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Week in Tech: New Intel Chips, More Mega-Monitors

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Featured post There but for the grace of US immigrations officials...

It’s January and that can only mean one thing. Well, apart from New Year’s resolutions serially and unceremoniously defenestrated by the second week and a general sense of futility. No, I speak of the festival of capitalism gone completely mad that is CES in Las Vegas. Which actually happened last week. CES isn’t exactly the epicentre of all things PC. But it’s so bleedin’ huge, even a tiny fraction of it dedicated to the PC adds up to a lot of interesting things. This year is no exception, what with bonkers-fast SSDs, screens that push all my IPS, 120Hz-plus and frame-syncing buttons, integrated graphics from Intel that might be (oh OK, won’t be) good for playing games and a cheap PC case from Corsair that looks tolerable. I know, I’m really selling this stuff.
As the years tick by, I wonder how much longer I’ll manage to physically evade CES. It was a close call this time. Only the failure of a certain car-making megacorp to chase me up after I accepted the initial invite got me off the hook. Phew.

Still, the delights of the customary US immigration shakedown for journalists duly avoided, let’s start with Intel. I mentioned the clever little Compute Stick last week, which I definitely like the look of and could be gaming relevant. But what Intel does with its integrated graphics is a lot more important. Intel’s integrated pixel pumpers now come with all its mainstream CPUs and they provide the minimum target when it comes to game development.

Intel integrated is also the GPU you may well end up with if your PC’s spec is dictated to you – maybe a work laptop that you wouldn’t mind doing a bit of gaming on or a hand-me-down for destitute students.

Anyway, it would be nice if you actually could game on an Intel GPU. While it’s been technically feasible for a while, it’s never in my view been a pleasant experience. So the big question is whether the GPU in Intel’s new 14nm Broadwell CPUs will change that.

For the record and to help you spot ’em, you’ll also find Broadwell chips referred to as the ‘5th Generation Intel Core Processor’ or Core i3, i5 and i7 5000 series CPUs. There are some Pentium- and Celeron- branded Broadwell chips, too. Sorry, Intel’s branding is a nightmare.

It’s almost all graphics, but to what end?

Whatever, the big news is that the fastest versions of Intel’s new integrated graphics, branded Intel Iris 6000 and 6100, now have 48 execution units (EUs), up from 40 in the top Haswell integrated graphics from the previous generation of chips. Intel has tweaked those 48 EUs to add OpenGL 4.3 and DX11.2 support along with DX12 ‘readiness’, for whatever the latter is worth.

Intel has also made each EU a bit more powerful. How much impact all this will have we’ll have to wait and see. Personally, I doubt it’ll achieve that holy grail of truly gameable integrated graphics, especially not with Intel’s iffy drivers. It’s odd, really. The graphics bit of an Intel dual-core CPU now totally dominates the chip. And it still probably won’t be any good at games.

If that’s all a bit humbug, the list of Broadwell chips with the new Iris graphics does include some low-power 9.5W models. So, in the unlikely event that it does turn out better than expected, Broadwell-spec Iris will allow for some very small and very portable devices with proper PC gaming capability. Like a super thin and light 11-inch notebook. Or the next Microsoft Surface. We can but hope.

Next up, solid state hard drives. CES saw a number of M.2 SSDs with NVMe support roll out, which as I’ve mentioned is ye olde next big thing in storage. The short version of all this is that we’ll soon be looking at SSDs that deliver GB/s or bandwidth rather than MB/s.

GB/s storage here we come…

The fastest numbers I’ve seen are related to the new Marvell 88SS1093 controller for M.2 drives (Marvell controllers are used in all manner of SSDs, including Crucial drives), which sports quad-lane PCI Express 3.0 capability. In theory that means up to 4GB/s, but Marvell is claiming 2.9GB/s actual bandwidth. Getting on for six times faster than any SATA drive, then. The whole NVMe thing which should put random access through the roof. Put the two together and in theory you have SSDs that are off the map compared to today’s SATA SSDs.

Drives with the new Marvell controller should appear a little later this year along with competition from Samsung, SandForce and others. Of course, most motherboards lack an M.2 port, so you’ll need an adapter at a minimum or a whole new board. Plus, boards that do roll with M.2, like most Intel H97 and Z97 models, are often limited to two lanes of PCI Express 2.0 and thus 1GB/s max.

So this 4GB/s shizzle isn’t exactly plug and play for everyone. But it is going to be a huge leap in drive performance and in my view anyone thinking about a rig upgrade should time it around the availability of these new drives.

Now to the screens. Now, many of us have been waiting for a monitor that combines IPS panel tech, high refresh, beyond-1080p resolution and some kind of frame-syncing tech. And now it’s here. It’s the 27-inch Asus MG279Q.

We’re talking 2,560 by 1,440 pixels, 120Hz and AMD FreeSync support via a DisplayPort 1.2a connection. Note, there’s no Nvidia G-Sync support, so arguably this thing doesn’t quite tick every box. Typical, eh?

Acer’s 27-inch 1440p 144Hz IPS effort does G-Sync. Grab Asus’s version if you want FreeSync

Speaking of not quite ticking every single box, Asus has a 27-inch IPS 4K alternative, too, the ROG Swift PG27AQ. This ups the res ante to the usual 3,840 by 2,160 UHD spec on an IPS panel and throws in Nvidia G-Sync. But not AMD FreeSync. And not 120Hz-plus refresh. Not that you have a hope in hell of pushing 120 4K frames per second with any current graphics card.

Incidentally, if you want 27 inches, high refresh, IPS and Nvidia G-Sync rather than AMD FreeSync, do not despair. Acer’s XB270HU 27-inch IPS panel does 144Hz with G-Sync at 2,560 by 1,440 native. But not FreeSync. Argh!

Of course, I wouldn’t mind seeing one of those superwide 34-inch IPS screens at 120Hz with syncing. So we’re still a long way off having screens with everything. Still, all of the panels mentioned above should be available in the next few months. No word on pricing, as yet.

And finally…Corsair rolled out its new Carbide 100R case. This is not the most exciting case in the history of the universe. But it looks like a decent bit of kit, it’s got the basics covered off including tool-free drive mounts and front USB 3.0 ports, and it’s only $50 (hopefully about £40 or less this side of the Pond). For an extra 10 bucks, there’s also a ‘Silent’ version with sound dampening and no side window. Could be worth a look if you’re after something to house all this new kit in.

Definitely cheap. Probably cheerful

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