An M1 Mac vs the Surface Pro X: How do ARM devices compare?

I suspect that the Venn diagram of people who own both an M1 Mac and a Surface Pro X is small. I fall into that section in the middle, so I thought it was worth summarizing how the two compare.

I should say from the start that the Surface Pro X is by far and away my favourite Windows device. I also have a Surface Book 3, which is a pretty powerful laptop in its own right, but which I just don’t love as much.

The hardware design of the Surface Pro X is exceptional, and it is one of the few non-Apple devices that I’ve owned which matches Apple’s level of industrial design. Using an ARM processor with its much less hefty thermal requirements than Intel chips has freed Microsoft’s hardware designers to make the Surface that they have clearly always had in their heads. It’s thin and light, with an exceptionally lovely screen, and in my experience it just never gets hot, something that I can’t say of any Intel-based computer I’ve ever used.

For some categories of user, myself included, the performance is actually good. Performance is a relative thing: what’s acceptable for someone who lives in the browser would be glacial for a designer who spends their life in Photoshop.

My work life is solidly in Office 365 and a browser, and for this kind of work–which we should remember is a huge chunk of users across the globe—the Surface Pro X is perfect. Office and Edge have never felt slow, no matter how many tabs or documents I have open. And the ability to use it anywhere thanks to built-in LTE makes it more useful than a conventional laptop.

My M1 Mac mini is… well, it’s a Mac. It does everything I have ever used my Macs for, including audio and video editing, and subjectively does it as well and as fast as anything I’ve ever used. It feels faster than my year old 16in MacBook Pro, which has double the memory and on paper at least ought to be easily quicker. And it does it while being silent, cool and snappy with everything.

Using it with third party hardware has also been a very Mac-like experience. Whatever third party hardware I have plugged in has worked from an old Logitech webcam to a Blue Yeti USB mic. Even the software which allows me to programme my Corsair gaming mouse works perfectly. I don’t even know if it’s running ARM or Intel code.

That’s the crucial difference between the two devices. You don’t have to think about the Mac mini as anything other than a Mac. With the Surface Pro X you need to remember that it’s not a Windows device, it’s an ARM Windows device, and limit what you can do accordingly. If your requirements sit within those limitations, it’s a great machine. If they don’t, you won’t be able to use it at all.

This is why Microsoft’s marketing language about Windows on ARM devices focuses on how they are “a new category of PC” and why it talks about the Surface Pro X as for “mobile professionals”. The company isn’t confident—rightly—that ARM devices can replace an Intel PC except in those specific circumstances. Apple thinks of the M1 as making the Mac just a better Mac, first for low-end customers where it can deliver performance that’s already close to the top end, and in 2021 and 2022 for its most demanding users.

What can Microsoft do? I honestly don’t think there’s much it can, at the moment. To get to where Apple is, Microsoft needs to persuade Qualcomm that it should devote time and effort to build chips optimised for higher thermal envelope devices, such as laptops and desktops. That’s not as easy as it sounds. It also needs to persuade Qualcomm that building in features to make it easier to emulate or translate Intel code is worth the effort.

On the software side, it also needs to sort out the mess that is Windows development. Windows Presentation Foundation, Universal Windows Platform, Progressive Web Apps… the entire system is a mess that makes it harder, not easier, to choose how to develop for Windows. This is something that Apple has been very good at managing in the past.

Can Intel or AMD keep up? Apple is already a larger processor company than either of them in terms of units shipped, thanks to its wholly owned designs for the A- and no M-series. Combine iPhone and iPad and Apple ships more than 250m devices per year. Most of those devices will share a great deal in terms of processor design as the M1, meaning that the Mac gains from the economy of scale and design cost amortisation that Intel can only dream of. There are of course big differences between an M1 and an A14, but they share the same cores, the same Neural Engine, the same image processing and secure enclave designs. Perhaps over time the high performance cores in iPhone and Mac will diverge, but at the moment Apple doesn’t need to do it, so it can benefit from being able to design one processor core which ships in 250m devices a year—more than the number of PCs shipping over the same time scale.

I think all this adds up to Microsoft and Intel being in a bigger boatload of trouble than most people think. The shift to ARM feels like a classic Clay Christiansen transformational technology moment, with M1 the tipping point when a technology moves from cheaper but not as powerful as the incumbent to beating it. The path that Microsoft and Intel must take is a radical rethinking of their own businesses, and I am not clear that the internal forces in either company have accepted that yet.

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