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 formerly codenamed Volterra. Sold for €700, this Mac mini-like PC in fact partly takes up the philosophy of the 2020 Apple development kit, the DTK. Indeed, internally, Microsoft has literally reused the components of the Surface Pro 9.

The video by Jeff Geerling, a videographer capable of unexpected prowess 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 is that of 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 which NVMe M.2 model, even if the original one 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 those that manage the tablet screen and 5G connectivity. In the small differences, we can note the addition of an internal USB to Ethernet adapter and – above all – a fan which will allow the heat emitted by the chip to be evacuated. The Surface Pro 9 does without the latter, but the tablet can use part of the shell as a passive heatsink, while the housing of the development kit is plastic.

The interior is relatively raw formwork. You can see an SSD in the upper right corner of the left image and the fairly 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, combining four fast Cortex X1-derived cores and four Cortex A78-derived cores, which are fast, but a bit slower. The system dispenses with conventional low-power variants.

Despite this muscular configuration in theory, the chip does not compete at all with the Apple M1, and even less with 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. Similarly, installing Rosetta 2 under GNU/Linux to emulate x86 code gives better results 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 is surprising to see Microsoft following 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 (quite expensive) Surface Pro and that a touch pad isn’t necessarily the best hardware for it. For those interested, Microsoft is selling its development kit for €699, and it won’t have to leave after a few months.

The future of this pseudo Mac mini remains rather dark.

It remains to be seen whether the developers will follow, because Microsoft is not at all in the same position as Apple. The DTK was offered in 2020 several months before the launch of the first M1 Macs, with significant expectation related to Apple abandoning x86.

At Microsoft, there is no direct transition to ARM, only a few laptops that nobody wants in practice, which obviously 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 from the start.


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