Here comes the hot new PC hardware
After the flurry of new component releases in August and September set the stage—new graphics cards and processors and storage, oh my!—October was the month where the big year-end PC push finally started coming together. There was a flood of fresh PCs announced in the past 30 days in preparation for the crucial holiday season, from a slew of PC makers across virtually all price points.
October heralded the beginning of some new eras for computing as well: Microsoft’s Surface line finally waded into proper laptop territory, and after a lengthy delay, Valve’s Steam Machines—gaming PCs built for the living—made their soft launch.
But enough chit-chat! Let’s dig in.
We’ll get to the Steam Machines soon, but for many PC users, Windows is computers, and in October Microsoft launched a wide range of new devices designed to show Windows 10 in the best possible light, spearheaded by the Surface Book—Microsoft’s first-ever laptop.
Microsoft’s svelte 13-inch notebook (with a detachable touchscreen, natch) is nothing short of a glorious reimagining of the laptop, achieving technological feats other PC makers said were impossible. A gorgeous screen? Check. A discrete Nvidia GPU in a thin, trim chassis? Check. Stupid-long battery life? Uh-huh. Performance that’s up to three times faster than Apple’s MacBook Pro? Oh yes.
tl;dr—Surface Book rocks. Check out our review for the full scoop.
Surface Pro 4
Microsoft didn’t end there. It also announced the Surface Pro 4, an iterative update to its predecessor—a more gorgeous screen, a slimmer build, faster chips and storage—that’s still easily the best Surface tablet ever released. PCWorld’s Surface Pro 4 review has all the info and impressions you need to know, but in a nutshell, it’s great.
So which Surface should you buy? Our Surface Book versus Surface Pro 4 debate can provide some guidance. No matter which you opt for, you’ll want to read up on Gordon Ung’s guide to 11 Surface secrets you won’t want to miss.
One final tidbit of Surface news: Alongside the fresh device, Microsoft also released a revamped Surface Dock that mirrors the “tiny box” design of the devices’ power cord, ditching the massive design of the SP3 dock. Even with the size reduction, the new Surface Dock packs just as much functionality as its predecessor.
Alienware Steam Machine
A new challenger appears!
The year of the Linux desktop never really materialized (sorry Chris) but after a long delay, Valve is hoping to wrestle away some of Windows’ PC dominance with Steam Machines: Teeny-tiny systems designed to bring PC gaming into your living room, powered by Valve’s own Linux-powered SteamOS.
The Alienware Steam Machine, which Valve at one point said offered “the full potential of what a Steam Machine should be,” started shipping to early preorderers in October, though the rest of the Steam Machines won’t launch until November 10. We spent a week beforehand playing around with it; our hands-on impressions with Alienware’s Steam Machine dives deep into the hardware as well as SteamOS itself.
Valve Steam Controller
The Steam Machines are just one part of Valve’s Steam-powered living room; without the revolutionary Steam Controller, there wouldn’t even be Steam Machines. (Though it works with Windows, too.)
Valve designed the $50 Steam Controller to be flexible enough to control traditional PC games that don’t typically perform well on gamepads, like the Total War games or Civilization. The secret sauce lies in the dual haptic pads and the Steam Controller’s insanely customizable software, which lets you remap every part of the gamepad.
It took us a few days to wrap our head around, but once we did, one thing became amazingly clear: Valve’s Steam Controller opens a whole new world for PC gaming. And in a refreshingly PC-first attitude, Valve even hopes that modders will hack the gamepad into something new entirely.
Valve Steam Link
But what if you already own a beefy gaming PC and don’t want to buy a whole new computer just for your living room? Enter the $50 Steam Link, a small, barely noticeable box that’s essentially a conduit for bringing Steam in-home streaming to your TV.
Steam in-home streaming lets your primary PC power a game that you then stream to another PC (or the Steam Link) over your local network. While we ran into a few quirks—and you’ll definitely want to invest in a wired ethernet connection for it if possible—the Steam Link is the first dedicated PC game-streaming box we can wholeheartedly recommend if your network’s up to speed. Read our Steam Link review for plenty of details and tech info.
Toshiba Radius 12
After months of teasing, we finally got our hands on our first Intel Skylake-powered laptop in October, and whoa boy did the Toshiba Radius 12 deliver. This 12-inch 2-in-1 device rocks a luscious 4K display, a speedy 256GB M.2 SSD, support for Windows 10’s Windows Hello facial recognition, and yes, an Intel Core i7-6500U ‘Skylake’ CPU. The results? A clear leader of the pack among early Windows 10 and Skylake-powered laptops.
The Spectre 13 x360 is basically a refresh of last year’s model, with Intel’s new Skylake processors—and that’s just fine, since this gorgeous laptop with a flip-back Yoga-style lid has a lot of stuff going for it, both aesthetically and under the hood. The new Spectre 12 x2 (pictured), meanwhile, is basically a slick Surface clone that offers Surface Pro-level performance for a Surface non-Pro price.
Dell XPS 12, 13, and 15
Dell’s refreshed XPS 12, on the other hand, isn’t a Surface clone. Instead, it’s a pretty standard (but very nice) take on a now-traditional 2-in-1 with a detachable screen. It offers a 4K display option, a Skylake processor, various-sized SSD options, and 8GB of RAM, along with a pair of USB-C ports that pack full Thunderbolt 3.0 support—meaning oh-so-sweet 10Gbps transfer rates.
Dell also refreshed the XPS 13, one of our favorite laptops of early 2015, with Skylake processors and support for speedy M.2 SSDs up to 1TB in size. But it’s getting a big brother, too: The new Dell XPS 15 brings the XPS line’s sleek design, Skylake chips, 4K display options, and Thunderbolt 3.0 support to a larger screen size, though Dell says its super-slim InfinityEdge bezel makes the XPS 15 the “smallest 15-inch on the planet.”
HP Star Wars Special Edition
Here’s a gimmick that actually works. HP’s Star Wars Special Edition laptop is nothing short of a love letter to Force fans, from its eye-catching design to iconic Star Wars sounds that replace system sounds to its thoughtful packaging, which features foam protectors in the shape of Sinear TIE Advanced x1 fighters and a slick Darth Vader-boasting box for your power cord. The touchpad even rocks a discrete image from the legendary Death Star trench run.
It basically comes with everything but a thermal detonator. Eat your heart out, Trekkies.
Xbox One Elite Controller
When it comes to gamepads, the decade-old Xbox 360 controller is a staple among PC gamers. This month, not one, but two different controllers aim to shake that up. Beyond the Steam Controller, Microsoft introduced its own Xbox One Elite Controller, a thoughtful piece of hardware brimming with customizable switches, analog sticks, and button mapping. “This week I swapped out my well-worn and well-loved wired 360 controller for the Elite, and I think it might be a permanent change,” PCWorld games guru Hayden Dingman wrote in his Xbox One Elite Controller review.
That price tag though! Take a deep breath: This gamepad will set you back a whopping $150. Sayeth Hayden: “I don’t think you should buy it, but I wouldn’t blame you if you did.”
HP Envy 34
All-in-one PCs aren’t often objects of desire, but the HP Envy 34 looks mighty fine with its curved, 34-inch IPS display rocking an eye-melting 3440-by-1440 resolution. Hubba hubba.
Unfortunately, you won’t be able to game at the highest graphics settings at the native resolution with this machine, as it only offers a custom GTX 960 variant as a graphics option (but that should be enough to get you going pretty well if you dial down the resolution a bit). Of course, the Core i5 and i7 processors offered with the machine are powered by Intel’s new Skylake architecture. But the real star here is that luscious, wide-angled display.
Japan Display's 8K laptop screen
The HP Envy 34’s 3440-by-1440 screen may be drool-worthy, but what’s coming down the pipeline is even crazier. Japan Display showed off a 17.3-inch 8K display with 176-degree viewing angles at CEATAC Japan this month, humming along at a speedy 120Hz. To quote Keanu Reeves: Whoa.
The idea alone is enough to make grown gamers weep in joy, but don’t expect to see this screen in a laptop at Best Buy anytime soon. Beyond being a prototype and presumably being stratospherically expensive, current connectors such as HDMI and standard DisplayPort aren’t up to the job of driving the throughput that 8K needs—especially at the speedy 120Hz. It’ll take some time in the oven before this becomes a truly delicious prospect for PC buyers, but it’s still damned impressive.
HP's Streambook and Chromebook 14
HP showed some love for budget-focused PC buyers in October, too, refreshing both its Chromebook 14 as well as its Windows 10-based Chromebook competitor, the Streambook (pictured). There’s not really much new here besides modest CPU bumps, but the real draw on laptops like these are their price tags: The Streambook starts at just $200, while the new Chromebook 14 is even cheaper than before, sporting a $250 starting cost as opposed to its predecessor’s $300 entry point.
The intriguing $99 InFocus Kangaroo is even cheaper than HP’s Streambook. This phone-sized, full-fledged Windows 10 PC is small enough to fit in a pocket and comes with a proprietary dock for connecting with external monitors over HDMI. The idea is that you could buy multiple docks, each connected to their own mouse and keyboard, and tote just the computing module around with you.
Interestingly, you can also use a Lightning connector-to-USB cable to dock the Kangaroo to an iPhone or iPad, then use that device as an external touchscreen display for the PC via a free companion app. Windows 10’s lightweight system requirements are creating all sorts of cool hardware experimentation—and the Kangaroo is a sterling example.
Microsoft Lumia 950, 950 XL
Wait, what are Microsoft’s new Windows 10 phones doing in a PC-centric roundup? There are a couple of answers. For one, Windows 10’s device-spanning nature means that the same services and apps you use on your main PC will carry over to the new Lumia 950 and Lumia 950 XL.
But more importantly, Windows 10 Phones will be able to use the handy Continuum feature to double as impromptu Windows 10 PCs when they’re connected to an external monitor—which conceivably means you could buy a Lumia 950 and have it double as the brains for your workstation, too. (If you don’t mind being limited to Windows Store apps, that is.)
Nvidia's GeForce Now streaming service
On the software side of things, you might want to check out PCWorld’s review of GeForce Now, Nvidia’s “Netflix for games”-like service. The $8 per month GeForce Now streams full-blown PC games from Nvidia servers to an Nvidia Shield console, tablet, or handheld in your home at a solid 1080p/60fps (if your router can handle it).
No other game-streaming service has ever performed this well, full stop. It’s seriously impressive. But that doesn’t mean we wholeheartedly recommend the service; the Shield hardware exclusivity is a bit of a bummer, as is the fact that your GeForce Now games can’t interact with your Steam Cloud or GeForce Galaxy saves. Here’s hoping it at least comes to GeForce graphics card-equipped PCs at some point in the future.
More hardware-related reading
Speaking of graphics cards, we updated PCWorld’s massive graphics card buying guide in October to account for the GTX 950, the Radeon R300 series, and AMD’s Nano, Fury, and Fury X. Check it out—there’s benchmarks galore, talk about vendor-specific features, and no-nonsense buying advice for every budget from $100 to $1000.
And while we’re on the topic of hardware, in October we also published a comprehensive, step-by-step guide to building a PC, from the CPU to the cable management to avoiding common PC building mistakes. This detailed labor of love took months and months to complete; you’ll want to follow along if you’ve purchased some swanky new gear and aren’t 100 percent sure on how to install it.
Catch you next month!