SLIDESHOW

May's mighty new PC hardware: Mammoth graphics champions and freakishly specialized chips

From the GeForce GTX 1080 to Google's mysterious new tensor processor unit, some interesting new PC hardware reared its head in May.

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Credit: Brad Chacos
Quality, not quantity

May is traditionally a pretty slow month for PC hardware, and for a fine reason: Everybody in the industry saves their big guns for Computex, the Taiwan tradeshow that kicks off at the very beginning of June. While CES is all about pie-in-the-sky dream hardware, Computex keeps it real, as vendors display the new hardware they’ll be selling during the crucial holiday season.

So next month’s hardware roundup will be awesome.

But what May’s output of new PC hardware lacked in quantity, it sure made up for in quality. This month, Google teased a new type of chip that blows away Moore’s Law, Dell adorned one of the best laptops around in gold, and oh yeah—the first-ever graphics card built on 16nm technology was released, and the results of jumping forward not one but two generations in underlying hardware was nothing short of glorious.

Let’s dig in.

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Credit: Brad Chacos
Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080

Might as well kick things off with a bang. Nvidia’s $600 GeForce GTX 1080 launched this month and releases today, and this graphics card is nothing short of monstrous. Heck, its performance blows away that of the vaunted $1,000 Titan X by a full 30 percent in-game, while sipping far less power and costing a whopping 40 percent less.

After spending four long years stuck on 28nm transistor technology, the two-generation jump to the 16nm FinFET process pays clear dividends in power and performance. Nvidia’s fresh flagship is hands-down the new graphics champion—at least until a new Titan appears. Catch all the details in our comprehensive GTX 1080 review, or the Cliffs Notes version in our GTX 1080 review highlights.

While the GTX 1080 may have captured all the glory, many enthusiasts are waiting patiently to hear about its little brother, the GTX 1070, which Nvidia says will deliver Titan X-level power for just $380. Look for it to land June 10.

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AMD Radeon Pro Duo

AMD released a badass graphics card of its own this month. (Okay, it was the very end of April, but close enough.) The liquid-cooled Radeon Pro Duo (shown above with its front plate removed) packs a pair of the same full-fat Fiji GPUs found in the potent Radeon Nano, cutting-edge high-bandwidth memory and all.

That should make it one hell of a gaming card in theory, offering far more performance than the since-retired Radeon R9 295x2 at the same price, but AMD’s (mostly) positioning it as the ultimate virtual-reality development card, instead. In fact, AMD didn’t even send members of the press a $1,500 Radeon Pro Duo for review—which may be a good move, since multi-GPU support has been spotty in big-name games over the past year, and the delayed launch of the Radeon pushed it against the GTX 1080’s launch. PC Perspective managed to snag one and found that, well, it basically performs as well as a pair of Radeon Nanos in SLI, but costs $500 more.

PC gamers probably want to pass on this one for now and wait for AMD’s new Polaris GPU-based Radeon cards…

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AMD Radeon M400 series mobile graphics

…which, believe it or not, aren’t in the new Radeon M400-series mobile graphics that popped up this month. Those “new” mobile GPUs are actually rebranded versions of older Radeon M300-series mobile graphics, continuing an icky tradition which sees both Nvidia and AMD semi-annually giving stale parts fresh names to keep PC system vendors happy. These aren’t based on Polaris at all.

But some intriguing gaps in the M400-series lineup—most notably the M480 and M490—mixed with the timing of the relaunch hints that we may see Radeon parts based on 14nm FinFET Polaris GPUs sooner than later. AMD’s hosting a livestream on June 1 from Computex (which converts to May 31, stateside) to discuss new APU chips and “Polaris updates.” Fingers crossed that AMD’s answer to Nvidia’s 10-series is imminent.

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Google's tensor processing unit

But enough about GPUs. Let’s talk TPUs—tensor processing units. Google surprised the world when CEO Sundar Pichai mentioned this previously unknown type of chip during its Google I/O conference, then dropped the tantalizing tease that it advances Moore’s Law by seven years before hushing up and moving on.

Wait, what?

Don’t get too excited. While Google remained frustratingly vague about details, it revealed enough information to make it clear that TPUs won’t replace CPUs or GPUs any time soon. While computer and graphics processors are designed to do all sorts of tasks well, Google’s TPU essentially sounds similar to an application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC), which is hardware that’s hard-coded to perform one task—machine learning, in this case—really, really well. So don’t expect to see TPUs in your PC, but they’re helping to supercharge the Google services you use every day.

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Credit: Alaina Yee
Intel Skull Canyon NUC

Intel’s long-teased “Skull Canyon” NUC—the first NUC mini-PC designed with gaming in mind—finally landed in our hands in May, and the wait was worth it. This completely revamped NUC raises the bar for what a mini-PC can do, chewing through both content-creation tasks and even 1080p gaming with ease.

Sure, you won’t be able to crank graphics details to 11 or hit the vaunted 60fps mark—though you’d come closer if you drop the resolution to 720p—but you can definitely play pretty new games like Just Cause 3 and Grand Theft Auto V at a console-tying 30fps-plus once you dial things down a bit, thanks to the inclusion of Intel’s most power Iris Pro 580 graphics.

With a 2.6GHz Core i7-6770HQ quad-core Skylake processor that can boost up to 3.5GHz, opting to add in a fast M.2 SSD and DDR4 RAM can turn this bare-bones PC into a powerful, pint-sized productivity powerhouse too. The former king of the NUC mountain hasn’t just been dethroned. It’s been kicked so far off a cliff, someone needs to scrape its remains off the ground.

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Credit: Gordon Mah Ung
Origin Chronos

Origin PC’s much larger, but still small form factor Chronos gaming PC manages to contain a liquid-cooled 8-core Intel Core i7-5960X, 16GB of DDR4 RAM, and an Nvidia Titan X despite being barely bigger than an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3. That’s nuts. It feels like it should defy physics.

This itty-bitty PC will chew through any productivity or gaming task you throw at it, including the most punishing that virtual reality has to offer. It rocks. You’ll want to be aware of two key points about the Chronos, though: It’s not cheap at nearly $5,000, and the versions you’ll be able to buy may soon feature different—yet more powerful—parts now that the GTX 1080 has landed, with a new Intel Extreme Edition lineup expected to be hot on its heels.

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Corsair Lapdog

The thing with all these tiny living room-ready PCs, though, is that you need a way to actually use them. Slapping a hardcover book next to you on the couch for a mouse surface sucks, and you might not want to wrap your head around Valve’s radical Steam Controller. That’s where “lapboards” like the $120 Corsair Lapdog come in.

The Lapdog is essentially a lap-friendly aluminum plank with room to slot in a Corsair keyboard and a spacious surface to glide your mouse across. Corsair ups the convenience factor with a hidden compartment to hide your cables and a powered four-port USB 3.0 hub, but it doesn’t actually come with a keyboard or mouse. Razer’s Turret lapboard, on the other hand, costs a bit more at $160, but tosses in a small mouse and integrates a keyboard directly into its design. Look for hands-on reviews of both devices to land on PCWorld sooner than later.

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Omen strikes back

If you utter the words “VoodooPC” to long-time PC gamers, expect a smile to blossom; the company’s systems caused a stir around the stir around the turn of the century due to an enticing blend of sleek looks and potent firepower. Sadly, its vaunted Omen brand languished on the vine shortly after HP acquired the company in 2006 and co-founder Rahul Sood moved on to Microsoft (and Unikrn, since). No more!

After teasing a relaunch with an Omen laptop in 2014, HP just brought Omen back with a bang, rolling out a trio of new laptops, a power HTC Vive-ready gaming PC with graphics options all the way up to that badass GTX 1080, and even an Omen-branded FreeSync display to match. And yes, all the new gear’s prettiness matches its power—though we wouldn’t have minded beefier graphics options in the laptops. Look for the reborn Omen PCs to hit the streets over the next few months.

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Credit: Gordon Mah Ung
Dell XPS 13 Gold Edition

On the surface, the Dell XPS 13 Gold Edition laptop borrows a page from Apple’s playbook—take one of the best pieces of hardware you can buy today and simply slap some gold paint on it.

But the XPS 13 Gold Edition is so much more than that under the hood, thanks to its upgraded top-of-the line Core i7-6560U processor, which also packs twice as many graphics execution units as the HD 520 integrated graphics in the stock XPS 13. In other words, Dell’s purdy new PC offers flashy looks and equally flashy performance.

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Credit: Gordon Mah Ung
Samsung Notebook 9 Pro

If you don’t mind a big, burly 15.6-inch notebook, as opposed to a low-weight 2-in-1, the Samsung Notebook 9 Pro has a lot to offer. Start with a beefy quad-core CPU and discrete Nvidia graphics, then add a gorgeous 4K touchscreen and a 10Gbps USB 3.1 Type C port to the mix. That’s a lot of firepower, and at $1,500, comparatively priced laptops struggle to match.

The lack of Thunderbolt 3 support in a laptop with a Thunderbolt 3 controller is a bit of a head-scratcher, as is the inclusion of DDR3 rather than DDR4 memory, but this notebook shines for its price-to-performance ratio. All told, it’s a solid jack-of-all-trades that doesn’t truly stand out for any one feature.

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Credit: Adam Patrick Murray
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Tablet

The Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Tablet isn’t a barn burner when it comes to sheer horsepower, but it still delivers plenty “good enough” performance, and this 2-in-1 lays claim to the legendary ThinkPad build quality. Conveniences like its kickstand, pen loop, and iconic keyboard give the ThinkPad X1 Tablet an edge that help it go blow-for-blow with top convertible performers when you take the complete package into account.

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Credit: Adam Patrick Murray
HP Elite x2

HP’s Elite x2 is another business-focused Surface clone, but it feels designed to appeal more to IT admins than to end users. It’s a no-nonsense convertible—though the hinge that connects the keyboard accessory could be more robust—that’s durable, repairable, and supports enterprise-required tools like a fingerprint reader and Intel’s vPro authentication technology. You probably won’t buy one for yourself, but you won’t be disappointed if your business’s geek-in-chief drops one on your desk.

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Purism Librem 11 hybrid

Here’s a convertible that’s a little different. Purism’s piggybacking on the crowdfunded success of its idealistic Linux-based laptops with the Librem 11 Hybrid, a 2-in-1 relentlessly focused on free and open software and user privacy.

The Librem 11 Hybrid features an in-house motherboard because of Purism’s strict ethical sourcing guidelines, and also runs a similarly idealistic operating system of its own creation dubbed PureOS 3.0, which is a Debian fork similar to Canonical’s Ubuntu. And get this: The Purism tablet also has built-in hardware kill switches for its Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, cameras, and microphone, along with aspirations to include GPS and cellular kill switches, too. This tablet isn’t playing around with your privacy.

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HP Pavilion all-in-ones

Finally, HP’s new Pavilion all-in-ones perform a similar trick thanks to the new HP Privacy Camera. The Privacy Camera pops out of the top off the AIO when you’re using it, then retracts when you’re done, disabling the audiovisual feeds. Sayonara, masking tape over webcams. A 23.8-inch model jazzes things up a bit with its nearly borderless “micro-edge display,” which can come in 1080p or 1440p resolution, along with touchscreen options.

All-around, the new Pavilions seem like fairly compelling all-in-ones—although you won’t be able to put your hands on one any time soon. While HP’s announcing the new PCs now, they’re actually rolling out in July for the back-to-school shopping season. Oh HP, you’re such a tease.