Microsoft’s DTK ARM is a screenless Surface Pro 9

About five years after the launch of the first Windows 10 “ARM” laptops, Microsoft recently announced its first development kit, a machine previously codenamed Volterra. This Mac mini-like PC, which sells for €700, actually partially captures the philosophy behind the 2020 Apple development kit, DTK. In fact, Microsoft has literally recycled the components of the Surface Pro 9 internally.

The video by Jeff Geerling, a videographer capable of unexpected skill in his testing of Raspberry Pi boards, shows the inside of Microsoft’s kit before doing some tests. The most interesting part comes from the motherboard: it’s the Surface Pro 9, with 32 GB of RAM and a 512 GB SSD. The latter is removable, and it seems possible to replace it with any NVMe M.2 model, even if the original is very compact … like in tablets.

We can see that Microsoft has really done the minimum service on some components: some connectors are present but unused, probably the ones that control the tablet screen and the 5G connection. In the small differences, we can note the addition of an internal USB to Ethernet adapter and – above all – a fan which allows the heat to be evacuated from the chip. The Surface Pro 9 does without the latter, but the tablet can use part of the shell as a passive heatsink, while the development kit housing is made of plastic.

The interior is relatively crude formwork. You can see an SSD in the upper right corner of the left picture and the rather large fan.

In terms of performance, the Snapdragon 8cx Gen 3 system-on-chip (called Microsoft SQ3 in the Surface Pro 3, but it’s the same chip) remains quite far from the Apple M1. Qualcomm uses a 4+4 architecture that combines four fast Cortex X1-derived cores and four Cortex A78-derived cores, which are fast but slightly slower. The system avoids conventional low-power variants.

Despite this muscular configuration in theory, the chip doesn’t compete at all with the Apple M1, much less the Apple M2. Funny point, if it is not possible to install a GNU/Linux distribution directly, the performance in a virtual machine is higher than under Windows 11. Likewise, installing Rosetta 2 under GNU/Linux to emulate x86- code than Microsoft’s solution.

Raw performance remains quite weak under Windows, and Rosetta 2, ported under GNU/Linux, is faster than Microsoft’s emulation.

In any case, it’s surprising to see Microsoft follow the path of Apple’s DTK (which, let’s remember, included an A12Z from the iPad Pro) with so much delay. Maybe Microsoft is finally realizing that app developers don’t necessarily want to buy a (rather expensive) Surface Pro, and that a touchpad isn’t necessarily the best hardware for it. For those interested, Microsoft is selling its development kit for €699, and it doesn’t have to leave after a few months.

The future of this pseudo Mac mini is still pretty dark.

It is still unknown whether the developers will follow, because Microsoft is not at all in the same position as Apple. DTK was offered in 2020 several months before the launch of the first M1 Macs, with significant expectations related to Apple’s abandonment of x86.

At Microsoft, there is no direct transition to ARM, only a few laptops that nobody wants in practice, which of course does not encourage developers to port their software to the new architecture. What’s more, five years after the first PCs, some tools still only work in x86, with frankly slow emulation… on a platform that was already slow to begin with.

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