Biggest launches for PC enthusiasts
BRAD CHACOS offers an insight into the future of the PC
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.
The Asus ROG Bezel-Free Kit
It’s a tiny gaming rig with full custom liquid cooling
The Razer HyperFlux Firefly mouse pad and HyperFlux Mamba mouse
Intel’s Optane 800P SSD
The D-Link AX1100 Ultra Wi-Fi Router
Kaby Lake G blends a high-end Intel Core i7 CPU with AMD’s Radeon Vega graphics