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Nvidia Tegra 3: Familiar Hardware At The Heart Of Surface

Microsoft Surface Review, Part 1: Performance And Display Quality
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Nvidia's Tegra 3 SoC, armed with four Cortex-A9 cores, powers Microsoft's first tablet.

Now, we've seen Tegra 3s running at different speeds. Google's Nexus 7 and Asus' Transformer TF300 both come with T30Ls, while the Transformer TF201 had a T30 in it. The SoCs are functionally similar, but the latter operates at 1.4 GHz, while the former has a peak clock rate of 1.3 GHz. Given that the Task Manager cites a 1.3 GHz ceiling on the Surface, we're pretty confident that we're dealing with the T30L.

According to the benchmarks we generated for Snapdragon S4 Pro: Krait And Adreno 320, Benchmarked, the Tegra 3 no longer goes uncontested in raw performance metrics. However, it still ranks near the top in GeekBench, and the SoC's graphics subsystem is middle-of-the-road. Qualcomm's S4 Pro most definitely enjoys the spotlight for now, thanks to its Krait cores. Nvidia won’t have its own SoC (currently code-named Wayne) based on ARM's Cortex-A15 until 2013.

The Surface doesn't feel underpowered, though. To the contrary, it's really snappy. We had to run SunSpider in IE 10, Word, and Excel all at the same time to get Tegra 3's processor utilization up near 100%. Opening up five browser tabs in quick succession triggered some stuttering, but hardly what we might have expected after reviewing Windows 8 less than a week ago on much more powerful x86 hardware.

Microsoft's Office team published a very interesting blog post describing some of the ways it tuned Office for Windows RT to recognize ARM as a "first-class" platform. This involved a lot of the features found in the x86-based version, but with tweaks to timers (yielding better utilization of battery power) and hardware acceleration of tasks, when possible.

Kal-El
Companion CPU Core
Main CPU Cores (Symmetric Processing)
# of Cores
1
4
Function
Power-Optimized (Standby)
Performance
Architecture
Cortex-A9
Cortex-A9
Process Technology
Low-Power (LP)
General
Operating Frequency
0 MHz to 500 MHz
0 MHz to Max Frequency


The Tegra 3 SoC sports a fifth “companion” CPU core that operates at lower frequencies and handles background tasks like syncing email, playing ringtones, and keeping applications alive while the device is in standby mode. It'd be hard for us to quantify the benefits of Nvidia's architecture since there aren't any Tegra 3s without that fifth core. Needless to say, though, Microsoft was impressed enough by the hardware foundation to go with Nvidia for its first tablet. Minutiae aside, that's really what matters most.

Four Tabs Open in IE 10 on SurfaceFour Tabs Open in IE 10 on Surface

Nvidia's fifth CPU core is transparent to the operating system. As a result, low-overhead tasks have to be identified by the SoC and specifically directed to the companion core.

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  • 18 Hide
    wildkitten , November 5, 2012 4:21 AM
    brandonviif they dont fail in this which as a said i pray they fail hard how long do you think it will be before they use the same "we need Tight control to give you a good user experience" idea in the main windows they are already a MAJOR step twards it with them having a windows store in the first place this Windows RT is nothing but a test to see how it goes windows 9 or 10 are very likly to be just like this locked down as much as they can

    It won't happen in main Windows. The whole point of Windows, and the reason it became and remains the dominant OS, was because, while being closed source, it ran on an open architecture system and anyone could write applications for it.

    If they made it that only "approved" applications from the Windows Store could be run, this would ruin Window's dominance of the OS market and tank PC sales completely. For one thing, they could no longer do licencing deals as to completely wall off Windows while licencing it out the way they currently do would break all the current anti-trust deals in place. Look at how much trouble there was simply cause IE was preinstalled when they never blocked Netscape or Firefox. What do you think the lawsuits would be if they walled it off? It would be horrendous and they know it.

    The only way they could wall it off was to sell hardware and OS themselves the way Apple does with Mac. But as I said, MS knows that would be business suicide.
  • 17 Hide
    Darkerson , November 5, 2012 4:23 AM
    So far, I have to admit, I like what I see, but until I get to see the Surface Pro, I will continue to wait. I have held out this long for a tablet, I think I can wait a little longer. But it definitely looks neat, as least to me it does.
  • 15 Hide
    burkhartmj , November 5, 2012 12:00 PM
    I don’t understand why everyone is so bent out of shape with the Windows Store model that Microsoft is using. Firstly, apps CAN be sideloaded, so if someone wants to make an app outside of Windows Store guidelines, they can. It’s just that no one has yet for ARM architecture in WinRT. Secondly, the Windows Store is being conducted no worse than Apple and seemingly closer to How Google’s play store operates. People accept both of those stores without flinching, but attack Microsoft for adopting a similar model on their ARM based offering. I don’t understand.

    I also must be missing something with this whole third party business, because my understanding was that third party apps are anything that isn’t made by Microsoft, such as Netflix apps or Dropbox. The third party app base in the Windows Store already has some heavy hitters and is growing relatively quickly. If MS was only allowing apps they made [my understanding of first party apps], I’d understand the backlash because that would be insane, but clearly they aren’t. Only someone who was considering the Surface Pro or some similar x86 Win8 tablet from the outset would think that a loss of these sideloaded apps [which, as I said, isn’t even entirely true] would be such a huge turnoff as this review suggests.

    It might be unusually effective at simple productivity when compared to other tablets, but the Surface RT is still ARM based, and thus still not a computer. It’s unfair to expect that level of computing on it. If the Surface RT fits your use case, then get it. If not, get the Pro or something else. But this review is annoyingly biased at the end and loses sight of what this tablet is in light of the Surface Pro.
Other Comments
  • 0 Hide
    jhansonxi , November 5, 2012 3:42 AM
    brandonviso microsoft went the apple way with it and shut everything out but what they want ..... o fun how long before some one jail brakes one hopefully this will crash and burn hard for the first time every i am praying apple will stomp on Microsoft just so they will stop trying to turn my desktop in to a tablet like this
    That will be very difficult with the Surface RT. The key is stored on the main chip (SoC): http://infocenter.arm.com/help/index.jsp?topic=/com.arm.doc.prd29-genc-009492c/CACGCHFE.html

    There's probably a unique key in every production run, if not every individual tablet. The only solution is to replace the SoC with an unkeyed version. It's probably a micro BGA and your not going to be replacing that with just a pencil iron, assuming an alternative SoC is even available.
  • 6 Hide
    friskiest , November 5, 2012 3:42 AM
    @ brandonvi,. If you'll think things more rationally, its obvious that a controlled environment (like the device whose function is to deliver media, quality user experience is a must,. everything should work and feel as expected,. without tight control,. you'll probably have apps that runs poorly or not at all, also, malware could easily be managed.

    Offcourse, that should only be the case for Windows RT, but you can still install softwares to Windows 8 from different sources.
  • 18 Hide
    wildkitten , November 5, 2012 4:21 AM
    brandonviif they dont fail in this which as a said i pray they fail hard how long do you think it will be before they use the same "we need Tight control to give you a good user experience" idea in the main windows they are already a MAJOR step twards it with them having a windows store in the first place this Windows RT is nothing but a test to see how it goes windows 9 or 10 are very likly to be just like this locked down as much as they can

    It won't happen in main Windows. The whole point of Windows, and the reason it became and remains the dominant OS, was because, while being closed source, it ran on an open architecture system and anyone could write applications for it.

    If they made it that only "approved" applications from the Windows Store could be run, this would ruin Window's dominance of the OS market and tank PC sales completely. For one thing, they could no longer do licencing deals as to completely wall off Windows while licencing it out the way they currently do would break all the current anti-trust deals in place. Look at how much trouble there was simply cause IE was preinstalled when they never blocked Netscape or Firefox. What do you think the lawsuits would be if they walled it off? It would be horrendous and they know it.

    The only way they could wall it off was to sell hardware and OS themselves the way Apple does with Mac. But as I said, MS knows that would be business suicide.
  • 17 Hide
    Darkerson , November 5, 2012 4:23 AM
    So far, I have to admit, I like what I see, but until I get to see the Surface Pro, I will continue to wait. I have held out this long for a tablet, I think I can wait a little longer. But it definitely looks neat, as least to me it does.
  • 10 Hide
    wildkitten , November 5, 2012 5:53 AM
    brandonviand 2 or 3 years ago almost everyone would of said taking away the start menu and giving wndows a interface from a tablet would be "business suicide" this is just one step in a 5-10 year planed prosess to shuting windows off apple may not be making money hand over fist on there PC sells but overall apple is worth more then microsoft by a great deal if the choice is make games for a closed windows or apple or one of the other lesser used OS's its going to be closed windows because it will more then likly be the same programing as all of the older windows just thru the windows store so windows 9 comes out closed you cant just stop progaming for windows and start linix all the people useing windows 7 and 8 are still out there that you can sell to along with many in the windows store on windows 9 the basic thing is the have the market by the balls and they are going to take advantage of it since they know they can if things they are doing like this dont crash and burn we are going to be buying everything from the windows store in a few years

    You're comparing dumping the Start button to them doing something that will cost them tons of customers and open themselves to massive lawsuits and scrutiny from multiple governments? The two are not anywhere closely analogous. Please, stop and think before making such comparisons.

    While losing the Start button may seem to many of us, right now, as a silly move, remember, Windows never had it before 95 and the Start button was widely criticized then. You can still get to the regular desktop in Windows 8 and be able to get the Start button through addons.

    But there is no way Microsoft is going to end 3rd party development for Windows. You can say all you want about how Apple is worth more now, but was just 15 years ago in 1997 that Microsoft actually bailed Apple out and kept them from going bankrupt. Microsoft has ALWAYS been the more stable company and has never had any form of debt liability. All Apple did was jump on a niche market and perfected the way people buy music with iTunes as well as develop what was at the time the very best mp3 player on the market with the iPod. Had it not been for iTunes and the iPod, Apple may very well not exist today.

    Did the Xbox cause Microsoft to wall off Windows? No, but some claimed it would and were just as wrong. Some claimed that Microsoft would kill off PC gaming, but it hasn't. The fact that Windows doesn't allow 3rd party apps is mainly because of the ARM architecture and they have seen how malware has grown exponentially on Android and has decided to take a more Apple-ish approch to their main mobile platform, RT, to control things. That's not such a bad idea.

    You also can say all you want that they have the market "by the balls", but if they were to wall off Windows, that would be them releasing their grip. No one would have any incentive to continue to run Windows. It would throw the market place into chaos. Linux would briefly jump up in use by people, but Linux's strengths are also it's weakness, and that is the open source nature and the fact there are so many distro's. Game developers had a brief flirtation with Linux several years ago porting many popular titles to it and discovered that just because the games would run well under Distro X didn't mean it would run well under Distro Y, Z, V and Q. What would happen is the PC market would fall flat, sales would be non existent, R&D would not be nearly what it is, you wouldn't see Intel, AMD, nVidia all releasing new products ever 6-12 months. Eventually someone would come along with a closed source, open architecture OS that people would start using because it would bring compatibility under the same umbrella, but PC use would be far less than what it is now and growth would be slow.

    Microsoft knows this. One thing they will not do is bite the hand that feeds them. They are not going to have the US and Europe taking them to court over antitrust violations that walling off would mean, and sure wouldn't risk losing the main portion of their userbase who use 3rd party applications.
  • -5 Hide
    brandonvi , November 5, 2012 7:16 AM
    ?? you do know that the windows store is not a end to 3rd party development right???? thay will let ANYONE post a app there thay just take i think it was 30% i also think there is a option to make a app/program free when you make it

    more than likly they will even have places to download netscape and others like it not to far down the road

    also more then likly thay will give large things like say call of duty or other major things a break and lower the % to say 10-15%

    the fact is its not at all a "lock out for 3rd party's " but it is a Major step in having a Large control over the market
  • -8 Hide
    Someone Somewhere , November 5, 2012 7:54 AM
    I'm waiting for the EU to sue them over the MS apps only on desktop thing. That's blatantly against the anti-monopoly laws.
  • -8 Hide
    Anonymous , November 5, 2012 9:29 AM
    So it's a like a netbook that's also a tablet... 2 products I neither need nor want since I already carry a smartphone and a laptop everywhere.

    If I was some lazy f.ck who thought that 4-5 lbs was too much weight to carry around, then this might be more appealing.
  • 0 Hide
    ojas , November 5, 2012 9:41 AM
    Check out Eurogamer's review. They've pretty much slammed it, and arguably for valid reasons:
    http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/df-hardware-surface-rt-review

    They actually ran games on it, so that's some indicator of performance (no it can't play Crysis, don't ask! :D ).

    Then there's AnandTech's review, which reads a bit like Andrew's ("few negatives but we like it")
    http://www.anandtech.com/show/6385/microsoft-surface-review
  • 6 Hide
    ojas , November 5, 2012 9:43 AM
    Someone SomewhereI'm waiting for the EU to sue them over the MS apps only on desktop thing. That's blatantly against the anti-monopoly laws.

    I dunno, but seeing that iOS doesn't even show you the desktop, i don't think they should be in any trouble. They can always argue that the desktop in RT is a "bonus" feature and people are still free to develop for metro.
  • 2 Hide
    tipoo , November 5, 2012 10:34 AM
    I'd be curious to see that multi tab opening fluidity mentioned on page 3 tested more formally, my browsing habits include lots of background tab loading and I'm curious how the latest from Microsoft, Google, and Apple all compete there. Synthetic browser benchmarks are fine, but they don't really tell you the whole picture in terms of experience. Subjective browsing fluidity while background loading and time taken to render all pages would be good tests.
  • 15 Hide
    burkhartmj , November 5, 2012 12:00 PM
    I don’t understand why everyone is so bent out of shape with the Windows Store model that Microsoft is using. Firstly, apps CAN be sideloaded, so if someone wants to make an app outside of Windows Store guidelines, they can. It’s just that no one has yet for ARM architecture in WinRT. Secondly, the Windows Store is being conducted no worse than Apple and seemingly closer to How Google’s play store operates. People accept both of those stores without flinching, but attack Microsoft for adopting a similar model on their ARM based offering. I don’t understand.

    I also must be missing something with this whole third party business, because my understanding was that third party apps are anything that isn’t made by Microsoft, such as Netflix apps or Dropbox. The third party app base in the Windows Store already has some heavy hitters and is growing relatively quickly. If MS was only allowing apps they made [my understanding of first party apps], I’d understand the backlash because that would be insane, but clearly they aren’t. Only someone who was considering the Surface Pro or some similar x86 Win8 tablet from the outset would think that a loss of these sideloaded apps [which, as I said, isn’t even entirely true] would be such a huge turnoff as this review suggests.

    It might be unusually effective at simple productivity when compared to other tablets, but the Surface RT is still ARM based, and thus still not a computer. It’s unfair to expect that level of computing on it. If the Surface RT fits your use case, then get it. If not, get the Pro or something else. But this review is annoyingly biased at the end and loses sight of what this tablet is in light of the Surface Pro.
  • 3 Hide
    Anonymous , November 5, 2012 12:18 PM
    @brandonvi

    Actually you are not completely tied to the MS app store, We are talking about Ms here, who knows more then just a little about how corporate IT infrastructure Works, there is a provision to use a corporate served app store or even side loading of apps even on windows RT (though it involves getting a product key to unlock this feature, much like how the Media Center product key procedure works)
  • 4 Hide
    bystander , November 5, 2012 2:06 PM
    ojasCheck out Eurogamer's review. They've pretty much slammed it, and arguably for valid reasons:http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/ [...] -rt-reviewThey actually ran games on it, so that's some indicator of performance (no it can't play Crysis, don't ask! ).Then there's AnandTech's review, which reads a bit like Andrew's ("few negatives but we like it")http://www.anandtech.com/show/6385 [...] ace-review

    That's not surprising, that's a gamer site, and this tablet is not a gaming tablet, at least not yet.
  • -7 Hide
    bigdragon , November 5, 2012 2:51 PM
    I'm really shocked by how horrible the screen is on the Surface RT. I hope this does not carry over to the Surface Pro. Low resolution and poor color quality are not acceptable anymore.
  • 5 Hide
    Sacr , November 5, 2012 3:50 PM
    It has been very misleading to say that Windows RT cannot run third party apps and I do have to agree that this tablet is being analyzed more harshly based on standards that should be applicable only to Windows 8. RT has its flaws which have been addressed but it still neither a PC/laptop nor was it ever intended to be (see Surface Pro). The ecosystem is setup so that third party apps are required to be made for it to get the full user experience. Without this restriction, the complaint will be from users frustrated that their apps/software are not supported on a windows RT-esque gesture controls.

    The Windows Store is currently limited in its offerings but the third-party apps that we are all used to will eventually be made to adopt the Windows RT/8 styles like it did for IOS.
  • 0 Hide
    Skeete_UK , November 5, 2012 4:10 PM
    A good review that is clearly not biased either way. Well done Toms. I like the idea of the RT for business as the limitations are exactly what are needed to prevent employees installing crap that is not deemed work related. I would be very interested in seeing what other admin restricted functions can be imposed and how this tablet links with AD's, sharepoint etc.. Obviously as a geek I am more interested personally in the core i5 based tablet, but I am more than patient enough to wait and see what benefits this yields.

    In the end I would love to see a generic compiler for cross platform applications as this would truly encourage innovation as the market would be far larger, but still allow stores to "vet" applications prior to release, something I think is truly useful in this app driven eco-system.
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