Big­gest launches for PC en­thu­si­asts

BRAD CHACOS of­fers an in­sight into the fu­ture of the PC

Tech Advisor - - Contents -

An omi­nous Spec­tre hung over CES 2018’s PC an­nounce­ments, as the in­dus­try grap­ples with how to pro­tect against dev­as­tat­ing CPU ex­ploits that melt down se­cu­rity on al­most ev­ery com­puter on the planet 4 (see page 4). But put all that aside for now: 2017 was one of the best years for PC hard­ware ever, and at CES 2018, the PC kept the pedal firmly planted to the metal.

In­tel and AMD joined forces on a pow­er­ful chip. Nvidia pushed gam­ing dis­plays way past the lim­its of what we’ve seen so far. Next-gen­er­a­tion routers, while Asus used an op­ti­cal il­lu­sion to make mul­ti­mon­i­tor set-ups even more im­mer­sive. Let’s dig into the big CES re­veals that PC en­thu­si­asts need to know about, start­ing with a big one.

1. In­tel <3 AMD

As we touched upon ear­lier, In­tel and AMD are work­ing to­gether on a chip. Okay, okay, we’ve known this col­lab­o­ra­tion was com­ing since Novem­ber, but at CES 2018, In­tel pulled the full cur­tain back on five In­tel Core pro­ces­sors ship­ping with Radeon Vega graph­ics on board. You’ll find both Core i5 and i7 CPUs rep­re­sented in the ‘Kaby Lake-G’ line-up, as well as dif­fer­ing Vega con­fig­u­ra­tions. But get­ting down to brass tacks In­tel ex­pects the chips with slower Radeon graph­ics to beat Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 1050 in gam­ing per­for­mance.

That trans­lates to de­cent 1080p gam­ing per­for­mance with Medium graph­ics set­tings, roughly. And In­tel says the full-force 100W chips should out­punch even the GTX 1060 Max-Q, a GPU that de­mands few com­pro­mises at 1080p res­o­lu­tion. And, you know, In­tel and AMD are work­ing to­gether. Th­ese rad­i­cal Kaby Lake-G chips will ap­pear in ac­tual PCs sooner than later. In­tel showed off mean­look­ing ‘Hades Canyon’ NUCs that should blow our beloved pre­vi­ous ver­sion of the small PC out of the wa­ter – al­beit for no­tice­ably higher prices.

HP’s up­dated Spec­tre x360 15 also mar­ries In­tel with Radeon, as does Dell’s new MacBook Pro ri­val, the XPS 15 2-in-1. Look for those gam­ing-ready, yet su­per-thin lap­tops to land this spring.

2. The fu­ture of AMD

AMD didn’t set­tle for be­ing In­tel’s plus-one. At CES, the company dropped the prover­bial kitchen sink, giv­ing us a far-reach­ing look at the fu­ture of its CPU and GPU line-ups. The firm plans on launch­ing a pair of af­ford­able desk­top APUs in Fe­bru­ary. They’ll marry Ryzen CPU cores with Vega graph­ics cores, negat­ing the need for a dis­crete graph­ics card – one of the few glar­ing is­sues in the orig­i­nal Ryzen lineup. Shortly there­after, AMD’s launch­ing a new Ryzen gen­er­a­tion based on ‘Zen+’ cores that use a more ad­vanced 12nm man­u­fac­tur­ing process, com­pared to orig­i­nal Ryzen’s 14nm tran­sis­tors. Of­fi­cials un­of­fi­cially told us to ex­pect at least a 10 per­cent boost in per­for­mance over to­day’s Ryzen chips. New X400-se­ries moth­er­boards will be re­leased to sup­port the new

chips, though ex­ist­ing Ryzen moth­er­boards will sup­port them as well after BIOS up­dates.

AMD also pro­vided a prod­uct road map show­ing Zen 2 re­leas­ing in 2019, and Zen 3 in 2020, each pro­vid­ing per­for­mance up­grades that ex­ceed the typ­i­cal 7- to 8 per­cent up­lift found in re­cent In­tel gen­er­a­tions (see above graph).

3. New routers

Fu­tur­is­tic routers were out in droves at CES. The most no­table might have been D-Link’s AX6000 and AX1100 Ul­tra – two routers so cut­ting edge that the next-gen­er­a­tion 802.11ax Wi-Fi stan­dard they’re built around isn’t even an of­fi­cial stan­dard yet.

802.11ax routers will get a speed boost over to­day’s 802.11ac routers, sure, but the tech­nol­ogy’s big draw is the abil­ity to han­dle large amounts of net­work traf­fic

much more ef­fi­ciently. With so many web-con­nected de­vices clog­ging up the pipes in mod­ern homes, 802.11ax hopes to make it so none of your de­vice ever find them­selves starved for band­width.

D-Link also an­nounced the bor­ingly named DIR 2680, which looks like an Over­watch loot box and bakes McAfee’s Se­cure Home Plat­form right into the router it­self, pro­tect­ing ev­ery de­vice on your net­work from PCs to swanky smart light bulbs. That’s not new, per se – Sy­man­tec has its Nor­ton Core router, and Bit­de­fender is onto the se­cond it­er­a­tion of its Bit­de­fender Box – but we saw more of the trend at CES.

Net­gear’s ver­sion takes a dif­fer­ent an­gle: Net­gear Ar­mor is an op­tional firmware up­date for ex­ist­ing routers that adds in Bit­de­fender an­tivirus at the net­work level for $70 (around £50) per year. Un­for­tu­nately, the only hard de­tails pro­vided were plans for Ar­mor to first

ap­pear for the Net­gear Nighthawk AC2300 Smart WiFi router (model R7000P) at some point in the fu­ture. CES isn’t, how­ever, about fine de­tails. It’s about the big pic­ture. It’s about the fu­ture. It’s easy to hit sat­u­ra­tion at CES, but th­ese are the prod­ucts we’re still talk­ing about when ev­ery­thing else has blurred to­gether. We start with the prod­uct that was so in­no­va­tive, two of us raved about it.

4. In­tel’s quan­tum pro­ces­sors and bleed­ing-edge SSD

In­tel un­veiled a po­ten­tial glimpse of the fu­ture of com­put­ing dur­ing its block­buster CES key­note, which was sur­pris­ingly light on news about tra­di­tional PCs. In­stead, CEO Bryan Krzanich showed off a 49-qubit chip

for quan­tum com­put­ing. “This 49-qubit chip pushes be­yond our abil­ity to sim­u­late and pushes to­wards quan­tum supremacy, the point at which quan­tum com­put­ers far and away sur­pass the world’s best su­per­com­put­ers,” Krzanich said.

The company also pushed its bleed­ing-edge 3D XPoint tech­nol­ogy, which blends the per­for­mance of DRAM and the non-volatil­ity of tra­di­tional NAND stor­age to cre­ate SSDs with in­sanely good la­tency, in­sanely good low que depth per­for­mance, and en­durance in spades.

The new Op­tane 800P SSD is the first In­tel Op­tane (read: 3D XPoint) drive pitched at the masses, com­ing in a bootable M.2 form fac­tor and 58GB and 118GB ca­pac­i­ties. In­tel’s first two Op­tane drives, the enthusiast-fo­cused Op­tane 900P and Op­tane Mem­ory caching so­lu­tion, tar­geted much more niche use cases.

5. Wire­less charg­ing mice

Wire­lessly charg­ing mice are of­fi­cially a trend now. Fol­low­ing in the in­no­va­tive foot­steps of Log­itech’s Pow­er­Play mousepad and its G703 and G903 mousepad, Mad Catz and Razer re­vealed wire­less charg­ing mousepad/mouse com­bos at CES 2018 in the form of the RAT Air and Hyper­Flux Mamba, re­spec­tively. The mousepads plug into your PC and wire­lessly charge your mouse while you use it.

The new­comers take a slightly dif­fer­ent ap­proach than Log­itech, though. The Pow­er­Play mice in­clude bat­ter­ies and a wire­less mouse don­gle, which means you can also use them as stan­dard wire­less mice away from the Pow­er­Play mousepad. The Razer and

Mad Catz ver­sions don’t in­clude bat­ter­ies though. That helps bring down the weight, but means you’ll need to plug them in on other sys­tems. But more cru­cially, how will the new­comers per­form when your mouse isn’t firmly set­tled on the mousepad? As res­i­dent mouse guru Hay­den Ding­man mused in his Hyper­Flux Mamba cov­er­age: “For in­stance, there are cer­tain ar­eas of Log­itech’s Pow­er­play mousepad where my mouse doesn’t re­ceive a charge – mostly along the ex­treme edges and in the cor­ners. The charg­ing field also ex­tends only a few mil­lime­tres at most above the mousepad, so I lose power when­ever I lift and ad­just the mouse. And that’s fine, be­cause there’s a bat­tery to fall back on.

“What hap­pens in the same sce­nario with Hyper­Flux? Does the mouse lose power en­tirely? Or has Razer man­aged to ex­tend the pow­ered field across and sig­nif­i­cantly above the en­tire Fire­fly mousepad? An im­por­tant ques­tion, and one I prob­a­bly won’t solve un­til I’ve had some time with Hyper­Flux.” Ei­ther way, mousepads wire­lessly charge mice now. We’re of­fi­cially liv­ing in the fu­ture.

6. ARM-pow­ered lap­tops

Stop us if you’ve heard this one be­fore: Mi­crosoft and Qual­comm are try­ing to make ARM-pow­ered Win­dows lap­tops a thing.

Win­dows RT wound up be­ing an un­mit­i­gated dis­as­ter, quickly cast aside by Mi­crosoft and PC ven­dors alike. But this re­newed at­tempt at al­ways-con­nected, long-last­ing ARM lap­tops learned from its past. Where Win­dows RT lap­tops were re­stricted to Win­dows Store apps alone, the new batch of Qual­comm Snap­dragon note­books will be able to run the full-blown ver­sion of Win­dows 10 – though they’ll need to em­u­late tra­di­tional desk­top soft­ware, which slows per­for­mance com­pared to In­tel- and AMD-based Win­dows lap­tops.

Now for the dis­ap­point­ing news. The Snap dragon pow­ered 2- in -1 we han­dled at CES, Len­ovo’s Miix 630, can’t run desk­top soft­ware by de­fault. In­stead, it runs Mi­crosoft’ s gimped Win­dows 10 S, a made-for ed­u­ca­tion ver­sion of the op­er­at­ing sys­tem that’ s–wait for it – locked to the Win­dows Store. Other Qual­comm Win­dows PCs we’ve seen do the same. For­tu­nately, you can up­grade to Win­dows 10 Pro through the

Mi­crosoft store if you want a thin, light lap­top with up to 20 hours of en­durance – but do­ing so will cost you, both in up­grade fees and (likely) in bat­tery life.

Is this Win­dows RT all over again? We’ll find out when ARM-based Win­dows lap­tops start hit­ting the streets at, uh, some point. No­body’s said when yet.

7. Dig­i­tal Storm Pro­ject Spark

One of my favourite parts of CES is find­ing PC hard­ware that’s just plain cool. Dig­i­tal Storm’s stun­ning Pro­ject Spark fits the bill ad­mirably. It uses the all-too-rare Mi­cro-STX form fac­tor to cram a Core i7-8700K and GeForce GTX 1080 into a cus­tom-made case mea­sur­ing just 6x4x12in. That’s a lot of fire­power in a tiny space. Dig­i­tal Storm pulls it off by out­fit­ting those heavy-

hit­ting com­po­nents with fully cus­tom liq­uid-cool­ing the likes of which you nor­mally only see in gi­gan­tic bou­tique rigs.

And did I men­tion that it’s drop-dead gor­geous? Just see the op­po­site photo.

Dig­i­tal Storm will start ship­ping Pro­ject Spark some­time later this year, with prices that start at $1,300 (around £950) for a GTX 1060-equipped sys­tem.

8. Asus ROG Bezel-Free Kit

Triple-mon­i­tor set-ups pro­vide ul­ti­mate gam­ing im­mer­sion when you’re play­ing a shooter, racer, or a space sim like Elite Dan­ger­ous. Well, un­til your eye shifts to one of the side pan­els and stum­bles across mon­i­tor bezels cre­at­ing dark seams in the ac­tion. En­ter the Asus ROG Bezel-Free Kit, which makes those ugly mon­i­tor edges dis­ap­pear us­ing an op­ti­cal il­lu­sion rather than ad­vanced tech­nol­ogy tricks.

Sim­ple plas­tic clips clamp acrylic strips over the bezels. They’re set at a pre­cise 130-de­gree an­gle to make those bezels fade away. The im­age com­ing through the kit still looks dis­torted and low-res­o­lu­tion, but the il­lu­sion ramps up the im­mer­sion fac­tor.

The kits need to be de­signed for spe­cific mon­i­tors to en­sure the proper align­ment of the lens. The ver­sion Asus re­vealed was cre­ated for the ROG Swift PG258Q (£559 from fave.co/2DevFtp) and Strix XG258Q (£455 from fave.co/2DifqLL) gam­ing mon­i­tors, though Asus says the kit can work with thin-bezel dis­plays from other man­u­fac­tur­ers as well. The ROG Bezel-Free Kit may launch later this year, or maybe not; Asus said the CES pre­view was to gauge in­ter­est.

Well, Asus, I never knew I wanted this, but now that I’ve seen it, I need it.

Kaby Lake G blends a high-end In­tel Core i7 CPU with AMD’s Radeon Vega graph­ics

The D-Link AX1100 Ul­tra Wi-Fi Router

In­tel’s Op­tane 800P SSD

The Razer Hyper­Flux Fire­fly mouse pad and Hyper­Flux Mamba mouse

It’s a tiny gam­ing rig with full cus­tom liq­uid cool­ing

The Asus ROG Bezel-Free Kit

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