We made our annual pilgrimage to Melbourne last month for the Australian Penny Arcade Expo (better known as PAX), to check out the new tech from major manufacturers including Intel, ASUS, Razer and NVIDIA. Every year, there's at least one market trend that dominates the show floor, and this time the focus was geared towards cramming tonnes of power into tiny packages.
Little laptops, lots of grunt
Thin, light laptops are nothing new, but technology has improved to the point where some systems are edging towards desktop performance in a box one tenth of the size. NVIDIA, for example, had partnered with ASUS, MSI and Gigabyte to launch three portable systems packing its brand new 1070 ti graphics card.
We spent some hands-on time with each one and the performance was impressive, so much so that the gap between desktop and laptop performance felt smaller than ever. Plus, manufacturers had used some interesting tricks to fit the hardware into a compact space while working to keep things cool.
The ASUS ROG GX501 for example, includes a flap on the rear that exposes the interior to improve airflow. Though these systems (and other models from Razer) come with a hefty price tag in the thousands, they reinforce the argument that power can be squeezed into small packages.
Despite the heavy focus on thin light laptops, Intel is still forging ahead with its range of small form-factor PCs, particularly the NUC range. After launching a selection of gaming systems in 2016, the latest batch of NUCs are turning back towards the general consumer, who's looking for punch in a small package for a reasonable price.
The new NUC range appears to be able to handle daily tasks and a few slightly more advanced activities too, including gaming (as long as you don't need top-tier graphics), in a 4x4 inch box. Part of this is thanks to Intel's newish Optane Memory, which is a cache drive that stores regularly used data closer to the CPU in a bid to make a system with a hard drive perform as quickly as one with a solid state drive.
Data transfer speeds increase, which boosts performance across the board. Currently, this technology is only available for very specific configurations, but is pre-installed in some of the latest NUCs. You can also improve graphics performance by connecting to an external GPU via Thunderbolt 3, but these attachments can be quite large.
Just in case the NUC range isn't small enough, Intel also brought out its brand new palm-sized PC, aptly called the Compute Card. Packed into case a bit longer and thicker than a credit card, the Compute Card can fit in your pocket, so you can effectively take your work computer home with you to continue working – if you must.
The catch? It requires a docking station, the idea being that you keep a dock at home, work and so on, so you can mount your PC on the go. The concept is similar to Microsoft's approach to the Windows Phone.
Once upon a time, Microsoft was treating its smartphone as a portable desktop substitute with all the software you needed (instead of app substitutes) that could connect to a monitor, keyboard and mouse, then pop into your pocket once you were finished. Compute Card is more or less the same, except you don't need worry about draining your battery.
Desktops here to stay
It's easy to assume that the growth of one market equals the death of another. In this case, you might assume that thin, light laptops and smaller systems will soon kill off conventional desktops, but that's unlikely given that they're still teething.
The fact is, even the most powerful laptops and small form factor PCs can't compete with a decked-out tower PC, and you're unlikely to find a manufacturer claiming otherwise. But even though their performance can be impressive for their size, these smaller systems still have some compromises:
- Heat Cooling a compact computer is difficult. Again, progress has been made, but most still feel warm or hot to touch when running the most powerful games. Even the ASUS GX501 runs warm despite the rear vent.
- Modification You can rarely, if ever, upgrade most components such as graphics cards and CPU in a laptop.
The average consumer is unlikely to care about upgrading parts to keep their computer cutting edge, but high-powered systems in thin and light packages command the kind of cash that attracts an enthusiast crowd. So although they're impressive pieces of engineering, these systems are unlikely to make a significant splash until the cost of components drops.
Gamers, developers, designers, photographers and PC hobbyists alike are willing to spend money on the latest tech if it suits their needs. They can now opt for PCs that are powerful yet portable so they can make use of processor-heavy programs while on the go, with little compromise.
Even average users have a bunch of options at their fingertips. Now, they can get a system that takes up a fraction of the size of a tower, with pretty damn good performance that will suit general needs and then some. Home entertainment enthusiasts can discreetly stick an NUC under their TV to use as a media hub. Consumers and enthusiasts have more choice than ever, and that can only be a good thing.
Though these laptops will likely lead the market, other areas won't die out. Expect to see more average users with a powerful, portable primary PC, while enthusiasts use them as a secondary system that gets the job done on-the-go.
The rest of the tech
We made a few other observations around the PAX show floor:
- Intel also brought its new i9 processor to PAX. We took it for a spin in a top-end VR rally racing simulator. The future sure is zippy and capable of handling a bunch of demanding tasks at once.
- Monitors are quietly following in the footsteps of TVs, with broader integration of 4K and HDR technology, with the price tag to match. The impact of HDR in NVidia's new G-SYNC monitor was immediate, with vibrant colours, darker blacks and a stable picture with few instances of screen tearing and fragmenting. But it doesn't come cheap, with estimates floating around in the thousands. You may be waiting a while for the next run of top-tier monitors unless you have deep pockets.
- Custom tower builds that push the question of "can we make a crazy idea work" are still an absurd, inspiring section at any games convention. Between a system modelled after the sword in the stone, and Intel's rig that opened like a blooming flower, there doesn't seem to be anything that you can't cram a computer into if you've got a bit of creative know-how.