‘Project Volterra’ review: Microsoft’s $600 Arm PC that almost doesn’t suck

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Enlarge / Microsoft’s Windows 2023 SDK is intended to put the Arm version of Windows into the hands of more developers.

Andrew Cunningham

Microsoft recently released two new systems based on Qualcomm’s Arm processors. The first one, a 5G version of the Surface Pro 9was 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 SDKformerly known as the much cooler “Project Volterra”, and it’s supposed to help fix this software problem.

Microsoft has tried to make Arm Windows development boxes before, namely, the $219 ECS LIVA QC710 it started selling about a year ago (it’s no longer on sale, at least not through Microsoft’s store). But with its 4GB of memory, 64GB of pokey storage, and underpowered Snapdragon 7c processor, using it was like revisiting the bad days of netbooks. Maybe you could do some basic navigation on it. But the actual work, even for someone like me who works mostly with text and medium resolution photos all day? No.

The 2023 Dev Kit is almost three times as expensive, but the hardware is powerful enough to most just feels like a typical mid-range mini-desk in everyday use. Freed from the limitations of crude hardware, the machine greatly facilitates the evaluation of remaining Windows-on-Arm Software limits. For this review, we won’t be using it as a dev box, but it does give 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, the 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 isn’t selling the dev kit as a Surface device because it’s not intended to be a machine for everyday PC users. There is, however, a lot of Surface in its DNA.

It starts with its design. It’s a substantial-feel piece of 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 a case. built around. That way, it looks less like the Mac mini and more like Apple Silicon’s “developer transition kit,” which adapted the innards of the Pro-ish iPad for a Mac mini-shaped case.

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

The dev kit can connect to up to three monitors 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, probably also a holdover from its Surface roots – the internal display in a Surface would likely be connected to an internal Embedded DisplayPort (eDP) connector which would work the same way.

The only upgradable component in the SDK is the 512GB SSD, which is a short M.2 2230 drive, just like those 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 as 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 reusing a Surface motherboard – cheaper to reuse one thing than to design and pay for something entirely different, especially in what is likely to be a low volume product.

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