Interesting theory.

    I’ve been engaging in a bit of head-scratching about the delay too.
    The display issue isn’t, I would have thought too much of an issue. It may be rare (or even unique) but the manufacturing technology is well-established so unless MS’s putative ‘partners’ (like Samsung) are putting the boot in it shouldn’t be insurmountable.

    Looking at the technical (as opposed to marketing) issues it is a very attractive theory indeed as a “20x” improvement in power consumption would be a BIG boost to Surface Pro.

    Like all these things time will reveal the truth of it, but I’m provisionally adopting your notion!

  6. ChrisM Says:
    June 21st, 2012 at 12:56 pm

    Surface RT (about £400?) and Surface Pro (about £800?) are aimed at 2 copletely different markets aren’t they? I don’t see the issues in releasing one later than the other if there is a delay. As long as RT is ‘fit and proper’ it’ll raise awareness and promote app development(assuming MS learns from Apples approach in getting credit card details up front – good article that BTW).

  7. tomble Says:
    June 21st, 2012 at 1:33 pm

    If they (MS) use the standard developer’s approach to delivery schedules Then they will have no problem stretching three months out to five.
    “It was scheduled for delivery this morning? My salesman only said Thursday, no specific time. You are in the office at 11:59 tonight?”

  8. Nick Ioannou Says:
    June 21st, 2012 at 4:30 pm

    The important thing here is that the Surface Pro will probably be competing with the iPad 4 not the current iPad!

  9. Duncan baines Says:
    June 21st, 2012 at 9:05 pm

    IPad resolution is still higher 2048×1536, 264ppi and it has been out for months.

  10. leigh Says:
    June 21st, 2012 at 9:30 pm

    I believe the thing will arrive in time for Xmas. The announcement also clearly said 3rd Gen core CPU. That means Ivy Bridge.
    If you have not paid attention, Microsoft has of late been bringing in everything early compared to its projections
    I for one am glad to see the change.
    I believe Surface will change the dynamic in the near term. now everybody who really wanted to run Windows but settled for an iPad can have Windows.

  11. Jack Says:
    June 22nd, 2012 at 6:12 am

    With Ivy Bridge the (presumably) passive-cooled Surface Pro would need to cap its CPU to 5 watt (800MHz?) envelope, while in desktop full performance mode a desktop dock would funnel cool air into the device and out of the perimeter vents to dissipate the full 17 watts.

    Would Haswell run full speed at 5 watts? It would be wonderful for Microsoft to bring Haswell to market early… With Haswell the Pro is easily worth $1200 in March 2013.

  12. khellan Says:
    June 22nd, 2012 at 8:37 pm

    How is a tablet worth $1200? in English money, that’s something like 770 quid for something that may – or may not – last as long as an ipad. why would you pay more for a mobile device that has less uptime and a lower res screen? it makes no sense. on top of that, seeing as the tablet will mainly be used for single app tasks (professional tends to mean email, right?) unless you want to split your desktop on a ten inch screen, as much as i hate to say it, the ipad remains the better option.

    Its a mobile device. if it falls down on the first hurdle (doesn’t last a business day, dies in the middle of a meeting), what use is a professional device?

  13. SirRoderickSpode Says:
    June 26th, 2012 at 1:28 pm

    People continue to compare the Surface Pro with the iPad, when it is clear that the RT is the iPad competitor.

    The Pro is an altogether different proposition, with it’s ability to run full desktop apps, such as Adobe Lightroom, as demonstrated by MS in their keynote.

    A few months ago in his column at the back of PCPro, Jon Honeyball talked about how he was looking forward to a future where his tablet doubled as a true workstation, once suitably docked. If Haswell really delivers Sandy Bridge performance at 1/20 the power then that is exactly what we’ll have.

    So not only does it make sense, but it will definitely be worth (the admittedly speculative) $1200.

  14. bookmac Says:
    June 26th, 2012 at 2:06 pm

    You said only boats could float but you can’t even get out of the harbour.

  15. QuincyM Says:
    August 11th, 2012 at 11:52 pm

    Lenovo just announced that they will release a Windows 8 Pro tablet in late October along with the official release of Windows 8. The Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2 will run on an Intel Atom processor so it should perform like a netbook. Lenovo said the batter should last 10 hours. I think this device can be a worthy opponent for the iPad as long as it’s not too slow.

  16. eopc Says:
    October 2nd, 2012 at 6:14 pm

    Why all these comments about a 1200 price tag? Microsoft has already stated the price for Surface is going to be around 300-800 (presumably the lower end for RT, and the higher for Pro), that’s much less than 1200. If Microsoft can get exclusivity for a month or more with Haswell, this will immensely help sales. I would be majorly impressed if they are able to pull such a deal with Intel.


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