Microsoft’s Windows Dev Kit 2023 (formerly known as ‘Project Volterra’) has been available for a while now, and having spent some time working on the device I can deal with the question: “But what is it really like?”
The answer is “pretty good.” In fact, so long as you’re prepared to live within its limitations, the answer is “pretty darn great.”
To recap, the Windows Dev Kit 2023 consists of a book-sized Snapdragon 8cx Gen 3-based device running Windows 11 Pro (the Arm edition) and is blessed with 32GB of LPDDR4 RAM and a decent 512GB NVMe mass storage device. There are a pair of USB-A and three USB-C sockets as well as a Mini Display Port connector and buttons to boot from USB, drop into the UEFI menu or power up the device.
A single white LED indicates power – there is apparently a fan, but I’ve yet to work the device hard enough to hear it. There is also an external PSU, roughly a third the size of the case (which goes some way to explaining the size when put up against a Mac Mini.)
In use… well… it’s a modern Windows PC. Setting up will be familiar to anyone who has had to do the final installation steps for a Windows 11 rig and, presumably because this is aimed at developers, Windows 11 boots up in dark mode. Personally, I am not a fan of the sombre colour scheme supposedly beloved by code wranglers. As such, a quick tweak of the theme brought some much needed light to proceedings.
Speaking of display, while the unit has a Mini Display Port connector, I only had a USB-C to Display Port cable handy (liberated from a Mac Mini) and used that to drive a 3440 x 1440 screen. I encountered no problems, although Microsoft advises using the Mini Display Port for set-up (essential if you want to access the UEFI screens.)
In fact, all my devices: keyboard, mouse, webcam and printer/scanner connected without issue. Even a Bluetooth headset behaved itself. How very un-Windows on Arm-like (based on my experiences with Windows on Arm laptops from several years previously.)
The business-as-usual theme continued as Windows 11 imported my desktop settings and apps from my older Windows 10 PC. It is an indicator of just how far Windows on Arm has come – my Microsoft productivity tools (Word, Excel and so on) fired up natively along with Visual Studio Code and the full fat Visual Studio (which is also, finally, available as an Arm-native application.)
However, the key word there is ‘Microsoft’. Stick within the Microsoft ecosystem and things mostly work well and run natively. Stray too far away from Nadella’s One True Way and one very quickly runs into the Achilles heel of Windows on Arm: Intel emulation.
To be fair, emulation has come on in leaps and bounds since the dark days of Windows RT (a lovely concept kneecapped by a lack of developer support) but it remains no match for native hardware. I tried a number of Intel apps, all of which worked but several left me switching back to my older desktop following an experience that neither the app nor Project Volterra seemed to enjoy very much.
Even a relatively recent game such as Sea of Thieves managed to run, although with a frame rate so low that dedicated gamers would be reaching for the sick bag.
However, use the device for Arm applications (which is surely its purpose) and it is a delight. As well as the aforementioned productivity and development environments, the Windows Subsystems for Linux and Android both work a treat and .NET 7 and the .NET Framework 4.8.1 are both now native. The device is therefore quite the weapon for developers seeking to build and test native Arm versions of their code.
One could also use it to build and deploy x64 code, although I’d suggest doing so via the various cloud pipeline services out there. This is, after all, an Arm-based device.
And remember Windows Subsystem for Android? While lacking all the bells and whistles of the Google Play APIs it is a pleasure to use on Windows Dev Kit 2023, providing a complete Android environment (although Google’s Android Studio remains resolutely in the x64 world.)
The main competition for the Windows Dev Kit 2023 is Microsoft’s own Surface Pro 9, although I’m not sure I’d want to use the latter for development. The SQ3-based version tops out 16GB of RAM with a 256GB SSD and retails for an eye-watering £1,599 incl. VAT at time of writing, and you’ll need to spend another £129.99 on a keyboard. The Windows Dev Kit 2023 doubles the RAM and storage and retails for £579 incl. VAT (although you’ll need to provide your own screen and input devices.)
And you really wouldn’t want to use the 16GB SQ3-based Surface Pro 9 for development (and definitely not the 8GB version.) The greater headroom of the Windows Dev Kit 2023 simply makes much more sense.
Overall, the Windows Dev Kit 2023 is a nice surprise from Microsoft. Keenly priced and still supremely capable (provided one understands its limitations) it is almost disappointing that Microsoft has pitched this at developers rather than consumers. Then again, developers are more likely to understand the x64 limitations which, while the not the showstopper of yesteryear, should still give one pause for thought if most of one’s day-to-day work is conducted on applications not yet ported to Arm.
Even taking that into account, the Windows Dev Kit 2023 is a worthy recipient of two thumbs up for anyone, like me, seeking something that will happily run Windows 11 and all one’s productivity applications. Just take care if straying too far from Microsoft’s app and development ecosystem.