‘Inside Microsoft’s Mission to Take Down the MacBook Air’

Tom Warren, writing for The Verge:

On a recent morning at its headquarters in Redmond, Washington, Microsoft representatives set out new Surface devices equipped with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon X Elite chips inside and compared them directly to Apple’s category-leading laptop. I witnessed an hour of demos and benchmarks that started with Geekbench and Cinebench comparisons, then moved on to apps and compatibility.

Benchmark tests usually aren’t that exciting to watch. But a lot was at stake here: for years, the MacBook Air has been able to smoke Arm-powered PC chips — and Intel-based ones, too. Except, this time around, the Surface pulled ahead on the first test. Then it won another test and another after that. The results of these tests are why Microsoft believes it’s now in position to conquer the laptop market.

Microsoft’s comparison were all against M3 MacBook Air models. Fair enough, insofar as the MacBook Air is by far Apple’s best-selling line of laptops, and the M3 models shipped just two months ago. But the MacBook Airs are fanless. A lot — most? all? I’m not sure — of the new “Copilot+ PCs” Microsoft showed off today have fans. (Or if you prefer, “active cooling systems”.) Microsoft’s own new Surface Laptops have MacBook-Air-esque pricing (13-inch starts at $1,000; 15-inch starts at $1,300) but they weigh about 0.3 pounds more than the equivalent-sized MacBook Air. Those weights puts them more in the class of the M2 13-inch MacBook Pro.

All of this app compatibility and performance is nothing without battery life, though. Microsoft uses a script to simulate web browsing. On 2022’s Intel-based Surface Laptop 5, it took eight hours, 38 minutes to completely deplete a battery; the new Surface Copilot Plus PC lasted three [sic] times that, hitting 16 hours, 56 minutes. That’s an incredible jump in efficiency, and it even beats the same test on a 15-inch MacBook Air M3, which lasted 15 hours, 25 minutes. That’s a whole hour and a half more.

Microsoft ran a similar test for video playback, which saw the Surface Copilot Plus PC hit more than 20 hours in a test, with the MacBook Air M3 reaching 17 hours, 45 minutes. That’s also nearly eight hours more than the Surface Laptop 5, which lasted 12 hours, 30 minutes. If those battery gains extend beyond basic web browsing and video playback, this will be a significant improvement for Windows laptops.

I presume Warren meant that the new Surface Laptop lasted twice as long as the old Intel-based model, not three times as long. But this highlights my main hardware takeaway from today’s event: the M3 MacBook Air served as a good foil/benchmark for all these comparisons — performance, battery, price — but the real comparison was Qualcomm’s Snapdragon X Elite vs. Intel’s and AMD’s x86 offerings.

I’ll go out on a limb and say that today marks the beginning of the end for x86. Either the x86 architecture has reached an inevitable endpoint, or Intel and AMD are just unable to compete talent-wise. (Or both.) But as of today the performance-per-watt gulf between ARM and Intel/x86 is no longer just an Apple silicon thing — it’s now a PC thing too. If there was any chance for Intel or AMD to catch up, it had to happen between the M1’s breakthrough introduction in 2020 and now. But they couldn’t do it.

The saddest part of the event were the cursory appearances — each by pre-recorded video, despite it being an in-person event in Redmond — of Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger and AMD CEO Lisa Su. Their token appearances felt like Microsoft pretending they haven’t moved on from x86, during an event whose entire theme was, effectively, “moving on from x86”. Qualcomm’s Snapdragon X Elite is only being compared to Apple’s base M3, so it’s still up to Intel and AMD to offer chips with performance on the level of the M3 Pro and Max, but the writing is on the wall. The future belongs to ARM system architectures.

Monday, 20 May 2024