‘Project Volterra’ review: Microsoft’s $600 Arm PC that barely sucks

Microsoft recently released two new systems based on Qualcomm’s Arm processors. The first, a 5G version of the Surface Pro 9, was mostly panned by reviewers, with software compatibility a major issue even after two generations of the arm-powered Surface Pro X. The second is the $600 Windows 2023 SDK, previously known as the much cooler “Project Volterra” and it should help solve this software problem.

Microsoft has tried making Arm Windows dev boxes before, namely the $219 ECS LIVA QC710, which it started selling about a year ago (it’s no longer for sale, at least not in the Microsoft Store). But with its 4GB of memory, 64GB of pokey storage and underpowered Snapdragon 7c processor, it was like revisiting the bad days of netbooks. Maybe you could do some basic navigation on it. But the work itself, even for someone like me who mostly works with medium resolution text and photos all day? None.

The 2023 Dev Kit is almost three times as expensive, but the hardware is powerful enough for most just feels like a typical mid-range mini-desk in everyday life. Freed from the constraints of raw hardware, the machine greatly facilitates the evaluation of remaining Windows-on-Arm Software borders. For this review, we won’t be using it as a developer box, but it gives us a good chance to gauge where the Windows-on-Arm project currently stands, both in terms of hardware and software, especially compared to the Mac , it other hardware and software ecosystem that makes a much cleaner, broader, and more graceful transition from x86 software to Arm.

A surface in all but name

Microsoft doesn’t sell the developer kit as a Surface device because it’s not intended to be a machine for regular PC users. However, there is a lot of surface in its DNA.

It starts with its design. It’s a piece of good-feeling black plastic on a metal frame with a Microsoft logo printed on top; it’s smaller than a Mac mini (which, if you’re not familiar, had the same physical dimensions for 12 years), but if Microsoft had set out to create a Surface-branded Mac mini clone, it probably wouldn’t be much different.

One of the reasons the device is smaller is that it uses an external 90W power supply, whereas the Mac mini’s power supply is inside the case. This stems from how Microsoft appears to have assembled the dev kit – the Mac mini’s internals were designed specifically for their case, while the dev kit appears to be literally a Surface Pro 9 with a 5G motherboard with an enclosure built around it. In that way, it looks less like the Mac mini and more like Apple Silicon’s “developer transition kit,” which adapted the guts of the Pro-ish iPad into a Mac mini-shaped case.

The most obvious giveaway is a bunch of unused connectors visible at the top right of the card when you remove the bottom of the dev kit – these will be used to power a display and other internal peripherals in a Surface device, but remain unused in SDK. The two USB-C ports (again a Surface Hold, with identical placement and space between them) are the only ones built into the board, while the Ethernet port, USB-A ports, mini DisplayPort and rear power jack are all integrated into one separate panel. (The fact that it’s a Surface Pro clone also means the developer kit doesn’t have a headphone jack.) Firmware and driver updates pulled from Windows Update are also Surface-branded.

The dev kit can connect up to three displays at once using its mini DisplayPort and USB-C ports, and up to two of them can be 4K displays at 60Hz (rates Refresh rates faster than 60Hz are available at lower resolutions , but 60Hz seems to be the hard ceiling at 4K). Microsoft says DisplayPort is the one you should use for the primary display, and it’s the only one that will show a signal when you adjust the box’s UEFI firmware settings, also likely a holdover from its Surface roots — the internal display in a Surface would probably be connected to an internal Embedded DisplayPort (eDP) connector, which would work the same way.

The only component that can be upgraded in the SDK is the 512GB SSD, which is a short M.2 2230 drive like the ones Microsoft uses in other Surfaces. A typical M.2 2280 SSD would be fine, although you’ll have to figure out how to hold it in place yourself since there’s no built-in spacer for it. The rationale for using a small, short SSD in the first place is probably the same as recycling a Surface motherboard – cheaper to recycle one thing than to design and pay for something completely different, especially in what is likely to be a product with low volume.

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