CES 2018: Just the Good Stuff for PC Builders

By Daniel Falconer

While we weren't at the show this year to cover the event in person, here is the hardware that caught our attention.

Last week, technology companies gathered in Las Vegas for the Consumer Electronic Show to unveil their latest products, prototypes, and pitches for your attention (and dollars). It seems like more real, big, product announcements were made this year compared to the past few years. And while we weren't at the show this year to cover the event in person, here is the computer hardware that caught our attention.

HTC Vive Pro

When the likes of the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive launched, it was unknown how often the hardware of this new era of VR headsets would be updated. Well, almost two years after the launch of the Vive, HTC has taken off the wraps of the Vive Pro. Releasing sometime in Q1 of this year, the new headset has been redesigned and features a massive resolution increase.

The Pro has two OLED displays for a combined resolution of 2880x1600, which is a 78% increase over the base Vive's resolution of 2160x1200. The ergonomics of the strap have been redesigned to better distribute the weight of the headset, and it now includes a dial to adjust the sizing. It'll also be hard to miss the addition of integrated headphones, as well as a second outward facing camera. The Pro will be lighter than the original model, but HTC has yet to say by how much.

HTC will also be releasing 2.0 base stations, although it sounds like they may not be released until sometime after the Pro. The Vive Pro, when combined with four 2.0 base stations, will be able to operate in a space as big as 10 square meters. HTC has yet to say whether or not we'll see the release of updated controllers in 2018, but if we do, hopefully they'll be based on Valve's knuckle controllers.

A price for the Vive Pro hasn't been announced at this time. The base Vive bundle currently retails for $600. That's a $200 premium over the Oculus Rift. I'd be surprised if the base Vive's price didn't drop in the next couple of months, but I also won't be holding my breath for a Vive Pro bundle to come in at $600.

Announced alongside the Vive Pro is the Vive Wireless Adapter. HTC has partnered with Intel to utilize their WiGig technology to make a first party solution for wireless VR use. It will work with both Vive headsets and ship sometime in Q3 2018. HTC has not announced a price.

Intel with AMD GPU SoC

The surprise team up between Intel and AMD has finally been detailed. Officially called "8th generation Intel Core processor with Radeon RX Vega M Graphics", these hybrid chips feature an Intel Kaby Lake CPU and, you guessed it, Vega GPU cores. In Intel's lineup of various Y and U mobile processors, these new Radeon infused parts will be referred to as the G series.

Intel announced a total of five processors; three 65W and two 100W. All of the CPUs have 4 cores and 8 threads. The lone i5-8305G has a base clock of 2.8GHz and a Turbo of 3.8GHz. The top end of the four i7 processors, the i7-8809G, clocks in at 3.1GHz and has a max Turbo of 4.2GHz. When it comes to the GPU, the three 65W parts have 20 Compute Units (CU), have a base frequency of 931MHz, boost up to 1101MHz, have 4 GB of HBM2 memory, and have a performance rating of 2.6 TFLOPS. The GPU for the two power hungry 100W i7 packages get a bump to 24 CUs with a base frequency of 1063MHz and a boost of 1190MHz, 4 GB of memory clock 100MHz faster, and are rated for 3.7 TFLOPS of performance.

Make no mistake, these are Intel products. They ordered the custom made Radeon graphics like any other company would, and the package is two entirely separate chips connected with Intel's fancy Embedded Multi-Die Interconnect Bridge (EMIB). The integrated graphics from the Intel CPU is still fully accessible and can be utilized to conserve battery life. And something you never see on a mobile part; the highest i7 processor can be overclocked with Intel's own tools. That includes the CPU, the iGPU, the Radeon GPU, and the HBM.

Why is Intel doing this? It seems odd, given they hired AMD's previous chief GPU architect Raja Koduri at the end of last year and intend to make dedicated GPUs themselves. Sometimes the simplest answer is the best; there's a market for a part like this. At CES Dell announced a new XPS 15 convertible with these new chips, as well as HP with their new Spectre x360 15.

AMD's Big Year

Last year was a huge year for AMD. The launch of their new Zen microarchitecture and first generation Ryzen processors was a breath of fresh air for the company. Here at the top of the year AMD went to CES to detail their plans for the year and beyond.

Their most interesting release for 2018 will be the next generation of Ryzen CPUs. Built on the Zen+ node, the 12nm production units will be a refined, slight improvement over their current lineup. The most tangible improvements will likely come in the form of a bump in frequencies. That's still an area where AMD lags behind Intel, so we'll see if they're able to close the gap with the 10%+ performance gains they're claiming. Those will start coming out in April. They'll be followed by second generation Threadripper and Pro processors in the later half of 2018. It won't be until 2019 that we see Zen 2 processors, built on Global Foundries' 7nm process.

In February the first desktop Ryzen APUs, or CPUs with integrated graphics, will start rolling out. This was a big gap in the Ryzen lineup and fills out AMD's offerings now. These will likely only be of interest to enthusiasts if you like having the backup of integrated graphics.

Speaking of graphics, 2018 will be a slow year on the dedicated desktop GPU front if you're an AMD fan. They're concentrating on mobile chips and machine learning parts for the year. There won't be any new Vega based GPUs to compete on the high end with Nvidia, who is expected to launch their line of Volta video cards this year. AMD's next generation of high end graphics technology, code named Navi, will use a 7nm process and release sometime in 2019.

Alexa in Windows 10

A number of PC manufacturers including HP, Asus, and Acer are introducing Alexa to Windows 10 computers starting with new machines announced at CES. The digital assistant from Amazon was popular from the get go in 2014 when it debuted alongside the Echo speaker. Mindshare skyrocketed and remained positive since with Amazon adding integration with smart home devices, Alexa on Kindle Fire tablets, and now even appliances.

This integration will be facilitated through a new Alexa app in development for Windows 10. Basic Alexa functions such as asking questions, and displaying information on the screen will be there at launch. However, more popular uses such as calling/messaging contacts, and streaming music over Spotify won't come until later. Most of the new PCs announced boasting Alexa integration are fairly standard laptops and all-in-ones. The one standout is the 2018 model of HP's Pavilion Wave. It looks like a scaled up 2nd generation Amazon Echo, and won't stick out as much in a living space.

Seeing how this works and gauging how people respond to Alexa on their PC will be interesting to watch in 2018, to say the least. Microsoft of course has Cortana integrated with Windows 10, but its reception on computers has been mixed at best. Cortana also only has 230 skills, so it's currently far less capable than Alexa's full breadth of 25000 skills.

Nvidia's Big Format Displays

For some gamers their holy grail monitor is one with G-Sync. When high end monitors with this technology is paired with an Nvidia GPU, screen tearing and other frame rate problems disappear. This year at CES Nvidia announced a new line of G-Sync displays for gamers to lust over. No, they aren't new monitors, but rather televisions.

Dubbed Big Formant Gaming Displays, or BFGD, these 65 inch screens check all the boxes; 4K, HDR, G-Sync, 120Hz, DCI-P3 color gamut, and Nvidia Shield integration. With panels from AU Optronics, Nvidia has partnered with Asus, Acer, and HP to manufacture the TV sets to be released later this year. Sets will be under their makers respective high end gaming brand; ROG Swift PG65 (Asus), Predator (Acer), and OMEN X 65 (HP). Prices weren't announced by anyone, but similarly with a smaller G-Sync monitor, expect to pay a premium over standard 4K/HDR TVs.

Razer's Project Linda Phone Laptop Dock

Last year Razer wowed technology enthusiasts with their triple screen laptop prototype. This year they showed another laptop prototype, but probably not something you'd expect from the gaming oriented company. This laptop is actually a shell for Razer's recently released first smartphone.

Project Linda is essentially Microsoft's Continuum feature executed properly. The phone docks into the laptop below the keyboard, becoming the trackpad for the laptop. The Razer Blade Stealth-esque laptop shell has a 13.3 inch QHD screen, a Chroma RGB keyboard, 200 GB of internal storage, USB A and USB C ports, 53.6 WHr battery, and even a webcam.

In order to allow the phone to drop in and be lifted out easily, a button is pressed to mechanically connect and disconnect the internal USB C connection with the phone. A little chunk of the lip on the laptop is missing to lift the phone out, and also exposes the phone's fingerprint reader when docked. Razer said they're using a custom version of the Sentino Desktop app for the phone when docked.

Razer doesn't have any concrete plans to release this to market, but are instead gauging reactions to see if it's worth it. Razor seems to make solid hardware, so the only major question mark for a product like this would be the software and desktop experience. Hopefully the future Razer showed us this year is closer to becoming reality than previous prototype products.