SLIDESHOW

The future is now: 2015's most powerful, portentous PC hardware

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The future, today

Scream it from the rooftops: This year’s PC hardware was magnificent!

The dreams of 2014’s future tech become reality in 2015, as we bore witness to month after month of startlingly powerful new PC tech. Virtually every aspect of the PC received a generous shot in the arm this year, as graphics cards shrank down and supercharged, routers became reimagined, ridonkulously potent laptops rivaled top-end desktops in pure performance, and Type-C USB ended the hassle of struggling to find the right way to plug in your cord.

Are you ready for a whole lot of awesome? Buckle up and let’s dive into this powerfully futuristic tech that you can install in your PC today.

msi ragon gtx 980
Credit: Gordon Mah Ung
Nvidia GeForce GTX 980

Let’s start with PC tech so revolutionary, it made PCWorld’s list of the top tech wins of 2015: Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 980.

Yes, Nvidia’s desktop GTX 980 launched in 2014. We’re talking about the GeForce GTX 980 laptop GPU. Notice it lacks the “M” designation Nvidia’s other mobile graphics options slap on the end of the part name, and for very good reason: The GeForce GTX 980 is the first-ever laptop GPU that offers the same full 1:1 performance as its desktop counterpart. Cue Keanu Reeves: Whoa.

We’re finally starting to see the GTX 980 appear in real-world laptops like the Origin EON17-SLX, and our time with MSI’s GT72S Dragon (pictured) confirms that this puppy truly screams. But the future doesn’t come cheap: Most of the GTX 980-equipped gaming laptops we’ve seen will set you back a cool $3000-plus.

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Credit: Gordon Mah Ung
Storage wars

The single best upgrade you can make for any PC is to swap out your traditional spinning hard drive for a speedy new solid-state drive. But now, we’re starting to see new types of storage that makes traditional SATA SSDs look like they’re stuck in the mud.

PCI-E SSDs and SSDs with NAND flash chips stacked vertically (rather than spread horizontally) for greater speeds first start trickling to market in 2014, but 2015 is the year they exploded—and then were surpassed by NVMe SSDs so ludicrously fast that only the highest of highest-end PCs could support them when the technology launched.

To underscore just how fast and furious the breakthroughs came this year, Samsung revealed the 950 Pro—one of the fastest NVMe drives ever with 2GBps sequential read speeds, or nearly 4x the speed of SATA SSDs—on September 22. The very next day Intel revealed the DC P3608, an even more ridonkulous drive with whopping 5GBps sequential reads. Glorious!

skylake cpu
Credit: Gordon Mah Ung
Intel Skylake (and friends)

After a long delay and endless rumors, Intel finally launched its “Skylake” series of computer processors in August. The performance gains were frankly ho-hum over Broadwell and Haswell, though there has been enough cumulative gains over the years that Skylake’s a compelling upgrade over older Sandy Bridge PCs. But Skylake’s real appeal lies in the extras—especially paired with the Z170 motherboard chipset.

While Skylake’s performance gains are minimal, the surrounding technology it supports is massive. Skylake introduces mainstream support for cutting-edge DDR4 RAM, and offers 16 PCI-E Gen. 3 lanes in the CPU with up to 20 more in the Z170 chipset. That means you can now run your blazing-fast PCI-E or M.2 SSD without stealing bandwidth from your graphics card. Plus, Skylake’s loaded up with new security, power-savings, and graphics features, and integrated support for wireless docking, display, authentication, and data transfers. Intel's new chips are helping to push the entire PC ecosystem forward.

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Xeon laptops

Skylake’s introduction heralded yet another milestone: The introduction of the first-ever laptops—er, pardon me, “mobile workstations”—powered by Intel’s potent Xeon chips. Sure, you could find Xeon laptops before, but those were ad hoc notebooks stuffed with desktop Xeons. Naturally, the first Xeon laptops were ultra-corporate Lenovo ThinkPads.

If that’s not cool enough, Intel’s new Xeon Phi chips will bring supercomputer-class power to desktop workstations sooner, rather than later.

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Compelling cables

While they’re not explicitly tied to Skylake or the Z170, two monumental new connection technologies debuted right around the same time as Intel’s new chips. First up: Intel’s own Thunderbolt 3, which can deliver transfer speeds up to a whopping 40Gbps—to carry two 4K signals at 60Hz or drive a 5K display—and runs over a USB Type-C connector.

That USB Type-C connector’s the bigger deal. Depending on what your device supports, this wonder cable offers crazy-fast data transfer speeds, enough power to charge a laptop, and even DisplayPort audio and video signals. The lack of a single, clear set of abilities for Type-C cords could hurt its perception with consumers in the short term. We’re already seeing devices packing only USB-C ports, though—and did I mention that USB-C cords plug into USB-C ports both ways? Hallelujah.

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Credit: Rob Shultz
Phones as PCs

Here’s a taste of what USB-C enables when combined with the power of Windows 10’s universal apps: The power to connect your phone to an external monitor and have it act as an impromptu Windows 10 PC.

That feature—dubbed Continuum—is one of Windows 10 Mobile’s key features, and it’s as impressive in practice as it sounds in theory (though Microsoft still has some little implementation kinks to work out). The Lumia 950 and 950 XL phones connect to Microsoft’s $99 Display Dock via USB-C, then you connect your keyboard, mouse, and display to the Dock itself. Alternatively, you can pair your Windows 10 Phone wirelessly to a Miracast-enabled display and use the phone itself as a controller. Once it’s all set up, the external display mimics a Windows 10 PC, and you can use the Windows Store’s universal apps—including Windows 10’s default apps—as you would on a traditional PC.

Don’t get me wrong: Microsoft still has a lot to figure out with Windows 10. But Continuum feels like something from tomorrow.

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4K-capable graphics cards

For years, gaming on a 4K display required the use of not one, but two powerful graphics cards in SLI or CrossFire configuration. That changed in 2015, with the introduction of Nvidia’s beefy $1000 Titan X—the first graphics card capable of playing games at 4K resolution with high graphics settings all by its lonesome.

It may have been the first, but it was far from the last. The following months saw a mini-flood of 4K-capable graphics card releases, from Nvidia’s $650 GTX 980 Ti to AMD’s water-cooled $650 Fury X and air-cooled $550 Fury. The $650 Radeon Nano’s debut even brought entry-level 4K gaming to mini-ITX builds, piggybacking on AMD’s rollout of cutting-edge high-bandwidth memory to offer potent performance in a pint-sized package.

The glorious future of the PC is pixel-free. But…

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Credit: Gordon Mah Ung
G-Sync/FreeSync rising

…living in the future today requires compromise. Namely, while this new breed of high-octane graphics cards can indeed game at 4K resolution and high detail settings, the frame rate can suffer, especially in games with punishing graphics. Pushing more than 8 million pixels takes a lot of firepower.

Enter the other major graphics technology that rolled out in force in 2015: Variable refresh rate displays.

VRR displays—Nvidia’s implementation is known as G-Sync, while AMD Radeon users should look for a FreeSync display—force your GPU and monitor to synchronize their refresh rate, providing a gaming experience so smooth and tear-free it must be seen to be believed. Because 4K gaming with a single card can sometimes struggle to hit 60fps, a G-Sync/FreeSync monitor greatly enhances the experience—and it can do the same for other resolutions, too. Highly recommended if you can swallow the lock-in factor.

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Router ruckus

Blazing-fast 802.11ac routers may have made their debut in 2014, but 2015 still saw an innovation explosion in the router space.

This year, routers appeared that protected every device in your home from threats—not just your PCs, but smart TVs, consoles, and tweeting coffee pots, too. Several manufacturers embraced mesh networking, or using several small routers to create a singular, all-encompassing network across your home. AVG’s Chime mixed mesh networking with deep privacy options, like VPN and Tor support.

New ideas hit traditional routers, too, such as MU-MIMO 802.11ac routers that can send and receive data from multiple devices simultaneously, which increases network speeds. It’s starting to hit the market in enthusiast routers like the Linksys EA8500 and Asus’ aggressive RT-AC5300U. Conversely, Google shook up the market with its sleek, simple OnHub—a router relentlessly designed to “just work.” Normal folks will love it, though hardcore geeks will loathe its locked-down nature.

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Steam Machines

At the nuts-and-bolts level, Steam Machines are just game-ready home theater PCs. So far, so meh. But what truly makes Steam Machines so exciting is the potential behind the hardware.

These small form-factor gaming PCs were designed from the ground up to drag PC gaming into the living room. On the hardware front, they’re small and silent; on the software front, Valve’s SteamOS revolves around the so-called “10 ft. experience” of television. And Valve’s Steam Controller is opening new worlds of PC gaming possibilities.

Speaking of opening new worlds, Steam Machines are also attempting to wrest control of PC gaming away from Windows and DirectX, bolstering the more open Linux and OpenGL ecosystems. It remains to be seen how much of an impact Steam Machines will make in 2016, but two things are already certain: Their mere promise has already given Linux gaming a shot in the arm, and living in a Steam-powered living room can be intoxicating.

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Put that PC to work

Now that you’ve seen the best hardware of the year, it’s time to shift gears to software. Check out PCWorld’s picks for the 10 best PC games of 2015 to find great ways to put all that shiny new gear to work. Or, er, play.