Mobility is king

We are moving toward a convergence of mobility and computing power.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel
Pictures MSI, Asus & Razer
Pictures MSI, Asus & Razer

We are moving toward a convergence of mobility and computing power.

Faster, cooler, better. That’s always been the expectation as we welcome the latest crop of laptops and gaming machines that we’re told – year in, year out – are the fi rst of their kind in some way or other. Still, the disjunction between mobility and performance has persisted over the years. There was, very simply, no such thing as a notebook that could do everything equally well.

That assumption has been challenged over the years, what with compact, portable gaming notebooks like the Alienware 13. Manufacturers like ASUS have also created compact desktop systems like the ROG G20 that tried to pack decent graphics processing power in a compact package. On the system builder front, mini-ITX cases like the Corsair Carbide Air 540 aim to provide just enough room for high-end hardware.

What all these have in common is that they’ve had to work around existing technology that was never expressly designed to enable smaller form factors. Yes, mobile graphics cards like the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 960M were intended for use in notebooks, but these notebooks also included bulky 17-inch models like the Razer Blade Pro. As a result, companies have often had to innovate on their own designs to accommodate the necessary hardware, but this often meant that they had to compromise on cooling and upgradeability.

But as the inexorable march of technology would have it, 2016 might be the year when everything changes. This 20161010year at CES, we saw a push to combine computing prowess and small form factors driven by several interesting developments. Although design innovation continued in the form of new graphics amplifiers and docks, there were teases of next-generation silicon and hardware form factors that had the promise of being tailored explicitly for slimmer and meaner notebooks and PCs.

Ultrabooks for serious gaming

AMD’s next-generation Polaris GPU architecture will supposedly be more power efficient than ever, thanks to the new 14nm FinFET process and other improvements. But the biggest takeaway from AMD’s announcement was that it wanted to allow 1080p60 gaming on compact notebooks, something that used to be the purview of larger laptops intended as desktop replacements.

And given that NVIDIA is also due to release its new Pascal GPUs in the next half year, we wouldn’t be surprised to see it follow AMD’s tack and announce a focus on enabling thinner and more powerful notebooks as well. Precedent certainly suggests that this is likely – this is the same company that announced that it had found a way to cram its desktop-class GeForce GTX 980 graphics card in a notebook.

My Reading Room

Graphics card docks

But speaking of gaming ultrabooks, Razer actually just made one. The 12.5-inch Razer Blade Stealth weighs just 1.25kg, so you would not be remiss in making this your go-to work machine.

But the far more interesting part is how the notebook functions as a gaming machine via an external graphics dock. Even more intriguing is the fact that it interfaces with the notebook via a USB Type-C Thunderbolt 3 connector. Razer has no plans to make the connection proprietary, which means that any notebook with a Thunderbolt 3 port could be immensely versatile – portable ultrabook by day, gaming powerhouse by night.

Then there’s the ASUS XG2 gaming dock, which works similarly, except for the fact that it requires two USB Type-C connections and works over a PCIe 3.0 x4 interface. MSI also took a similar approach with its Gaming 27XT AIO PC, which supports a rather compact external graphics dock on the rear.

Of course, there have been previous attempts at graphics amplifiers as well,

My Reading Room
My Reading Room
My Reading Room

like the Alienware Graphics Amplifier and the MSI GS30 Shadow’s gaming dock. But these have both been proprietary solutions locked into a specific brand, and Razer’s use of Thunderbolt 3 and USB Type-C teases the possibility of the day when we could just upgrade our notebooks with a dock, effectively giving us the best of both worlds.

Smaller PCs

We also caught wind of the new mini-STX motherboard form factor from Intel. This is even smaller than the already compact mini-ITX boards, but the most compelling point is that they could enable truly customizable small form factor PCs.

ASRock already has a mini PC in the works that will utilize a mini-STX board, and the chassis will reportedly measure a scant 155 x 155 x 80mm. There are already PCs this size, just look at Zotac’s Zbox series of mini PCs, but they generally feature soldered CPUs and GPUs and don’t allow you to swap out much beyond the memory modules and storage devices. While mini-STX PCs will still not have space for discrete GPUs, they are a huge step up in terms of upgrade options over existing mini PCs.

Other manufacturers have also taken interest. Silverstone showcased a mini-STX case it was developing, and an engineering sample of a mini-STX board from ECS was spotted. It’s still early days for all this, but it’s arguably all part of a larger convergence of small form factors and performance.

That may seem like a no-brainer, but it may just be what the flagging PC market needs – a revitalizing shot from notebooks and PCs that can do it all.