SLIDESHOW

November's hottest PC hardware: $5 PCs, supercomputing desktops, and SSDs to avoid like the plague

gaming pc
The home stretch

While Thanksgiving feasts and Black Friday hordes signal the official kick-off of the holiday season, most of the latest and greatest PC technology that manufacturers hope you’ll slip into loved ones’ stockings actually launched during the blistering summer and fall months.

But while the pace of new hardware releases definitely slowed in November, the month still marked the debut of some notable new PC gear, from interesting mesh router concepts to Windows 10 Phones to the full-blown debut of Valve’s Steam Machines. Meanwhile, some major cornerstones for the entire PC industry hit major milestones of their own over the past 30 days.

We’re in the home stretch of 2015, folks. Here’s the hottest new PC gear revealed in November.

raspberry pi zero
Raspberry Pi Zero

Well this was unexpected. The Raspberry Pi dropped a delicious surprise on the world on Thanksgiving itself: The $5 Raspberry Pi Zero. After years of working to lower the cost of hobbyist and educational computing, founder Eben Upton says its latest creation is as cheap is it can make a computer. This PC’s so cheap, it was even being bundled for free with magazines the day it launched.

Don’t let that low cost fool you though: The Raspberry Pi Zero still packs most of its bigger brothers’ features, and it’s even 40 percent faster than the original Raspberry Pi model.

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Origin PC EON17-SLX

Then there's the other end of the spectrum. Origin PC’s new EON17-SLX laptop suffers from a bit of an identity crisis—but in a good way.

While it ostensibly looks like any other gaming notebook on the outside, the internals of this beast mirror nothing short of a full-blown desktop PC, and one that can kick your computer’s butt, at that. Origin stuffed the EON17-SLX with a Core i7-6700K, a.k.a. Intel’s beefiest Skylake desktop processor. Origin’s been cramming desktop CPUs into laptops for a while now, but the EON17-SLX ups the ante with the inclusion of Nvidia’s hulking new GTX 980, a mobile graphics chip that offers full 1:1 performance parity with its desktop counterpart—a first for the industry. And if that’s not enough, the EON17-SLX also supports up to four internal storage drives.

That’s nuts. And the prices reflect it, as the Origin PC EON17-SLX starts at a cool $2,000.

samsung ativ book 9
Samsung Ativ Book 9

If your laptop yearnings lean more toward sleek than super-powerful, check out Samsung’s new Ativ Book 9.

The crown jewel of this lineup of laptops is the $1600 Ativ Book 9 Pro, which features a 15.6-inch 4K display, a 2.6 GHz Intel Core i7-6700HQ processor, 8GB of RAM, a 256GB SSD, Nvidia GeForce GTX 950M discrete graphics, Windows 10, blisteringly fast 802.11ac support, and even a Type-C USB port.

That’s basically all the bells and whistles you could ask for in a modern Windows 10 laptop—though you’ll probably want to dial the resolution down to 1080p if you’re hoping to game with that Nvidia graphics option.

The newly split-off HP Inc. announced a 15.6-inch 4K laptop of its own this month: The feature-packed ZBook Studio workstation.

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AMD Radeon R9 380X

Speaking of 1080p gaming, AMD rolled out the $230 Radeon R9 380X desktop graphics card this month, and it instantly seized the mainstream 1080p performance crown away from the $200 Radeon R9 380 and GeForce GTX 960. It’ll handle any game you toss at it like a champ, and the Sapphire Nitro version we tested sports one hell of an efficient cooling system.

AMD rolled out its new Radeon Software Crimson driver mere days later, which includes the slick, newly rebuilt-from-the-ground-up Radeon Settings app, which replaces Catalyst Control Center. All the fresh goodies came at a price, however, as AMD also moved its older Radeon 5000/6000 graphics cards into legacy status—which means no new drivers for those GPUs.

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Credit: Intel
Intel's supercomputing workstation PCs

Even though server-class hardware is some of the most powerful on the face of the planet, we don’t cover it too often here at PCWorld. Most of us aren’t running datacenters in our basements, after all. But we’ll make an exception for Intel’s crazy new 72-core “Knight’s Landing” Xeon Phi processor—not because it’s so potent, but because Intel plans to roll out desktop workstations powered by the supercomputing chip.

Knight’s Landing mixes conventional x86 CPUs with specialized processing units that help the chip take on heavy workloads, as well as 16GB of integrated MCDRAM memory that’s a whopping five times faster than the new DDR4 RAM that’s only now trickling into traditional PCs.

Intel’s supercomputing workstation will initially be made available to researchers who don’t have access to Xeon Phi-based supercomputers for complex scientific calculations, but workstation desktops are commonly used for high-end graphics and film editing, too.

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Innovative routers everywhere

Now that our homes are overflowing with connected devices—PCs, consoles, mobile gear, smart TVs, tweeting fridges, etc.—security providers are muscling in on and leveling up routers in a bid to better protect all of your gadgets, not just PCs and phones.

F-Secure announced its $200 Sense box early this month, which connects to your router, and your devices connect to it. It then analyzes the traffic coming to or from any device on that network, finding and blocking potential threats for every device in your house.

AVG’s Chime (pictured), meanwhile, does things differently. It’s actually multiple routers that form a mesh network to kill dead Wi-Fi spots in your home, bolstered with built-in security and some killer privacy features, like native VPN and Tor capabilities.

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Credit: Rob Schultz
Windows 10 Mobile

This isn’t purely PC gear, but Windows is important to PC enthusiasts, and Windows 10 Phones can double as impromptu Windows 10 PCs when they’re connected to external monitors—in theory, anyway. In practice, that killer Continuum feature has a few, uh, quirks when you’re using it, though it’s largely a productive and eye-catching experience.

Mark Hachman’s comprehensive Windows 10 Mobile review can fill you in on all the details, occasional flashes of magic and all.

lumia 950
Credit: Rob Schultz
Lumia 950

Microsoft’s own Lumia 950 acts as the vanguard for Windows 10 Mobile, launching late in the month alongside the larger Lumia 950XL. The first Windows 10 Phone won’t knock the iPhone off its lofty perch, but it’s a compelling phone with a killer camera that Windows Phones fans will love. “I can’t help but be hopeful for the future of Microsoft’s Lumia smartphones after using the Lumia 950,” Hachman writes.

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Steam Machines

What, again? Yep.

After the Steam Controller, Steam Link, and Alienware Steam Machine shipped to early preorderers in October, Valve’s tiny gaming PCs for your living room rolled out to everybody in early November—albeit with some bumps and fewer partners than planned.

All that said, embracing a Steam-powered living room still proves intoxicating. The Steam Controller really opens up new worlds of PC gaming possibilities.

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Intel Skylake NUCs

If the diminutive Steam Machines aren’t quite tiny enough for your tastes, check out Intel’s new Skylake-based Next Unit of Computing models. Intel’s NUCs were forerunners in itty-bitty computing, delivering perfectly capable office-ready performance in small, attractive packages.

The new generation of Skylake NUCs adds a twist via its highest-end Core i5 model, which packs Intel’s beefy Iris 520 integrated graphics, which were once limited to more powerful Core i7 chips alone. Now, Irisi 520 graphics won’t hold a candle to AMD and Nvidia’s desktop graphics cards, but they’re more than potent enough to get your basic gaming on.

tlc ssds
Credit: Gordon Mah Ung
TLC SSDs PSA

Now for something completely different: a PC hardware PSA. Traditional SSDs use single-level cell (one bit/cell) or multi-level cell (two bits/cell) technology to store your data. Recently, triple-level cell SSDs have started making the rounds, which allow for greater data density and more capacious SSDs in the same form factor.

Unfortunately, TLC’s sustained write performance is comparatively poor, we discovered this month—in some cases exceedingly. If you just poke around with office files and surf the web, you’ll never bump up against the limitation, but if you shift large files around, performance can drop to appallingly bad, almost HDD-like levels. Check out PCWorld’s in-depth TLC SSD examination for the full scoop.

surface book
Credit: Gordon Mah Ung
The best laptops of 2015

Ugh. Time to wash the nasty taste of those TLC SSDs out of your mouth. Right before Thanksgiving, we rounded up our picks for the best PC laptops of the year, separated into a slew of different categories. Whether you’re looking for an Ultrabook, a 2-in-1, a straight laptop, a gaming laptop, a Chromebook, or even a Surface device specifically, we have budget- and premium-priced recommendations you won’t want to miss.

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Credit: Rob Schultz
A look back

Finally, a some iconic PC staples enjoyed major milestones in November.

USB, the youngest of the bunch, turned 20—almost old enough to drink! To celebrate, Gordon Mah Ung sat down with USB creator Ajay Bhatt to learn about its origins, competition, and where it’s going in the future.

Two of Microsoft’s babies had anniversaries as well (they grow up so fast). Windows turned 30 on November 20, so we took a visual tour of Windows through the ages, from Windows 1.01 to Windows 10, as well as the biggest Windows blunders of the past 30 years. And Office turned 25 this month; be sure to check out PCWorld’s look at the 10 features you don’t want to miss in Office 2016, its latest iteration.

Catch you next month for a year-end wrap-up of the most epic new tech of 2015!