Microsoft’s New Surfaces Need to Beat MacBooks or Die Trying

Microsoft has the AI chops and big chip plans, but it needs to prove that those add up to a better experience than what Apple offers.

The inside of Microsoft's Surface laptop showing the chips and internal components.
Photograph by Raymond Wong

Will putting all of its eggs in the AI basket pay off for Microsoft? The company has spent over a year reorganizing everything around its AI assistant Copilot, but with new hardware on the way, whether that was worth it will be put to the test.

Microsoft has plans to not only introduce a new artificially intelligent take on how people should use Windows PCs (the company is already rolling out new dedicated buttons and touting the term “AI PC”), but it’s also reportedly transitioning its consumer Surface Laptops and Surface Pro tablets to Arm chips at the same time. That transition has fewer moving parts than Apple’s original shift to the M1, but is by no means less complicated.

The advantages MacBooks have gained during this custom chip era — longer battery life, improved CPU and GPU performance — quickly turned around Apple’s lagging laptops and desktops but were preceded by decades of chip development for the iPhone and iPad. Microsoft’s been claiming Windows could run on a mobile-first Arm chip since 2012 with far less compelling evidence that it’s possible.

The stakes for new Surfaces this year aren’t just making good on years of “Windows on Arm” promises, it’s presenting a cohesive vision for AI and beating a resurgent Mac ecosystem in terms of performance and efficiency. It’s also doing all that in a way other PC makers can replicate, and making Copilot seem genuinely useful. It’s not a small job, but the future of the Surface could rest on whether Microsoft can get it done.

Microsoft’s Big Bet on AI

Copilot is a general purpose AI assistant but Microsoft hasn’t made a great case as to why anyone should go to it first.

Photograph by Ian Carlos Campbell

Key to Microsoft’s plan to eat Apple’s M3 lunch is a new chip from Qualcomm called the Snapdragon X Elite. Qualcomm announced the new chip at its Snapdragon Summit in October 2023 with a particular focus on its artificial intelligence skills. The X Elite has a dedicated neural processing unit (NPU) and is “capable of running generative AI LLM models over 13B parameters on-device with blazing-fast speeds,” according to Qualcomm’s press release.

For context, parameters — which are set while a large language model is trained — act in a way, as the memory of an LLM. Generally, the larger the number of parameters the more natural and nuanced the response, so enabling models with over 13 billion parameters on-device is pretty impressive.

At its core, Microsoft appears to be turning to Qualcomm to make its new Surface machines more AI-adept and augment the AI features popping up all over Windows 11 and its native apps. There’s the basic Copilot that lives in the taskbar of all Windows machines that can answer questions, change settings on your computer, and generate images on the fly. There’s also the subscription-based Copilot in all of the Microsoft 365 apps that can generate documents, fill out spreadsheets, summarize emails, and create slides.

And then there’s the Copilot in Edge which is meant to be an all-around helpful assistant. All of these versions of Copilot work to varying degrees of success — it’s not as creative or particular as a human, and its answers still can’t be trusted — but that doesn’t mean we haven’t moved past solutions looking for problems.

New Surface hardware — and the chips inside of it — are a chance to show how all this AI acumen translates into something the average consumer can benefit from. Will the switch to Qualcomm’s chip supercharge Surface hardware and make Copilot the truly MacBook-killing feature Microsoft wants it to be? It’s hard to say, but if Microsoft’s transition to Arm and Qualcomm can make Surface machines the go-to computers for demanding AI tasks, it’s certainly a step toward challenging Apple’s M-series MacBooks.

Can Microsoft Pull Its Chip Transition Off?

The Surface Pro X has defined how Microsoft hardware has looked for years.

Photograph by Raymond Wong

The real unknown — and it’s a pretty big one — is if new Snapdragon chips will be able to run Windows 11 and the important apps people use every day without issues. Microsoft first started pushing the potential of Windows on Arm in 2012 alongside the launch of the original Surface RT, the less powerful companion of the Surface Pro. Windows RT was specifically designed to run on the more power-efficient Arm architecture in an attempt to match the performance of Apple’s original iPad which also used an Arm-based chip. The Surface RT didn’t work, and more importantly, a lack of desktop apps designed to run on Arm chips and the locked-down nature of Windows RT kept it from taking off.

The company’s next pass at getting desktop software running on what’s traditionally a mobile chip was the Surface Pro X, which ran Windows 10, but used the SQ1, custom silicon co-developed with Qualcomm that was based on the Snapdragon 8cx Gen 1. While Surface Pro X advanced the quality of Surface design to the next level, it did a poor job of running Windows and many of the core creative apps that people rely on to get work done outside of what’s preinstalled. According to Input’s review, “The [Surface Pro X] is not a full-featured Windows laptop. It’s a mostly-featured Windows laptop that really wants you to stick to Microsoft apps.”

Qualcomm also seems pretty confident switching to the Snapdragon X Elite shouldn’t pose an obstacle to normal PC use. At this year’s Game Developer Conference in California, Qualcomm claimed most games developed for x86 or x64 architecture should just work on the Snapdragon X Elite, according to The Verge. Developers can rebuild their games to run as efficiently as possible on the Snapdragon X Elite, but the chip’s built-in ability to emulate x64 software should allow things to run without tweaks.

Still, the Snapdragon X Elite and whatever changes Microsoft can make to Windows needs to beat years of false promises that Windows on Arm is ready for primetime. As Jon Gruber has noted at Daring Fireball, that’s still far less time for development than Apple spent achieving its chip advantage on its tablets and smartphones, and the company still ended up waiting till 2020 to move to Arm on the Mac.

Not Just Talk, Action

The Surface Laptop isn’t exciting, which means its performance and software have to be up to snuff.

Photograph by Raymond Wong

The new Surface Pro and Surface Laptop have a small needle to thread but not an impossible one. Two companies like Microsoft and Qualcomm working together naturally requires more synchronizing to achieve success than Apple doing it all in-house. But the confidence Qualcomm has shown around the Snapdragon X Elite bodes well for Microsoft’s Surface plans and whatever other AI PCs are on the way later this year. Years of on-again-off-again commitment to Windows on Arm have produced little in the way of satisfying results, but if Microsoft is serious this time, the stars certainly seem like they’re aligning for a major change.

Surface needs to beat the Mac, or get comfortable with second place.

And in many ways, they have to. Microsoft deprioritizing interesting hardware post-Panos Panay means software and the performance of PCs that the company sells become all the more important. Microsoft needs to create a perfect storm of powerful computers and interesting software ideas to really put whatever Apple has in store at WWDC 2024 in context. Otherwise, Surfaces will continue to be fine computers, but lag behind how much the experience of using a Mac has improved since Apple adopted Arm. Surface needs to beat the Mac, or get comfortable with second place.

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