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    The Best 4K Monitor Doesn't Exist Yet

    Like 1080p before it, 4K is the new, ultra-high-resolution format that promises better detail and greater image clarity due to the huge number of pixels packed into your screen. “Buttery-smooth text rendering and wonderfully detailed photos,” promises MakeUseOf. Just consider the quality differences between Apple’s Retina Display MacBooks and its standard MacBooks: it's the same pixel-increasing principle.

    That said, we don’t think it’s the right time to buy one.

    While most 4K monitors are still very expensive, we’re starting to see a growing number priced under $1,000: Samsung’s $700 U28D590D, Dell’s $700 P2815Q, and Asus’ $650 PB287Q are already available. Intel and Samsung even recently announced a partnership where they’ve pledged to try and push high-quality, 23-inch 4K monitors to a super-low price of $399. We think it’s worth waiting for some of that to pan out rather than pushing for an expensive early-adopter monitor right now (though you’d be foolish to buy a 24-inch 4K display, we can only hope that Intel and Samsung’s ambitions can push down prices on larger displays).

    Even expensive 4K monitors struggle with the same major weaknesses right now: outdated display connections, beefy hardware requirements, and lack of OS/application support. Cheap 4K monitors can have all those problems and more, sacrificing image quality in order to cut costs.

    In Brief: How Long Should a Consumer SSD Last?

    The computer you're using now will not last forever. The most you can hope is that by the time you're ready to replace it or swap out parts for upgrades, those components won't have already failed. But some components have longer expected lifespan than other. We know that hard drives, with regular use, are guaranteed to eventually fail--a Backblaze study pinned median lifespan for a modern spinning drive to six years. But what about SSDs? TechReport has been running an endurance test on six SSDs since last August, continuously writing to those drives until the NAND cells wear out. 10 months later, three of those drives are still running, having processed over a petabyte of data. That's far beyond the manufacturer-rated lifespans of these drives (Intel rates its drives for 20GB of writes per day for three years). TechReport's analysis of their endurance test explains why SSDs will inevitably die, and why most consumers shouldn't have to worry about abrupt failures. In fact, the three drives that did die didn't even significantly slow down near their end-of-life. (h/t Arstechnica)

    Norman 1
    Microsoft Announces Surface Pro 3

    Only eight months have passed since Microsoft announced the second-generation Surface devices, and Panos Panay once again took the stage at a press conference in New York to unveil a Surface Pro refresh. This time the differences and upgrades feel a little more meaningful, or at least more focused for Surface's intended users (students and professionals). Surface Pro 3 was the only new product announced today, and it's not just a spec bump from the Pro 2. This is still Microsoft's laptop replacement--an x86 device (running Windows 8.1 Pro, natch) meant to compete with Apple's MacBook Air. To that end, its LCD screen is now bumped up to 12 inches, with a 3:2 aspect ratio and a native resolution of 2160x1440. That's a pretty significant bump from the 10-inch 1080p screen of the previous Surface Pros, with the change in aspect ratio the most meaningful difference for multi-window and portrait orientation use. The capacitive Windows Start button is now moved to the short edge as well to encourage portrait orientation when used without a keyboard.

    Speaking of the keyboard, Microsoft has also updated the Type Cover with magnets so it can stick to the screen when, you know, used as a cover. It also has a larger trackpad. The Surface kickstand gets not just one new angle, but is now "continuous", meaning it can stay rigid at many more angles--the example Microsoft gave was a "canvas" mode for drawing. It's reminiscent of the flexibility of Lenovo's Yoga laptop, but hopefully with more stability at low-angled orientations. What will also help is the weight of the Surface Pro 3, now reduced to 800 grams (1.76 pounds) without any accessories. Decidedly a two-handed device, if used as a tablet. Battery life is pegged at 9 hours for web browsing, according to Microsoft.

    This Surface Pro still includes a pressure sensitive digitizer pen, as well as a USB 3.0 port and microSD slot. Microsoft also chose to stick with Intel's 4th-gen mobile Haswell chips, with the Core i5 model being the Core i5 4300U processor with HD4400 graphics. The entry-level Surface Pro 3 will run on the Core i3 processor (as yet unspecified), which allows Microsoft to set the base price to an attractive $800. My guess is that this was a last-minute decision to respond to Apple's MacBook Air price slashing earlier this month, and would recommend that you look closely at the specs. The $800 Surface Pro 3 has 64GB of storage and 4GB of memory, with the 128GB SSD model bumping the price to $1000. People who are going to use the Surface Pro 3 as their primary computer will likely want the Core i5 model with 256GB of storage and 8GB of RAM--which starts at $1300. Ad is the new Type Cover ($130) and that's $1430 for a well-spec'ed system before tax. That's the one I would get if I was in the market for a Surface Pro 3 as my daily carry.

    Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 goes on sale tomorrow online and at Microsoft stores. We're most interested with what users can get with the starting price of $800, and will likely be testing that model. Clarification: Pre-orders for the new Surface begin May 21, and only the i5 models will start shipping on June 20th. The other configurations, including the $800 i3 model, will ship in August.

    The Best Business Laptop Today

    If I had to get a no-BS, reliable laptop for everyday work—and an ultrabook just wouldn't cut it—I'd get the Lenovo Thinkpad T440s. It's fast, durable (military-specification certified for ruggedness, among other things), highly configurable, and user-serviceable. And it has ports and features that business people need and ultrabooks generally lack. But if you don't need all the ports, the hot-swappable batteries, or the bulk of the ThinkPad, consider the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro. If you dig ThinkPads, want something smaller, and our main pick is no longer available, we also like the ThinkPad X240.

    How we picked/what is a “business laptop” anyway?

    For most people, an ultrabook like the MacBook Air or the Acer Aspire S7-392 is the right laptop. Most people don’t need hot-swappable batteries, upgradable components, a VGA port, a SmartCard reader, or any of the other mainstays of business laptops. Unless they do, in which case our regular ultrabook picks just won’t cut it. They need something else, something we’re calling a “workhorse” or business laptop. (We discuss more on this later in the “What makes a good workhorse laptop?” section.)

    Workhorse laptops are for road warriors and business people who need decently equipped laptops they can count on.

    Workhorse laptops are for road warriors and business people who need decently equipped laptops they can count on. A good workhorse should have enough battery life to last you an entire cross-country flight. It should be rugged enough that you don’t need to baby it, but portable enough that you don’t feel like you’re weighed down. It should be fast enough to deal with normal office workloads—no gaming and minimal video editing required. This means we’re looking for a current-generation Haswell ULV processor with integrated graphics, 8GB of RAM, and as much solid state storage as we can get.

    It needs a high-quality, high-resolution screen—1920×1080 is the sweet spot—and a rock-solid keyboard and trackpad. It should have fast, reliable Wi-Fi. You should be able to plug it into an external monitor, an Ethernet cord, a USB 3.0 flash drive, or a projector without hunting around for an adapter. Basically, it has to be good at everything. Ideally it’d have a 13- or 14-inch screen and weigh less than four pounds.

    In Brief: Intel's Haswell Refresh is Underwhelming

    When we saw Apple's refreshed 2014 MacBook Airs late last month, it wasn't a big surprise that this was the least exciting hardware update to the lineup in a few generations--the $100 price drop was the most notable change. That's because Intel hasn't had its major chipset upgrade for this year. We didn't see a generational shift like we did with Sandy Bridge/Ivy Bridge/Haswell. Intel does have a new 9 Series chipset that they're currently rolling out this week, but the CPUs that come along with it are Haswell refreshes, boosted by 100MHz. As ArsTechnica reports, this release is relatively underwhelming because Intel had to delay its Broadwell CPUs until the second half of this year, due to complications in Intel's new 14nm manufacturing process. Broadwell is supposed to bring along a significant Iris GPU update, as well as up to 30% increased power efficiency. Based on Anand's tests, the new Haswell desktop CPUs are the ones to get if you're looking to build a new PC today, but I would hold off until the end of the year and see what the Broadwell "tock"-release looks like.

    Norman
    Tested: Gigabyte Brix Pro Mini PC

    The Brix Pro is a tiny, nearly cube-shaped PC sold by Gigabyte. Inside is an Intel Core i7 4770R running at 3.2GHz and including Intel Iris Pro graphics. I love this little PC. I also hate this little PC.

    Before I talk about the duality of my testing experience with Gigabytes slick little design, let’s talk about its unique design elements.

    The Brix Pro is just 4.3 inches x 4.5 inches and just 2.4 inches high.

    Brix Pro: Outside and In

    The $650 Brix Pro is similar to Intel’s NUC (Next Unit of Computing) concept, but just a bit bigger. Gigabyte’s goal was not to build the smallest possible PC, but to build the smallest possible, high performance PC. That laudable goal dictated some of the key design elements.

    Size. The Brix Pro is pretty small, at 4.5 x 4.3 x 2.4 inches. It’s bigger than Intel’s NUC, however, which is less than 1.4 inches tall.

    Components. The highest end Brix Pro ships with an Intel Core i7 4770R CPU, with four cores and supporting eight threads. It runs at 3.2GHz, as opposed to the 2.5GHz Core i5 Intel uses in its NUC. The 4770R includes Intel’s Iris Pro GPU. The Iris Pro is a GT3e GPU, in Intel’s parlance, which includes two full graphics “slices.” This translates to 40 execution units. Since each EU contains 8 shader cores, that’s 400 shader cores. The “e” in GT3e refers to the 128MB of high speed, off-chip cache that’s built into the CPU package. The GT3e can run at speeds up to 1.3GHz.

    This is where a potential problem crops up, as we’ll see shortly. The GT3e itself is rated at over 50W TDP by itself. The entire Core i7 4770R is rated at a 65W TDP. While relatively low power by Intel standards (the desktop Core i7 4770K is rated at 84W), that’s still a lot of heat to dissipate in such a tiny box.

    Show and Tell: Intel's NUC Mini PC

    For this week's Show and Tell, Will tests Intel's NUC "Next Unit of Computing" small form-factor computer. This tiny box is a full-fledged PC, running on Intel's current-gen Haswell processor and integrated graphics. With low power consumption and the ability to mount of a back of a television, it can be a great home theater streaming PC or light gaming machine.

    Tested Explains: What Makes a Supercomputer?

    How do engineers build today's supercomputers, and how are the world's fastest computers ranked? We visit the Texas Advanced Computing Center, home of one of the world's top supercomputing clusters, to learn about and how researchers tap into petaflops of processing power. We're talking about a system with 270 Terabytes of RAM and 14 Petabytes of storage!

    Designing and Building an "Open-Hardware" Laptop

    Notable hardware hacker bunnie Huang is building a completely open laptop, and you may be able to buy one too. Novena, which was first announced to the world in December 2012, is designed to be open from the ground up--the design of everything from the CPU to the PCB to the batteries are documented to be as transparent as possible. It's the most ambitious attempt yet at a fully open hardware platform.

    Says Huang on the project's site: "Novena is a 1.2GHz, Freescale quad-core ARM architecture computer closely coupled with a Xilinx FPGA. It's designed for users who care about open source, and/or want to modify and extend their hardware: all the documentation for the PCBs is open and free to download, the entire OS is buildable from source, and it comes with a variety of features that facilitate rapid prototyping."

    The Novena project launched on Crowd Supply on April 2nd and will run until May. In the blog post announcing the campaign, bunnie wrote, "Originally, this started as a hobby project to build a computer just for me and xobs – something that we would use every day, easy to extend and to mod, our very own Swiss Army knife." But enough people were interested in the prospect of a fully open, hackable computer that they decided to crowdfund a small run of components. The Novena project has already raised over $200,000 of the $250,000 goal, with just over three weeks left to go.

    Photo Credit: Make

    But how realistic and practical is an open-hardware laptop? What does being open-hardware even mean? We dive into the technical details of the Novena project and chat with bunnie about his ambitions and where the project is so far.

    Testing: Logitech G502 Proteus Core Gaming Mouse

    Wait, wasn't it just one year ago that Logitech released the G500s, the rebirth of its venerated G5 line of gaming mice? Hold on for just a second while I check my review. Yep, that was just last March. But here we are, with another new high-end gaming mouse, the G502. And this year, Logitech's given it a fancy moniker: the Proteus Core. I'm not sure if that's meant to evoke a certain StarCraft faction in gamers' minds, or simply a take on the SAT-friendly word 'protean', meaning versatile or adaptable. The latter's likely the case, given the G502's ability to be calibrated for different mousing surfaces (glass and mirrors notwithstanding). Regardless, Logitech's new flagship is an aggressive product, an $80 mouse that not only succeeds last year's G500s, but revamps the design of Logitech's gaming mouse line. That curvy G5 design that I was so hot on last year has once again been retired (at least temporarily).

    I've been testing the G502 for about a week, in first-person shooters, real-time strategy games, and lots of desktop imaging work. I'm not a MOBA player, so my perspective may not reflect those playing the dominant PC gaming game type today. And as I've said before, a gaming mouse is an accessory that most people rarely change--they find the one that works for them and stick with it. If you like the Razer DeathAdder, Mad Catz R.A.T., or even Logitech's own previous G-series, mice, there's really not a lot of reason to spend another $80 on a new gaming mouse unless your current one breaks. Gaming mice technology has really reached a point where every new generation of product offers fewer new benefits; product engineers really feel like they're reaching when they push the boundaries of sensor DPI or add more configurable buttons. And the G502 has plenty of those new back-of-box features, for sure. Let's run through them and evaluate whether they truly add any benefit to your gaming experience.

    Arguably the most important component in a gaming mouse is its sensor, and the G502's optical (IR) sensor was apparently designed from the ground up to introduce two notable features. The first is DPI (dots per inch, or technically counts per inch) sensitivity that ranges from 200 to 12000. You read that correctly: this mouse is sensitive to past 10,000 DPI, which I believe is a first for a gaming mouse. (Consider that the G5, circa 2005, topped out at 2000 DPI). At that maximum setting, the tiniest flick of the wrist will send the cursor all the way across a 1080p panel; it's meant for gamers who want to make extremely large movements quickly, or desktop users running multiple monitors spanning many thousands of pixels wide. Of course, high DPI doesn't denote accuracy, just sensitivity. A mouse set to 10,000 DPI isn't useful if it isn't accurate at that "resolution"--the trick is testing the mouse's accuracy at the sensitivities that you find most useful.

    The Best Portable Hard Drive Today

    After 30 hours of research and nearly 40 hours of testing, we determined that the 2TB Seagate Backup Plus Slim is our new favorite portable hard drive. It’s slimmer, lighter, and faster than our previous pick, the WD My Passport Ultra. However, you should not buy the 4TB version, also known as the Seagate Backup Plus Fast. Though it may seem like a better value, it’s not as reliable (more on this later).

    The 2TB Seagate Backup Plus Slim weighs just 0.33 pounds and is one of the thinnest portable drives out there, measuring .48 inches thick. The Slim also bests our previous pick, the WD My Passport Ultra, in speed, and the drive’s plastic case doesn’t flex or creak under pressure like the WD’s case. The 2TB model is less expensive per terabyte than the 1TB and 500GB models, making it the best value aside from the 4TB Seagate Backup Plus Fast, which you should avoid.

    Photo credit: Flickr user linsinchen via Creative Commons.

    But the WD My Passport Ultra is still a solid alternative should our new pick go out of stock. If you’re in need of a ruggedized drive, our previous recommendation, theSilicon Power Armor A80, is still the best shockproof and waterproof option available. And for professionals or those who know they need a Thunderbolt connection, we still recommend the LaCie Rugged Thunderbolt.

    Who should(n’t) buy this

    If your external hard drive is just going to sit on your desk all the time and never budge, you’re better off with a desktop external because it’s faster and you can get more storage for less money. For example, our desktop pick—which isn’t the fastest desktop hard drive out there—has faster read and write speeds by about 30 megabytes per second and is about $20 cheaper per terabyte than our portable recommendation at the time of writing.

    You’ll be paying more per terabyte and sacrificing some speed, but a portable hard drive can be the perfect backup solution for your laptop.

    But if you need an external drive that can be (carefully) tossed in a bag and used on the go, a portable hard drive is just what you’re looking for. You’ll be paying more per terabyte and sacrificing some speed, but a portable hard drive can be the perfect backup solution for your laptop or a way to store photos and other data while traveling or commuting.

    Most portable externals use 2.5-inch hard drives, which are powered entirely by the USB or Thunderbolt connection. This means that portable hard drives don’t need an additional power adapter, unlike desktop external drives, and are consequently more convenient to use while traveling. Portable hard drives are usually much smaller and lighter than their desktop counterparts.

    However, most portable hard drives have smaller platters and slower rotation speeds, which translates to slower read and write times and longer waits for file transfers. The 2.5-inch HDDs typically found in portable drives currently max out at 2TB, compared to 3.5-inch desktop external drives that go up to 4TB. So if you need more than 2TB, you’ll be stuck buying multiple portable externals versus a single desktop drive. Again, portable hard drives are also generally more expensive per terabyte than desktop options.

    The Problem with High-PPI Windows Display Scaling

    High-resolution screens are getting more and more common. You can get a pretty good 27-inch 2560x1440 screen for $300, and cheap 4K displays are on the horizon--although you shouldn't actually buy one yet. And of course there's all those 13-, 14-, and 15-inch laptops with high-resolution screens, from 2560x1440 screen available on the Acer Aspire S7 and Toshiba Kirabook, to the 3200x1800 displays on the Samsung Ativ Book 9 Plus and Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro. And, of course, the Retina MacBook Pro, the granddaddy of the genre, with its 2560x1600 13-inch and 2880x1800 15-inch form factors.

    These high-res ultrabooks are beautiful when they work properly, but I don't think you should actually buy one. Especially not one to run Windows desktop applications.

    At 27 inches, a 2560x1440 display is amazing, because you can use it without scaling the Windows UI at all. You can comfortably fit two 1280px-wide windows side-by-side, which means you can get the benefit of two smaller monitors in one. Here's what that looks like. There's so much room for activities!

    But that's 2560x1440 at 27 inches, or about 109 pixels per inch. Cramming the same number of pixels (or more!) into a 13.3-inch screen ups your pixel density to 221PPI. It's a much sharper image, but if you leave Windows display scaling at 100%, the desktop user interface becomes unbearably tiny--just look at those taskbar icons.

    10 Things You Should Know about DirectX 12

    It’s about efficiency, not new features

    The new DirectX will add a few new rendering features, but those new features aren’t as important as efficiency. Direct3D 12 has a thinner abstraction layer between the operating system and the hardware. Game developers will have more control over how their code talks to graphics hardware. Overhead is reduced substantially. Time for threads to complete has been reduced by 2-5x in some cases.

    Only Direct3D 12 has been discussed

    Most gamers tend to think of Direct3D when DirectX is mentioned, and the focus of the recent announcement is indeed on D3D. There was no discussion of audio, game controller interfaces, Direct2D or other aspects of DirectX. Part of the reason for this early peak at DirectX 12 is that AMD’s Mantle, a direct-to-metal API with similar ambitions, was starting to get some traction. Microsoft no doubt worried that API fragmentation would return game development to the bad old days, where you wouldn’t be able to run any game on any graphics card.

    DirectX 12 is now a console API

    Direct3D 12 will run on the Xbox One. The execution environment has been described as “console-like,” which probably means the layers are thinner. This makes sense today, since most modern GPUs are really highly parallel and highly programmable. What this means for future versions of Windows is unknown, since Direct3D is the rendering API for Windows 8 and beyond. I hope Microsoft doesn’t “freeze” the Windows API at D3D 8. We’d once again be in a situation where application developers might end up using different APIs than game developers.

    In Brief: Nvidia Announces $3000 Titan Z Video Card

    Wasn't it just one month ago that Nvidia announced its GeForce GTX Titan Black video card? Yes, I'm sure it was, because I was in a meeting with them when they mentioned it while briefing me on Maxwell. Titan Black was supposed to be their new super high-end video card--a GTX Titan that ran at an unfettered 889MHz core clock (boosted to 980MHz), and 7GHz GGDR5 memory. Basically a suped-up GTX 780 Ti, priced at $1000. Well that's only one third the price of the new Titan Z video card, announced today at Nvidia's GPU Technology Conference in San Jose. Titan Z is basically two Titan Black cards crammed into one--a total of 5,760 processing cores (two GK110 chips), and 12GB of dedicated frame buffer memory. There's no word about its availability, or other important details like power consumption, but it's clearly a boutique product that's more for prestige than anything. PC Gamer should get one (or two) for their Large Pixel Collider.

    Norman 4
    Testing Maxwell: Nvidia's Six-Inch Hammer

    Nvidia recently unleashed its latest graphics architecture on the world, Maxwell. The first iteration is the GTX 750, a GPU that will be the core of a graphics card whose asking price will typically be under $150. Two variants of the GTX 750 will be shipping, the GTX 750 and the GTX 750 Ti. I’ll get into the differences shortly.

    Once upon a time, the first iteration of a GPU architecture would show up as powerful, power-hungry beasts of a graphics card. That changed a bit when Nvidia introduced its first Kepler card aimed at gamers, the GTX 680. The GTX 680 took the gaming world by surprise, delivering leading edge performance, but was miserly on power consumption and low on fan noise, particularly when compared to Nvidia’s earlier GTX 580s and AMD’s Radeon HD 7970s.

    Still, the GTX 680 was a high end card, even though it broke the mold a bit as to what a high end card should be. The GTX 750 Ti’s typical asking price is $150. The overclocked EVGA GTX 750 I’ll be looking at is $169, but it’s both overclocked and ships with a 2GB frame buffer. You can find GTX 750 Ti cards from several manufacturers running at reference clocks for $149. GTX 750 1GB cards can be had for as little $119. I’ll take a look at performance of the EVGA GTX 750 Ti SC and an Nvidia GTX 750 Ti reference card, which also has a 2GB frame buffer, but runs at standard core clocks.

    But first, let’s look at Maxwell.

    Hands-On: Oculus Rift Development Kit 2 Virtual Reality Headset

    New Oculus VR hardware! We get our hands on the second development kit for the Oculus Rift at GDC 2014 and chat with Oculus VR's Nate Mitchell about the roadmap to the final consumer release (plus their thoughts on Sony's VR efforts). Here's how DK2 differs from past prototypes, our impressions of it with new tech demos, and why you should still hold off until the final product.

    The Best Computer Speakers Today

    If someone asked me what’s the best all-around buy in a 2.0-channel computer or desktop speaker system today, I’d recommend the M-Audio Studiophile AV 40. It offers sound that’s competitive with everything we’ve heard under $300, yet it’s readily available for just $119.

    That said, the AV 40s can be a bit large and not very nice to look at, so we have some alternative picks as well. The Audioengine A2+ is sleekly designed, super-compact, and sounds fantastic, although it isn’t real loud and doesn’t have a lot of bass. The Grace Digital GDI-BTSP201 sounds good (although not as good as the AV 40 or the A2+) and adds Bluetooth wireless plus a user-friendly design and control layout. The Edifier Spinnaker has a cool, cutting-edge design with a handy wireless remote, Bluetooth, and pretty good sound.

    Photo credit: Flickr user mikeporesky via Creative Commons.

    Unfortunately, while all these speakers have okay bass response, if you want really big bass, you’ll probably want a 2.1 system, which will include a separate subwoofer. (It’s difficult or impossible to add a subwoofer to most 2.0 computer speaker systems.) We expect to test 2.1 systems soon.

    PC Building: Pay More Up Front or Upgrade Regularly?

    Smartphones are essential. Ultrabooks are great. But there's nothing to compare to the handforged desktop computer for power, flexibility, value, and upgradability. You can buy or build a PC with any configuration and upgrade piecemeal as you need to: more RAM, a bigger hard drive, an SSD, better video card, better PSU, even more case fans. But how do you decide how much to spend up front? (Aside from reading my late-2012 guide to that very subject.)

    There are two basic approaches here. The first is to buy the most powerful components you can possibly afford when they're brand new, and then keep using those parts until they become unusable, at which point you repeat the process. We'll call this peak-to-peak mode, since you'll start out with a very good PC, use it until it sucks, and then get a new one that's very good.

    Photo credit: Flickr user vl_33 via Creative Commons.

    The other method is to do smaller upgrades more frequently. By spreading your purchases out over the lifetime of the computer, you never get the top performance of the peak-to-peak buyer, but you also are able to keep more abreast of current technology without blowing thousands of dollars every time. So you don't have the end-of-life blues of a peak-to-peak user with a $3000, five-year-old machine.

    Let's walk through a thought experiment.