CES proves 2017 is the year the PC platform will solve its oldest problems

HTC Vive Tracker Hands On
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
CES 2017 just wrapped up, and with it, we got a clear peek into the major trends that will dominate PCs over the rest of the year. Many of the important advancements are really continuations of previous ideas, some of which had lost prominence but now are surging back to the front thanks to new devices. In other words, what’s old is new again, but that doesn’t dampen the way it will change the computing world in 2017.

VR marches forward, with or without the mainstream

Anyone could finally buy virtual reality in 2016, but it didn’t go mainstream. VR headsets are still a niche product and the most capable sets – the Oculus Rift, and HTC Vive – are priced outside most people’s reach. Neither company has publicly shared its sales. Patrick Moorhead, President of Moor Insights & Strategy, told us VR is “on a very slow ramp. Until the visual quality improves, more solutions are wireless, costs decline, and setup is simplified, VR won’t be mainstream.”

That hasn’t dampened anyone’s enthusiasm. Virtual reality’s presence at CES 2017 was serious, taking up significantly more space than the previous year. And there were plenty of announcements. HTC took the veil off its new Tracker system, which lets third-party companies build peripherals to use with Vive experiences. That of course opened the floodgates for the announcement of peripherals, ranging from toy guns, to gloves, to baseball bats.

We also saw a kit from TPCast that turns the Vive into a wireless headset. It was announced prior to the show, but CES 2017 was our first chance to try it out – an important milestone, because wireless VR often has problems. To our surprise, TPCast worked well, without any noticeable lag. The biggest restriction is battery life. You can play wirelessly for up to 90 minutes.

The money is staying around, and VR will keep improving so long as that’s true.

No one knows how quickly virtual reality will catch on with consumers, but that doesn’t seem to be hampering VR’s prospects. Even Moorhead agrees with this, saying that, despite its issues, “VR, AR and MR investment will rise this year, especially on the content side, which is sorely lacking.”

That’s important. In the past, VR fads have fizzed out as companies headed for more profitable shores. This time, the money is staying around, and VR will keep improving so long as that’s true.

Big data needs big pipes

The most important problem facing the PC this year is a classic; memory, and how to deal with it. Time and time again we heard different companies, in their own ways, outline their plans to deal with the coming data crunch.

AMD, which plans two new chip architectures this year, is implementing aggressive new data management schemes in both. Ryzen, the company’s new processor, will have a massive cache paired with a prediction algorithm that can learn what data software is likely to need and call it up before it’s required. And AMD’s new GPU architecture, Vega, is designed around a high-bandwidth cache controller. While built to work initially with High Bandwidth Memory 2, the company says Vega can support many memory solutions. It can even be hooked up directly to long-term memory, if the storage solution is fast enough.

Intel, meanwhile, is positioning itself to lead a revolution in long-term memory with Optane. This new technology, first teased in 2015, will come to PCs sometime in 2017. Its speed supposedly exceeds that of any solid state drive, even those connected over the most modern NVMe interface. Initially, it will be sold as a super-fast cache drive, but the plan is to ramp it up to become main storage.

That, if it works, would change a fundamental pillar of PC architecture. Home computers have, since their existence, paired fast low-capacity RAM with slow, long-term storage. Technology like Optane might make that unnecessary by accelerating long-term storage. RAM’s days might be numbered.

Even if that proves untrue, it’s clear fast storage is a priority for everyone. Seagate, the well-known hard drive brand, told us it expects demand for capacity to hit 2,900 exabytes (one exabyte is one million terabytes) by 2020. That’s a massive amount of data, and it’ll be impossible to handle without faster ways to access it.

HDR comes to monitors

High Dynamic Range was arguably the television technology of 2016, even more so than 4K resolution. Our Senior Editor of Home Theater and Audio, Caleb Denison, raves about it at every chance. Now, that same technology is coming to monitors.

If you haven’t heard of it, here’s the deal brief. High Dynamic Range aims to increase contrast by allowing a greater range of brightness. In doing so, it makes images brighter and more lifelike. The blinding light of a sunny day looks dampened on a “normal” display, but with HDR, it can truly shine.

HDR’s arrival on monitors could mean another leap forward in quality. However, all the monitors we saw at CES, or which we know will be available later this year, are missing HDR’s dance partner; OLED. The pair works best together because it’s hard for a traditional, backlit LCD to hit the brightness peaks HDR can achieve without blowing our black levels. Unfortunately, CES 2017 didn’t give us hope that OLED will be available in desktop monitors soon.

Still, it’s good to see monitors focusing on quality more than they did in the past. Johnson Jia, Lenovo’s Senior Vice President, PC & Smart Device Business Group, told us “Our culture is becoming increasingly visual in the way we consume content. In fact, our customer surveys show that display is the number one experience customers care most about.” Frankly, we think consumers have cared about display quality for awhile, but at least companies are now listening.

Samsung and Google partner to challenge Windows and Intel

Chances are great that if you’re reading this on a computer, it’s a PC running Windows on an Intel processor. This partnership, sometimes called “Wintel,” is nothing official, but it’s been the norm for two decades.

Google’s Chrome OS, released in 2011, was the first potential threat. And it in fact did catch on, in a way – Chromebooks often trend on Amazon’s best-selling notebooks list. They’re simple, they work, and they cost less than $500 even with sweet hardware. That’s enough for most people. Unfortunately, though, app support remains an issue. Chrome OS just doesn’t have many apps, and that often leaves it off shopping lists.

chromeos vs windows intel ces 2017 samsung chromebook pro hands on 8
Brad Bourque/Digital Trends
Brad Bourque/Digital Trends

Samsung’s Chromebook Plus and Pro have an answer for that, as they offer full support for Google’s Play Store. Yes, that means you can run Android apps. And unlike previous Chromebooks that tacked on this support after the fact, the Plus and Pro have all the features needed to make the apps work as they should.

That could be a boon for Chromebooks, says Moorhead. “One of the biggest drawbacks to Chrome being a full-fledged rich operating system was the lack of apps,” he told us. “Adding Android apps to chrome will increase its popularity. Android games tend to scale better on a large screen, and the Microsoft Office android apps on Chrome look promising.”

Chrome OS users will be able to tap into a selection of apps that includes millions of titles. However, as Moorehead went on to point out, “developers will need to do a lot of improvement to the apps as most Android apps are designed for 4” displays. Running a 4-inch app on a 13-inch display is a suboptimal experience.” While the potential of Google Play is intriguing, Wintel isn’t on its deathbed yet.

You can read more of our thoughts on this here, or check out our hands-on of the Samsung Chromebook Pro.


The Dell G5587 gaming laptop is on sale for one of the lowest prices we’ve seen

Even diehard desktop PC gamers have to admit that gaming laptops have come a long way in recent years, and the beefy Dell G5587 – now on sale from Walmart for $300 off – is a solid sub-$1,000 machine for work and play.

You won't want to miss these deals on some of the best laptops around

Whether you need a new laptop for school or work or you're just doing some post-holiday shopping, we have you covered: These are the best laptop deals going right now, from discounted MacBooks to on-the-go gaming PCs.

How to get into the Halo: Reach beta on Xbox One and PC

Halo: Reach is coming to The Master Chief Collection on Xbox One and the recently announced PC port. Ahead of its unknown launch date, Microsoft and 343 Industries will host a Halo: Reach beta for both Xbox One and PC users.

Chromebooks are laptops, but they do things a little differently

Chromebooks are an intriguing branch of laptops that are often cheaper and faster than their Windows counterparts, but they are a little more limited. Intrigued? Here's everything you need to know about Chromebooks.

Former student uses USB Killer device to fry $58,000 worth of college’s PCs

A former student used a USB Killer device to short circuit more than $58,000 of computers at a private New York college earlier this year. The student pled guilty to the charges and sentencing is scheduled to begin in August.

AMD Ryzen CPU prices get slashed ahead of Ryzen 3000 release

AMD's Ryzen CPUs have had their prices slashed as we edge towards the release of their third generation. Whether you're a gamer or someone who needs multi-threaded performance, there's a deal for everyone with some heavy discounts to take…

The number pad on HP’s Chromebook 15 makes spreadsheet work a breeze

HP's Chromebook 15 comes with a 15.6-inch display, a metal keyboard deck with full-size keys, and a dedicated number pad, making it the second Chromebook model, following Acer's Chromebook 715, to be suited for spreadsheet work.

Worried about your online privacy? We tested the best VPN services

Browsing the web can be less secure than most users would hope. If that concerns you, a virtual private network — aka a VPN — is a decent solution. Check out a few of the best VPN services on the market.

Gaming on a laptop has never been better. These are your best options

Gaming desktops are powerful, but they tie you down to your desk. For those of us who prefer a more mobile experience, here are the best gaming laptops on the market, ranging from budget machines to maxed-out, wallet-emptying PCs.

Here's how you can download the best free music players for your Mac

Tired of your Mac's default music player? Take a look at our picks for the best free music players available for your Apple rig. Whether you're a casual listener or an audiophile, you're sure to find something that fits your needs here.

Want to make calls across the internet for less? Try these great VOIP services

Voice over IP services are getting more and more popular, but there are still a few that stand above the pack. In this guide, we'll give you a few options for the best VOIP services for home and business users.

Transform into the ultimate leader with our tips and tricks for Civilization 6

Civilization VI offers both series veterans and total newcomers a lot to chew on from the get-go. Here are some essential starting tips to help you master the game's many intricacies.

AMD’s 2020 Ryzen CPUs could have a big boost in power efficiency

The sequel to AMD's Zen 2-based Ryzen 3000 CPUs is slated for a 2020 release and when it arrives, could leverage the new Zen 3 architecture to deliver impressive gains to performance and power efficiency.

The iPhone’s Screen Time and Siri Shortcuts could land on Macs this year

For its desktop computers, it appears that Apple may continue to draw from the iPhone for inspiration. iOS 12 features, like Screen Time and Siri Shortcuts, are believed to be making their way to MacOS this year at WWDC in June.