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

Zoom in / Microsoft’s Windows Dev Kit 2023 aims to bring 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, a 5G version of the Surface Pro 9, was mostly panned by reviewers, with software compatibility being a big sore point even after two generations of the Arm-based Surface Pro X. The second is the $ 600 Windows Dev Kit 2023, formerly known by the much more interesting name “Project Volterra” and should help solve that software problem.

Microsoft has already tried making Windows Arm developer boxes, namely, the $ 219 ECS LIVA QC710 that it started selling about a year ago (it’s no longer on sale, at least not via the Microsoft store). But with its 4GB of memory, 64GB of storage, and the undersized 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 medium resolution text and photos all day? No.

The Dev Kit 2023 is nearly three times as expensive, but the hardware is powerful enough to do it mostly it looks just like a typical mid-range mini-desktop in everyday use. Freed from the limitations of poor hardware, the machine makes it much easier to evaluate the rest of Windows-on-Arm Software limitations. For this review, we won’t be using it as a developer box, but it does give us a good chance to gauge where the Windows-on-Arm project is right now, both in hardware and software, especially compared to the Mac, the other hardware and software ecosystem that is making a much cleaner, broader and more graceful transition from x86 software to Arm.

A surface in all but name

Microsoft doesn’t sell the Dev Kit as a Surface device, because it’s not meant to be a machine for everyday PC users. There’s a lot of Surface in its DNA, however.

This starts with its design. It’s a large piece of black plastic on a metal frame with the Microsoft logo printed on top; it’s smaller than a Mac mini (which, if you’re not familiar, is the same physical size for 12 years), but if Microsoft had decided to make a Surface-branded mini Mac clone, it probably wouldn’t look much different.

One of the reasons the device is smaller is that it uses an external 90W power supply, while the Mac mini’s power supply is inside the enclosure. This stems from the way Microsoft seems to have put the Dev Kit together: the Mac mini’s internals have been designed specifically for their casing, while the Dev Kit appears to be literally a Surface Pro 9 with a 5G motherboard with a case built around it. it. In this way, it is less like the Mac mini and more like Apple Silicon’s “Developer Transition Kit,” which adapted the internals of the iPad Pro 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 into a Surface device but are not used in the kit of development. The two USB-C ports (again, a Surface stand, with identical placement and space to each other) are the only ones built into the board, while the Ethernet port, USB-A ports, mini DisplayPort, and power jack on the back they are all integrated into a separate tab. (The fact that this is a Surface Pro clone also means that the Dev Kit has no headphone jack.) Firmware and driver updates pulled from Windows Update are also Surface-branded.

The Dev Kit can connect to up to three monitors simultaneously using its mini DisplayPort and USB-C ports, and up to two of these can be 4K 60Hz displays (refresh rates above 60Hz are available at lower resolutions, but 60 Hz appears to be the hard cap at 4K). Microsoft says DisplayPort is the one you should use for the primary display and is the only one that will display a signal when you’re adjusting the box’s UEFI firmware settings – probably a remnant of its Surface roots too – the internal display in a Surface would likely be connected with an integrated DisplayPort (eDP) connector which worked the same way.

The only upgradeable component in the Dev Kit is the 512GB SSD, which is a short M.2 2230 drive just like the ones Microsoft uses in other Surfaces. A typical M.2 2280 SSD would definitely fit, although you’d have to figure out how to hold it in place on your own since there’s no built-in stall for it. The logic for using a small short SSD in the first place is probably the same as reusing a Surface motherboard – it’s cheaper to reuse something than designing and paying for something else, especially in what will likely be low volume. Product.

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