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

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.
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Written by James Kendrick, Rest in Peace on
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.

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.

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