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    Maker Faire 2016: Pocket CHIP $49 Portable Computer

    Last year, we were impressed by Next Thing Co's $9 CHIP computer. At Maker Faire 2016, we were able to check out their PocketCHIP housing, which puts CHIP into a portable console package that runs Linux and indie game console Pico-8. Here's what you can do with the $49 system!

    Tested: Mechanical Gaming Keyboards

    What makes a good mechanical keyboard? And why are peripheral companies releasing new gaming keyboards so frequently? Patrick and Norm discuss the state of this essential accessory, and how the switches in new keyboards from Corsair, Razer, and Logitech compare. Which type of switch do you prefer?

    Tested: Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 Video Card

    GTX 1080 seems like such an odd product name, since it brings up the specter of gaming on a 1080p display. The GTX 1080 kills 1080p gaming dead, makes 1440p gaming the new normal, and finally puts 4K gaming within reach of a single GPU. While the GTX 1080 offers great performance, other attributes make the new GPU attractive for gamers. Let's be clear: the GTX 1080 represents the fastest single GPU graphics card you can buy, but performance may not be the primary reason to buy this card.

    By the Numbers

    Let's first touch on base specifications. Based on Nvidia's latest Pascal GPU architecture, Nvidia builds the GTX 1080 on a 16nm FinFET process at Taiwan's TSMC fab. This represents the first process shrink for an Nvidia GPU in two architectural generations, since the original Kepler-based GTX 680 moved to 28nm. FinFET technology incorporates transistors which extend vertically (the "fin"). FinFET reduces current leakage, enabling greater power efficiency. This allows Nvidia to build monster GPU chips without creating space heaters, if you will.

    That process technology allows Nvidia to create 7.2 billion transistor GPU using a 314mm2 die, considerably smaller than the GTX 980 die while stuffing an additional two billion transistors. This smaller, denser chip clocks at 1.6GHz base clock and 1.73GHz in boost mode; the GPU looks like it offers substantial overclocking headroom, if that floats your boat.

    In addition to all the process technology goodness, the GTX 1080 uses Micron's shiny new GDDR5X memory technology, which transfers data at 10 gigatranfers per second, boosting memory bandwidth by 30% over the GTX 1080 and within striking distance of the memory bandwidth of the massive GTX Titan while using a narrower, 256-bit memory bus. Pascal also improves on Maxwell's memory compression with its fourth generation delta color compression. Depending on game title, the new color compression techniques improve bandwidth 15-30%.

    The bottom line: the GTX 1080 has almost as many shader cores as the GTX 980 Ti, runs them 60% faster, and can move data almost as quickly. Based on these numbers alone, we'd expect a serious performance uptick.

    The State of Hard Drives in the SSD Age

    If you're a PC performance enthusiast without severe budget constraints, you're probably running an SSD in your system. Solid state drive prices continue to plummet, dropping below $0.22 per gigabyte on some 1TB models. While older systems may continue to run a secondary hard drive with rotating platters, newer systems, most users can get by with a single 1TB SSD.

    Alas, I'm not "most users". I just bought a Western Digital Black 6TB hard drive, which spins at 7,200RPM and includes a 128MB cache. The 6TB drive actually replaces two other drives, an aging 4TB WD drive and a really old 2TB Western Digital model. Why on earth do I need a 6TB drive? In reality, I don't — the 4TB drive alone would be adequate; I had two drives for historical reasons that no longer apply.

    On the other hand, the 4TB drive looked like it might need replacing. Adobe Lightroom occasionally rebuilds its catalog when you exit the program. I recently postponed the rebuild because my 4TB drive began making really weird noises during catalog rebuild, and seemed to take forever. A quick CHKDSK revealed no serious errors, but the noise and time to rebuild worried me. So I bought a new drive, and as I did, I thought to myself, why not 6TB? (This despite the fact that combining the 2TB drive contents onto the 4TB drive still leaves me with almost 2TB free).

    My pictures folder contains 1.07TB worth of photos, the documents folder is holds 242GB, and the downloads folder houses 1.3TB. Pruning some stuff out of the downloads folder would likely save 500GB, but that's about it. I'm a digital packrat, with terabytes to fill up. The 6TB drive also runs faster than the older 4TB, at least according to Storage Review, so that's a factor in its favor.

    The interesting thing about the drive, though, is its cost: $269, which translates to less than a nickel per gigabyte. It's going to be some time before SSDs approach that price point. I also use hard drives in my NAS. I've got a Drobo5n attached to my network, which contains five Western Digital Red 3TB NAS drives. Those drives cost even less, at a scant $0.04 per gigabyte. I'd hate to try to build a 15GB Drobo array with SSDs.

    Nvidia Announces GeForce GTX 1080 and 1070

    This may be the video card VR early-adopters have been waiting for. Last Friday, Nvidia announced the highly-anticipated consumer release of its Pascal GPU architecture in two GTX 1000 series video cards. Priced at $380 and $600, the GeForce GTX 1070 and 1080 each theoretically outperform last year's Titan X, an incredible feat given that Nvidia's previous flagship was priced at $1000. The Maxwell-based Titan X, if you recall, was the first video card I tested that you could comfortably play games at 4K resolution without any graphical compromises, which bodes well for these new cards. That performance is due to Pascal's architecture (with technologies like Simultaneous Multi-Projection and CUDA optimizations), which Nvidia claims is twice as efficient as Maxwell, while also benefitting from TSMC's 16nm FinFET process (Maxwell was built off of a 28nm process). GTX 1080 will run at a staggering 1607MHz core clock, from GTX 980's 1126MHz. The higher-end card will also be the first to utilize GDDR5X memory.

    Nvidia is also clearly aware that there's a huge potential customer base in virtual reality early adopters with the 1000 series cards. Aside from sheer pixel-pushing performance--which VR applications are more than happy to gobble up--the cards are supposed to be optimized for VR rendering tasks like lens distortion correction and stereo rendering. GeForce Experience will also have a new photo mode called Ansel, which will allow gamers to control a free-moving camera in-engine to take high-resolution 360-degree stereo screenshots for viewing in VR headsets. I can't wait to test these cards out, and it'll be interesting to see how AMD positions its upcoming Polaris graphics cards against Pascal.

    The Full-Tower PC Case is a Dinosaur

    I'd like to touch on something I ranted about a bit in the April 19 Improbable Insights podcast. The full-tower case is a dinosaur.

    Look, I know some of you out there love your triple-GPU, overclocked, liquid-cooled monster PCs. I love that you love building and using these lumbering beasts, and more power to you. However, most people don't game on triple-4K displays, and the headaches of managing SLI and CrossFire to get a good gaming experience gives me heartburn thinking about it. I know, because I've run SLI rigs, only to be disappointed with lackluster game support, awful image artifacts, and all that heat. I suppose it's a good thing that DX12 offers improved support for multiple GPUs, but game publishers still see multi-GPU setups as fringe cases. (Haha, see what I did there?)

    Unless you're dead set on running three GPUs, you don't need a full-size ATX motherboard. Most higher-end micro-ATX boards implement SLI and CrossFireX support, so you can run your twin graphics cards if you so desire. Micro-ATX mobos typically have four expansion slots; with the right slot setup, you could have your dual GPUs plus another card, be it a PCIe SSD or sound card. You can find a rich selection of micro-ATX motherboards offering serious overclocking support, amenities for liquid cooling, and other high-end features. Only a few years ago, only a few paltry micro ATX boards existed, mainly serving price-conscious buyers. Not so today.

    Mini-ITX motherboards allow you to build even smaller systems, as I did with my itty-bitty gaming rig. As with micro-ATX boards, the selection of mini-ITX boards expanded substantially over the past few years, and even include boards aimed at high end gaming — though you're still limited to one graphics card.

    How To Choose Your PC Processor

    Choosing the right PC processor lies at the intersection of what you need, what you can afford, what you want to accomplish, and your self image.

    The focus here is on desktop processors — in particular, desktop systems you plan on building youreself. Since laptop CPUs ship inside complete systems, that's a topic for another day. Note also that these are my rules of thumb. You may see things differently. When I've written these articles for other publications, I try to be dispassionate, but this time it's all about my choices.

    Let's run down each of these intersecting elements, shall we?

    Need

    I used to believe understanding your need to be the most important factor. I'm not convinced that's true any longer, mostly because even relatively low-end processors offer outstanding performance these days. Entry-level quad-core AMD processors can be had for under $100, while Intel's lowest-cost quad-core CPUs cost just a bit under $190, going back to Ivy Bridge, now three generations back. I'd steer away from dual-core desktop processors these days, since even web browsers now spawn multiple threads.

    Tested: Oculus Rift Review

    It's finally here! We've been testing the consumer version of the Oculus Rift for the past week, and share our thoughts and impressions of the final hardware and launch software. Norm and Jeremy discuss the most frequently asked questions about the ergonomics, display, screen door effect, tracking range, and how gamepad virtual reality games hold up. The new age of VR begins!

    Microsoft’s Build 2016: All the Important Stuff

    Microsoft's annual Build developer conference brings together thousands of people from around the world to showcase new development tools and services for use in updating and creating new apps that run across all of Microsoft's ecosystem, from desktop, to mobile, to the cloud, and now, even "holograms". And in the five years that it has been running, Build also gives us a glimpse at what's to come in future versions of Windows. Here's all the important stuff from this year's event.

    Microsoft Build 2016, San Francisco.

    Windows, Xbox, and UWP

    Unlike Google I/O or Apple's WWDC, Build didn't bring with it a developer preview of the next version of Windows with tons of new features. That's because ever since Windows 10 was released in preview form in October 2014, you can always be running the latest and greatest, bugs and all, by enrolling in Microsoft's Insider Program. However, that doesn't mean Microsoft didn't show off some cool new things that are still to come.

    This summer, Microsoft will begin rolling out the Windows Anniversary Update. Previously known as the Redstone 1 update available right now via the Fast Ring of the Insider Program, this free update will bring new features to all devices running Windows 10, including Xbox and Hololens.

    The way Windows handles stylus and pen input will see huge improvements through a new platform aptly called Windows Ink. Pen input is a prominent feature of Microsoft's own Surface devices. One feature of the Surface Pen is the ability to open OneNote with a single click of the top button. Well with the Anniversary Update and Windows Ink, clicking the Surface Pen's button will now open Ink Workspace. It comes out from the right side of the screen, similar to the Action Center, and it's essentially a dashboard for all things Pen related. It's unclear if you can change the button to still instantly launch OneNote, but you'll still be able to quickly access apps like OneNote and Sticky Notes via the Ink Workspace.

    The State of Monitors in the Age of VR

    With all the hype surrounding virtual and augmented reality, we'll still be using monitors as our primary visual tool for using our PCs going forward. Given that, I thought a quick update on what's going on in the world of PC displays might be useful.

    First, the good news: IPS and other high quality panels (SVA, etc.) are getting less expensive by the day. You can find 25-inch, 2560 x 1440 pixel (WQHD) displays for under $300 now, if you're willing to forego amenities such as adjustable stands and VESA mounts. I picked up an Acer G257HU for $258 recently. While the stand is terrible, the display itself, complete with ultra-thin bezel, looks pretty good. Color rendition isn't all that accurate, but for an inexpensive display, it looks pretty good.

    If you want something a bit larger, you can find 27-inch WQHD IPS, MVA, or SVA panels for under $500. So unless you're on a super-tight budget, you can avoid those terrible TN panels.

    PC gaming monitors continue a trend towards higher refresh rate, but remain locked in a war between Nvidia's G-Sync and AMD's FreeSync. The VESA standards body adopted FreeSync as an optional feature for DisplayPort, but until a universal standard exists, users will need to commit to one brand of video card to exploit the full capabilities of these high-refresh rate displays. G-Sync and FreeSync aren't just about higher refresh rates, but instead adapts the refresh rate of the display rate to the frame rate of the game. They also incorporate techniques to minimize frame collision, reducing stutter. This standards battle also comes with another problem: most of these displays are pretty pricey compared to standard 60Hz panels, commanding a 25-100% price premium, depending on manufacturer.

    However, if the displays EDID (extended display identification data) exposes the higher refresh rate, you can at least get that higher refresh rate, even if your graphics card can't take advantage of the more advanced features.

    How To Build a $1000 Virtual Reality Gaming PC

    It's been too long since we've built a PC! We bring back illustrious technology journalist Loyd Case to talk about the state of computer hardware, the technical requirements of VR rendering, and then put together a $1000 virtual reality-ready gaming PC! Here's how to build a computer from scratch in seven steps. (This is the PC we've been using for all of our VR testing!)

    HTC Vive Final Hardware and Valve's The Lab Impressions

    We check in with Valve at this year's Game Developer Conference to get up close with the final HTC Vive headset and play Valve's upcoming SteamVR demo: The Lab. Here's our interview with one of Valve's content developers, and our impressions of a few of The Lab's roomscale VR experiments. (Valve did not allow us to film the screen as part of the demo.)

    The State of the PC in 2016

    People perceive the personal computer as aging and obsolete next to our shiny new mobile phones, voice-activated home gear, and cloud-based software. In reality, the PC looks more relevant than ever, even as the PC market matures. A new emphasis on power efficiency, higher performance GPUs, and fast, but tiny, SSDs are reshaping what we think of as the PC. Let's take a look at the trends and technologies reshaping the PC as we know it in 2016, and how those will affect what we choose to buy or build.

    Incremental technology improvements, PC gaming, and a shift away from performance to power management define the personal computer in 2016. I'm also seeing a resurgence of the 2-in-1 laptop, with detachable keyboard and tablet-like display, mostly due to Microsoft's Surface 4 Pro and Surface Book. On the wane: experiments in new or exotic form factors.

    Let's look at a few of these key trends and see what they mean for building and upgrading PCs in the coming year. First, we'll take a look at changes on the component level, then figure out what that means for different classes of PC users.

    Incremental Technology Improvements

    While you can measure the difference in performance between Intel's 32nm Sandy Bridge processors and today's Skylake processors, that difference doesn't translate to big gains overall. That seems surprising; after all, Skylake is the third generation beyond Sandy Bridge, and two process nodes smaller.

    If you start looking at platform differences, you find more substantial reasons to upgrade. The last chipset dedicated to Sandy Bridge, the Z68, only offered integrated USB 2.0 and PCI Express 2.0. USB 3.0 didn't arrive until Ivy Bridge, and while you could run Sandy Bridge processors on Intel x75 or x77 core logic, they were really built for Ivy Bridge.

    The Future of PC Benchmarks

    Early in my technology writing career, I found myself standing in the graphics card aisle of a major computer superstore, contemplating the raft of 3D accelerators available. I noticed this guy walk in, carrying a Computer Gaming World magazine, back in that publication's heyday. He had the magazine turned to the my most recent roundup of 3D graphics card. So I waited and watched.

    He walked up and down the row of cards, stacked on eight-foot high shelves. He would look at the magazine, flip through the pages, grab a package off the shelf, then put it back. The cycle of reading a review, looking at a card, then returning it continued for a good fifteen minutes. Finally, he snapped the magazine shut, looked at the rows of cards one more time. Then he picked up the cheapest card — one I hadn't even reviewed — and headed towards the cash register.

    I felt a little deflated, needless to say. All that work benchmarking a dozen or more graphics cards. All that seemed to do was confuse the poor guy looking for an upgrade for his PC.

    Fast forward to today, and benchmarking is practically a big business. Companies like Futuremark, Basemark, and Kishonti built businesses on creating benchmarks. Tech sites of all stripes, PC, mobile, and mainstream, run benchmarks and produce endless charts of results. I'm not criticizing their work; I've certainly run thousands of benchmarks over the years and learned a lot about system performance. I read a lot of what the modern enthusiast and tech sites put out, and check out the benchmark charts pretty frequently.

    I think most users really don't care about "raw performance".

    I think, however, most users really don't care about performance. They may care about responsiveness — how quickly the system responds to something they do — but not about raw performance. On top of not caring, most users find their performance perfectly adequate. Unless you're creating high end content, running performance-intensive games, or compiling most modern PCs and mobile devices have all the performance people need. For mobile in particular, users tend to value battery life above performance by a wide margin.

    So while I might find benchmarks useful to me, I'm part of that tiny fraction of users who care about performance.

    Tested: Raspberry Pi 3 $35 Computer

    We have the recently-announced Raspberry Pi 3! Patrick stops by to show off the differences between the 3rd-generation Raspberry Pi and previous models, and demonstrate why this is the first time he's felt like the performance has been good enough to use for daily computing. Here's what you get for $35.

    Tested: The $5 Raspberry Pi Zero Computer

    The versatile Raspberry Pi has been used for countless home computing projects, and the latest variant of the single-board computer is smaller than ever and only costs $5. Patrick Norton stops by to talk about what you can do with the Raspberry Pi Zero, and what accessories you need to make it usable.

    Tested In-Depth: Dell XPS 13 Laptop

    Our senior technology correspondent Patrick Norton joins us this week to review the Dell XPS 13 laptop! This 13.3-inch version of the beautiful XPS 15 also runs on an Intel Skylake Core i5 processor, has a solid keyboard and trackpad, and sports that brilliant display.

    Interview: Palmer Luckey on Oculus Rift's Launch Price and Hardware

    We couldn't leave CES without checking in with the Oculus team and checking out the final hardware and packaging for the Oculus Rift. Oculus founder Palmer Luckey chats with us about the Rift's $600 price, how much custom hardware goes into building the headset, Oculus Touch changes, and Oculus Home software.

    Hands-On with Razer Blade Stealth and Razer Core

    Razer is known for unveiling far-out gaming hardware concepts at CES, but this year's product reveal seems more practical. The Razer Blade Stealth is an Ultrabook, running an Intel Core i7 processor and integrated graphics. However, games can run on an external graphics card in the form of the Razer Core, which simply connects to the laptop over a Thunderbolt cable!