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Week in Tech: The PC is Doomed, Long Live the PC!

Transparent aluminum?!

Or maybe it’s the other way round. Anyway, the Xbox One only has 16 ROPs. I know, 16 ROPs. The humiliation. The humanity! Nvidia’s GeForce 6800 had 16 ROPs in 2004. No idea what I’m on about? It’s cheap point scoring from a smug PC evangelist, of course, but also just a single entry in a long list of reasons why the PC is looking pretty clever now the new consoles are roaming the wild. On the other hand, I’ve had a grope around the latest factoids and rumours relating to PC processors for the next year or so and the shape of things to come feels awfully familiar. Maybe the prophets of doom are right, after all…Give those consoles a kicking
Firstly, then, those consoles. The usual suspects have done the blow torch, tweezers and digicam job on the new boxes and the result is that we now know all the dirty secrets. And Xbox One’s graphics only looks worse on closer inspection.

The 768 AMD GCN graphics cores to PS4’s 1,152 (and, of course, up to 2,816 on a single card for a PC) has been discussed for a while. It’s actually been known for almost as long that Xbox One’s GPU only has 16 ROPs to the PS4’s 32 (and as many as 64 per GPU on the PC).

How do you like them ROPs, Xbone?

ROPs ultimately define how many pixels a GPU can punch out per cycle, so they arguably are more relevant to the current will-it-won’t-it controversy over Xbox One’s ability to achieve true 1080p visuals. Yeah, apparently 1080p is a big deal in console land.

But like I said, that’s just point scoring. It’s the broader picture that’s more interesting. Things like a piss-poor launch catalogue of games, which matters since the new boxes don’t play old games. Then there are bizarre ideologically-driven limitations, like the PS4’s inability – for now, at least – to play locally stored video files. And the promising features that turn out not to work well enough to actually be usable. Like voice control and TV pass-through on the Xbox One. Oh well, yet another voice control system that sucks.

Hello, computer. Er, computer?

And how about game load times reportedly measuring in aeons or the slightly sinister all-seeing, always-on Kinect eye? In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ve not been hands-on with either or the new boxes. Sadly, all my displays require dual-link DVI output, so simply not poss. But overwhelmingly, my spidey sense tells me that to invest in either of these new consoles at this early stage would result in disappointment on a fairly epic scale.

Inevitably I’m preaching to the converted here, from a biased platform and with the knowledge that the Xbox One and PS4 will look very, very different in two year’s time much less five years down the road. These consoles will serve up some special moments in computer gaming, of that there can be little doubt. The consoles have plenty to teach the PC when is comes to couch potato gaming, too, though argubly the PC is finally catching up in the living room stakes as the likes of SteamOS and Nvidia Shield come on stream.

But I’m a bit of a purist in most things. I like my cars without driver aids. I’m thinking about eschewing newer smartphones in favour of an iPhone 4S for its form factor, construction and core functionality. And the same applies to the PC in general and games in parrticular. The PC sidesteps ideologically imposed limitations and compromises. You feel so much more in control of your destiny, so much less a slavish, anonymous consumer.

Show me the pixels!

Meanwhile, most PC hardware just keeps getting faster, keeps on innovating. Whether it’s detailed stuff like Nvidia G-Sync and the promise of super-slick frame rates, AMD’s new Radeon R9 290 GPU that brings massively more performance to the £300 price point than any previous GPU or the tantalising prospect of 4K gaming, the PC today is a very different beast to that of even 18 months ago.

Or how about emerging VR tech? The latest full-HD demos of the Oculus Rift sound orders of magnitude more exciting and, well, game changing than gaudy chintz of the new consoles. And it’s interesting – though hardly shocking – that the Oculus Rift’s creator doesn’t fancy the new consoles much as platforms for driving HD-and-beyond virtual reality headsets.

Oh no, not four cores again
If that’s why the PC rocks, I’ve also got one hand on the rug and feel a tug coming on. The latest scuttlebutt says Intel’s upcoming Broadwell family of mainstream CPUs (successor to the already-underwhelming Haswell generation) will be four-core all over again, despite yet another shrink to 14nm. They’re out in 2014 and will stick around at least a year, so we’re talking late 2015 at the earliest least for any significant upgrade on the CPU side from Intel.

OK, high end Broadwell chips will apparently get Iris Pro graphics. But you still need a proper GPU, so that’s more or less moot.

‘Orrible ‘aswell was bad enough, Broadwell looks worse

Meanwhile, AMD’s latest official roadmap sees existing Piledriver-based FX CPUs stick around in current four-to-eight core / two-to-four module format for all of 2014. No change at all. We’ll get get new Steamroller cores in the Kaveri APU with two-to-four cores / one-to-two modules, but the roadmap explicitly describes the old Bulldozer chips as maintaining performance dominance, so they’ll be as good as it gets from AMD next year.

There’s the good-enough argument for CPUs, of course. They’ve been fast enough for nearly everything for years. But this technological stasis on the CPU side still makes me a bit nervous about the future for the desktop PC. It also seems to me that there’s an easy win here for Intel in terms of PR. It says it wants to revitalise the PC. Actually upgrading its desktop CPUs significantly for the first time in years wouldn’t be a bad start.

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Jeremy Laird

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