On some level, I want to like laptops.
I’ve spent a good chunk of my professional life armed with a laptop for work, not always, but once I took on roles with some degree of flexibility required (and usually travel alongside it), the only tool that makes much sense for that is a laptop.
In my personal life, I’ve owned a handful of laptops, largely only at points where my economic security is great enough to justify the cost. When I’ve owned a personal laptop, the overriding desire was to use it for gaming on the go – when I had to travel to train at remote sites for work and was gone from home for a few weeks at a time, the only way I could keep up with raiding in WoW was via a laptop. Therefore, the first laptop I bought was an Asus Republic of Gamers model – thick, heavy, with a huge power brick and large ventilated openings on the back from which a constant stream of heated air and high-pitched fan whine would emerge. I got used to the TSA security theatre dance, pulling out a slim work laptop (who needs power for Powerpoint?) and then grabbing a second tray just for my 12 pound gaming machine. Two trays, just for laptops, but over a couple of years doing this, I had the routine down pat.
Eventually, though, it gave out – no idea what happened, but something went wrong and it died on me. I wasn’t travelling for work as much and I felt fine with momentary absences from raiding and playing games. I had an iPad for browsing the web on the road so I could do so without the watchful eyes of my employer. Finally, in 2013, I bought the last laptop I’ve (currently) owned – a Macbook Air. Why?
Well, I was no longer of the impression that I would be gaming on the road, but the Macbook could do so with Blizzard games at low quality settings. What I liked about it was that it was slim, light, and the aluminum unibody casing – the only Mac computer I’ve ever owned. To not escape the context of the post I’m trying to write here, my opinion on Apple is thus – they make good stuff but it is too expensive and the corners they tend to cut are awful ones for anyone with more than a basic understanding of how their stuff works. I generally like the ideas behind some of their stuff (the new Mac Pro actually seems like a really sophisticated and cool design!) but they bog it down with awful bullshit in the margins (the T2 chip meaning no third-party NVMe drive replacements, the drastic overcharging for CPU upgrades and especially RAM upgrades, a $1,000 monitor stand, and the locked-down, walled-garden ecosystems they create on the software side of everything).
The Macbook Air has been fine for the last 7 years, although I haven’t used it all that much. I did take it around the world for my first globe-spanning trip in 2014, I wrote my published novel on it and created the files that would later be printed and distributed, and it served well as a recording machine when I was podcasting in a group – but much like with mobile gaming in general, I just can’t get into using it that much. However, it is worse in a way – where not being able to grapple with wanting to play a DS at home means missing out on a fair number of titles, I miss out on nothing by not using a laptop.
Given all of that, I didn’t expect to care that much about this week’s CES 2020, where AMD unveiled their Ryzen 4000 series of CPUs, but only the mobile versions. Because of AMD’s confusing release cadence, Ryzen 4000 mobile CPUs are equivalent to the desktop 3000 series, as mobile is a generation behind. This means that the 4000 series mobile parts were ones to watch – they get 7nm process technology, making small, energy efficient CPUs, they get Zen 2 CPU cores, making them more powerful clock for clock than their Intel competition, they are able to add support that was missing from prior Ryzen mobile parts like LPDDR4X support which makes their integrated graphics much faster, and through both process tweaks and improvements to the cores, the GPU built into these CPUs is 59% faster per CU than the last-gen mobile equivalents, per AMD (how they arrive at that conclusion is unknown – probably a mix of efficiency gains, LPDDR4X support, and clock speed gains over last gen).
As a techie, though, it seems kind of cool and I watched a lot of the coverage anyways with an interest I didn’t expect. The flagship laptop for the new Ryzen parts, which launches next month, is the Asus ROG Zephyrus G14, a nice, slim laptop that manages to pack in the top-end new Ryzen 4000 CPU alongside a mobile Nvidia GPU for a very fast laptop, plus, the lid of it has microLEDs in a triangular display that can be customized to show whatever you want – basic images (the pitch means low res art only) or text scrolls that cut across the lid diagonally in a cool way. The idea of an affordable 8 core, 16 thread CPU in a laptop is also really cool to me just on an efficiency level, and the small physical size of the chip (plus, it being one chip, since the Zen 2 parts on desktop are all chiplet based and have between 2 and 9 chips under their heatspreaders) is impressive.
Dangerous because I find myself actually kind of wanting a laptop again, despite struggling to imagine what I would use it for. Intuitively, I can imagine being able to play games while on trips, but I don’t travel for work at present and the personal trips I have until 2021 are all domestic and to gaming conventions, so “being able to play WoW at Blizzcon and FFXIV at FFXIV Fan Fest” aren’t really impressive use cases. I could invent a content creation use, surely – better mobile blogging (I wrote all the posts I made on my fall trip on either my iPad Pro or my cell phone, which was…not great!) and provided I actually finally follow through on promises of video content creation this year, it could be great for that. But ultimately, I am seeking problems for a solution and my personal struggle was a good vehicle to recount the news from CES.
Speaking of CES news, there were some other really cool things worth talking about.
-Intel Ghost Canyon NUC: NUC – the “next unit of computing” have been interesting little machines from Intel. Basically, Intel uses a (usually) laptop CPU in a soldered circuit board with some SODIMM laptop RAM slots and an M.2 port for an SSD, puts it into a tiny case, and sells it as a semi-configurable mini PC for use with applications that benefit from the small form factor – basic office work, home theater PCs, etc. Ghost Canyon sort of changes that, using a small-ish case (the Intel stock model is a 5 liter volume) but instead of using a fixed NUC board, the system uses a baseboard with two PCI Express slots and an M.2 slot on it, and then allows you to slot in the NUC unit as a PC module. The module is a PCI Express x16 card with all the stuff that would previously be packed into the NUC itself – a laptop CPU (the one they showed was the Core i9-9980HK, an 8-core/16-thread model with great performance), SODIMM memory slots for DDR4 RAM, two additional M.2 slots accompanying the baseboard one, and then a bevy of IO ports for the back of the system – dual gigabit ethernet, stacks of USB 3.0, and a few others. The idea here is that you slot in the PC card, loaded with your base hardware and an integrated cooling solution that makes it look like a graphics card, and then using the second baseboard PCIE slot, you can put in a separate graphics card of your choice, with the only constraints being the power delivery of the NUC and the physical size of the card needing to be contained by the NUC case – but the graphics are optional since the CPU has integrated (awful) graphics. It is a fascinating concept for me because it builds a really cool small form factor machine that you can use in a lot of ways – a streaming machine, a portable game box, a LAN machine, a travelling gaming rig, or simply as your main use machine that fits into tons of small places. Both Intel’s case and the one third-party case design I saw from Cooler Master are smaller than almost all ITX cases which means that these systems will likely see some popularity for YouTube tech channels, since they can be packed easier than the ITX rigs most of them take to shows like CES and Computex for editing and posting video content.
-AMD Ryzen Threadripper 3990X: This one was already known since the main Threadripper 3xxx launch in November, but before that, it was a big if on whether or not AMD would bring the top-end Epyc server CPU configuration to desktops. Here it is, they have done it – 64 (?!!!) CPU cores, 128 threads, in a single CPU socket, with current gen Threadripper boards. Offering quad-channel memory support (sadly, not the octo-channel that a lot of people expected), 288 MB of total cache onboard the CPU, and a higher clockspeed than the Epyc equivalents (2.9 GHz base and 4.3 GHz boost), all at a price of $3,990, it is spendy and likely not going to be heavily supplied for DIY enthusiasts, but on February 7th, it will be theoretically possible for you to build a 64-core single socket rig for use with whatever your heart desires. In the enthusiast space, it isn’t necessarily night and day over the 32 core Threadripper 3970X, but for workloads like 3D rendering or just extremely-intense multitasking, it will be great. Not going to lie, I definitely did look at my budget to see if there was any chance I could upgrade to such a system (if I kept most of my current system and solely bought the CPU and a new motherboard for it, I could make it work without additional cost, but it would still cost an eyewatering $4,750 to do it!) and under current conditions, it would 100% not be utilized to anywhere near 50% of its capabilities, much less 100%. However, it is amazingly cool to think that last year, a 32 core CPU was a big deal and leap forward, and we’ve already doubled that!
-Corsair’s Tempered Glass Embedded Capellex LEDs: Just a cool visual, but Corsair was showing off a concept case that used tempered glass panels on the front and side which had embedded RGB LEDs with no visible wiring or traces. By embedding a film layer with the LEDS and the necessary power and signal delivery hardware, they maintained full transparency (you can’t even really see the LEDs!) but you can then program a light show to emit from the glass. Using pin to pad contacts in the glass to the side of the case for power and data, the whole package is sleek, elegant looking, and (most importantly) bright and fun. No confirmed release or product for them, and no cost announced, but I thouroughly enjoy the idea and while I love the o11 Dynamic cases from Lian-Li, I could see building a system in a Corsair case with that kind of light show!
-Intel’s DG1 SDV: Designed to allow developers to start optimizing for Intel’s new discrete graphics card, the DG1 SDV kit takes the Tiger Lake CPU integrated graphics part (designed with the Xe architecture that will make up Intel’s new discrete graphics cards) and puts just the graphics portion and some memory onto a PCI Express card to allow it to be used. Intel was showing it off at CES, but with just Destiny 2 at 1080p low settings, and without any framerate overlays or benchmarks allowed. Gamers Nexus used their high framerate camera to capture the screen output of their Destiny 2 playtime, and the results were…not great? Counting frames, which has some margin for error, gave them roughly a 47 FPS average on 1080p low settings, when Destiny 2 isn’t particularly intense on graphics horsepower. Now, all of that is missing context – Intel hasn’t provided any information on the number of execution units in DG1, the TDP of the card, memory size or bandwidth, and then on top of all of that, we don’t know how much larger or more scaled-up the actual dedicated Xe cards will be when they aren’t the integrated graphics ripped out of a laptop CPU. The card itself physically looks cool, but so many more questions remain that Intel is just not answering yet.
-Case Designs Galore: CES has some interesting computer cases typically, and 2020 didn’t disappoint. Asus has a ROG ITX case with a motherboard tray tilted by 11 degrees to enable cable routing and GPU placement, which looks interesting. Lian-Li has a mini version of the O11 Dynamic case that can still fit larger motherboards into a smaller volume. Silverstone has some cool new versions of their chimney-style airflow cases, using an effective bottom-to-top cooling path to work with thermodynamics to improve performance. The aforementioned Corsair embedded LED glass case looks amazing. Basically, a ton of different cases for every aesthetic sensibility were on display.
-PCIE 4.0 NVMe Drives: In time for the Ryzen 3000 launch in July 2019, a couple of manufacturers put out quick and dirty models of PCIE Gen 4 SSDs, increasing speeds over the PCIE 3.0 models, but not by the full potential increases allowed by the new standard. Now, Samsung is showing off a Pro-level PCIE Gen 4 SSD with amazing stats, and other manufactureres were showing off models of their own, with new geenration controllers that work better and faster than the first generation of controllers that were rushed to market alongside Ryzen 3rd gen. For me, still using a PCIE Gen 3 motherboard with my PCIE 4.0 compatible CPU, more options for even faster storage is good news.
-Radeon RX5600XT: A new video card, but it is just a further cut-down version of the current RX5700 with only 6GB of VRAM made for playing at 1080p resolution. That’s all fine, but a 1080p card launching at $280 in 2020 is a tough sell to me, personally, to the point that I couldn’t really make the argument for it even with friends and family to whom that resolution is the target.
While there was other stuff (TVs galore, drones, all the way to kitchen appliances) that covers the major gaming technology stuff I wanted to discuss.
Oh wait, there’s also the PS5 announcement!
Wait, I mean the PS5 logo announcement.
Amazing, unexpected stuff. (I wish they brought the Spiderman font back)