Microsoft's Surface Pro 9 Shows That the Future Is ARM, Not Intel

Although the company is still hedging its bets

  • The Surface Pro 9 comes in Intel and ARM versions.
  • The ARM model has 5G cellular and way better battery life. 
  • ARM is still not the best choice for gamers.
person using the Surface Pro 9 on a table


Microsoft's new Surface Pro 9 laptop-tablet hybrid comes with a welcome surprise: a new ARM-based chip system that takes it closer to Apple's M1 Macs.

The Surface Pro 9 comes in two flavors: A good old Intel x86-based version that maximizes compatibility with existing software at the expense of battery life and another with an ARM processor, which provides incredible battery life and adds 5G cellular networking to the mix. ARM has had a jittery start on Windows machines, but it looks like it's finally ready for mainstream action. 

"Contrary to the popular belief that ARM is weak compared to x86 chips, which are power-hungry but can deliver powerful performance, the new ARM chips redefined this. The Apple Silicon M1, M2, and Snapdragon SQ3 proved that ARM can now go toe-to-toe against x86 chips," Rajesh Namase, technology writer and co-founder of TechRT, told Lifewire via email. "In reality, consumers are not too technical when buying their computers, which is why ARM computers' longer battery life appeals more to them."

ARM Wrestling

ARM is an established chip architecture, one preferred for its efficiency and low-power requirements, but until recently, it was outclassed in performance terms by Intel's x86 architecture, which has powered Macs and PCs for years.

Then, Apple upset the cart with its M1 system-on-a-chip (SoC), which outperforms all but the most powerful x86 systems while still offering the long battery life we're more used to seeing in iPads and phones.

Early reports from people who have tried out the ARM version of Microsoft's Surface Pro 9 say it's hard to spot the difference, that it seems as fast as the Intel version. It's no M1 or M2 SoC, but it does appear that ARM is ready for most people. Mac users are already enjoying computers that can edit multiple streams of 4K video on battery without their Macs even getting hot. And while Windows users aren't there yet, for most everyday uses, the ARM Surface Pro 9 might be enough. 

ARM Twisting

The catch is you can't just run your existing software on an ARM machine. To work properly, it needs to be rejigged to run specifically on ARM. Apple uses a technology called Rosetta 2 as a bridge, allowing older x86 apps to run on Apple Silicon. It does this by rewriting parts of the app the first time you run it. And while an app running under Rosetta is slower than one recompiled for ARM, Apple's M-series chips are so fast that these apps still run faster than they did on older Intel Macs. 

In terms of performance, both x86 and ARM processors are capable of delivering excellent results.

This is where Apple's big advantage shows. It controls hardware and software, whereas Microsoft only makes the software. Once it decided ARM was the future, Apple quickly switched over all its Macs to the new system (only the Mac Pro is left on Intel), forcing developers to follow. Microsoft doesn't have that leverage, and its efforts are further hobbled by its historical philosophy of never breaking backward compatibility with old software. 

But now that Microsoft's own Surface hardware runs on ARM, it has a little more control. 

Should You Switch?

The Surface is already a compelling device. It's a tablet, but when you snap the keyboard into place, it's a laptop. The iPad has a nice keyboard and trackpad accessory, but that doesn't turn it into a MacBook. Now, with ARM, the Surface looks even more appealing for most general-purpose computing. But unlike the Mac, folks with specific, high-end needs might want to hold off for now. 

"In terms of performance, both x86 and ARM processors are capable of delivering excellent results. However, it is important to note that different types of software run best on different types of processors," Jeroen van Gils of technology company LiFi told Lifewire via email. "For example, most PC games are designed to run on x86 processors, while many mobile apps are designed to run on ARM processors."

On the other hand, if you're in the market for a Surface-type device, you likely have priorities other than sheer power. Nobody is buying a convertible tablet for its gaming performance, but 5G connectivity and a promised 19-hour battery life are exactly what you want in a machine like this.

It's probably going to take the PC world a long time to catch up to Apple Silicon, but it's starting, and if Microsoft keeps pushing, that's just what we need. Just make sure your favorite software works before you buy one.

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