The dirty little secret of Windows 8: It runs on lesser hardware really well

The dirty little secret of Windows 8: It runs on lesser hardware really well

Summary: While Microsoft is busy pushing the high-end hardware in the Surface Pro 3, it knows something that you don't. It probably hopes you don't find out until after you buy its newest tablet. There's a dirty little secret about Windows 8 that is a good thing, sort of.

Win8 Shh
ThinkPad 10 (Image: James Kendrick/ZDNet)

Microsoft is working hard to get you to buy a Surface Pro 3, probably as hard as it worked to produce it. There are ads everywhere showing all the things the high-end hardware in the new tablet can do. The folks in Redmond are even willing to give you a whopping $650 toward the purchase of the Surface Pro 3.

It's a fine tablet, no question. The design is outstanding and the hardware components are first-rate. That's especially true of the Intel processor options. You can order a Surface Pro 3 with one of three processors: the Core i3, i5, or i7. Any of those will handle typical PC tasks just fine.

The secret that most don't know is that while nice, the Core processor may not be necessary for many users. Having tested a number of tablets with Windows 8, even buying one, my experience with the OS running on a lowly Atom processor with Bay Trail technology has been good. No, that's not strong enough, it's been great.

That Windows 8 runs so well on the Atom processor is a testament to the work both Microsoft and Intel have done. Atom processors of the past have been anemic, and never lived up to the expectations of decent performance. The same is true of past versions of Windows, they didn't usually run that well on lesser hardware. The better metal you threw at it the better. That's history. The Atom processor is now a solid performer, and Windows 8 runs nicely on it.

Of course, some Windows users do things that benefit from faster processors, and those will love the Surface Pro 3. There are still those who need the biggest, baddest hardware.

Special Feature

Windows 8 in Business

Windows 8 in Business

Microsoft has painted bold design strokes with Windows 8, but the business impact remains hotly debated. ZDNet and TechRepublic have the enterprise and SMB perspectives on Windows 8 covered from virtually every angle.

The typical user, though, may find that the cheaper tablets available with the Intel Atom processor are more than good enough for their needs. The systems I've tested, quite a few of them, run so well I never wish for a better processor. The systems run smoothly, and handle everything I need to do with ease. The longer I use Windows 8 on an Atom processor the more impressed I am with how well it runs. And it does so while getting really good battery life.

Even bouncing back and forth between the Start screen and desktop sides of Windows is smooth. Jumping from a legacy desktop app to a touch-centric Metro one is a pleasant experience as far as performance goes. Apps scroll smoothly on the touch side, and system performance (or lack thereof) never enters my mind when using it on the Atom processor.

This is the dirty little secret Microsoft hopes you don't hear. It wants to sell you a Surface Pro 3, with the selling point that its Intel Core processor is stout enough to handle all your needs. It will certainly do that, but for some users it's overkill. The Atom will work just fine for them. And those are stuffed in systems often much cheaper than the Microsoft tablet.

That's the main reason the Surface Pro 3 doesn't entice me to open my wallet. The cheaper systems work well for me. Even with that $650 carrot Microsoft is dangling in front of me.

See related:

Topics: Mobility, Tablets, Microsoft Surface, Windows 8

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  • Is the Atom version the RT version?

    Just wondering?
    • Full Windows 8.

      There are currently no Atom devices running Windows RT.
      • Celeron and Pentium Also

        I have 6 of old Celeron and Pentium computers use mostly for word processing and some web surfing. It is amazing how Windows 8.X has improved there performance. They are more than adequate for these functions.
        • Your comment says something big!!

          Wish there was an article that did a comparison before / after between XP on a Pentium based P3 generation 2g memory.

          I'd spend the upgrade cost to put W8 on it if only to be able to leave XP behind. I don't use it for much, but even a small performance boost would be nice and it would let me have a inexpensive way to transition to w8 - My production machine is W7 and I like it much, but nothing is forever...
          • Got an old hard drive and a friend with MSDN access?

            If you have an old hard drive and a friend with MSDN access, you can "try" Windows 8 on your old computer.

            1) Swap the hard drives to keep the XP world safe
            2) MSDN offers access to the Windows 8 install DVD images. Ask the friend for the DVD image or have them burn one for you
            3) Install it and take it for a spin without activating it.

            If you like it, buy it. If you don't like it, put the old hard drive back in the system.
          • Why not just download an evaluation...

            Why not just download an evaluation...

            You don't need friends, just download an evaluation iso here:
          • It's not even close.

            Win 8 runs MUCH better on any hardware than XP, and even Win 7. I'm using a six year old Dell Studio w/ Core II Duo and 4 gigs ram. It's faster now than it ever was. It boots from cold in about 12 seconds. And when the cost of a SSHD falls below $150 for 500gigs, I'll buy one and run this machine for another ten years.

            With a Pentuim machine you're probably going to have video driver problems at least. You might be able to work around that, though. And ANYTHING is better than XP.
          • Fresh install wins

            Hi :)
            Windows often works quite well for the first few weeks. Sometimes even months. The problem is that it soon slows down. If the drive is over 20% full it slows down more if over 80% full it nose-dives.

            So how long have you been using Xp on that machine and how long has the brand new install of Win8 been running?
            Regards from
            Tom :)
        • Same here

          I've installed Win 8.x on about 10 older PC's that I can recall. I started with a Lenovo S10 Netbook. Also installed on a 6 year old Dell laptop, (2) 7 year old Gateway all-in-ones, 4 Dell desktops, an Acer All-In-One touch screen, 2 Dell laptops about 5-6 years old, and even a MacBook Pro.

          The Netbook was limited because of the screen resolution, but otherwise booted fast and ran great. The Acer AIO was a 1st gen Atom (like the Lenovo) and also booted and ran much faster than XP. The resistive single-point touchscreen wasn't very useful, but otherwise, the system ran well. The Gateways were Celerons. They did hesitate some - especially during HD reads/writes (may have been an issue with the HD or bus), but still ran better than XP. The desktops were generally Core 2 Duos and ran very well. I still use 2 of them daily. They had Win7 and Win8 performed better. The MacBook was also a Core 2 Duo and it ran very well; though there were some Bootcamp driver issues. I think those were updated, but I was unable to get the newer versions last I tried.

          In my experience, Win8.x has always resulted in a speed increase and a better experience. One laptop hung a lot, but I think it was related to Office 365 and Groove (OneDrive syncing) problems. When Groove was disabled, it ran well. Overall, when someone asks me about replacing their system, but they don't have money for a new system, I recommend they upgrade to 8 for under $100. So far, they have been pleased.
          • Forgot to mention...

            ...I also have a Dell Inspiron 10" (version prior to the 'Venue' line). It is very similar but has a prior gen Atom. I have absolutely NO complaints. It does have a physical Windows button so no issues with accidental touches. Even with the prior gen Atom, it is very quick. Boots in about 4 secs (after the Dell splash screen; about 10 sec total). Most web content is very quick. Legacy apps are slightly slower on the Atom, but with the SSD, the speed would closely match my Core i3 desktop. Photoshop tasks would obviously be slower. Windows gestures and interface work flawlessly with no glitches or hesitation. I can't say enough about my satisfaction with Windows or the Dell tablet (which I got for a really good deal).

            On a side note, someone before accused me of being an employee of a product I mentioned. I am not a Microsoft or Dell employee. I just think Windows 8.x (especially on a tablet) is a great interface. When you open your mind and actually try it out, it works very well.
      • And small tablets even get Office for free

        If the Atom tablet you buy is 10" or smaller (like my Transformer Book T100) you even get Microsoft Office for free, just like on Windows RT. And it's full Office except without Outlook.

        MS Surface problem is the keyboard, first, it's an extra of about 130$, second, it does not feel like a real keyboard. Both of these are not an issue with the Transformer Book, keyboard dock is included and feels like a real keyboard (a bit smaller, but at least they're real keys on it). Some even have a 500Gig HDD in the keyboard!
    • RT is for ARM devices

    • Windows on Atom is full Windows

      I have a Toshiba Encore with a quad core Intel Atom processor that runs the full Windows 8.1. No problem with cpu power but the truth is when you have the desktop, you use it and this touch screen tablet has the desktop. So what I've learned is I really need my Bluetooth mouse to use the tablet. Many of the touch spots that are easy to click with a mouse are very difficult to touch on the screen. My fingers are way too big. With a mouse this runs very well. I'll keep the i7 in my workstation and I expect to be quite content with the Atom in the tablet.

      If it is Intel, it is full Windows. If it is ARM, it is Windows RT only.
    • Typically won't happen

      I'm not the expert and things could change, but in general, RT was considered to provide cost-effective option to Android devices. The point being that cheaper tablets using cheaper ARM processors (for one) could be used to keep the costs down. That's why RT doesn't support legacy Windows applications - because they weren't written to be compatible with the Intel/AMD/x86 processors. So, I would never say "for sure", but it's a good assumption that an RT device isn't specific to the Atom processor - and likely may not be. In any event, as the article states, the Atom is used on full versions and it runs them well.
  • Atom isn't yesterday's Atom

    This hardware product line has evolved even faster than Windows has. Pick up a modern Atom-based machine and install Vista or Win7 or the WHS siblings and you'll be impressed as well. The only real issue in most cases is whether you have decent video driver support.

    I don't see any particular reason to call this a Win8 "plus."
    • Windows 8 definitely adds to the end results

      Running Windows 8.1 on a 7 year old Dell laptop that came with XP and went through Win 7 on its journey to its current state. Performs better now than it did on day one with XP.
    • Re: "Atom isn't yesterday's Atom"

      But, even on the original Atom chips, it's still much improved.
      I gave my old Samsung NC10 to my Mum (she never wants to spend on new tech), it ran OK on XP, but is much improved on W8 (and now 8.1 update 1).
      Yes, the screen res is too low for any metro apps, but the desktop side of W8 means that the machine still runs pretty well.
      Still has the mechanical HD in, with 2gb RAM.
    • It supports all video drivers . . .

      "The only real issue in most cases is whether you have decent video driver support."

      Considering GPUs for the past 10+ years are generally all Intel, nVidia, or AMD, and all three are supported supported by Windows 8, I don't see how one could possibly NOT have decent video driver support.
      • I think it was not the intended message

        He mentioned video driver, but I think it's more about video chipset. Atom Bay Trail comes with a low end variant of HD Intel Graphics 4000.

        But as far as I can tell, I've had no issue with this chipset for all the Modern App games I play. I wouldn't even think of using my Transformer Book T100 as a gaming machine, but I suppose it wouldn't perform all too bad except for the highest demanding games.
    • it isn't, but

      it isn't just the Atom. My Windows 8 Atom Z2 tablet (i.e. Clovertrail, not Baytrail) boots faster and feels faster than the Core i7 iMac at work, it also runs rings around the Core i5 Windows 7 desktop at work.

      My Core i7 laptop at home is also faster with Windows 8 than it was with Windows 7.