A cornucopia of computing hardware
Between January’s hardware deluge and Mobile World Congress’ parade of phones, you’d think February would’ve been a relative snoozer on the PC front. Nope! We witnessed a wide array of compelling new computers and components in this shortened month, from a flood of itty-bitty PCs to futuristic storage crafted in quartz to a Raspberry Pi rig configured to harass Comcast when the ISP fails to deliver promised Internet speeds.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Get comfy, grab yourself a nice cool cup of ice tea, and let’s dig deep into February’s hottest new PC hardware.
Crystal holographic storage
Let’s start with something fantastical. Just after Valentine’s Day, researchers at the University of Southampton in the U.K announced that they’d crafted a revolutionary new type of storage, using “self-assembled nanostructures created in fused quartz crystal to store data in five ‘dimensions,’ writing each file in three layers of nanostructured dots separated by five micrometers of blank space.”
The end result? This “Superman crystal” can store up to 360TB of data for a jaw-dropping 13 billion-plus years. Don’t expect this technology to hit actual PCs anytime soon, but damn is it impressive.
Here’s another first. Huawei, a major Android device maker, dipped its toes into the PC waters this month with the introduction of a sleek Surface clone, dubbed the MateBook.
Ostensibly a Windows 10 tablet rather than a laptop—just like the Surface—the MateBook comes into its own via a suite of optional peripherals: a pressure-sensitive stylus that offers twice as much sensitivity as the Surface Pen, a Touch Cover-esque keyboard cover, and a dock for adding extra ports to the device. You know, like the Surface—but look for this stylish rival to give Microsoft’s tablet a serious run for its money.
Mini-STX PCs arrive
February also saw the debut of full-blown PCs built around the diminutive mini-STX form factor, in the form of MSI’s Cubi 2. At 5x5 inches, mini-STX motherboards are far smaller than their mini-ITX counterparts, and slightly larger than Intel’s NUCs. And whereas 4x4-inch NUCs pack processors soldered directly to the motherboard, mini-STX motherboards offer traditional sockets that let you upgrade your CPU if you desire.
The first mini-STX cases, motherboards, and bare-bones PCs were revealed at CES, but MSI’s Cubi 2 is a fully equipped system, with up to 32GB of RAM, m.2 SSD and traditional storage options, Windows 10 Home, and Core i3, i5, and i7 processor options.
A more powerful Kangaroo PC
Amusingly enough, the Cubi 2 is the largest mini-PC that caught our eye this month. At the beginning of February, InFocus rolled out a more powerful version of its intriguing Kangaroo PC, doubling the RAM on this Intel Cherry Trail-based rig to 4GB, and the storage to 64GB.
There’s a big “gotcha” though: The more powerful $169 version lacks an operating system, so you’ll need to BYO OS. The original $99 Kangaroo—which is still available—comes with Windows 10 preinstalled, and the fact that it was a sub-$100, fully functioning Windows PC was a big part of its charm. My off-the-cuff advice? Stick with the cheaper Kangaroo unless you plan to install Linux on the more powerful version.
Endless Mini PC
Speaking of Linux, we wrapped our grubby paws around a very interesting Linux computer this month. The spherical, $79 Endless Mini PC was designed for use in areas where Internet access is unreliable, caching as much of the Web as possible to its internal storage for offline use. It comes with several offline programs preinstalled too, from basic productivity tools to budget planners to medical databases.
This PC won’t appeal to most people in the U.S., to be blunt, no matter how slickly designed it is. But between its thoughtful functionality and relatively low cost, it could prove to be a godsend for middle-class families in developing nations.
Intel Compute Stick
This mini-PC, on the other hand, has more broad appeal—though it’s still pretty niche. Like the original, Intel’s refreshed $159 Compute Stick is designed to slot into an HDMI port on any TV or monitor, instantly transforming it into a PC once you connect a mouse and keyboard.
Intel’s bumped up the speed of the processor and RAM, embraced the newest Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technology, and added a much-needed USB 3.0 port to the updated version. It’s actually the port that makes the most noticeable day-to-day difference, greatly improving the Compute Stick’s ease of use. As a cheap PC, Intel’s Compute Stick delivers a lot of value, especially as a portable productivity device or fuller-featured Chromecast alternative.
Raspberry Pi hates Comcast
Okay, there’s no new hardware here, but it’s so tremendous I had to include it.
A Comcast subscriber became so irate about the company constantly under-delivering on paid-for data speeds that he configured his Raspberry Pi to check his network speeds periodically, then automatically tweet at @ComcastCares if the results were under a third of what he was paying for.
Glorious—and he’s released everything you need to make a Comcast-hating Raspberry Pi bot of your own. Hit the article for full details.
Dell XPS 13
But enough mini-PCs! Let’s dive into full-sized notebooks.
We reviewed the refreshed version of Dell’s XPS 13 in February, and while it’s mostly an iterative evolution, this sleek laptop still holds the title of the best Ultrabook around. Why? Easy: The Dell XPS 13 offers great performance, reasonable pricing, sterling build quality, and the smallest 13-inch notebook body around. This thing is tiny.
Dell started showing off gold editions of the Ultrabook, too. Hey, it worked for the iPhone, right?
Lenovo Flex 4
Lenovo showed off a trio of brand-new Windows hybrid laptops of its own at MWC this month—an odd place for a notebook to be revealed, but whatever.
First up: The Flex 4 (known as the Yoga 510 internationally), a laptop with a 360-degree hinge and internals that you can customize to your liking. Seriously: Choose from 11, 14, and 15-inch screen sizes, processors ranging from Pentiums to beefy Core i7 processors, and even discrete AMD graphics options. Have it your way, baby.
Lenovo Yoga 710
The Lenovo Yoga 710, meanwhile, stands out mostly for offering the same 360-degree hinge, but in an affordable $500 laptop. Even better: The 11.6-inch display is a full 1080p IPS screen, another relative rarity in this price range. There’s a wide range of configuration options available with this machine, as well, if you don’t mind dropping a bit more dough.
Lenovo IdeaPad Miix 310
Lenovo’s IdeaPad Miix 310 goes even lower. Think of it as a “Surface Lite,” with a wallet-friendly $229 price tag. For a full-blown Windows 10 hybrid, that’s damned compelling, even if you can't game with this rig's modest guts. Lenovo says the Miix 310’s target user is an “online addict”—you can even add 4G LTE as an option—so it sounds like yet another Windows-based Chromebook killer.
Sitting somewhere between laptop and desktop lies the beastly Origin EON17-SLX. This gaming computer’s ostensibly a notebook, but it’s packed with enthusiast-class desktop components like the an Intel Core i7-6700K, 16GB of DDR4 RAM, and a GTX GPU. It even has a buttery-smooth G-Sync display!
On the flipside, you wouldn’t want to actually put this 10.5-pound “laptop” on your lap. But if you’re looking for a portable gaming laptop that you can drag from place to place, the Origin EON17-SLX shattered several records in our testing suite—and you can even swap out its processor if you’d like. This is easily the most desktop-y laptop to ever come through PCWorld.
A butt-kicking PC made of Legos
What, you want your PCs even larger? Fine! Let’s start with this glorious, ass-kicking PC custom-built and designed from the ground up to function inside a case made from Lego blocks.
Simply ensuring that the machine doesn’t explode from heat took some hardcore engineering, which you can read about in our Lego PC coverage. But this rig pulls no punches despite its funky exterior, with an Asus Z170 motherboard, a quad-core 4GHz Intel “Skylake” Core i7-6700K processor, an Nvidia GTX 980 Ti, 16GB of HyperX Fury DDR4, and a Samsung 950 Pro M.2 SSD as the primary storage.
That’s hardcore. Even more hardcore: You can buy one of these yourself, and creator Mike Schropp will craft it for you. He’ll even swap in whatever parts you want, or just sell you the case so you can do the DIY work yourself, but without having to cobble together thousands of Legos.
DIY Mac Pro clone case
Of course, there’s a middle ground between portable laptops and massive tower PCs. Case in point: The Dune case, a chassis that aims to help DIYers build their own Mac Pro clones. This svelte, trashcan-esque case supports mini-ITX builds, with cool air coming in from the bottom and blowing over the bottom-mounted power supply before splitting into separate CPU and GPU chambers, then finally blowing out via a fan at the top.
Be warned, though: This is an unproven Kickstarter product, so it may not come to fruition despite the designer’s claims that it’ll be ready to rock three months after successful funding. If you’re looking for a more verifiable Mac Pro clone already kitted out with components, MSI’s stylish Vortex will be out soon, too.
AMD's new processors and Wraith cooler
While the world’s waiting for AMD’s next-gen Zen processors, the company isn’t sitting still. This month, AMD released two new processors: The $117 AMD A10-7860K, a powerful APU designed for affordable e-sports gaming with beefy onboard graphics, and the 3.8GHz Athlon X4 845, which marks the first desktop appearance of AMD’s energy-efficient Excavator CPU architecture. Check out the post for full speeds and feeds for each.
Both will ship with new 125W stock coolers based on the same design as AMD’s whisper-quiet new Wraith CPU cooler—which, the company announced, will start shipping bundled with AMD’s $200 FX-8370 processor. It’s a huge improvement over AMD’s previous stock cooler. Here’s hoping it sees more widespread adoption soon.
Oculus Ready PCs
Excited about the coming virtual reality resolution, but not so excited with the idea of building a beefy rig capable of powering it? The PC industry’s got you covered. This month, a slew of Oculus Ready PCs hit store shelves, premade and packing components guaranteed to hit (and in some cases, blow away) the minimum specifications for VR.
You can find full details about the first wave of Oculus Ready PCs here. If you’re comfortable building a PC, though, you might consider a DIY rig regardless—the money you’ll save over a premade box will let you invest in heavier graphics firepower, which VR needs in spades.
HTC Vive preorders
Those Oculus Ready rigs should also work just fine with the SteamVR-powered HTC Vive, which opens for preorders today and ships in April. It’ll cost you though: At $799, the Vive costs $200 more than the $599 Oculus Rift. That said, in comparison to the Rift, the Vive feels like a relative bargain, offering much more hardware for full “room-scale” VR experiences that you can wander around in. Check out our Rift vs Vive: What you get for your money article for a breakdown.
If you decide to roll your own VR PC, be sure to read up on the processors AMD recommends for virtual reality, and check your rig’s potency using the new benchmarking tool Valve released to test your PC’s VR performance.
Innovative inputs aren’t just happening in VR. This month, we reviewed the Tobii EyeX gaze-tracking hardware, an “eye mouse” of sorts that lets you control your PC and even a handful of games using your peepers. It feels like magic—when it works. The hardware’s better at tracking some eye types more than others. Read our Tobii EyeX review for tons of information and testing results.
EVGA GTX 980 Ti VR Edition
Now that we’ve covered tiny PCs, notebooks, and full-sized premade PCs, it’s time to wade into the enthusiast stuff: components. And it doesn’t get much more enthusiast than the EVGA GTX 980 Ti VR Edition—a graphics card designed for systems built around virtual reality.
The GTX 980 Ti VR Edition is basically one of EVGA’s normal graphics cards, but with an HDMI header on the end of the card inside your PC. That connects to a 5.25-inch drive bay in the front of your computer equipped with an HDMI port and a pair of USB 3.0 ports (which connect to a USB header on your motherboard). That lets you easily connect a Rift or Vive to the front of your rig, rather than fumbling with cables in the back, and the GTX 980 Ti itself has more than enough oomph to power VR experiences.
It’s simple, but genius. Expect to see other graphics card vendors follow suit sooner than later, and I’d be shocked if Oculus Ready PCs don’t embrace this design, too. It’s a no-brainer, instantly identifiable differentiator for VR rigs.
Sapphire Nitro R9 Fury
A couple of interesting traditional graphics cards crossed our desks in February, both from Sapphire.
First, the Sapphire Nitro R9 Fury, a tweaked and tuned version of AMD’s Radeon R9 Fury sporting a custom PCB, a massive and heavenly cooling system, and a factory overclock that helps make this card a fierce contender for 1440p gaming supremacy. Not only does this trounce similarly priced GTX 980 graphics cards, it comes within spitting distance of the $650 Radeon Fury X itself, and it runs cool and quiet. Highly recommended.
Sapphire Nitro R9 380 ITX Compact
The $200 Sapphire Nitro R9 380 ITX Compact is the polar opposite of the Nitro R9 Fury. Where the latter is a long, thick powerhouse, the Nitro 380 Compact is a tiny graphics card built for use in itty-bitty mini-ITX builds. Despite its small size, however, Sapphire’s card still games like a champ at 1080p resolution, and we’d recommend it in a second for living room PCs, LAN party rigs, or for small under-desk systems that still need solid gaming chops. If you have no need to spring for a more potent (and significantly more pricey) mITX GTX 970 or Radeon Nano, this card delivers great mITX graphics without breaking the bank.
OCZ Trion 150 SSD
Let’s be frank: OCZ’s Trion 100 sucked at moving massive amounts of data. But despite our professed dislike of that SSD, OCZ still sent us one of its new OCZ Trion 150 drives for review, and we’re happy to say that this SSD is everything its predecessor wasn’t: It’s cheap, comes with a three-year warranty, and actually outperforms many SSDs in normal, everyday use. What’s not to like?
Samsung 750 EVO SSD
Samsung’s not taking the threat sitting still, however. After leaning on its cutting-edge V-NAND tech to create some of the most impressive enthusiast SSDs around, Samsung’s returning to traditional planar NAND tech with its new Samsung 750 EVO.
The 750 EVO’s claimed 540MBps/520MBps read/write speeds are a bit faster than you normally find in budget SSDs, but Samsung’s delivering them with a price that doesn’t break the bank: $55 for 120GB and $75 for 250GB. How are OCZ and Samsung able to pump out solid-state drives like this for so cheap, you ask? By leaning on relatively new triple-level cell (TLC) NAND, which increases the number of bits that each cell in the drives can store.
Seagate's super-slim hard drive
Since SSDs don’t have spinning platters like traditional hard drives, they feature smaller physical designs that are capable of squeezing into tighter places. That’s made them a favorite in ultra-thin laptops. But sadly, SSDs typically don’t offer anywhere near as much pure storage capacity as similarly priced hard drives.
Enter Seagate’s super-slim new 2TB hard drive, the first 2.5-inch hard drive with a mere 7mm height. By comparison, Western Digital’s 2TB laptop drives are more than twice as thick, at 15mm. We’d still recommend an SSD over an HDD any day when it comes to your primary boot drive, but hey—it’s nice to have options.
VisionTek Pocket SSD
If you want to go even smaller—or at least more portable—we’ve got a pair of SSDs for you. Pocket SSDs, actually. These flash drive-esque devices slip into your pocket and boost your PC’s available capacity from a USB port, but still deliver storage speeds that blow away traditional hard drives.
VisionTek’s aptly named USB Pocket SSD would be a welcome accessory for any laptop, or even a desktop that’s constrained by space or traditional hard drive speeds. This bad boy reads files as fast as most of the SSDs you can buy today. Write speeds aren’t nearly as impressive, but they still outpace anything that the speediest hard drive out there can push. Plus, it’s affordable (starting at $90), sheds heat efficiently, and comes in sizes ranging from 128GB all the way to 512GB. This thing kicks butt.
Samsung T3 portable SSD
But this thing is the best portable storage product on the planet today.
Samsung’s T3 portable SSD isn’t in the convenient flash drive-like form factor, but it’s still pretty diminutive. This USB 3.1-equipped portable SSD can hit theoretical top speeds of 450MBps—damn near internal SSD speeds—and while it doesn’t quite nail that in practice, it comes awfully darn close. The Samsung T3 will melt your face.
It’s available in sizes up to 2TB, and while it’s a bit more expensive than VisionTek’s Pocket SSD (and a lot more expensive than similarly sized portable hard drives), it’s worth every penny.
Oil and water
Two interesting bits of software hit the streets in February that hardware enthusiasts will want to keep tabs on.
Let’s start with the good news: The latest beta build of Ashes of the Singularity will let you benchmark DirectX 12, and even better, it supports DX12’s explicit multi-adapter feature, which lets you rock Nvidia and AMD graphics cards together in the same system. Hell just froze over, folks—and our initial testing results were very interesting indeed. Here’s an Nvidia-specific teaser: Two GeForce GTX 980s using explicit multi-adapter delivered much higher frame rates than two GeForce GTX 980s working together in SLI. To see how GeForce and Radeon performs in tandem, well, you’ll just have to read the article.
Intel shuts down cheap overclocking
Sadly, we’ll have to end this month’s roundup on a low note.
Late last year, motherboard vendors began shipping custom BIOS builds that let you overclock lower-cost, non-“K”-series Skylake chips, which ostensibly can’t be overclocked at all. You knew it wouldn’t take Intel long to respond, and now, the party’s over.
“Intel regularly issues updates for our processors which our partners voluntarily incorporate into their BIOS,” an Intel spokesman told PCWorld after a recent update. “The latest update provided to partners includes, among other things, code that aligns with the position that we do not recommend overclocking processors that have not been designed to do so.”
Bummer. On the plus side, if you managed to snag one of those overclocking BIOSes before the iron struck, you should still be able to overclock your non-overclockable Skylake chip to 11—as long as you don’t update your motherboard.
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