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Week in Tech: Intel 9 Series, £200 GPUs, VR And Fast Food

Intel's new motherboard platform arrives, but still no CPUs

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Bit of a mish mash this week starting with a quick update on Intel’s new 9 Series chipset and the motherboards that go with it. The boards are now on sale, but new CPUs of note are missing, so what gives? Meanwhile AMD has officially cut the price of ye olde Radeon R9 280 to $249 which seems like a good cue to look at the state of graphics at that £200 sweet spot here in Blighty (apologies for the mixed currency messaging). While we’re talking AMD, there’s confirmation that new high performance FX CPUs are on the way. Hurrah. But probably not until 2016. Haroo. Oh, and try this bombshell for size. Oculus Rift will be testing out its headsets on snotty youths at none other than the swashbuckling culinary trend setter and conspicuous Michelin star non-awardee that is Chuck E. Cheese’s. And some other stuff that I haven’t quite decided on as I write these very words. Click through and you never know what you might find. It might even be worth reading.
Those Intel chipsets in full
So, Intel 9 Series chipsets. Do we care? A bit and for two reasons. Firstly, compatibility. Remember those tweaked Intel Haswell K series chips (ya know, the ones with better thermal paste or whatever inside the chip package and known as Devil’s Canyon)? They may not be compatible with existing 8 Series motherboards. Ah.

Intel’s next major CPU family, known as Broadwell (14nm die shrink, recently confirmed for release late this year) definitely won’t be compatible with 8 Series boards. If you’re buying an Intel board today, that makes the 9 Series fairly compelling, methinks. I just hate the idea of buying a new board that’s already a dead end. Of course, Intel knows this and that’s why it breaks compatibility. It’s all about me!

Anywho, the other bit is next-gen storage. Again, we’ve covered this before, but the main thing to grasp is that the 9 Series supports both SATA Express and M.2, so all your future storage needs are theoretically covered.

The knee bone’s connected to the full-duplex serial thigh bone.

Quick note on that – apparently, you’re limited to a pair of Gen 2 PCI Express lanes for any and all next-gen storage connectivity on the 9 Series. On the face of it, a bit disappointing. But in practice it still allows a decent performance bump over SATA 6Gbps and in any case it’s probably improved random access performance and lower latency from NVMe that will make the biggest difference to the feel of PCs. See my post on on SATA Express for a few more details.

Put it all together and you have a fairly decent argument for buying 9 Series if you are pulling the trigger today. So the only question is high end Z97 or the more mainstream H97? The main advantages of Z97 are theoretically full overclocking access and multi-GPU support.

The latter is a niche feature in my book, you’ll know if you want it. As for overclocking, there’s been a bit of an ongoing spat between motherboard makers and Intel regards overclocking on boards not based on its top ‘Z’ chipset.

In theory, only ‘Z’ chipsets like the Z87 and the new Z97 give you access to the unlocked multiplier on K Series CPUs and thus allow proper overclocking. But some board makers released BIOS work arounds that unleashed K Series CPUs on non-Z boards like the H87.

Then stories emerged claiming Intel planned to release microcode that would re-lock non-Z boards. Honestly, I’m not sure where things stand right now, but at best it’s unclear whether H97 boards will allow overclocking. If they do, I’d be tempted to go H97 and save a few quid.

As for those Devil’s Canyon Haswell CPUs, the samples are circulating soon, I’m told. It won’t be long now and rumour has it they might be good for 5GHz. Nice.

High-end graphics at mid-range prices
Next up, AMD has cut the price of its Radeon R9 280 to $249. This is perhaps of more significance to US readers since Radeon prices seem to have been more influenced Stateside by the cryptocurrency mining insanity than here in Blighty.

Finally affordable…

Anyway, I note 3GB R9 280 prices as low as £170 in the UK. On the Nvidia side, I also like the look of a GTX 770 for £200. Personally, I view £200 as a cut-off point in terms of sensible money for a GPU and the product cycle is such that you can now have the top GPUs from the previous gen for that much or less. I’d prefer if they had been £200-£250 at launch. But at least they’re more attainable now and they remain excellent gaming chips. It’s also a big step up, money-wise, to R9 290 or GTX 780.

The other AMD news is more forward looking. Thank science and all things empirical, but AMD has been caught confirming plans to release some new high performance FX chips by 2016 as part of the push I mentioned previously to do a brand new x86. Who knows what will happen, but at least they say they plan to compete in the performance PC space (this news comes from an interview from AMD’s APU14 event in Beijing, if you’re wondering).

Hold the cheese
Now, then. Oculus Rift and quality eateries. Apparently, Oculus is planning to use Chuck E. Cheese’s, er, pre-pubescent clientèle to test parental attitudes to their progeny strapping on headsets and zoning out from the real world.

A prudent move for an outfit that’s now owned by a big corporate and presumably has world domination plans? No doubt. A bit sinister and not immediately reassuring regards a focus on what you might call grown up gaming? Perhaps.

Then again, birthday outings to arcades and a pocketful of quarters for machines like Out Run and Ms Pac-Man probably remain my fondest gaming memories of all. So don’t diss the kids.

120Hz, 1440p gaming
Kneel before Rog!

And finally…news just in that the Jesus monitor, AKA the Asus ROG Swift PG278Q, will finally arrive in June. At least, I think it will. It’s hard to be 100 per cent sure. OK, it’s TN. And not 4K. But actually, 120Hz, G-Sync, 27-inch, cuting-edge TN and 2,560 by 1,440 is probably the ultimate for pure gaming right now. Until next week when something better comes along. Or you prefer a 60-Hz, 4K, 28-inch, no-sync panel for roughly the same price. I’m currently leaning 60Hz-28-inch-4K-TN. Decisions, decisions.

The Steambox loss-making machine
OK, this really is the last bit. A senior suit at Alienware has been making downbeat noises to the Wall Street Journal about the prospects of its own Steamboxes. At least, he’s been saying that they’ll be hard to make money on for Alienware if the prices are kept in line with consoles, describing them as likely to be, “the least profitable system we ever sell.”

The main problem is that there’s no scope for the likes of Alienware to cash in on software sales post ‘box purchase, which is obviously a big part of the console business model. Sell the hardware cheap or even at a loss, make money on the games.

Of course, if the prospects are so grim, why would Alienware and its Dell overlord even bother? Perhaps unsurprisingly, said suit then ‘clarified’ his position to PC Gamer, confirming Alienware’s commitment to the whole Steambox thang and emphasising that the downbeat outlook only applies to its first product, not the broader project.

Alienware’s first Steambox effort may not be a money spinner. Ya think?

Still, it remains a reminder that the PC and consoles have very different business models. And that’s why so many Steamboxes look awfully expensive next to the consoles.

That said, m’colleague Dave James on ye olde PC Format magazine has been playing with an AMD desktop chip with AMD’s Jaguar cores (codename momentarily escapes me) which he reckons actually does a decent job as a cheap Steambox CPU. It’s £40, the motherboard to go with it is £25, you can get a case with PSU for another £35. If you’ve got an old GPU, hard drive and some memory lying around…well, you get the idea. Could be interesting and underlines that Steamboxes probably make more sense homebrew than over-the-counter.

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