Thoughts on a 2018 Surface 4

On May 16, Bloomberg reported that Microsoft would be releasing a new non-Pro Surface tablet device in late 2018. In summary, Bloomberg sources indicate it will have a 10” screen, use an Intel CPU/GPU, run Windows 10 Pro, last 9 hours on a charge, have 64GB and 128GB versions, USB-C port(s), LTE enabled models, and will not come with a keyboard or stylus. It will be priced around $400. It sounds like an updated version of the Surface 3, for better or worse. This is interesting for a number of reasons, not least of which are the tougher competition found in the $329 iPad and the recently released Windows devices running on ARM-based hardware.

A Surface 3 History

Since this will likely be a direct successor to the Surface 3, it might be good to recall just what the Surface 3 provided. Microsoft released the Surface 3 in 2015, its first lower cost, Intel-based, tablet form factor device. This replaced the unsuccessful Surface RT and Surface 2 devices, which used underpowered ARM CPUs, ran the Windows RT operating system based on Windows 8.x, and could only run apps from the Windows Store. The Intel-based Surface 3 was able to run Windows 8.1, and later, Windows 10, along with any standard desktop apps.

The Surface 3 used the Intel Atom x7-z8700, a quad-core SoC (system-on-chip) clocked at 1.6 GHz with a 2.4 GHz turbo. The SoC had Intel Gen8 graphics with 16EUs (execution units). It was available with 2GB RAM and 64GB storage for $499, or 4GB RAM and 128GB for $599. Due to limitations of the SoC, Surface 3 leveraged eMMC 4.51 rather than faster SATA-based or UFS storage, neither of which were supported by Atom. It’s still an improvement over a standard spinning hard disk. It used a separate Marvell wireless chip to provide 802.11ac Wi-Fi. The screen was 10.8” with a resolution of 1920×1440.

Having owned the 4GB/128GB model, I can say it was/is a great device. It is not a barn-burner by any stretch, but it is quick enough for standard tasks. These are things like email, Office apps, light photo editing and design work using Affinity Photo and Designer, a light editor like Visual Studio Code, and web browsing with Edge and Chrome. I’ve played several older games on it (early-mid 2000’s era) just fine, though it would be woefully underpowered for most relatively modern AAA games.

That’s All Nice, But … What About ARM?

Microsoft has been talking about Windows on ARM (WoA) for a while now, having demoed it running on a Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 820, and then later on Snapdragon 835 in May of 2017.  Microsoft and Qualcomm touted the ability to run full Windows, natively compile Windows Store apps to run on ARM, and run 32-bit x86 desktop apps through a light emulation mode. Some reviews of the newly released WoA devices state that performance is less than stellar, though battery life seems to be strong. The pricing of some of these devices ($999 HP Envy) is also at a level comparable to Intel Core i5 based 2-in-1s and Surface Pro-type tablets, where they cannot compete performance-wise, and seem to rely on battery life and connectivity as the selling points. Based on the presentations and demos Microsoft gave, the release of ARM-based partner products, I pretty much assumed that the next Surface would be ARM-based and priced well under Surface Pro. This would have left a significant performance delta between the non-Pro and Pro device, showcased WoA, and centered around an always connected experience. The ARM SoC part doesn’t appear to be the case, though, based on the Bloomberg report.

However, many aspects from the report are similar to what was done with Surface 3: Intel SoC, 64/128GB storage options, 10” screen, running Windows 10 Pro, lower cost alternative to Surface Pro. Given that, I figured I would dig in and look at Surface 3 and iPad, see what’s available now, and guess where a possible Surface 4 might go.

CPU

Bloomberg specifies that “Intel Corp. will supply the main processor and graphics chips”. Obviously, that precludes Qualcomm’s Snapdragon, and unless Intel has hidden some major ARM SoC development, which would be stunning, that only leaves a few options. Long story short, I’m betting this mysterious device uses an Intel Atom-class SoC from the Gemini Lake family, probably the Pentium Silver N5000.  If the quad-core Pentium is used, it will likely still be outclassed by Apple’s dual-core A10 in the low end iPad in single threaded applications, though they would likely be close in multi-threaded apps.

Note: There is a common misconception that I have seen in many comments online that Intel cancelled their Atom line. That is only partially true. On April 29, 2016 Intel announced that they were cancelling their Broxton SoCs for phones and tablets. These were lower power Atom SoCs with Goldmont cores designed for smaller form factor devices with power use around 2W. Intel continued to produce the Apollo Lake series of Goldmont-based SoCs with 6-10W TDPs in late 2016. They have since enhanced the lineup with the Goldmont Plus microarchitecture enhancements. Atom is not dead, though it’s been rebranded and it’s no longer made for phones.

Option 1 – Atom Class: Microsoft could use a processor from the Gemini Lake family, which is based on the Goldmont Plus microarchitecture, and was released in December 2017. These are similar to Atom but are now branded as Celeron and Pentium.

Pros:

  • Relatively low-cost quad-core CPU w/ architectural improvements, increased cache
  • Nearly double the benchmark performance of the x7-z8700 in Surface 3
  • Improved graphics over Surface 3
  • Support for SATA, PCIe 2.0 x4 SSDs

Cons:

  • Increased power usage
  • Likely less battery life than similar size ARM systems
  • Performance likely still anemic compared to Core i series
Intel Atom x7-z8700 (Surface 3) Intel Pentium Silver N5000 Intel Core m3-7Y30
Cores/Threads 4/4 4/4 2/4
Base/Turbo Frequency 1.6/2.4 GHz 1.1/2.7 GHz 1.0/2.6 GHz
Cache 1MB L2 4MB L2 4MB L3
Power Use (SDP) 2W 4.8W (6W TDP) 4.5W
Architecture Airmont Goldmont Plus Kaby Lake
Virtualization: VT-x/VT-d/EPT Y/N/N Y/Y/Y Y/Y/Y
Memory support max 8GB LPDDR3 max 8GB LPDDR3/LPDDR4 max 16GB LPDDR3
Graphics Intel HD Graphics Intel HD 605 Intel HD 615
Generation Gen8 Gen9 Gen9
Execution Units (EU) 16 18 24
Base/Max CPU Freq 200/600 MHz 200/750 MHz 300/900MHz
USB Ports Supported 3 8 ?
Storage Supported eMMC eMMC, SATA, PCIe eMMC, SATA, PCIe
HDMI 1.4 2.0 1.4
Benchmarks
GeekBench Single-Core 1121 1928 3231
Multi-Core 3348 5485 6157
Memory Bandwidth 8.12 GB/s 13.5 GB/s 20.1 GB/s

Option 2 – Core m Class: Microsoft could go with a Core m series processor, which scale down to 4W power usage and share the Core i series microarchitecture. This, however, would provide entry level Surface Pro performance at a much lower price point, so would be unlikely.

Pros:

  • Better performance than Gemini Lake CPU
  • Potentially lower power draw than Gemini Lake

Cons:

  • Significantly more expensive CPU, listed at $281 on Intel’s site
  • Steps on entry level Surface Pro at much lower system price point

Option 3 – Core i Class: Too hot for such a small form factor, too expensive, steps on mid-range Surface Pro. Not going to happen.

GPU

The GPU in the system would have to be low power and integrated into the SoC, thus it would be directly related to the CPU selection. This would mean HD Graphics 615 in a Core m3-7Y32 CPU, or UHD Graphics 605 in something like the Pentium Silver N5000 (Gemini Lake Atom). While either should perform better than Surface 3, neither will be suitable for AAA gaming, though casual gaming should be fine. Both will be significantly outclassed by the GPU in the Apple A10.

RAM

Apple’s $329 iPad has 2GB RAM. Surface 3 from 2015 had options for 2GB and 4GB RAM. Gemini Lake supports low power LPDDR3 and LPDDR4. At the $400 price, I would expect the RAM options to start at 2GB, with a 4GB option once again.

Storage

The Intel Core m and Gemini Lake both support eMMC, SATA, and PCIe storage options. As far as I am aware, neither support UFS storage options. While I would love to see SATA or PCIe SSD used, being a low-cost device might require the use of eMMC. However, using eMMC 5.1 and fast NAND flash could still bring significant speed improvements over the Surface 3 as the newer standard supports up to 400MB/s, where eMMC 4.5 maxed out at 200MB/s and in practice the Surface 3 couldn’t reach 150MB/s sustained reads and was under 15MB/s for random reads/writes. iPad storage uses PCIe flash and is vastly quicker. For competitive reasons, I’d expect significant improvement in this area.

Screen

Being a Surface device, I would expect that it would carry over the same 3:2 screen ratio. Given the continued 10-inch size, likely the same 1920×1440 resolution would be used.

Connectivity

If Microsoft uses a Gemini Lake SoC, it will have built in 802.11ac Wi-Fi. A Core m, already more expensive, would require use of an additional Wi-Fi chip. Bluetooth LE will likely be present, though I believe it would require separate hardware. One nice to have would be the Xbox wireless adapter integrated in, though that’s not likely to happen.

Cameras

There will likely be a front facing camera, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they leave off the nearly useless rear camera from the Surface 3. At a $400 price point, I wouldn’t count on Windows Hello support (IR sensor, etc.). One route they could go with Windows Hello might be to add a fingerprint sensor on the keyboard accessory.

Expansion

Bloomberg specifies that USB-C will be used in the new device. Surface 3 provided a micro-USB charging port (that could also be used with USB OTG options), a full-size USB 3.0 port, and a hidden microSD slot, along with a mini DisplayPort. At the very least I’d expect 2 USB ports, possibly both USB-C 3.0 if they are trying to make the device thinner and lighter than previous designs. It will be interesting to see if they support USB Power Delivery (USB-PD). In the interest of keeping costs down they could just go with a 5V/3A USB-C charger, which would still be somewhat of an improvement over the absolutely dreadful charging speeds of Surface 3. I would hope they carry over the microSD slot for storage expansion.

Given that the Surface 3 supported pen use, and that the iPad now supports Apple’s pencil, it would make sense for the next Surface to continue active pen support with at least the 1024 step pressure sensitivity of the previous pen. Keyboard will obviously be an option and given the screen size it will need to be a compressed size like Surface 3 keyboard.

So, What Could a Surface 4 Look Like?

If the Bloomberg report were accurate, I’d guess we’d see something like the following in a hypothetical Surface 4:

  • Intel Pentium Silver N5000 quad-core 1.1-2.7 GHz, 4MB cache
  • Intel HD 605 graphics with 18 EU at 200-750 MHz
  • eMMC 5.1 storage
  • LPDDR4 RAM
  • 2GB RAM/64GB storage and 4GB RAM/128GB storage options
  • SoC integrated 802.11ac wireless
  • Added Bluetooth LE module
  • Additional models with LTE capability
  • 10” screen with 1920×1440 resolution
  • 2-3 USB-C 3.0 ports, 5V/3A USB-C charger
  • microSDXC slot
  • Front-facing 1080p camera, no rear camera

It’ll be interesting to see if any of this is accurate in late 2018. I think this is a positive move for Microsoft and the Surface team. The pricing will probably be more attractive for both education and home users and a system configured as above should significantly outperform their last lower cost Surface device, and at even lower cost. Here’s hoping this happens.

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