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    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!

    Mobile vs. Desktop: Apple iPad Pro and Microsoft Surface

    I've been testing the iPad Pro for the past week and a half now, using it not only as a go-to tablet, but also as an alternative to a notebook for as many day-to-day tasks as possible. I strapped it inside a Logitech Create keyboard and brought it as my sole computer for a weekend work trip to LA. There's a lot more testing to do--my Apple Pencil hasn't even shipped yet--but I wanted to share with you my thoughts on how the device performs, and where it fits and doesn't fit into my work and home use. Specifically, I want to discuss how it, along with other devices, are changing the conversation and role of what are typically classified as mobile and desktop-class computers.

    The release of Microsoft's new Surface devices (Surface Book and Surface Pro 4), along with the release of the iPad Pro has renewed the idea of mobile vs. desktop. You can find many reviews that boil their evaluation down to whether the iPad Pro can replace a laptop, or whether Microsoft's Surface laptops can replace the need for a tablet. I'm not interested in that head-to-head comparison--the products are set at different price points, and in my mind serve different purposes. Their hardware and software design illustrate different priorities for Microsoft and Apple for their respective families of computing devices. It's those priorities and design approaches that are really interesting; I want to compare what the iPad and Surface lines stand for: a future that's mobile first vs. one that's desktop first.

    To do that, we should first define our terms. So much of this discussion can get muddled in pointless semantic disagreements. When talking about the iPad and Surface, what categorizes one as mobile, and what categorizes the other as a desktop device? Is it the physical formfactor and size? Having a built-in keyboard? Long battery life? Processor architecture? Touchscreen? App selection? All of the above are important to varying degrees, but I think the difference currently boils down to windowed applications and input models, and how those implementations affect how you can use those machines.

    Windows and a Desktop: Multitasking for Productivity

    For me, the biggest difference in the way you currently use a desktop-class device (eg. a notebook) and a mobile device (eg. smartphone and tablet) depends on whether the operating system employs a desktop model of running programs and file management. As opposed to runnings apps full-screen, Desktop OSes allow for windowed applications to run alongside each other, on top of a virtual and visualized desktop surface. It's a really simple concept to understand, and yet there are grey areas. For example, the home screen on iOS doesn't count as a desktop--it's just an application list, like the Start Menu in Windows. Simple. But on Android OS, being able to arrange files and shortcuts around a launcher screen and run apps in windows makes those devices more akin to desktop OSes, even though Android is typically classified as a mobile OS.

    In Brief: Updated Backblaze Hard Drive Reliability Report

    Backblaze just updated its failure report for the 46,038 hard drives in its storage cluster at the time of the report, adding data for 4TB drives and reconfirming some of the conclusions from previous reports. The big takeaways are to avoid 3TB Seagate drives, while 4TB drives are at the sweet spot for performance and reliability now. It's definitely worth a read if you're in the market for a hard drive, and if you have a 3TB Seagate drive, I'd strongly suggest replacing it ASAP.

    Will 3
    Tested In-Depth: Microsoft Windows 10

    Microsoft's Windows 10 is finally here! We've been testing the beta for months as part of the Insider's Program, and sit down with the latest build right before public release to talk about our experience. We show off the new features, compare it with Windows 7 and 8, and give our thoughts as to whether you should install it. What are your thoughts on Microsoft's latest OS?

    Testing: Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Laptop

    A few months ago, Lenovo sent me their ThinkPad X1 Carbon laptop to test. While I ran it through our usual suite of benchmarks at the office, I've been waiting for a proper place to test it in the field. That opportunity came during Comic-Con, where I brought the ThinkPad along to complement my 12-inch MacBook. The MacBook, which has been my travel computer for the past few months, has been serviceable for most daily activities--web browsing, writing, and image editing. But I knew its Core-M processor would slog over more intensive tasks like exporting hundreds of photos at once or rendering video clips. The ThinkPad X1 Carbon's Broadwell-U processor--a Core i7-5600U in this loaner unit--was more suited for the job. And what a difference it made. After months of working on low-powered systems like the Core-M MacBook, UX305, and even the Atom-based Surface 3, this laptop reminded me of the joys of computing on a workhorse laptop.

    And a workhorse is exactly what a ThinkPad is supposed to be. The ThinkPad X1 line, which we first tested in 2011, has been in a awkward and elongated transitional period where it's straddled the line between Ultrabook and workhorse. What's the difference? A workhorse laptop is designed around performance and battery life, with ports galore and business-friendly features like fingerprint readers. They're no-compromise laptops--essentially the anti-2015 MacBook. Ultrabooks, though, are an Intel classification, denoting the use of a low-wattage Core CPU along with a thin-and-light chassis. The ThinkPad X1 Carbon line, with its tapered unibody design and non-removeable battery, has been more Ultrabook than workhorse--at least in the eyes of some ThinkPad enthusiasts. That was definitely the case with the previous ThinkPad X1 Carbon generation, which had a controversial keyboard redesign and touch function key strip.

    This year's generation ThinkPad X1 Carbon is a return to form, at least for the Carbon line (Wirecutter still recommends the ThinkPad T450s for business users). It's still very Ultrabook-y, with no replaceable battery and a intentionally slim 3-pound chassis. And while the laptop is equipped with HDMI and DP video output and two USB 3.0 ports, there's no internet SD card slot. Ports like Ethernet and VGA are reserved for adapters that plug into the wide power+I/O jack. The 14-inch 2560x1440 screen may not be as overkill as the 3200x1800 QHD+ screen found in Lenovo's Yoga Pro line, though I still think 1080p is a sweet spot for a laptop this size. This X1 Carbon also has a fantastic backlit chiclet keyboard with ample travel and a smooth glass trackpad. The trackpoint nub is still around, too, which complements the touchscreen for precision cursor control. Elements of ThinkPad remain, balanced between the design constraints of Ultrabooks. But what tips the X1 Carbon more toward the workhorse category is its performance. This laptop is fast.

    The Best Windows Ultrabook Today

    This post was done in partnership with The Wirecutter, a list of the best technology to buy. Read the full article below at TheWirecutter.com.

    The $1,100 Dell XPS 13 is the best Windows ultrabook for most people because it has a big, beautiful screen, the longest battery life of any Windows ultrabook, a great keyboard, and a decent trackpad. Above all, it's the smallest, lightest, best-designed ultrabook we've tested. We came to this conclusion after 70 hours of research and testing with seven different ultrabooks.

    The Dell XPS 13 (non-touch) is the best Windows ultrabook for most people.

    Who is this product for?

    Ultrabooks are best for people who need a super-portable, long-lasting laptop and don't mind paying a premium for it. They're overkill if you just want something you can leave on a desk and use for a couple of hours after work. The ideal ultrabook has enough processing power to get work done and sufficient battery life to survive a cross-country flight, while still being slim and light enough to go anywhere.