Didn't I tell you 2016 was going to be great for PC gamers? Well, it's started. The greatness, that is. And 2016, too. In fact it's all so fantastic even the orgasm of capitalism, technological futility and conspicuous consumption that is the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas could not resist and duly served up an uncharacteristically compelling collection of intriguing new PC stuff. Stuff like OLED displays, silly-fast SSDs, graphics boxes for laptops, VR all over the shop and, well, other things that want your money.
A virtual elephant
First, allow me to escort the elephant in this post to a metaphorical holding pen. Virtually reality hardware was a big theme at CES this year, the major punctuating points of which m'learned colleagues have already covered.
Personally, I don't yet have a firm feeling for how fast or to what extent VR is likely to become a compelling display tech for PCs. But with the likes of Oculus Rift and HTC's Vive imminent in final retail form, the simple fact of availability will soon be reality. Which begs a fairly obvious question. Can your PC handle it?
Nvidia has wasted no time in wheeling out its own GeForce GTX VR Ready initiative. And then there's the Oculus Rift compatibility tool. But this is potentially quite a complex question, the matter of how well a given PC config will handle VR, so I'll cover that soon in a separate post. We have a few months before the headsets arrive, after all.
OLED is coming
OLED PC displays, then. The critical thing to understand about OLED is that it's a much better idea than LCD. That's because each pixel is essentially a tiny little stand-alone light (each pixel is actually three tiny little lights, red, green and blue. Well, unless it's one of those skanky pentile efforts you see in smartphones, but I digress).
That matters because when a pixel is off, it's just that. Off. No light at all. And that means effectively infinite contrast compared to a pixel that is on. What's more, with each pixel being its own light source, the whole viewing angle problem disappears. Yup, that's perfect contrast and perfect viewing angles.
This is in distinct contrast, pun intended, with LCD technology, which is made up of a grid of tiny shutters that attempts, imperfectly, to control the transmission of light from a rear-firing backlight. There is always some leakage. Worse, that leakage varies depending on your vantage point, causing all kinds of viewing angle issues.
The upshot is that LCD is a fundamentally bad idea for a full-colour computer display. It's a testament to the ingenuity of the world's engineers that they have made something so unsuitable quite so workable.
Oh, and OLED also has far superior response to LCD. On paper, it really is the killer display tech we've been waiting for. At CES, Dell rolled out its UltraSharp UP3017Q. It's the full OLED monty in 30 glorious inches, complete with a 3,840 by 2,160 4K / UHD pixel grid and 0.1ms response times.
Yep, 0.1ms response. Now, quoted response times aren't to be entirely trusted. But on the face of it, that's one tenth the time it takes the best LCDs to respond. However, you slice it, it seems OLED could effectively put an end to pixel response as an issue that even needs to be thought about.
If all that sounds spectacular, the $4,999 list price is pretty eye catching, too. It's also worth noting that the new UltraSharp implements a number of counter measures to offset the big OLED bogey, which involves pixel degradation in various forms. It's a hint that OLED is still something of a work in progress.
But if the Dell's pricing renders it rather hypothetical for most of us, the good news is that a bunch of much more attainable OLED-powered laptops also debuted at CES. Most notable for we gamers is the tweaked Alienware 13 laptop. The highlights are Nvidia Geforce GTX 960M graphics and a 13-inch 2,560 by 1,440 pixel OLED dsiplay.
A number of other less gaming oriented OLED laptops were announced and I can't comment on the quality of any of them. Up to a point, that's moot. What matters is that OLED is beginning to happen for the PC. Hurrah.
In the meantime, one intriguing offering in the conventional LCD column is a new 34-inch 3,400 by 1,440 pixel curved IPS monitor from Monoprice for $499 (I don't think the Monoprice brand operates in the UK, but a search for Achieva Shimian might turn up the goods and I'm hoping for a price of £400 maximum). That's cheaper by far than I've seen for that particular form factor and it runs at 75Hz, which is nice, though it does lack frame syncing of any kind. Could be worth a look.
Oh, and Asus took the wraps off its new ROG Swift PG348Q, which sports the same 34-inch uberwide and curved specs but ups the ante to 100Hz refresh. No word on price, but it won't be cheap. And yet it might still be the most desirable gaming monitor on the market for now.
If there was a non-surprise, albeit a welcome one, at CES it was the generous supply of fast solid-state drives. For instance, there's the OCZ RevoDrive 400, good for 2.6GB/s reads and 1.6GB/s writes and random access operations in the 140,000 to 210,000 range. With those figures, it can only really be an M.2 drive with NVMe support. Which it is, funnily enough. Pricing hasn't been announced, I don't think.
Or how about Zotac's new PCI Express drive? It's a straight adapter card that drops into a x4 PCIe slot and notches up 2.4GB/s and 1.2GB/s respectively. Zotac hasn't announced IOPS specs, but the drive's Phison PS5007-E7 controller is good for crazy numbers – 350,000 random reads per second and 250,000 random writes. Those kinds of numbers should make an absolutely tangible difference to how snappy a PC feels.
Then there's Patriot's new line of Hellfire drives. Patriot is doing both M.2 drives and add-in cards. The add-in version is claimed good for 3GB/s reads and 2.2GB/s writes. Again, no prices as yet.
These are all dizzying numbers compared to a typical SSD of the conventional SATA flavour. These typically top out at around 550MB/s and 100,000 random access operations per second. The only snag is that motherboard support varies. The add-in cards will work in pretty much any PC as a data drive, but BIOS support for that NVMe stuff is needed for bootable support. In other words, school up on your motherboard before you pull any triggers.
Bits and PCs
Elsewhere, we're into the individual items of interest. AMD was at CES bigging up its graphics and CPU plans. For the most part there was nothing we haven't already covered, but AMD did confirm plans to unify all its CPUs and APUs into a single socket. Yay. Goodbye AM3+ and FM2+. Hello AM4.
One nice little item was Razer's Core, a break out graphics box for laptops. Having a separate box containing a desktop graphics and designed to boost the gaming performance of a laptop is not a new idea.
Previously, such boxes had been tied to a specific laptop. The Core's USP is that it's compatible with any laptop with a Thunderbolt 3 port. At least, that was the initial buzz, before things were a little muddied by inferences that the Core 'could be' instead of 'will be' compatible with any Thunderbolt 3 port.
I'm not clear on the official status, but I think generally the direction of these boxes is towards more openess and cross compatibility. Of course, it's still no go with your knackered two-year old lappie. But it's setting things up nicely for the future of laptops that don't run out of gaming puff quite so quickly, methinks. Whatever the eventual outcome, it's another CES reveal that's so fresh out of the oven that pricing hasn't been set.
I quite like the sound of a new version of the Intel Compute stick, a PC-in-an-HDMI-dongle thing with a proper Core M processor and also some new quad-core NUC mini PCs incoming. But let's be honest, neither will be gameable.
And finally... In Win's ridiculous motorised, smartphone-app controlled transforming H-Tower PC case got a price. $2,399 or roughly £2,000. Silly for a PC case? Yup. But then it has a laser perimeter demarcation system, so frankly all bets are off. As am I. Off, that is. Until next time. Goodbyeee.