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Week in Tech: Epic End Of Year Review

The year of the PC monitor...

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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.

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