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Week in Tech: 2015 Hardware Hotness

Get a load of this dongle...

We wrapped up 2014 with the best hardware bits of the year. Ever the innovator, I'm thinking how better to start 2015 than a look at the likely highlights for the next 12 months? Empty speculation and a dash of rampant SEO cheekiness? Perish the very thought. Instead, hang your cynicism on a coat hook for half an hour and humour me. With upsides that start with faster graphics and cheaper SSDs and might extend to some free gaming performance for your PC courtesy of Microsoft, turning your TV into a massive gaming rig for under £100/$150 and perhaps even a VR revolution, 2015 might not be so bad after all.

What, then, looks hot for 2015? We could start with the CES show, but that's ongoing as I type. So we'll do highlights next week. For now, there's one nifty little item from the show floor that augurs, er, interestingly for this year. The Intel Compute Stick.

Put simply, it's an HDMI dongle with a full-function PC inside. Yup, Windows 8.1 (mingy Bingy version), a quad-core Atom CPU, 32GB storage, 2GB RAM, N-spec wireless and yours for $149. Running games on the stick itself is likely marginal at best. But on paper, it looks like it could be quite the thing for Steam game streaming.

Frankly, the idea of instantly turning anything with an HDMI port into a PC is plain awesome. If it works. We'll see.

On the subject of Steam streaming, what about Steam boxes in particular and Linux gaming in general? When it comes to Valve, who knows. They may suddenly drop the whole thing or just as likely finally pull the finger out and put a bazillion bucks into the project. That's the problem with an outfit with so much money to burn. They can easily afford to get it wrong.

Win10 probably won't rock our gaming worlds, but DX12 might

The next obvious candidate would be Windows 10. Except it's actually the upcoming DirectX 12 multimedia API that will be the, ya know, game changer. I remain somewhat sceptical, but the claim is that DX12 is going to make games run dramatically faster. The idea is to remove overheads and have games run on the PC more as they do on single-purpose games consoles.

The technicalities involve things like properly splitting game CPU loads over multiple threads so you can actually make use of those cores sitting idle in your PC and also reducing the overhead associated with draw calls. The latter bit is obviously gibberish but it means there will be less CPU work associated with each individual object rendered in a game. That's why Intel's DX12 performance demo last year involved zillions of asteroids (well, 50,000) being rendered in real time.

The best bit, on paper, is we'll get all this for free from a hardware perspective. It'll be compatible with most if not all DX11 graphics cards as far as I can tell.

Whether you'll actually get DX12 entirely for free isn't completely clear. Obviously Windows 10 isn't going to be free. And I don't think an absolutely categoric announcement has been made. But all the indications are DX12 will be released as a free update for Windows 8, though probably not for Windows 7. So that's some extra performance for absolutely nothing. Doesn't happen often.

DK2 was a big step up, how good will the retail Rift be?

A full retail version of the Oculus Rift headset and the dawn of VR gaming is an obvious mention for 2015, too. Virtually reality has hitherto been one of those techs that always seems like it's about 10 years away and somehow never gets any closer. Until Oculus Rift came along and made everything look a lot more plausible, that is.

Personally, I haven't had enough experience of the Oculus Rift to make a judgement call on this. But what I will say is that the difference today is that the hardware pieces of the VR puzzle are clearly in place. Unless you have things like cheap but super high-res screens, VR is a non-starter. But now we do and VR becomes predominantly a software problem.

And as Alec recently pointed out, it's far from the only VR game in town.

It could be the proverbial next big thing or just a clunky stepping stone between conventional screens and what I assume is the end game years hence - some kind of direct link into your visual cortex. But it's been a while since we had something that really changed the way we play games.

We don't even seem able to shake off the bloody keyboard and mouse, even if Elite:Dangerous may have had a few of you HOTAS'ing last year. Actually, what about Elite and Oculus for 2015? Sounds pretty sexy to me. Anyway, here's hoping 2015 is the year VR comes good.

Speaking of screens, will Freesync and / or support for high refresh rates be broadly adopted in monitor land this year? I doubt it. It's an awfully price-orientated market and new standards are frustratingly slow to catch on. So, I don't think HDMI 2.0 and 120Hz+ will be defaults in 2015, much less those features with IPS on a 40-inch 4K panel, that's for sure. Things will be more incremental, a year of consolidation.

I foresee 4K and 40 inches in my near future...

But that's not all bad given how much newness we had in 2014. So, all the hot new display formats, like those superwide panels, the curved stuff, the 4K shizzle and the rest should get a little cheaper and the arguable sweetspot 27-incher monitors with 1440p resolutions will hopefully become very mainstream indeed. With any luck, none of you buying a new monitor will have to settle for 1080p in 2015.

As for SSDs, 2015 should be fairly hawt. M.2 plus that NVMe stuff should become widespread and deliver the big jump in drive performance I've been waiting for over the last few years. Meanwhile, 3D flash memory should make 500GB drives cheap by year's end. The snag is that you can't just plug one of those new M.2 drives into any old motherboard. At the very least you'll need an adaptor card.

But what of ye olde olde CPUs and graphics? AMD isn't due to do anything remotely exciting on the CPU side and while Intel's high-end Haswell-E was a pleasant surprise, in general it continues to sandbag. So expect little by way of PC processor fireworks in 2015. Instead, incremental improvement will remain the name of the game.

AMD 290s will get even cheaper this year

Not so graphics. 2015 should finally see both AMD and Nvidia break free from the 28nm shackles that have been holding them back for around 18 months. Unless something goes hideously wrong, AMD should be wheeling out some new Radeon R9 300 Series boards and Nvidia will unleash some die-shrunk Maxwell GPUs including a true high end chip to sit above the new GTX 980.

Either way, by the end of 2015, there will be GPUs on offer that make today's quickest look pretty pedestrian and might just crack out decent 4K frame rates from a single graphics card. What they specifically won't be, however, is cheap. Not in 2015, at any rate. But new high end cards will inevitably put the squeeze on existing range toppers. So more pixel pumping for less cash will be the result. Hurray.

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Jeremy Laird