Have you read the tea leaves? The PC is an endangered species, doomed to obscurity at the hands of tablets, smartphones, or whatever new computing device happens to be the flavor of moment. That's the future being foretold by all too many so-called analysts. If you walked the halls of CES a couple of weeks ago, you might be inclined to agree. Smartphones and tablets were on everyone's lips.
Then again, they don't call it the Consumer Electronics Show for nothing. The PC has never been the primary attraction there.
Just being at a convention like CES is enough to see that the PC's mindshare isn't what it used to be. The overall computing market is growing, and desktop PC sales appear to be steady and perhaps even growing, depending on the source one consults. Still, the PC's slice of the overall pie is diminishing, as smartphones and tablets claim more share. Smartphones have become ubiquitious, with everyone seemingly itching to trade up to the latest model. Tablets are the hot new thing, and they're quickly wooing consumers away from notebooks. Notebooks had it coming, though; they've been stealing attention from traditional desktops for years.
If the the PC's spot in the techno-limelight is diminishing, desktops have it particularly rough. So, what of our enthusiast community, an admittedly small niche within the desktop population?
In a lot of ways, we're better off than ever.
The more time I spend with my smartphone, tablet, and notebook, the more I appreciate the good living we enjoy on the desktop. Our systems are highly configurable, infinitely flexible, plenty powerful, and easily upgradeable. Rolling your own desktop might cost a bit more than the latest techno gadget, but that's money well spent if you're going to take advantage of the platform's unique characteristics.
Building your own system is much easier these days, making the DIY route more accessible than ever. Modern cases offer spacious internals loaded with tool-free amenities and enough cable routing options to allow even novices to put together tidy systems. You might not agree with the aesthetic sensibilities of every enclosure on the market, but there's something for all tastes—and, finally, several really good options for smaller form factors like Mini-ITX.
If building a PC from scratch is the first step toward becoming a bona fide enthusiast, then overclocking is stage two. You're in luck, because pushing clock speeds has gone from being a black art reserved for experts to something that can be accomplished quite literally with the push of a button. MSI's latest motherboards feature an OC Genie button that overclocks the CPU automatically. Other motherboard makers offer similar functionality in their firmware or Windows software, bringing overclocking to audiences that might have been too intimidated to experiment with manual adjustments.
Old-school overclocking is still the best way to squeeze the most out of your CPU, and it, too, has benefited from years of steady refinement. The UEFIs and tweaking apps we have today are light years ahead of what was available just a few years ago. Having OC-friendly CPUs helps, too. AMD and Intel both offer several models with fully unlocked upper multipliers, the holy grail of hassle-free overclocking.
Seasoned PC enthusiasts have long been familiar with Black Edition and K-series CPUs, and it seems mainstream users are starting to catch on. A friend of mine just ditched his two-year-old Dell for an NCIX-built PC with a Core i7-2600K. I wouldn't classify him as an enthusiast, and he's never overclocked, but he looked at the incremental price difference and figured he might as well have the option of turning up the multiplier. Apparently, he's not the only one. While meeting with Intel during CES, we were told the company was surprised by the strong sales of its K-series CPUs and high-end Sandy Bridge chipsets. Intel wouldn't discuss actual numbers, but it recently started selling "protection plans" for overclocked CPUs. Never has the chip giant been this accommodating of those who defy its prescribed clock speeds.
While not quite as impressive as the old Celeron 300A, Sandy still has ample overclocking headroom. I've had my 2600K running at 4.7GHz with aftermarket air cooling—nearly 1GHz faster than the chip's Turbo peak. Exotic coolers are another hallmark of enthusiast PCs, and the rise of all-in-one liquid cooling solutions has added to a landscape already teeming with traditional heatsinks in all shapes and sizes. Some of the factory-assembled liquid units available today are good enough that I'd recommend them to a newbie who has never swapped out his CPU's stock heatsink.
Performance was the prime motivator for PC enthusiasts in the early days. With plenty of horsepower now at our disposal, we've devoted more attention to lowering power consumption and noise levels. Improving power management schemes continue to reduce the amount of heat that must be dissipated during idle periods. Fan control intelligence grows ever smarter, and contemporary fans are much quieter than the piercing turbines of my youth. Some enclosures use rubber to dampen vibrations and foam to absorb sound waves, resulting in a new breed of stealthy systems that operate in near silence.
The fact that budget components are just as enthusiast-friendly as their high-end brethren is especially gratifying. Trickle down is a wonderful thing. In a sense, so is the consolization of the gaming industry. As much as I'd like to see developers focus on exploiting the power of cutting-edge PCs, having them target anemic console hardware means that the $600 Econobox in our system guide can handle the latest games with the eye candy cranked at decent resolutions.
If you have the budget to spend more, higher-end graphics cards are capable of driving massive displays, multi-monitor arrays, and stereo 3D configs that make consoles look like child's play. The PC world is brimming with more affordable luxuries, too, like springy mechanical keyboards, insanely accurate mice, and pitch-perfect sound cards. SSDs are probably the ultimate in attainable enthusiast accessories right now. Wicked-fast system drives can be had for less than the cost of a mid-range graphics card, and with the recent spat of BSOD bugs and botched firmware releases, you can feel like you're living dangerously on the bleeding edge of technology.
Desktop PCs continue to offer the most personalized, powerful, and ultimately premium computing experience around. Even curious noobs should have no problem putting together a slick system, providing a path for the enthusiast community to grow within the desktop ranks. As a pragmatist who favors the best tool for the job, I won't lament having to share the computing market with PC alternatives. Grandmothers and other users who do little more than surf the web, write emails, and pretend to be friends on Facebook may ultimately be better served by oversimplified devices they can take everywhere. At the very least, the migration of these casual users to more restrictive platforms will decrease the number of tech support calls PC enthusiasts have to field from friends and family. That alone would have me cheering the dire outlook for the desktop PC, if only I believed in it.Welcome, tablet overlords
I've never been a big fan of the holiday party circuit. There's always a certain awkwardness attached to hanging out with people you only see once or twice a year—and don't communicate with otherwise. The string of vaguely familiar faces whose names I've long since given up trying to remember inevitably peppers me with questions about what I'm working on. Usually, my replies brings a quick end to the conversation.
The fact that I've tested enough SSDs to match the capacity of my home file server doesn't impress mainstream audiences like it would TR regulars. Tales of high-end X79 motherboards running water-cooled Sandy Bridge-E processors cause eyes to glaze over. Not even the pair of GeForce GTX 580 3GB graphics cards I've been using to test multi-GPU lane configurations inspired more than a polite nod this year. As soon as I mentioned the Transformer Prime, though, I suddenly became the most interesting person in the room.
"That's that new Android tablet with the keyboard, right? Man, that thing looks awesome."
Although my social circles aren't populated with folks who would classify themselves as PC enthusiasts or even geeks, everyone seems to be interested in tablets. The iPad is a popular choice, of course, but plenty of folks are keen on cheaper options like the Kindle Fire and the recently discounted BlackBerry PlayBook. One guy I talked to was even eager to brag about the sub-$100 tablet he ordered from China, although he hadn't taken delivery yet.
The last time I saw this much consumer interest in a new class of computing device was during the netbook craze of a few years ago. It's fitting, then, that tablets have been pegged as netbook killers. For the developing world, where a netbook might serve as someone's only Windows-compatible PC, tablets seem unlikely to make a significant dent anytime soon. However, for anyone looking for a portable computing device to complement an existing PC, tablets have considerable appeal—especially if you're more into consumption than creation.
Most of my brief holiday was spent using the Transformer Prime as my primary PC, and it just doesn't work well in that role. The keyboard isn't big enough, the touchpad isn't smart enough, and the performance isn't as good as my two-year-old budget ultraportable notebook. I'm far more productive in a Windows environment surrounded by familiar applications. That said, if I'm watching movies, surfing the web, going through email, checking my calendar, or reading just about anything, the Prime offers a much better experience. So does my original Transformer.
The fact is that today's tablets have better screens than the average notebook. Tablets don't have to sit on a desk or be propped up on your lap, either; they can easily be held in one hand and rotated into a portrait mode perfect for reading everything from comic books to the web. There's also something about touchscreen interfaces that, when executed well, offers a more satisfying interaction than swiping a touchpad or clicking a mouse. As precise as those instruments are, they feel more detached than watching a user interface move fluidly beneath your fingertips.
While some have been quick to write off tablets as a fad, I can't disagree more. Human beings have been using tablets of one form or another since they were carved from stone. Modern versions simply employ the latest technology to provide windows on our increasingly digital world. Smartphones offer similar windows, but they sacrifice screen size to slip easily into pockets. Even 7" tablets seem like too much of a compromise, and I can definitely see the appeal of displays larger than the 10-inchers dominating the market right now.
The PC world has long had its own convertible tablets, and it's likely to gain more as Windows 8 prioritizes touch-based input. I must admit, though, I prefer the simplicity of a slate. The lack of a hardware keyboard, combined with my disdain for typing more than a sentence or two on a touchscreen, is incredibly liberating. As somewhat of a workaholic, it's nice to have a computing platform that's poorly suited to productivity and perfectly tailored for relaxed entertainment.
It's also gratifying to see everyday folks genuinely excited about the latest computing devices. PCs plateaued long ago for these people, and they're simply not interested in additional CPU cores, solid-state storage, or the gobs of pixel-pushing horsepower that comes with fresh graphics processors. Tablets represent an engaging and fundamentally new platform adept at handling everyday tasks like email, web surfing, and Facebook stalking.
Some pundits have gone so far as to predict that tablets will kill the PC, but that seems incredibly absurd to me. Like smartphones, tablets have a place in the larger computer ecosystem. I don't think they'll supplant traditional desktops anymore than notebooks already have. The line between notebooks and tablets is likely to blur as time goes on, too. Making arbitrary distinctions about what counts as a personal computer is silly when so many devices offer honest-to-goodness computing power and good user experiences.
We're likely to be inundated with new tablets at the Consumer Electronics show next week, and you'll probably see more tablet reviews from us in 2012. Don't worry, though; we'll remain focused on our traditional areas of coverage. New CPUs, graphics cards, motherboards, SSDs, and other components may be snoozers at holiday parties, but they're the lifeblood of the enthusiast community, and we remain passionate about them. Tablets represent something new, and I have a feeling we'll be talking about then for a very long time to come.Holiday gifts for the discerning geek
I lost count of how many times my girlfriend asked me what I wanted for Christmas this year. After replying with "oh, you know what I want" failed to elicit the desired response, I set about slowly piecing together a meager tally of items I'd like to see wrapped up under our tree. It's a pretty sad list, and the wired remote for my Rebel T2i is the most advanced bit of technology on it. The fact is I'm already pretty well-equipped on the high-tech front.
When you review PC hardware, Christmas morning comes regularly with the delivery of new components ready for review. As a general technology enthusiast, I tend to buy desirable tech products soon after they come out rather than waiting for the celebration of my escape from the womb... or the birth of that other guy. I'm picky about those purchases, and I've made more of them in recent years as a sort of self-serving investment in my career of choice—and a nice tax write-off.
So, yeah, I have a pretty sweet collection of tech toys.
Many of them would make fantastic gifts, so I'm going to mail in this week's blog post with a holiday gift guide. Sorry, my head is elsewhere this week; I'm currently sitting on a mountain of test data for two separate articles, and on top of that, I've got a Transformer Prime demanding my immediate attention. Besides, this may even give you a few ideas for how to best spend gift cards and Christmas cash.
Our Christmas system guide is already filled with rational recommendations for components and mobile accessories. Gifts should be more indulgent than reasoned, I think, so I'm going to focus on a handful of smaller items that deliver a big punch all on their own.
There's no way I'm not recommending an SSD, though. Solid-state storage has long been highly desirable for its wicked-fast performance, and prices have finally fallen enough to make drives affordable luxuries. The fastest SSDs around pair SandForce's SF-2281 controller with synchronous flash memory. Among that bunch, Corsair's bright red Force GT is easily the most festive. The 120GB version costs $200 right now, and a smaller 60GB variant can be had for $115.
Even though the BSOD bug associated with the SandForce controller has supposedly been squashed, I'd avoid buying the Force GT for anyone who isn't a savvy enthusiast. The odds of a problem may be low, but the potential headache could be huge if you're the one ultimately responsible. Crucial's m4 is a safer bet, and the 64GB model is cheaper than the Force GT at $109. You'll have to shell out $210 for a 128GB drive large enough to hold Windows plus a decent selection of games and applications, though.
Although not nearly as sexy as SSDs, peripherals deserve more attention than enthusiasts tend to give them. High-end keyboards and mice can add a lot more to the computing experience than one might expect, and I'm a recent convert to the cult of mechanical key switches. For folks who spends hours of each day hammering away at a keyboard, whether writing eloquent prose, gaming on the WASD triangle, or performing mindless data entry, it's hard to deny the benefits of a quality physical interface.
Alas, I can't recommend my own mechanical keyboard, the Das Professional Silent, because its glossy frame too quickly turns into a mess of smudgy fingerprints. That said, the keyboard's Cherry MX brown switches have a nice tactile bump that's a real treat for typists. The very same switches can be found on Rosewill's RK-9000BR keyboard for $110—minus the Das' gloss.
The RK-9000BR isn't much to look at, I'll admit, and gamers tend to prefer the linear action provided by Cherry's black and red switches. The latter populate Corsair's stunning Vengeance K60 and K90 keyboards, which sell for $110 and $130, respectively. I've handled the Vengeance keyboards in person, and they feel excellent. With individual backlights behind each key and gobs of programming options, the K90 is easily the one I'd want for a gaming rig.
Although a good mouse can make just as big of a difference as a nice keyboard, everyone tends to have their own personal preferences, especially when it comes to shape and fit. The slickest one-size-fits-all approach comes from Cyborg Gaming, which offers an awesome adjustable mouse in the RAT 7. In addition to the usual mix of programming options, users can tweak the size, shape, and weight of the mouse to perfectly suit their preferred grip.
The RAT 7 just plain looks cool, and the build quality is excellent. After more than a year of heavy use, mine is showing no real signs of wear and tear. I've been particularly impressed with how useful the on-the-fly DPI adjustment has been not only in games, but also when switching between standard desktop tasks and detailed Photoshop work. The wired RAT 7 can be had for $80 online, and it will actually fit in a stocking.
While some argue that basic audio solutions are good enough for their ears, I wonder how many would go back if they could do better. Lately, I've been doing all my gaming on a pair of Sennheiser HD 555 headphones. These are the cans we use for sound card testing here at TR, and they've always been great for music. They're just as good for games, especially when paired with a sound card or motherboard audio that offers surround-sound virtualization, as most modern ones do.
I've seen the HD 555s for a lot cheaper than the $158 they're selling for now. For a heck of a lot less, Koss' PortaPro headphones offer great sound quality in a much smaller package. This decades-old design has stood the test of time, and I never travel without mine. Total cost? Only $44.
The other audio component that's perfect for an enthusiast's stocking is a quality sound card. Our favorite is Asus' Xonar DX, which offers beautifully balanced playback quality despite costing just $81. Surround-sound virtualization is provided for stereo speakers or headphones, and multichannel audio can be encoded on the fly for digital output to a receiver. With a half-height circuit board that can slip into slim HTPC enclosures and modern PCIe x1 interface ripe for most motherboards, the Xonar DX is flexible enough to work in a whole range of different systems.
The Prime is calling, so I'll wrap this up with a few game suggestions. A lot of really good titles came out this year, and Portal 2 is probably the best gift of the bunch. The first-person puzzler is appropriate for younger audiences, and it's a genuinely engaging game from start to finish—it's funny, too. If you don't grab Portal 2 for $30 now, Valve will undoubtedly have it for much cheaper during Steam's usual holiday sale.
Up until about a week ago, I would've recommended Battlefield 3 alongside Portal 2. The thing is, I've been doing a lot of testing with Batman: Arkham City this week. I tend to tire quickly of repeating the same 90-second test sequence while benchmarking, but I've brawled through one tiny slice of Arkham City no fewer than 40 times now, and I've enjoyed it each and every time. Even with a keyboard and mouse, the third-person combat is deeply satisfying. I haven't progressed enough to comment on the game as a whole, but I am desperate to sit down for a proper session. If more time to play Arkham City is high on my own wishlist, odds are gamers will be pretty happy to unwrap the latest Batman game on Christmas morning. This one probably won't be on the receiving end of hefty discounts until after the holidays.
So, that's my list—or it would be, if I didn't have all those bases covered already. What bits of technological goodness are you hoping to find under the tree next weekend?One man's return to the Battlefield
I got an early start on the Battlefield series. When the BF: 1942 multiplayer demo hit in August of 2002, a couple of friends and I holed up in the squalid basement suite that served as my Benchmarking Sweatshop at the time. Test systems were transformed into gaming rigs, and fueled by a combination of take-out and Slurpees, we played into the following morning. Finally, with the sun rising and our hands cramped from hours of non-stop fragging, we tore ourselves away only to repeat the ritual the following weekend... and the weekend after that... and the weekend after that.
We continued these once-a-week sessions with the demo for some four months before finally springing for the full game. Student-loan payments took priority back then, and the gameplay was so good we didn't mind spending endless hours toiling back and forth across the beaches of Wake Island, the only map in the demo. Years spent in crudely networked dorm rooms had us well-versed in the art of first-person shooters, but Battlefield's grand scale and seamless vehicle integration added new depth that kept us entertained for hours.
As the franchise shifted venues and eras, both in official releases and through mods like Desert Combat, we followed the Battlefield series religiously. Inevitably, though, girlfriends and real-world responsibilities eroded our weekly schedule. The squad ultimately disbanded before Battlefield 2142 hit, and I just couldn't get into it or the subsequent Bad Company releases. Perhaps Battlefield 3 would be different, I thought.
In some ways, this latest chapter in the franchise represents a radical departure. The game starts you off in a web browser, and that means sitting through a couple of plugin installs before you can do anything. This is really no more annoying than the miscellaneous updates attached to seemingly every new Steam game, and the browser-based interface lends itself well to stats tracking and social networking. Being able to browse battle logs and upcoming unlocks while waiting for the game to join a server and load the map in the background is really quite convenient. The problem is the timing; after transitioning from the browser to the game, there's still up to eight seconds of additional load time on an SSD-equipped system. Cut that to less than a second, make the transition seamless, and you might be onto something.
The web front-end makes more sense for multiplayer than it does for Battlefield's single-player component. Then again, the solo campaign doesn't really feel like it should be a part of this game at all. Before Bad Company came along, the Battlefield name was free from any association with the on-rails shooter genre popularized by the Call of Duty series. To be fair, I enjoyed BF3's single-player missions more than I did the last Modern Warfare game. The pacing feels less frantic, and perhaps due to my aggressive tendencies, I tend not to get stuck behind trigger points facing endless waves of enemies. There were some memorable sequences among the missions, even if the gameplay feels formulaic.
The quick-time events simply have to go, though. They might seem like a good way to make in-game cinematics more interactive, but nothing breaks immersion like being told to press an arbitrary key at a specific moment.
Expecting a Battlefield game to ship without a single-player component is probably unrealistic. However, the Michael Bay theatrics should be reserved for Bad Company and other spin-offs. There's nothing wrong with Battlefield's single-player roots, which pit the player against computer-controlled bots on multiplayer maps. If a storyline and missions are a must, why can't they channel more Operation Flashpoint and less Call of Duty? I suppose the sales figures for those two games provides the answer.
So, what about the multiplayer? That's the main course, and after making my way through the infantry-centric single-player campaign, I was a little worried that Call of Duty-itis had infected the rest of the game. Fortunately, it only took a few rounds to confirm this is the Battlefield I know and love. I've been playing the game's classic conquest mode almost exclusively, and apart from struggling to learn the ins and outs of the massive maps, I feel right at home.
Honestly, I expected to die a lot more than I have thus far. There have been times I've cursed campers and grenade spamming, but they've been rare. My casualties are largely my own fault for thinking I still have the mad skillz of an early-20s university student.
The multiplayer isn't perfect, of course. The deployment map is a bit of a mess, and the one in the HUD isn't much better. Squads are difficult to coordinate, as well, although I'm admittedly used to having my team assembled in the same room—a tough act to follow. At first, I also experienced quite a bit of frustration after getting gunned down by higher-ranked players with superior weapons. Upgrades are unlocked quickly, though, and there's a certain satisfaction to pulling better guns from the cold, dead hands of your victims.
Battlefield games have always looked pretty good, and this one is particularly gorgeous. The visuals are stunning, and I'm particularly impressed with the smoke, fire, and explosive effects. You'll see a lot of them, because the game's levels are littered with enough burning cars to fuel a Stanley Cup riot. The environments aren't quite as destructible as I was expecting, but I've had my cover quickly reduced to rubble right before my eyes on more than a few occasions. I was also rather impressed when the giant antenna tower from one of the multiplayer levels fell on top of me.
While Battlefield 3 doesn't have nearly as much unique detail as Rage, the textures are sharper up close. The lighting looks pretty good overall, even if some of the effects feel overused by the campaign's penchant for peppering night missions with loads of blinding headlights and baddies with flashlights. If I didn't fear being gunned down, I probably would have stopped more often to take in the view.
When piped through headphones with the virtualized surround-sound of a Xonar sound card, Battlefield 3 sounds amazing. The audio packs a solid punch and offers good directional cues without getting too muddied in big firefights. Somehow, the subtle tick of a sniper's ricochet is more terrifying than the bombastic din of a tank battle.
With a pre-order DLC freebie on the way that includes my beloved Wake Island, plus other Battlefield classics, I'm looking forward to many evenings spent staying up far too late to play just one more round. I had a couple of nights like that before hunkering down in crunch mode for an upcoming product launch, and just writing this blog post has me jonesing for another fix.A roadmap for next-generation mobo firmware
Later this week, I embark on a super-secret mission to Silicon Valley to get a sneak peek at Asus' upcoming X79 motherboards. At a similar preview event for Sandy Bridge motherboards last year, I got my first hands-on time with the UEFI—that is, the better, more flexible BIOS replacement—that went on to outclass everything in the industry. Asus will probably have a few new UEFI tricks to show off this time around, and I'm curious to see what's in store. I also have some rather specific thoughts on what should be incorporated in new firmware implementations. When you've been reviewing motherboards for more than a decade, you spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about such things—and have a somewhat inflated sense of the value of your opinions.
The BIOS was never that exciting, but its UEFI replacement has the potential to make motherboards much sexier than they've ever been before. Mobos have never been that sexy, but bear with me, because contemporary motherboards seem destined to continue offering largely equivalent hardware configurations, performance characteristics, and overclocking potential, making the quality of their firmware one of few things that set them apart from one another.
The most obvious new element the Unified Extensible Firmware Interface brings to the table is support for graphical user interfaces, complete with mouse input. You'd think mouse support would be easy to get right, but I've suffered through some truly horrendous implementations plagued by painfully imprecise tracking, seizure-inducing cursor flickering, and frustratingly inconsistent button behavior. Before letting artists loose on a GUI, motherboard makers need to do a better job of nailing the basic input mechanisms.
Asus' UEFI has had excellent mouse support from the beginning, and that's one of the reasons we've liked it so much. Another is the fact that the interface is snappy and responsive. If old-school BIOSes can effortlessly flip between menus and options instantaneously, then so should their UEFI successors.
I'm a little conflicted when it comes to how the user interface is presented visually. Part of me likes the fact that Asus' UEFI has an "advanced" mode that follows the same menu structure and layout familiar from years of the company's BIOSes. This UI still has a stylish skin, and it's easy to navigate quickly with either the keyboard or the mouse. I love the fact that variables like clock speeds, voltages, and memory timings can be keyed in directly.
While years of poking around in BIOSes makes me particularly comfortable in Asus' advanced mode, the one-page "EZ" mode provides a taste of what's possible if old conventions are left behind completely. I'm not sure I'd want to get rid of a simple menu system entirely—that's probably not realistic given the sheer number of configuration options included in an enthusiast-focused UEFI. However, it would be nice to see commonly used functions accessible through a more user-friendly interface.
Some parts of the UEFI's job description are ripe for a graphical upgrade. Take fan speed controls, for example. (You didn't think I'd get through a motherboard-related post without mentioning that, did you?) The best way to define how a fan will respond to changes in temperature is to plot a profile with speed on one axis and temperature on the other. Rather than asking users to key in or select specific values for the start and end points on this curve, a graphical interface could allow those points to be adjusted with the mouse. Asus' Fan Xpert software for Windows is a pretty good blueprint.
Ideally, users should be able to manipulate several points along the fan curve to define its shape precisely. Each onboard fan header should get its own profile, and the temperature-based speed control needs to work with both DC (three-pin) and PWM (four-pin) fans.
There's still loads of room to improve even the basic functionality of motherboard fan controls, but the selection of available overclocking and memory tweaking options is pretty solid among the top-tier players. Firmware engineers have spent years piling on clock, multiplier, voltage, and timing controls, and a subset of these could benefit from being consolidated on a single screen with a jazzed-up interface, mouse-friendly sliders, and real-time monitoring to confirm changes.
When overclocking a system, it's nice to be able to test for stability without risking the integrity of your Windows install. This isn't a new idea; DFI integrated Memtest86+ into the BIOS of select LANParty boards as early as 2005. Launching Memtest required a reboot, but I suspect UEFIs can do better. The new firmware standard is supposed to have robust application support, and I'd like to see CPU and memory stress tests combined with some basic system monitoring. Users should be able to switch easily between the overclocking controls and an integrated burn-in test without ever leaving the firmware menu.
Adding stress tests to the UEFI wouldn't just serve the manual overclocking crowd. UEFI-based auto-tuning schemes could benefit from being able to test for stability after each incremental step up in clock speed. You'll still want to confirm the stability of your final configuration in Windows, but the UEFI could take you right to that point without wasting time loading the OS after every reboot.
Even folks running at stock speeds could benefit from additional UEFI applications. Take integrated flashing utilities, for example. Dating back to the BIOS era, they've required that new firmware be loaded off a storage device provided by the user. UEFI-based versions should be able to reach out over the Internet and grab the latest firmware themselves.
Want to go further outside the box? Try an integrated web browser. I don't see much value in casual surfing through the UEFI, but a browser could allow folks setting up new systems to download the latest drivers to a thumb drive. Throw in some basic diagnostic tools, too, and a robust file manager capable of rescuing important files if the Windows install gets hosed. A lot of PC enthusiasts perform these tasks with secondary PCs or bootable flash drives, but the UEFI should be able to handle them without outside assistance.
I'm getting a sense of deja vu, probably because I called for a similar suite of applications to appear on motherboards via lightweight Linux distributions installed on integrated flash drives. Using the UEFI strikes me as a more elegant solution, especially since it doesn't require additional onboard storage.
I'm optimistic some of the items on my UEFI wish list will appear on X79 boards. Asus continues to refine its already excellent firmware, MSI has promised big changes in its next-gen firmware, and Gigabyte is readying its first effort after seeing (and hearing me go on about) the successes and failures of early designs. I can only hope all the motherboard makers are listening—not only to me, but also to you. So, how would you like to see UEFIs improved?Three days in Rage's wastelands
It would have been impossible for me to sit down and play Rage without having lofty expectations for id Software's latest opus. I started playing id games with a copy of Commander Keen that came with an old Gravis joystick, and I've spent a lot of time with each new release since then. Some of those titles have been better than others, but one theme has remained constant: technical brilliance. While id may not be known for masterful storytelling or innovative gameplay (beyond, you know, inventing the multiplayer deathmatch), each new generation of its engine technology has set the standard by which all others at the time are judged.
Quake was the developer's first engine to offer truly 3D graphics, and I can still remember my jaw dropping when I circled a model and didn't see a 2D sprite switch. Although it was painfully overused at the outset, Quake II brought us colored lighting before anyone else. In Quake III, curved surfaces were added to what had otherwise been angular worlds, and textures got a layer of shader effects. Then Doom made a return with a gorgeous dynamic lighting model that made for convincing shadows, and bump-mapped surfaces that endowed textures with real texture.
With Rage, id programming deity John Carmack brings us virtual texturing, which allows artists to paint with brush strokes rather than repeating tiles. The engine is capable of dynamically streaming textures from your hard drive, enabling richer game worlds with more unique detail than has ever been seen before. Rage's 20GB install footprint is a testament to how much the art team went to town with this technology.
Imagine my disappointment when, after sitting down to play Rage minutes after a speedy, SSD-fueled decryption of my eager Steam pre-load, I saw part of the world bathed in modern-looking textures, while the rest looked like it was pulling from a texture pack optimized for Intel integrated graphics. I'm not one of those people who thinks graphics are everything, but it would be foolish to deny that they have a huge impact on how immersed in the game world we can become. Nothing disturbs that suspension of disbelief like graphical anomalies and inconsistency. When you've been teased with a steady stream of screenshots, trailers, and behind-the-scenes developer videos advertising a much better-looking game, you feel ripped off.
So, my time with Rage did not begin well. As you've probably heard, the game has an automatic load-balancing system that dynamically adjusts the texture detail to maintain a consistent 60 frames per second. On the PC, it's apparently broken. I've been playing on a pretty modern rig with a Core i7-870, 8GB of RAM, and a GeForce GTX 470 with 1280MB of dedicated graphics memory. Before applying Nvidia's suggested tweaking options, the game was filled with painfully low-resolution textures that would noticeably adjust their level of detail. Nvidia's tweaks force higher-resolution textures with a config file, which is necessary because the in-game graphics options are pretty much nonexistent. Make no mistake: Rage feels like it was designed for consoles first and PCs second.
Intent on writing about Rage this week, I soldiered on through two evening sessions before Nvidia published the secret to high-res textures. Man, what a difference a config file makes. There is still some pop-in at the edges of the screen with really fast horizontal mouse movements, perhaps an artifact of tuning the auto-balancer for the slower tracking of console controllers. Forcing V-sync through the Nvidia driver hasn't completely eliminated tearing for me, either. For the most part, though, Rage now looks like a modern game.
At times, it's even a beautiful one. The scale of the world is truly grand, with towering structures that look far more detailed than anything I've seen in a distant skybox—and these buildings I can walk up to and explore. On more than a few occasions, sometimes even with enemies charging, I've caught my eyes wandering from the crosshairs to take in a particularly stunning view. The engine's texturing technology deserves much of the credit, not so much because it makes individual textures look better, but because it frees the artists to change whichever ones they please. There's a density to the world that I've never experienced before, and it makes the environments feel more lived-in and real.
Some elements of the visuals feel overdone, though. The high-dynamic range lighting is a little exaggerated for my tastes, and the layer of post-processing has too much of a chromatic tint. At least the tint changes with the environment, whose post-apocalyptic landscape draws from a more diverse palette of colors than I've seen from any id game.
The setting isn't a terribly original one, and it immediately invites comparisons to Borderlands, which explored a similar theme with a much different visual style and nowhere near the environmental richness of Rage. Both games feature RPG elements, but Rage plays more like a straight-up shooter. There's much less traveling between missions, inventory management is never a chore, and I can count the number of guns I've collected on two hands. I stopped playing Borderlands because it started feeling like work to me. So far, Rage has been all fun and games without the grinding.
There are, of course, multiple games. Rage has vehicles that not only provide transportation to various mission strewn across the wastelands but also engage in Twisted Metal-style carnage versus similarly equipped bandits. When you're done with that, you can take your ride to the track and compete in a series of race events to win upgrades and new vehicles.
Don't want to drive? Head to the bar and sit down for a combative playing-card game—and don't forget to scour the world for new additions to your deck. If that sounds a little too much like Pokémon, channel Bishop from Aliens and thread a knife through your fingertips for money.
Although these other elements add depth and distraction, Rage remains a first-person shooter at its core. For me, that's the most satisfying part of the game. Even when the textures were all wonky, I found the action instantly engaging. The controls are responsive, the pacing is good, and the combat is satisfying all the way from long-range sniping to close-quarters shotgun blasts. The guttural, metallic clank of the shotgun firing is my new favorite sound, especially when it's accompanied by an exploding head.
What the enemies lack in variety and intelligence they make up with aggression, acrobatics, and firepower. I've yet to be flanked or outsmarted, but the encounters are generally intense and exciting—and they're always brutally violent. More importantly, they're a lot of fun. Even when id resorts to having monsters jump out of cracks in the walls and floor, it at least has the courtesy to let you watch them hide there in the first place.
Rage's wastelands can be explored on foot or behind the wheel, as part of quests or of your own volition. Despite this open world, the individual missions are entirely linear in nature. Thankfully, Rage's arsenal of weapons, ammunition types, and engineering items like remote-control bombs, turrets, and robot escorts provide players with different strategies to pursue. A crafting system allows items to be built from junk that you pick up around the world, adding purpose to looting that goes beyond merely padding your wallet for the next shopping spree.
I don't want to say too much about the narrative without experiencing its climax, but I will say that I haven't been particularly drawn in by the story. The characters, on the other hand, exude much more personality than I'm used to seeing in what is ostensibly an action-oriented shooter. Honestly, I'm more interested in them than I am in the over-arching storyline. Plus, I'm developing a bit of a crush on Jani from the supply shop in Subway Town.
The cast of characters that populates Rage's cities and settlements imparts a layer of emotional depth to a world that's already a visual masterpiece. With an effective musical score that combines with haunting ambient sounds to add tension where appropriate, Rage has been more immersive than any other game I've played before. I type that line with bags under my eyes and a hint of pain in my left hand, both remnants of three consecutive nights of telling myself I'd only play one more mission, complete one more race, or explore one more corner of the world.
Frankly inexcusable graphics issues have tainted Rage's release on the PC, and that's a shame. The technology behind the game is impressive, and when it works, the visual payoff is astounding. I'm also glad id didn't stray too far from its roots. Rage's additional complexities could have easily been a burden, but instead, they nicely complement solid shooter mechanics that have been refined for decades. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go visit Jani to, uh, stock up for my next mission.A case for better keyboards
PC enthusiasts have a tendency to focus their attention on what's inside the box. Indeed, we're guilty of that here at TR. Most of our time is spent reviewing core internal components, which are easy to evaluate objectively—and with pretty graphs. These components contain the most exciting new technologies, and they largely define the capabilities of our PCs. In some ways, however, they're also very far removed from the computing experience.
The high-tech Tinkertoy set that makes up the modern PC is typically hidden away inside an enclosure that sits under our desks. You might have a case window or easily accessible internals, but how much time do you really spend poking around in there or peering through the plexiglass? I'll give you a hint: not nearly as much time as you spend pecking away at your keyboard. But you probably didn't drop nearly as much on your keyboard as you did on your last graphics card, processor, motherboard, or hard drive. Why not?
For whatever reason, a sizable segment of the enthusiast population seems to place precious little value on physical interfaces. I'm amazed at the vague, lifeless keyboards I've seen attached to otherwise high-end systems worth thousands of dollars. I get that the cheap stuff works, but so do Celerons and $50 graphics cards. You won't find many enthusiasts running those.
It pains me to admit that I have been guilty of skimping myself. For years, I pecked away at a Microsoft Comfort Curve keyboard with mushy rubber-dome switches. The keyboard's wider stance and slightly larger keys were a good fit for my sausage fingers, and my forceful typing style never fell short of bottoming out the squishy keys. Then, a few months ago, I picked up an wireless Enermax Aurora keyboard for my home-theater PC. Scott reviewed the full-sized version a couple of years ago, and the chopped-down, couch-friendly model uses the same scissor switch mechanism for its keys. The more I used those keys, the more I became dissatisfied with the rubbery, imprecise response of the Comfort Curve in my office. It would have to go.
After a little Googling, I settled on a Das Keyboard—specifically, the Model S Professional Silent. The Das uses Cherry MX Brown switches, which have a tactile "bump" just before an actuation point halfway through their 4 mm travel. With a $123 street price, this particular unit is pricey for a mechanical keyboard but also cheaper than most of the individual components inside my PC. Since I'm apparently managing to make a living banging out words on a keyboard, I rang up the business expense and popped down to NCIX to pick it up.
At first, I was rather unimpressed. The keyboard's glossy top panel is made from the sort of awful, smudge-prone glossy black plastic that should be banned from anything within reach of greasy fingertips. After years on the Comfort Curve, the Das' standard layout felt a little cramped, too. The comparatively small key caps didn't make adjusting any easier. Then there's the Silent moniker, which is laughable at best. Each keystroke generates a clearly audible cha-chunk.
But man, what a cha-chunk.
This isn't an annoying or rattling clickety-clack. My keystrokes ring with a throaty, mechanical thunk that's nearly as satisfying as the perfectly balanced key action—which, I might add, is delightfully consistent across every single key on the board. The simple act of typing feels good. That might seem like an odd thing to say, but I caught myself smiling during some otherwise mundane Excel data entry the other night because I was enjoying the simple act of punching digits into the numpad. The sensation is even better when I'm writing at speed, which makes the keyboard purr with a staccato of keystrokes. Despite the din, there's a softness to the acoustic profile that keeps the additional noise from being distracting.
Key switches may be relatively boring in the realm of modern hardware, but they're a fundamental connection point with our PCs, and one that's all too often an afterthought. The average enthusiast probably logs thousands, if not tens of thousands, of keystrokes in a given day. If you sit at a keyboard for a living, like so many of us do working both within and outside the tech industry, odds are your keystroke count is even higher. Yet I see so many scoffing at the notion of dropping a Benjamin or more on a mechanical keyboard. Do the math. The cost per keystroke is minuscule, especially when one considers Cherry's reputation for durability. Remember, too, that peripherals tend to be in their prime for much longer than the components that live inside our our PCs. A solid keyboard with good switches isn't likely to become obsolete anytime soon.
While the Cherry MX Browns work for me, they're far from the only option. Mechanical switches are available with a range of characteristics, including bump-less linear travel for gaming, different actuation forces for a lighter or heavier touch, and clicky feedback if you want to drown out the nagging of your significant other. If none of the mechanical options feel right under your fingertips, quality scissor-switch mechanisms can be found in keyboards like Enermax's hard-to-find original Aurora, its tragically glossy Acrylux successor, and Apple's chiclet-on-aluminum design for desktops.
Live with good key switches for a little while, and I'd wager you'll kick yourself for not upgrading sooner. So, the next time you price out a new CPU, graphics card, motherboard, or SSD, ask yourself whether you've spent enough on your keyboard lately. There's a lot of room for meaningful upgrades outside the box.
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