Reviews of Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) new Surface 3 tablet have been rolling in, and so far they seem pretty positive. One well-established hardware review site, Ars Technica, recently published its review of the device, and in its estimation "the good" far outweighed "the bad" and "the ugly."
However, although Microsoft seems to have built a solid machine, it's hard to ignore the one way in which the device gets utterly crushed by the Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPad Air 2.
Let's talk about performance
The Surface 3 is powered by Intel's (NASDAQ:INTC) latest mobile applications processor, known as the Atom x7-8700. This is the fastest Intel Atom-based processor that Intel is shipping today. In contrast, the iPad Air 2 is powered by Apple's home-grown A8X processor.
You might be surprised at which company's chip performs better.
In Ars Technica's review, the reviewer provided performance tests using a benchmark known as GFXBench 3.0. In the "T-Rex" test, the Surface 3 could draw images at a rate of 36.1 frames per second, while the iPad Air 2 delivered an incredible 70.4 frames per second -- a nearly 95% advantage for the Apple chip. In the "Manhattan" test, the Surface 3 turned in 17.2 frames per second, while the iPad Air 2 delivered 32.7 frames per second -- another victory for Apple's chip.
In CPU performance, Ars Technica ran Geekbench. While some will debate the usefulness/validity of this test, it's the most "apples-to-apples" test that Ars Technica ran (the other two tests -- Kraken and SunSpider -- are browser based, and the tests were not run in the same browsers on the two devices).
The triple-core A8X chip in the Air 2 turned in 1780 points in single-core and 4533 points in multicore. The quad-core Atom x7-8700 scored 1024 in single-core and 3445 in multi-core. If Geekbench is to be believed, the A8X delivers better performance in tasks that rely on a single core as well as tasks that can use all available cores.
The delta will only get larger later this year
The iPad Air 2 was launched back in October 2014, and if Apple sticks to its traditional release cadence, it'll have a new iPad Air out on shelves in October this year. Apple will probably include a next generation chip, most likely called the A9X, and it'll likely be significantly faster than the A8X inside of the iPad Air 2.
The Surface 3, on the other hand, doesn't start shipping to customers until early May. Further, the company is unlikely to launch a Surface 4 until it can get its hands on a next generation mobile chip from Intel. This next chip, known as Broxton, is expected to arrive in 2016. My guess is that the Surface 4, based on Broxton, will hit the shelves around this time next year.
So it looks like it will be at least another year before an Intel-powered Surface 4 might be able to reach performance parity with the latest iPad if the above performance tests are representative.
A thinner and lighter Surface Pro could do the trick
Although it might be a while before the Microsoft Surface lineup can match the kind of performance that the iPad Air family delivers, the Surface Pro lineup could one-up Apple's tablets.
If Microsoft goes ahead and uses a Skylake-based Core M chip inside its next Surface Pro, then Microsoft would be able to market a very high performance, thin, and fan-less Surface Pro as a competitor to the latest Apple iPad Air devices.