Earlier this week I wrote an article (well, a rant) about Microsoft Surface tablets running Windows RT. (Actually it was a rant against Windows RT in general.) I closed the rant by saying, "By the way, I'm looking forward to the Surface Pro and the other Intel-compatible tablets, ultrabooks, detachables, and convertibles. Windows 8 on Intel is fine." If I could have an Intel-powered tablet where I have the option of detaching the keyboard and using just the screen as a standalone device, that would be great! And assuming it wouldn't affect the price too much, who wouldn't want that? The idea that these Intel-based things would be as thin and light and long-lasting as a normal laptop with the added flexibility of a tablet while still being able to run all of our legacy Windows desktop applications is a win-win-win!
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But there's a catch. Traditional Intel processors take a lot more power than the ARM-based processors that drive the newer tablets like iPads and Androids. The only way around that is to (1) make them heavier and thicker by adding more battery capacity, (2) be happy with short battery life, or (3) put a super low power (and low performance) Intel processor in them. (See my related article from last summer, "Mobile devices: fast, light, long battery life… pick any two.")
I've been thinking a lot more about this over the past few days and trying to do some research on Google, but so far I haven't been able to find any real conversations about it. So I'm reaching out to you, geeky readers of BrianMadden.com!
I'll start by explaining my bias. My belief is that the traditional Windows OS (and Windows 8 Pro) was built for an Intel world where there was a lot of horsepower available to the CPU. Now that these super thin, light, and long-lasting ARM devices are popular, Intel and Microsoft are scrambling to build low power consumption x86 CPUs that can still run the normal version of Windows Pro. Fine.
But here's where it breaks down. It seems to me so far that in order for an Intel x86 device to be as thin, light, and long lasting as a ARM device, the Intel processor in it is so low power that the performance is horrible. I don't necessarily blame Intel for this—it's really more of a Microsoft thing. The Windows Pro OS is just completely designed for a CPU environment that is different than what people want today. And when you go to Windows.com and check out the devices that Microsoft is pushing, a lot of them are powered by processors like the Atom Z2760 which has a Passmark CPU score of 679 versus a typical Ultrabook with an i7-3667U which scores 3828. Would you want to use a Windows device that was only 1/5th the speed of the fastest Ultrabook? I wouldn't.
Of course there are also new Windows 8 Pro Intel-based tablets / convertibles / detachables that have i5-3317U and i7-3517U processors which get us closer with Passmark CPU scores of 3100 and 3734, respectively. But now we're talking about 3-5 hours of battery life instead of 8-10 hours like ARM tablets. So really these are just normal laptops where you can detach the keyboard or touch the screen.
To be clear, I'm not complaining about these Intel devices. I would love to have the option to pull off the keyboard and touch the screen of my current Ultrabook. But I have that Ultrabook and my ARM-based tablet because they each serve different needs. I like my super-thin, super-light ARM tablet and that I regularly use for 10 hours. I love that I can leave the house in the morning and not have to worry about power.
Again, I don't think this is an "Intel versus ARM" thing per se, rather, it's more that the Windows 8 Pro OS is doing so much stuff that it just needs a lot of power to run, whereas these ARM-based iPads and Androids are running OSes and apps that have been designed from the ground-up for very low power consumption. You just can't get Windows to do that. (Need proof? See Windows RT.)
So I wonder, can we ever have the best of both wolds? (Low power and normal Intel-based Windows desktop applications?) How "all in one" these really are?
We hear over and over about how 2013 is the year that tablets will outsell laptops. But are people buying tablets instead of laptops? No. Instead they're buying them to augment their laptops. So if I have the option for a long lasting Windows Pro tablet, I'm going to say, "Meh, but it's too slow to run my Windows desktop applications, so I still need a laptop." Or if I buy a fast Windows Pro detachable, I'm going to say, "Meh, but the battery life is too low so I still need to buy an ARM-based tablet."
What am I missing here? I keep hearing about all these future breakthroughs of Intel processors that are supposed to change this, but Windows Pro will always need more horsepower than iOS or Android. So by the time I have a super thin long lasting Intel-based Windows tablet, won't my ARM tablets be running for 20 hours per charge instead of 10?