Week in Tech: Epic End Of Year Review

It’s that time of year when the press releases stop flowing, the new product dries up and yours truly runs out of novel kit to verbally clobber. What more excuse do we need to round up the highlights of the year in PC gaming tech, from the proud victories and fearful gaffes to the simply-failed-to-ever-happens. Here we go…

More than anything, 2014 was the year of the PC monitor. The cheap PC monitor. The big PC monitor. The 120Hz PC monitor. The G-Sync PC monitor. The 4K PC monitor. The super-wide PC monitor. You get the idea. All of that and more appeared for the first time or went mainstream in 2014.

The obvious highlights include 4K resolutions and Nvidia’s G-Sync tech. I’m not a huge fan of 4K in its most affordable 28-inch format due to the limitations of the Windows OS and most web pages when it comes to high pixel densities. And the fact remains that 4K is a right royal pain in the arse to drive smoothly in games.

But the appearance of affordable 40-inch 4K monitors right at the end of the year was intriguing. If you’re buying for the long haul, which is exactly what I think you ought to be doing, a 40-inch 4K monitor delivers quite an experience today, albeit with compromises. I might just go there myself sometime soon.

Re G-Sync, it’s appearing in more and more monitors but I’ve mixed feelings about it as a technology. That’s partly because of its proprietary nature (typical from Nvidia), but also because it’s one of those technologies that you’re often not sure if it’s actually working.

That’s not to say it doesn’t deliver any benefits. It absolutely does. But when you often can’t be absolutely sure it’s working properly, the question immediately arises just how critical that benefit really is. I think if the context is a powerful gaming system that’s punching out high frame rates to a 120Hz monitor, G-Sync probably isn’t a killer technology.

Arguably more important this year in monitors has been the broad trend towards affordability. If you want 4K, it’s now doable at a price that won’t wipe you out. If you want 27-inch 1440p (2,560 by 1,400 pixels), that’s even more affordable and can now be combined with G-Sync and high refresh.

Arguably the perfect PC monitor du jour – 27-inch, 1440p, 120Hz+, high quality IPS panel tech (rather than TN) and G-Sync-n’Freesync – can’t quite be had. Actually, as a pure gaming panel, I wouldn’t kick one of those super-wide 34-inch IPS panels with 120Hz and G-Sync out of bed, either. But again, that particular combo can’t be had. Maybe next year.

2014 also saw the whole mechanical keyboard thing really gain momentum, with more and more keyboard makers getting serious about offering a range of switch types in their gaming-centric keyboards. MSI also wheeled out a frankly ludicrous 18-inch laptop with a mechanical keyboard.

If I was being cynical, I’d say that’s the sort of craziness that proves the whole thing is a fad and it’s about to go off the boil. Personally, I’m not sold on mechanical keyboards for gaming or for typing. However, I get why people are and if you do like ’em, there’s more choice than ever. Hurrah.

This year saw a pretty big shake up in storage, with the arrival of new PCI Express-based interfaces designed to get the most out of SSDs or solid state drives, not to mention 3D flash memory arriving with the promise of more capacity for less cash. However, what with monikers like M.2 and SATA Express, along with the new control protocol NVMe to get your head around, they whole thing is bloody confusing. I’ve gotten to the point where I almost wish we’d just had SATA 12Gbps and been done with it!

What’s more, SATA Express seems to have gone nowhere – I’ve not seen a single SATA Express SSD for sale – NVMe hasn’t arrived in mainstream drives and as yet 3D flash memory tech hasn’t had much impact on pricing. So 2014 has ended more a staging post for the really dramatic changes I’m expecting next year. That said, SSDs did get a whole lot cheaper this year and for me 2014 felt like the year magnetic drives were pushed to the very sidelines, fit only for use when you need really epic storage capacity.

Speaking of things that didn’t happen, this year was also conspicuous for Valve’s Steambox escapade not being realised as previously anticipated. I remain somewhat unclear as to what benefit any of us are supposed to glean from the Steambox thing – as opposed to the benefits for Valve itself.

I don’t find the attempt to use the Linux platform to replace Windows for gaming PCs plausible and I’m not sure we need Valve to drive the small form-factor PC market forward. Indeed, Valve doesn’t even seem to be able to get its Steam Controller out the door and the penny may be dropping that ye olde keyboard mouse is tougher to replace than it thought.

Another technology that got started but didn’t really take off was game streaming. Nvidia is doing a lot of the heavy lifting at the moment when it comes to the critical matter of reducing latency, though Valve and AMD have their own takes streaming games from your desktop rig to other devices. For now, the jury is out on how big a deal game streaming will become. To me, it feels like a useful extra rather than something we’ll all be doing soon.

Meanwhile, what actually didn’t happen this year was a revolution in PC processor technology. Admittedly, Intel’s new Haswell-E CPUs for its revised LGA2011 socket brought six-core processing to a lower price point. But as much as I hate to admit it, all the hotness for PC gaming performance is now in graphics.

For graphics 2014 wasn’t quite a vintage year, mainly because AMD and Nvidia have been stuck using 28nm technology to manufacture their chips when everyone had been expecting a shrink down to 20nm and in turn the opportunity to squeeze in even more pixel-processing grunt.

It’s Nvidia who has coped best with this problem courtesy of its new Maxwell graphics tech, which has done a bloody good job of mimicking the sort performance and power consumption improvements you might have expected from a new family of 20nm graphics chips without actually moving to 20nm.

I still think Maxwell will be at its best next year when it does get a die shrink – that’s quite an exciting prospect. But for more on what 2015 is likely to hold, tune your scanners to RPS on the 8th of Jan for a Week in Tech preview of the year.

In the meantime, it’s worth a final reflection on the fact that, by many metrics, the PC is healthier than ever. Tablet sales have come off the boil, even Apple is now selling fewer iPads than before. Laptop sales have simmered down, too. And smartphones are just so 2013. The only really bright spot is performance desktop PCs. Hardly in line with conventional wisdom concerning the PC’s demise, but apparently true according to the latest data.

A nice, upbeat note to close on, eh? Shout out your favourites bits for PCs of the year below and then toddle off and have yourself a splendid winter solstice celebratory season. And all that jazz.

56 Comments

  1. Blue_Lemming says:

    Is it too late to declare it year of the HOTAS?

    • Press X to Gary Busey says:

      I hope Santa will bring me a better computation chair for Christmas. *crosses butt-cheeks*

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        particlese says:

        Dang, you guys are making me hungry for some hot cross buns.

    • calculon68 says:

      Think this is the year when the HOTAS [i]came back.[/i] But it’s not new to me, since I’ve been on the same HOTAS since 1996.

      But I did go Ultrawide 21:9 this year. Didn’t see that coming at all.

  2. natendi says:

    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year everyone!

  3. DanMan says:

    For any monitor capable of more than 60Hz to be a viable purchase, game devs would have to stop limiting their games/engines. Can’t see myself buying any of those atm.

    • Asurmen says:

      You’ll have to explain that one because I don’t get your point.

      • crazyd says:

        A lot of games artificially lock frame rates at 60 or 30 FPS, making monitors that can output higher frame rates less useful.

        • Asurmen says:

          Ah yes. That’s pretty much only cross platform stuff. Anything pure PC lets you change that, either in menus or config files. I haven’t run into a game for a long time that locked it so it skipped my mind.

        • Dale Winton says:

          There are not many games locked to 60fps and even less locked to 30fps. In fact I can only think of two that are locked at 30fps. I have a 1440p Korean that can do 96fps and it’s the best thing ever

          • DanMan says:

            YMMV, of course. But I tend to play a lot of games where this is an issue. I guess about every 3rd or 4th game.

        • fish99 says:

          It’s a small percentage of games that do that TBH.

  4. Cockie says:

    I dunno, the Steambox thing didn’t come through this year, but the announcement itself has led to quite a surge of Linux ports it seems, which is rather nice.
    Linux isn’t going to replace Windows as a gaming platform anytime soon, but it’s becoming somewhat more of an valid option (as opposed to “You’re gaming on what?!?”), and choice is always nice.

    • pepperfez says:

      So you’re saying it was the Year of the Linux Desktop? FINALLY.

      • Cockie says:

        The year some game devs noticed the Linux desktop exists! Hurray! :D
        Nah, I’m not that kind of Linux user, I know it’s not for everyone. But there are now apparently 852 Linux games on Steam (compared to 4271 Windows ones) which isn’t bad!

    • airmikee says:

      Valve said the Steambox should be on the market by next year, so while 2014 wasn’t the Year of Linux Gaming, it’s possible 2015 could assume that title. :)

  5. wallysimmonds says:

    I’m pretty keen on jumping on a new monitor soon, and was pretty much sold on the ultrawides until I saw this Sharp featured (and started following the thread over at Hardforum.)

    I actually ordered the new Dell 34″ last week but they’ve changed the shipping dates from before Xmas to second week of Janaury – the Sharp is available in Australia as of next week so I think I may be tempted to pick it up in place of the Dell. I’m coming from a Dell 3011 so 60hz doesn’t bother me and like large screens.

    The only thing stopping me from clicking ‘buy now’ is my card – I have a single 290x which is fine for 1600p but probably won’t cut the mustard. I’m really hoping a single 390x will do for 4k as I really cbf’d with crossfire or SLI.

    • Awesomeclaw says:

      I’m running a single 290x with a 3240×1920 eyefinity setup and as long as you don’t want all of the shiny it works pretty well. I just ran through Ground Zeros on maximum settings and although I wouldn’t say it was 60fps all the way through it was certainly close. I don’t think I’d have to sacrifice too much to get something very nice looking at 4k.

    • Stepout says:

      I’m in the market for a new monitor as well. I find it the most frustrating thing to try and buy for the PC at the moment. I just bought a GTX 970 and I’m looking to get a 27 inch 2560x1440p monitor. I’ve read that G-Sync shines mainly at the lower frame rates (40 – 60). Being that those are the kind of frame rates I’ll get in modern games when cranking up the settings, I would prefer a G-Sync monitor. The problem being that the ROG Swift is the only choice at the moment. I don’t really care about the high refresh rates it has (I’ll never push them with a single card and I don’t plan on buying another 970), but it’s the only monitor that has that resolution AND G-Sync. And I just feel that if I’m going to buy a new monitor, and have a brand new Nvidia card, I might as well have G-Sync. I just wish the ROG Swift had competition so that maybe the prices would go down a bit.

  6. AngoraFish says:

    As a heavy-handed 50WPM+ two-finger typist I absolutely can’t live without my mechanical keyboard (black). Not to mention that noting else gives the satisfying feedback of playing a real pinball machine like whacking mechanical keys – if I wasn’t using the mechanical keyboard for typing I’d still need to own one just to play Pinball FX2.

    • jeeger says:

      Yes. Anyone who doesn’t understand the appeal of mechanical keyboards has never used one. The difference is night and day. At least for typing , which is probably what most people use their keyboard most heavily for. For gaming, it doesn’t make such a big difference, but who keeps two keyboards on their desk?

      • zarniwoop says:

        I’ve used one. I used one for years.

        I prefer the new quieter easier to press kind.

        Each to their own hey?

        • jeeger says:

          Do you prefer quieter switches or rubber dome keyboards (it’s not entirely clear from the context)? One great thing regarding mechanical keyboards is that there’s variants for every taste: There’s Cherry Blue for the volume fans, there’s brown for non-clicky switches, and there’s even black for non-tactile (without a bump) switches. So I’d think there’s something available for every typist.

          And sorry if this came across as elitist ­— I really can’t fathom why someone would prefer a non-mechanical keyboard with mushy keycaps to a mechanical one with a clear point of activation. Most of the time, I’m not even using my mechanical keyboard (because I’m at work), and I’m always glad to go back to it. The arguments I’ve heard against mechanical keyboards are “Loud” (okay, there’s damped switches, I can understand the problem in an office environment) and “Expensive”, (yes, but the prices are going down). When I finally bought one, I didn’t want to go back to my old non-mechanical board (although I kind of miss my Microsoft ergonomic keyboard layout). Maybe it’s also usage though: I use my keyboard a lot for typing (or rather, coding), and when gaming, mechanical is more a take-it-or-leave-it. It doesn’t really add anything to gaming except noise^^. So maybe the pros are really just there for heavy typists, and I’m biased. So, keeping that in mind, mechanical keyboards get my love.

          (Typos came from writing the previous post on my phone, so yeah. Jeez, was my post really that annoying? I guess people are always expecting the worst in these comments.)

          • Skit says:

            Your a coder that cant choose his Keyboard at work?

          • jeeger says:

            Well, a CS student working at university. We aren’t exactly upper management material and have to make do with what’s available in the student rooms.

          • Martel says:

            I think anytime somebody says something like “anyone who doesn’t understand the appeal of mechanical keyboards has never used one” marks a person (or at least their comment) as a bit prickish and condescending, immediately putting readers on the defensive.

            It’s clear from your larger post that wasn’t the case/intention, but I imagine that’s what sparked a few of the comments. Assuming you really were curious as to why folks acted how they did in response :)

          • jeeger says:

            Thank you for the clarification. Didn’t know how to state it differently. I really don’t know why you would choose a rubbery mat over a nice bank of mechanical switches, but I huess I came off a bit too too strong. Sorry for that! Wish you all a happy christmas (or other holiday)!

      • Universal Quitter says:

        The misplaced elitism is strong in this one. Master race 4 life.

        • Rizlar says:

          Considering the typos in both those comments I can’t help but agree with you.

    • Faxanadu says:

      I just don’t understaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaand…….!

      They’re LOUD, the distance you have to push the button seems so LONG on any color switches, they don’t FEEL snappy, …just why are mechanicals so awesome. Maybe it’s because I’ve never had the opportunity to *actually* type with one, just play-type. Great marketing, placing those keyboards on display but being unable to actually test how they work.

      I love my Microsoft, YES, Microsoft sidewinder. It has full n-key rollover and some macro buttansh. It just feels like a good ol’ keyboord, pleasant to use, makes pleasant keyboard sounds. My previous one was a really flat one that made matrix sounds when you typed. Awesome. But mechanical? Ugh can’t do et.

      edit: jeeger hilariously you just posted that as I posted mine. :)

      • Sakkura says:

        Long distance to press? Most membrane keyboards are a lot worse, you practically have to bottom out. Plus they don’t give feedback as to when they actuate, which means you typically end up bottoming out anyway just to make sure no keypresses are missed.

        • Universal Quitter says:

          Weird, my non-mechanical keyboard will stick and register two hits way, way more often than I ever miss a stroke by not pushing down all the way. I don’t remember ever thinking that my keys need to be pushed down too far.

          And I exclusively use the keyboards you find in department stores that have a long-forgotten “Computer Accessories” aisle: link to cedarpc.com

      • amateurviking says:

        I have that keyboard too. I love it.

    • sicemma says:

      I’ve been using a couple of Das Keyboard Pro S’s for years, but I must admit, I really wish someone would make one in the layout of the old huge awesome Microsoft Natural Keyboard Pro from ~1999. The trend seems to be going the opposite way to see who can make the tiniest keyboard with the fewest buttons on it though.

      And while we’re at it someone should resurrect MS’s old entire hardware line and make an update of the MS Sidewinder FF 2 stick as well.

  7. Cleave says:

    I think you can tell that G sync is working because it’s just so smooth, even with frame rates all over the place. The only time you get any tearing is when the game is running faster than 144 fps. The image quality isn’t great though, over bright and a bit washed but the smoothness makes up for it.

    • fish99 says:

      Genuine question: why would g-sync affect the brightness or colours?

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        Edski says:

        It isn’t the g sync itself, but the fact that the Asus and AOC monitors which support it are using TN panels (for the high refresh rates and quick response times I suppose).

        • fish99 says:

          Ok. I’ve owned plenty of TN and IPS screens and I wouldn’t particularly say bright or washed out was the main weakness of TN. My current 120Hz screen is TN with very good colour saturation and the brightness is fine once adjusted. It is a 6-bit panel though which means you will see some banding on gradients, but the main weakness is the viewing angles.

          It’s the price you pay for 120Hz (and stereo 3D) currently though.

          • Premium User Badge

            Edski says:

            I don’t have any issue with TN panels myself (depends on the panel though, I suppose), but the techie types say the colours and blacks aren’t as good, and many people say they see a big difference between panel types. I was just pointing out the reason for Cleave’s comment above (ie, that his judgement’s to do with the panel type rather than the actual g-sync itself).

      • golem09 says:

        Because you can count the available g-sync monitors with one hand, and they all have TN panels. So bad colors.

  8. Wut The Melon says:

    4K and QHD finally becoming affordable is definitely a Good Thing, but we’re not quite there yet IMO, also in terms of being able to drive 4K at more than 30FPS. I think I’ll be holding out until OLED monitors become a reality – I am still amazed every time I see one of those few fancy smartphones that have them…. Any idea as to when that will become viable in PC monitors?

    • mattevansc3 says:

      Not anytime soon. This website goes into detail but quite simply the manufacturing process that allows Super AMOLED panels for small devices to be made in high quantities doesn’t scale well for larger screens. link to news.oled-display.net

      This of course means UHD OLED screens are made in small numbers with high cost whereas UHD LED/LCD screens are far easier to manufacture at larger sizes meaning the market will be flooded with them before the first cost-prohibitive UHD OLED monitor hits the market.

  9. amateurviking says:

    I ended up upgrading a lot of parts this year, mostly piecemeal. Definitely felt like the right time for me to take the plunge on a more-than-just-a-boot-drive SSD for example. A recent trip stateside for work meant I could pick up a 970 for relative cheapness too – I’ve never had an ‘enthusiast’ level part (5770HD and 560ti were the last two) so there’s been a big improvement in games – Dragon Age: Rutabaga and Shadows of Mordor being the two benefiting most. Switched from a Phenom II 555 to an i5 4440 too.

    I basically have a new computer now that I think about it. Remind me not to add up all the bits.

  10. schurem says:

    I’d say this is the last year of the monitor. Anyone who’se played Elite with an Oculus Rift will agree.

    • LionsPhil says:

      If I have to start strapping a lunchbox to my face to dev (and post inane comments on the Internet), I’m moving into a cave.

      • cthulhie says:

        Y’know, living in a cave would make using VR more palatable, so I’m choosing to read this response as an earnest agreement.

  11. UW says:

    I’d be interested to know what your sources are regarding the health of the PC market.

  12. aircool says:

    One of the reasons I avoid laptops as much as possible is that they’re crap for touch typists. I can get a minimum of 60wpm out of a decent keyboard with a very small percentage of error whilst holding a conversation or watching the football… most modern keyboards and especially laptops are made for fat-fingering – or in some cases, put aesthetics before function – and that just makes touch typing a pain in the arse, especially on low profile keyboards.

    • Asurmen says:

      For the past 3 years since I moved to the office I’m in at my work, whenever I’ve moved desks/floors due to team or work changes I’ve kept an old PS2 keyboard with me because while I suspect it’s almost certainly a membrane keyboard, it has proper sized keys and proper action to it. All the other keyboards here are USB low profile crap that I simply cannot touch type with at speed due to lack of press feedback and less tactile sensation when I move over keys.

      Drives me barmy. One day I know I’ll completely move out of the office and I’ll have to say good bye to this keyboard :(

  13. Stepout says:

    My current favorite new bit that I got for my PC recently (a friend let me borrow them) was a pair of near-field speakers, M-Audio AV40s to be exact:

    link to sweetwater.com

    I’ve never paid attention much to the sound coming out of my PC, but after I replaced my dinky little PC speakers for these and launched a game… the second the Nvidia logo came on the screen and that wooooosh played through my speakers, I knew I had just cranked up my gaming experience by quite a bit. Shotgun blasts in Far Cry 4 sound amazing. Loving these speakers.

  14. Foosnark says:

    I do love my mechanical keyboard. Kailh browns (Cherry MX Brown clone).

    In fact now I hate my basic Dell keyboard at work, and have considered bringing in the first mechanical keyboard I tried, which has Cherry MX Blues. I’m a bit concerned the terrible click-click-click-click noise that was too much at home would drive my coworkers to murder, though.

  15. DrollRemark says:

    2014 is the year I got a PC again. Hooray!

    (I’ve been on a combination of Windows and Mac laptops for the last 5 years)