The strange story of the PC’s not-death
Oh no, not another $1,000 graphics card
Remember when the PC was dying-going-on-dead? Actually, it’s still dying with analysts prognosticating a further five per cent slippage in PC shipments this year. And yet the PC gaming hardware industry hit record sales in 2016, busting the $30 billion barrier in the process. Meanwhile, the market for innovative PC technology that’s at least ostensibly gaming-relevant has gone positively mental. Not that gaming PCs doing better than regular PCs is breaking news. But I wonder how much we're all actually benefiting from those 18-core CPUs, VR headsets, 240Hz superwide monitors and 1TB SSDs. How much better, in other words, have your gaming PCs really got?
People don’t buy as many PCs as they used to. And for sound reasons. For most, PC technology is already good enough. They don’t need or even want more performance or capability bar perhaps better battery life from portable systems. A laptop that lasted a week really would be a worthwhile upgrade.
Meanwhile, phones and tablets have closed much of the performance and capability gap. So the PC as a domestic computing appliance is on a gradual slide towards relative obscurity. So far, so obvious.
If that’s the generic PC death narrative, the flip side has been a gaming and enthusiast PC market in rude health, with 2016 breaking records in terms of hardware revenues. For a while, that was arguably only true in terms of dollars, cents, unit sales and, indeed, those revenues. The hardware itself felt fairly stagnant.
Not any longer. The latest bombshell is Intel’s decision to leap from 10 to 18 cores for its top desktop CPUs. But that’s just the latest in a series of innovations over the last 18 months to two years.
From flat screens to VR headsets, it’s all gone a bit mental. Samsung recently announced a 49-inch 32:9 aspect ratio gaming monitor with quantum dot backlight technology, FreeSync 2 support and a 3,840 by 1,080 pixel native resolution.
In the past I’d have assumed it was a flight of fancy, mere technological showboating on Samsung’s behalf and utterly impractical. But then I once thought the same about curved 21:9 aspect superwide screens and now they’re not only offered by every major monitor maker, I’ve also come round to them myself.
At the same time, SSDs are rapidly taking on multi-GB/s capabilities that used to be the preserve of system memory and motherboards are sprouting all manner of weird and wonderful features. Asus will do you one of its fancy new X299 motherboards for those crazy Intel CPUs with an integrated OLED status display capable of showing not just a few debug codes but actual graphics. Pointless, perhaps, but also symptomatic of that high-end PC market in rude health.
It’s also a £500-odd motherboard and it brings me to my main point here. For what you might call conventional gamers who just want to play games, both the slow demise of the domestic PC and explosion of pricey trinkets are arguably both irrelevant.
Would sir care for a £500 motherboard to go with that £1,000 CPU?
Back in the mainstream of gaming hardware where most of us operate, even the arrival of AMD’s otherwise impressive Ryzen CPU hasn’t done much for performance - or as yet pricing. Meanwhile, graphics cards have grown progressively more expensive to the point where the $1,000 GPU is no longer remarkable and mid-range cards are priced up where the high end was five or six years ago. Remember when AMD said it was going to focus on the $200-300 market that mattered most?
In short, all we gamers really want is a good CPU and a quick video board at a decent price. The ability to achieve that hasn’t exactly disappeared. But the recent boom in fancy, high-feature gaming kit hasn’t really helped much, either.
You could argue that the one exception is screens. You can now choose from various high-res options at relatively reasonable prices. 1440p is no longer remotely exotic. You can also buy a tolerable 1080p panel for pennies. On the other hand, if you want properly good 1440p display, one with an IPS screen and 120Hz-plus refresh, it still costs a bomb. That Samsung screen I mentioned, incidentally, is around £1,500 / $1,500).
Remember when $200-$300 bought you AMD's latest high-performance graphics cards?
Given that a half-decent 40-inch-plus 4K TV can now be had for under £500 and likewise that tablet computers with super-high pixel density can be had for pennies, I’m not sure I understand what is propping up PC monitor prices. The combination of high refresh, high res and a decent panel remains really expensive.
All of which means that despite the good and bad news stories at either end of the narrative scale, not all that much has changed for your common or garden PC gamer. 18-core CPUs, motherboards with OLED displays, bonkers-wide monitors are fun. Moreover, I’m as guilty as the next hack of arguably giving such innovations more airtime than they deserve and bigging up all the latest developments with breathless enthusiasm. But for most of us the high-end shizzle is ultimately neither here nor there. My sense is that the gaming PC for most of us today is little changed from that of five years ago.
But maybe that’s just me. Does all the noise about high-end kit seem increasingly irrelevant to real-world RPS gamers when what you’d far prefer is more affordability from the core components, not another $1,000 GPU? Or have recent innovations radically improved your gaming experience and I’m just being a sour old stick in the mud? Sock it to me below.