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After a snooze-worthy 2014, PCs will perk up with new features next year

computing trends to expect in first look at windows

Microsoft hopes Windows 10 will spur new interest in old-school PCs.

Let’s be honest, 2014 wasn’t the most interesting year for computers.

While a few big headliners arrived, like the first affordable 4K monitors and Intel’s astoundingly quick Core i7-5960X, most of what was new was evolutionary. The launch of 5th-generation Core M processors was too narrow to be of consequence, DDR4 RAM was limited to just one chipset, and Windows 8.1 struggled while Microsoft incubates its replacement.

But 2015 could knock your socks off.

Intel will launch mainstream 5th-gen Core processors, 4K will become affordable for all, and Windows 10 will arrive late in the year. These events are worth attention because they once again give PCs a path of their own after several arguably wasted years spent in a futile effort to emulate smartphones and tablets.

4K monitors will go mainstream

The latter half of 2014 saw explosion of high-resolution computer monitors in a variety of sizes. Unlike the first wave in late 2013 and early 2014, which consisted entirely of unaffordable and expensive models, the newer entries have proven reasonably affordable. They’re not cheap, but they’re now within the range enthusiasts are willing to pay.

Acer XB280HK review 4K monitor front angle 2

4K monitors in the same range as Acer’s XB280HK 2014 model should be much more affordable in 2015.

In 2015 we’ll see prices decline further. We’re not talking about huge cuts; don’t hold your breath for a $200 4K monitor. But we probably will see a wide range of basic 28″ choices hit the $400 mark. Another trend to expect is increased production of mid-tier options with IPS panels that’ll sell for around $600 or $700. These will deliver extreme quality high enough that even jaded enthusiasts won’t find much to complain about.

Related Link: What you need to go with your 4K monitor?

With prices so low a lot of consumers will be justifiably tempted to upgrade. A 4K monitor is a relatively simple and immediately noticeable upgrade. As long as you have a video source that can handle it you’re good to go.

Laptops will ditch fans

Intel’s first Broadwell processors, the Core M series, have already arrived in laptops like the Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro, but the new architecture isn’t going mainstream until early 2015. Availability will become widespread and we expect additional chips to be detailed at CES. Some of these will draw so little power that a fan is not required.

With the fan out of the equation manufacturers can shift space formerly consumed by it to more important components.

Fanless laptops aren’t new. The least powerful 4th-gen Core processors can operate without a fan and the Bay Trail architecture powering all Atoms (along with some Pentiums and Celerons) can manage the same. 2015, though, is the year these designs will become more than an occasional novelty.

Ditching the fan means silent operation, which is great. It also means slimmer, lighter laptops. Fans aren’t heavy, but they can only be so small because their effectiveness is partially based on their size. With the fan out of the equation manufacturers can shift space formerly consumed by it to more important components like the battery.

Windows 10 will bring back tradition

In the early days of Windows 8’s pre-release hype there was plenty of speculation about how it would make touch popular on computers and, in particular, laptops. We’ve seen manufacturers introduce a lot of ideas that cater to touch since then, but most of them haven’t stuck. A fundamental problem remains: The screen is too far away to touch comfortably.

Windows 10 will return Microsoft's focus to the desktop, which could bolster traditional PCs.

Windows 10 will return Microsoft’s focus to the desktop, which could bolster traditional PCs.

Everything is a nail when you have a hammer. Windows 8 made convertible notebooks seem like the future, but in fact interest has been weak. With Windows 10, which places more emphasis on the desktop experience, mainstream mid-range laptops (which have always been popular among consumers) will again become the focus.

This doesn’t mean touchscreens, 2-in-1s, and convertibles will go extinct, but it does mean they’ll no longer hog the spotlight. After several years of manufacturers insisting Windows systems are an alternative to the iPad (they’re not) we’ll finally have the chance to see computers stand on their own merits.

Small computers hit the big-time

While the average desktop computer is smaller today than it was a decade ago, PCs haven’t miniaturized as aggressively as some thought they might. Many people are still using towers that are about a foot and half tall and almost a foot wide, taking up space on the user’s desk. Smaller computers do exist, but so far they’re the exception rather than the rule.

Mobile processors are quick enough now to easily handle the tasks 95 percent of users commonly perform.

That might begin to change in 2015, however, if the information we’ve seen so far pans out. Several manufacturers are putting together plans to release new computers that are small enough to fit behind a monitor or in a drawer. And we’ve already seen Intel’s new NUC, which appeared unannounced on the company’s own website a couple weeks ago.  The design will no doubt be the basis for a new wave of hardware from companies already in the mini-PC business, like Zotac.

Intel’s Broadwell will drive this change. Mobile processors are quick enough now to easily handle the tasks 95 percent of users commonly perform. Even the graphics component can handle some 3D games. Consumers can enjoy the reduced footprint without any of the drawbacks. This simplicity will appeal to users looking to replace a tower desktop with a new machine when Windows 10 rolls out.

Big video cards, big memory

In a recent article we addressed the recent, sudden spike in PC game requirements. They’ve gone up a lot over the last year, with some titles pushing the limits of what even high-end cards can handle. Toss in 4K, which is taxing even for multi-card desktops, and it’s the perfect storm. PC gaming will change dramatically in 2015.

Nvidia-GTX980-side-angle

Even the mighty GTX 980, the fastest single-GPU video card in the world, struggles at 4K.

The result will be a surge of interest in high-end video cards like the GTX 980 and the Radeon R9 295X2. We’ve already seen this to an extent, as both Nvidia’s new 900-series products have been in serious demand. The GTX 980, allegedly a $550 card, still sells for almost $600 at most retailers.

Expect to see a lot of new hardware built to address gamer’s newly demanding needs. AMD will release an entirely new generation of cards. Nvidia may or may not, but it has plenty of room above the GTX 980 for tweaked or multi-GPU cards. Typical video memory is likely to escalate until 4 gigabytes is the norm. And chips built on a new 20nm production process are due from both companies, further increasing efficiency.

Conclusion

The upcoming year should prove exciting for hardware geeks. New monitors, new processors from Intel, better video cards, and Windows 10’s release could create a perfect storm. A lot of enthusiasts who’ve been squeezing every last drop of life from their five-year-old home-built rigs will see this as an opportunity to upgrade, not because new hardware is available, but because for the first time in years it will provide benefits that can be immediately noticed.

If there’s anything to worry about it’s the cost of all this upcoming technology. How much will Windows 10 be? How far will 4K monitors drop? How much will the inevitable Nvidia Titan 2 cost?

These questions can’t be answered yet, but when added together it’s obvious the upgrades won’t be cheap. We hope you’ve been saving up, geeks — 2015 will be an expensive year.