In mid-2014, Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) launched the third iteration in its Surface Pro line of tablets, known as the Surface Pro 3. The device, which Microsoft pitches as the "tablet that can replace your laptop," has actually done fairly well for the company, with Microsoft reporting that its Surface-related revenue grew 117% year-over-year last quarter "driven by Surface Pro 3 and launch of the Surface 3."

The current generation Surface Pro devices use variants of Intel's (NASDAQ:INTC) Core i-series processors rated at a 15-watt thermal design power, or TDP, which are aimed at thin-and-light laptops. This has allowed Microsoft to offer "PC-class" performance in these devices.

However, following the launch of the very low-power Core M processors based on Intel's Skylake processor architecture, it seems that the time is finally right for Microsoft to transition to Core M for its Surface Pro lineup.

Allow me to explain.

Lenovo shows what is possible with Core M
At the IFA trade show in Berlin, PC juggernaut Lenovo (NASDAQOTH:LNVGY) showed off what was widely viewed as a "Surface Pro clone" called the MIIX 700. Judging from the following image of the device found in Lenovo's spec sheet for the device, it's not hard to see why:

Press Image

The Lenovo MIIX 700. Source: Lenovo.

The MIIX 700 looks very similar to the Surface Pro 3, but there's one big difference under the hood: it uses one of Intel's Core m-series processors rather than a low-power Core i-series processor.

This means that the MIIX 700 trades off some performance relative to what could have been achieved had it used a more powerful – and power hungry -- Core i-series chip, but in return the MIIX 700 doesn't require a CPU cooling fan, according to UMPC Portal.

Given the two-architecture jump, this is the perfect time to transition
As I mentioned previously, the low-power Core i-series chips offer more performance than the Core m-series chips, so one could conceivably argue that as a true "laptop replacement" Microsoft should stick with a "laptop grade" processor.

I, however, would disagree.

Even if Microsoft were to move from processors rated to consume 15-watts of power to chips designed to sip just 4.5-watts, I still think that Microsoft can deliver a system that's just as fast, if not faster, in many key use cases generation-on-generation.

To illustrate this, note that the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 can be configured with one of the following three processors: Core i3-4020Y, Core i5-4300U, and Core i7-4650U. In the table below, I have listed the key specifications of these chips:

 

Core i3-4020Y 

Core i5-4300U 

Core i7-4650U

# CPU cores/threads

2/4

2/4

2/4

CPU base freq. (GHz)

1.5

1.9

1.7

CPU max turbo (GHz)

1.5

2.9

3.3

GPU base freq. (MHz)

200

200

200

GPU max turbo (MHz)

850

1100

1100

Source: Intel ARK.

Now, let's take a look at the Core m-series chips that Microsoft could potentially offer as part of the Surface Pro 4:

 

Core m3-6Y30  

Core m5-6Y57 

Core m7-6Y75 

# CPU cores/threads

2/4

2/4

2/4

CPU base freq. (GHz)

0.9

1.1

1.2

CPU max turbo (GHz)

2.2

2.8

3.1

GPU base freq. (MHz)

300

300

300

GPU max turbo (MHz)

850

900

1000

Source: Intel ARK.

Just looking at the raw "speeds and feeds," it's clear that the Core m-series chips run their respective CPUs at significantly lower base clocks than the prior generation Core i-series chips. However, as far as max turbo goes (which kicks in when the system is required to run a performance intensive task), the Core m chips aren't too far off from the prior generation Core i-series chips in terms of frequency.

And, of course, the improvements in per-clock CPU performance in going from the Haswell CPU core to the Skylake CPU core probably further negate some of that difference.

In the graphics processor, we see that the Skylake-based Core m-series chips run at higher base clocks than on the Haswell-based Core i-series chips. They're also not too far off as far as maximum turbo goes (although, of course, the "sustained" clock speeds in a given workload will depend on a number of factors).

I think that if Microsoft were to choose Core m-based processors for the Surface Pro 4, it would be able to deliver roughly the same kind of performance as the current Surface Pro 3 does but without the need for a fan and potentially a smaller physical footprint.

With companies like Lenovo seemingly producing thin, light, and even fan-less Surface Pro "clones" with Intel's low-power Core m chips, Microsoft may be forced to transition the Surface Pro line to Core m or risk being left behind. 


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Ashraf Eassa owns shares of Intel. The Motley Fool owns and recommends Intel. The Motley Fool owns shares of Microsoft. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.