Explained: DirectX 12: what is it, and why it matters to PC gamers

Explained: DirectX 12: what is it, and why it matters to PC gamers

DirectX 12 Explained

For the average gamer, PC game development should appear a tricky business – because it is.

With consoles, developers have one hardware set for each brand (Xbox, PlayStation, Nintendo): one processor, one graphics chip, predetermined memory, input options and other standard hardware components.

For the PC, however, game developers face an infinite number of hardware configurations. Getting games to work correctly over a vast universe of graphics cards, motherboards and so on seems like pulling a rabbit out of a magician's hat.

This is why, based on what's been whispered over the last decade, developers have swarmed around the consoles: they have decent hardware on the cheap, piracy is low and developers virtually have direct access to the hardware components when programming their software.

This latter feature is key, as developers can squeeze every ounce of performance out of hardware as well as take advantage of built-in component features. This is why Microsoft's DirectX is so important for PC gaming.

directx 12

What in the world is DirectX?

DirectX, simply put, is software developed by Microsoft that talks to a PC's hardware components. Specifically, it's a collection of application programming interfaces, or APIs, designed to handle tasks related to rendering 2D and 3D vector graphics, rendering video and playing audio on the Windows platform.

It rivals OpenGL, another graphics-oriented API suite introduced in 1992, that's open source and in continuous development by the Khronos Group technology consortium. And, while OpenGL is a cross-platform API, it doesn't have the advantage of being native to the Windows platform.

DirectX first appeared in Windows 95. At the time, most PC games ran on the old DOS platform, which allowed developers to "talk" directly to PC components such as the audio card, video card, mouse and more.

Many veteran PC gamers should remember the old days of editing the Config.sys file and the Autoexec.bat file to set up the correct settings environment so that a specific game could work correctly (IRQs and DMAs were edited too, but that's another story).

Windows 95 didn't have this direct line of communication – until Microsoft developed its DirectX suite of APIs.

At first, DirectX didn't take off, as developers mostly relied on OpenGL at the time and programmed efficiently in the DOS environment. Microsoft's graphics API suite gained momentum over time once developers figured out it wouldn't ever go away.

Thus, DirectX seemingly pushed OpenGL out of the way by the time version 9 (aka DX9) hit the PC gaming scene in 2002. Windows XP likely accelerated DirectX's growth, as that particular platform was highly stable and is still in use across the globe. Windows 10 is slated to be just as popular, and with it arrives the latest in the DirectX series, DirectX 12.

directx 12

What DX12 can do for you (and your games)

The drawback with DirectX before this latest release is that it still didn't provide "low-level" access to hardware components as seen with the consoles. To address this, AMD released its Mantle API suite, so that developers could better optimize their software for AMD chips.

Essentially, graphics chips have become just as powerful as the main processor, taking on computing tasks other than graphics rendering.

AMD's Mantle allowed developers to utilize this power in compatible Radeon graphics chips. Mantle was seemingly well-received and performed spectacularly, but it was short lived, as Microsoft quickly released a version of DirectX that finally gave developers better access to hardware.

"DX12's focus is on enabling a dramatic increase in visual richness through a significant decrease in API-related CPU overhead," said Nvidia's Henry Moreton last year. "Historically, drivers and OS software have managed memory, state, and synchronization on behalf of developers. However, inefficiencies result from the imperfect understanding of an application's needs. DX12 gives the application the ability to directly manage resources and state, and perform necessary synchronization. As a result, developers of advanced applications can efficiently control the GPU, taking advantage of their intimate knowledge of the game's behavior."

By dumping more tasks onto the graphics chip, the main processor has less to do, thus the game isn't bogged down by what's going on in the operating system's background. The more cores the better, meaning a processor with two cores (aka two processors crammed into one package) isn't quite as perky as a processor with four cores.

The same is true with a graphics chip, and you can get a speed boost if you install two of the same graphics chip into a system (known as SLI via Nvidia and CrossFire via AMD). With DirectX 12, games will likely see better performance because the load is tossed between the multiple cores simultaneously instead of dumping loads onto one core at a time.

This is a big deal, as DirectX 11 doesn't take advantage of multiple cores in this fashion, thus a single core is doing all the work while the others remain idle. The days of having a single CPU core and a single GPU core went out in the early aughts, and Microsoft is finally getting up to speed with this latest DirectX release.

Look at it this way: computers have moved from a single-lane to an eight-lane superhighway, allowing the CPU to throw rendering and compute commands to the GPU faster than ever before. For the gamer, that means better framerates and a better image quality.

directx 12

Want DX12? Better get on Windows 10

The beauty of DirectX 12 is that it's a native API of Windows 10. In turn, Windows 10 is used on a multitude of devices from desktops, to laptops, to tablets, to phones and even on the Xbox One. DirectX 12 is also backwards-compatible to some degree, allowing PC gamers to play their favorite titles without having to rip out their graphics card for a new "compatible" model (in most cases).

If you want a more detailed explanation of DirectX 12's three key three areas, check out Microsoft's DirectX 12 blog here, written by Matt Sandy. In a nutshell, he outlines what's called a pipeline state representation, work submission, and resource access.

He also provides a chart revealing that DirectX 12 provides a 50% improvement in CPU utilization over DirectX 11, and a better distribution of work across multiple sequences of programmed instructions, or threads.

The good news here is that there are a number of PC games that are already taking advantage of DirectX 12. These include Ashes of the Singularity, The Elder Scrolls Online, Rise of the Tomb Raider, Gears of War: Ultimate Edition and Hitman among others. Quantum Break is expected to support the new API as well as Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, Star Citizen, Forza Motorsport 6: Apex and several others.

Please keep in mind that this is a very simplified explanation of what DirectX 12 brings to the PC gaming table. Essentially, this API should provide better performance in games that support it, but that also means developers will likely have to shell out patches to bring their titles up to DirectX 12 speed, if possible.

GPU providers AMD and Nvidia are already knee-deep in support with their drivers, so it's just a matter of time before we really see the benefits of what DirectX 12 offers.

If you have yet to upgrade to Windows 10, DirectX 12 is as fine a reason as any to do so. We've also seen no reason for Microsoft to bring DX12 support to older versions of Windows. So, if you want to play the latest games at their best, you might not have a choice regardless.

Then again, given that it's free and is essentially a souped-up Windows 7, it shouldn't be all that tough of a transition – especially in the name of better games.










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Grab a 960GB SanDisk SSD for just £160 right now

Grab a 960GB SanDisk SSD for just £160 right now

Amazon has been introducing its new PC Gaming Store with a round of hardware deals this week and for today only you can pick up a SanDisk Ultra II 960GB SSD for just £159.99.

That's one of the best SSD deals we've seen in a long time, with a hefty saving of £40 compared to the cheapest price you can pick it up for at other PC hardware retailers.

SanDisk is a well-known name in solid state drives with a great reputation. And it's got good form on reliability and robustness too, with its Ultra Plus range containing the most consistent SSDs we've ever tested.

The Ultra II is a standard 2.5-inch SSD, running on the SATA 6Gbps interface. And with its rated 550MB read and 500MB write speeds that means it's capable of performing about as fast as the these sorts of drive are able to.

You need to stretch to an expensive PCIe drive if you really want to go much faster.

This 960GB version is running an eight-channel Marvell 88SS9189 controller so won't suffer the SandForce woes you might have experienced with old SSDs and their inability to cope with incompressible file formats like media content.

SanDisk Ultra II 960GB

And with a full 960GB of solid state storage there's a whole lot of space to pack in your favourite apps and games.

This great SSD deal runs out at midnight so get in quick to bag yourself a terabyte-class drive right now.










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In depth: 8 uses for your old Windows XP PC

In depth: 8 uses for your old Windows XP PC

Introduction

Windows XP

It's been two years since Microsoft stopped releasing security updates for Windows XP, which first landed on PCs 15 years ago.

The anniversary serves as another annual reminder that you're swimming in dangerous waters if you're using Windows XP to access the internet. If a new strand of malware infects your machine, well, you're on your own.

You can, of course, continue using your PC running the creaky-at-the-knees operating system, but doing so ramps up the risk to your security and privacy.

Over time, support for your favorite apps will end too, so perhaps an alternative approach is called for. That approach obviously means moving on from Windows XP, either to a new version of Windows or even a completely different platform.

But what does the future hold for your trusty old PC? Read on to find out what to do with it should you decide to finally part ways with XP.

1. Upgrade it to Windows 7 or 8 (or Windows 10)

Eraser

If you're still attached to your old PC – perhaps for financial reasons – then ask if you might be able to upgrade it to a later version of Windows. The obvious candidates are Windows 7 and 8, because both will be familiar to you, and don't have demanding system requirements.

If your PC has a 1GHz or faster processor, 1GB RAM, 20GB free hard drive space and a DirectX 9-compatible graphics card or chip, it'll work with the newer version of Windows. Performance won't be as fast as in XP, but it should be acceptable, particularly if you don't run too many programs at once.

Before taking the plunge however, download and run either the Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor or Windows 8.1 Upgrade Assistant to get a more detailed compatibility report – you may find the cost of upgrading or replacing different parts of your PC is more expensive than simply replacing it.

Of course, you could upgrade from Windows XP to Windows 10, but bear in mind that there is no way to upgrade while keeping your existing files, programs and settings unless you manually back them up. If you're thinking of doing this, it's also worth bearing in mind that your ageing PC's hardware may not be up to the task of running Windows 10, and putting the cost of a license for Microsoft's latest operating system toward a new laptop, 2-in-1 or desktop PC may be a more cost-effective move in the long rum.

2. Replace it

Eraser

A new desktop PC or tablet computer with Windows 10 pre-installed can be purchased for under £265 (around $300, AUS$500). If you decide the end has come for your old Windows XP PC, make sure you dispose of it carefully and responsibly.

Once your new PC is up and running, wait until you're happy you've transferred over all the documents, files and other data you need from your old PC before taking steps to securely shred all personal data from the drive.

If you're planning to pass the computer on to someone else, use a free tool like Eraser to wipe sensitive files from the drive, then restore it to its factory settings before using Eraser to securely wipe any free space for added security.

If you plan to dispose of the computer, use Darik's Boot and Nuke tool to create a bootable CD that will completely wipe the drive of all data, allowing you to then take it to your local recycling center or pass it on to a charity such as Computers 4 Africa.

3. Switch to Linux

Eraser

If you're looking for a modern OS to replace XP that will run smoothly on your old PC, then Linux is the answer. We'd recommend that you choose Ubuntu as your Linux distribution of choice, and download the latest LTS version, currently 12.04, which will be supported until 2017.

It's relatively straightforward to install and you'll find our 25 Ubuntu tips for beginners piece a handy starting point. Look out for a switcher's guide in a future issue of Linux Format.

4. Your personal cloud

Eraser

One way to keep your old PC working for a while longer is to convert it for use as a dedicated server of some kind. If it's a low-powered laptop, then a great use for it would be as your personal cloud device, allowing you to back up, archive and store documents and other files away from your new computer.

Check out our guide to building a low-powered Linux-based file server, or take a look at ClearOS.

5. Build a media server

Eraser

Another possible use for your old PC could be as the focal hub for your videos, photos and music, collecting them together in one convenient central location and then piping them over the network (and wider internet) to other devices, including computers, tablets, phones and even smart TVs and set-top boxes. Check out our guide to building a Raspberry Pi server, substituting your old PC for the Pi. It's by no means a powerhouse, but the Raspberry Pi 3 is a more than capable computer if all you want to do is surf the web, stream video and even undertake some light image editing.

6. Convert it into a home security hub

Media hub

If you've got a big hard drive installed and are willing to shell out £40-50 ($65- $85) for a wireless security camera, you could convert your old PC into a dedicated CCTV system using Ubuntu Server and the free Zoneminder CCTV software following our guide.

It's designed to run headless, which means you won't need to connect a monitor or keyboard/mouse to use it; instead you'll access the system through a web browser on another device to remotely administer it as well as take a peek at what the cameras have recorded.

7. Host websites yourself

Media hub

If you're happy to leave your old PC on 24/7, you could turn it into a web server, letting you avoid the expense of paying for a web host and serving your website directly over your home internet connection. A tool like Turnkey Linux would allow you to do this without any software cost, but bear in mind you'll need a fast, unmetered broadband connection. You should also check your Internet Provider's T&Cs to make sure they allow this kind of use.

8. Gaming server

Gaming

If you're into your network gaming, pressing your old PC into service as a dedicated gaming server will take the load off your main PC and let it concentrate on delivering the best possible performance. A gaming server doesn't require any meaty graphics or much RAM, but a fast processor will be helpful if you plan to play against lots of other users.

Depending on the age of your PC, you may find it's not capable of handling large numbers of players, while the speed of your broadband connection (as well as your ISP's T&Cs) may hobble any plans you have to play over the internet.

But for small-scale gaming parties during which three or four of you fancy shooting the heck out of each other using a classic game like Counter-Strike or Unreal Tournament, your old PC may be just the ticket, particularly if the game in question runs on Linux, allowing you to ditch XP at the same time










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10 features that helped Windows XP achieve legendary status

10 features that helped Windows XP achieve legendary status

Introduction

Windows XP

It's been two years since Microsoft stopped supporting Windows XP, meaning if you're still running it and malware writers find a way to attack you, you're on your own. And despite the fact that it was launched in 2001, there are still people running Windows XP (a few of them in government departments that should know better).

Depending on whose measurements you believe, Windows 7 didn't overtake Windows XP as the most widely used version of Windows until 2011 or even the middle of 2012; even in 2014, you could still find it on as many as a third of all PCs around the world. Different tracking services show different numbers, but whoever is measuring, XP is the OS that won't quit.

Businesses – and home users – who didn't want to replace PCs that were doing what they needed to do, even for the improvements of a new OS. Then there are the gamers who need it for compatibility. For years, South Koreans had to stick with XP to run IE 6 for the ActiveX plugin that was the only way to shop online.

Why was XP such a hit?

Windows XP

XP's success was largely a matter of timing. It was a significant improvement over Windows ME, and Windows Vista was delayed so long by the problems Microsoft had building Longhorn (and devalued by the underspecified PCs many OEMs shipped it on when it did arrive), that in the public's mind, XP was Windows.

Partly that's because of the long list of key features that showed up first (or worked properly for the first time) in Windows XP. And because PC sales boomed after 2001 - by 2006 Windows XP was on 400 million computers - for many people, Windows XP was just what came on their first computer.

These days, an iPad or smartphone are most people's first computer, so even though it's the fastest adopted version of Windows ever, Windows 10 is going to have to significantly redefine what it means to use a PC to have the same kind of impact Windows XP did.

Here are 10 features that helped arguably Microsoft's greatest OS cement its legendary status.

1. Unifying Windows

Windows XP

Windows XP was the first consumer version of Windows to use the NT kernel, which is what now powers everything from Windows 10, to Windows Phone, Xbox One and Azure, instead of being based on Microsoft-DOS.

Having one operating system for business and home users meant people could use the same interface on their home PC and at work, and get more comfortable with it; another reason that Windows XP became an operating system people loved. It also gave Microsoft a much bigger marketplace to sell Windows.

Using the NT kernel gave XP lots of advantages, from multi-threading to better memory management, and made it possible to move from 32-bit to 64-bit processors; it made a home operating system really powerful.

2. Crammed with features

Windows XP

Windows XP had a huge number of the features we now expect in an operating system, both for home and business users. (It also introduced the sometime confusing notion that there were different editions of Windows, with different features.)

Existing tools like Explorer got new features, like task panes and thumbnails – including the option to rotate an image that was the wrong way up – as well as showing you metadata for a file. Desktop search made it easier to find files; there was even a search assistant with a choice of three characters – somewhere between Clippy and Cortana. Backup software was included, along with a new, automatic system recovery option.

The Windows installer meant there was a standard way of installing new software. Clear Type let you tweak the way fonts were displayed to make them easier to read. Business users got the first version of Remote Dektop – and those remote connections were used for Remote Assistance, which let technology support look at or take over your system to help you. And for the first time, Windows could support multiple languages.

3. A new look: Bliss Hill

Windows XP

The famous Windows XP desktop background – a green hillside in Napa, California referred to as Bliss – was one of the most distinctive features of a new user interface that was designed to be friendly, right from the new Welcome screen that had your name on.

The Start menu from Windows 95 got a colorful makeover; a new, blue Start button, and two columns of buttons on the Start menu with links to common tasks you needed frequently. Tabs on the Taskbar sorted themselves neatly into groups and you could pin the programs you needed the most to the new quick launch bar.

The interface took advantage of the new features in GDI+, the new graphics subsystem in Windows XP; anti-aliased 2D graphics, textures, gradient shading and more, giving users transparent labels for the icons on the desktop (complete with drop shadows to make them stand out), the shadow that gave menus a 3D look, the translucent selection grabber in Windows Explorer and the task panes that slid out when you wanted them.

4. Windows themes

Windows XP

Windows XP wasn't the first version of Windows to let you give the interface your own look if you didn't like Bliss, but previously you'd needed to pay extra for the Plus Pack to do it.

With Windows XP themes were built into the interface and they became hugely popular, with fan web sites springing up where you could download custom themes. Windows XP was more colorful and you could really make it yours.

5. Service Pack 2 and security

Windows XP

Windows XP came along just as malware and spyware became a huge problem, and the RTM version wasn't secure enough to cope. Viruses like Code Red, Nimda, SQL Slammer and Blaster caused so many problems that they made it into the news and in 2002, Bill Gates had developers at Microsoft down tools and stop coding while everyone got security training.

The result of that was XP Service Pack 2 in 2004, which included a new version of the Windows Firewall turned on by default, execution protection to help prevent buffer overruns and protection in the networking stack.

SP2 was a huge step forward and made XP much more secure, and in just a few years Microsoft went from producing notoriously insecure software to becoming an industry leader for secure development and response. As XP aged, even with SP3, it wasn't able to keep up with new threats and even when it was still getting security patches, it never became as secure as Vista (and certainly not as secure as Windows 7).

But vital as those service packs were to turn the tide of viruses and Trojans, along with the delay in finishing Vista, they meant that people got used to running Windows XP and just getting service packs rather than switching to a new version of Windows every few years. That's what you'll finally get with Windows 10, but you have to move to Windows 10 to get it.

6. Internet Explorer 6

Windows XP

The default browser in XP, IE 6 tends to be mocked for its poor security and incompatibility with standards, but the real problem with IE 6 was that people kept on using it for so long, and web sites kept coding for its quirks (and pushing that code at any version of IE).

Windows XP

That was mostly Microsoft's fault – once IE had a dominant market share, it went into maintenance mode, IE 7 didn't arrive for five years and it was 2009 before IE 8 came along, starting Microsoft back into serious browser development.

But when it came out, IE 6 was the most standards-compliant browser on the market and it introduced features that became the basis of modern web development (when browsers and sites beyond Microsoft picked them up and made them far more widely used).

7. Power management, networking and performance

Windows XP

Under the hood, Windows XP had significant improvements. Networking was one big area of improvement; as well as offering much better Wi-Fi support and adding native Bluetooth support in SP 2, XP also introduced network Quality of Service, Internet Connection Sharing and simple network file sharing – plus fax support.

Hibernation had been available in previous versions of Windows, but for the first time it became reliable. If you were a business user, you could 'hot dock'; disconnect your laptop from your dock and accessories without having to turn it off and on again. And booting up got faster too; the target was to have Windows start up in just 30 seconds, thanks to an optimization technology called prefetch.

8. Supporting software

Windows XP

Windows XP added key features to make it easier to install and run applications. The new WinSxS 'side by side' folder helped handle the DLL Hell problem (where one program could overwrite key files than another app needed). XP is where the Dr Watson Windows Error Reporting tool showed up, so instead of wondering why customers were complaining about software, Microsoft could get the crash logs and memory dumps showing what was going wrong so they could find the bug.

9. Multimedia goes mainstream

Windows XP

2001 was the early days of the iPod and other MP3 players, and Microsoft added support for useful MP3 features to Media Player so you could organize your music collection. And for the first time, CD burning software was bundled with Windows so if you wanted to save a backup of your files or make a mix CD for the car, you could do it without paying extra.

Windows XP also introduced Autoplay; a neat feature that would let music or video start playing or an application start installing as soon as you connected a device or put an optical disc into your PC. Unfortunately, that turned out to be a huge security hole and over the years, Microsoft has had to disable more and more of Autoplay.

10. Beyond the desktop: tablets and netbooks

Windows XP

As PCs became more popular, users wanted more than just desktops and notebooks and Windows XP adapted to them. In 2002 Microsoft came out with the Tablet PC and Media Center editions, which you could only get with specific hardware.

Media Center supported TV tuners as well as DVD playback and it had its own TV listings so you could use it as a DVR to record TV shows; some models were small PCs to plug into a TV, others were built into LCD TVs. And tablet PCs came with active digital pens and an app called Journal for sketching at taking notes.

They weren't cheap, because they were built for businesses and they didn't have touch screens, and one of the Microsoft engineers working on them annoyed Steve Jobs so much by talking about how good they were going to be that Jobs later claimed he started work on the iPad and iPhone to prove Apple could do it better than Microsoft.

Windows XP

XP also faced down the challenge of netbooks, which were initially based on Linux; afraid of losing the notebook market to cheap and light Linux machines, Microsoft came out with a slightly cut-down and rather cheaper version of XP to put on them instead.

The iPad, the Chromebook, the Apple TV; lots of today's devices go back to hardware that first came out running Windows XP – just another way XP had a huge impact on the world of computing, even if it didn't always mean that Microsoft would keep the computer market it created with XP.










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How to remove Live Tiles from the Windows 10 Start menu

An easy way to divide a room of Windows 10 fans is to start debating the merits of the tiles section in the new Start menu. Some people love it, others don’t. Personally, I think Live Tiles on a PC can be helpful for quick hits of information like the weather, news headlines, and stock prices.

That said, lately I’ve been playing around with a tiles-free version of the Start menu. It’s very minimalist and forces me to make some hard choices about what I put on the taskbar. That’s because when you give up the Live Tiles section, you have almost zero control over the rest of the Start menu. Nevertheless, right now I’m finding it useful and you might too.

To read this article in full or to leave a comment, please click here

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Updated: Surface Pro 5 release date, news and rumors

Updated: Surface Pro 5 release date, news and rumors

Surface Pro 5 features

The impressive, if a bit troubled, Surface Pro 4 is nearing its one-year anniversary, so naturally we tech lovers are already thinking about its successor. And with the Surface Pro 4 having sold nearly 10 times more than its younger (but bigger) sibling, the Surface Book, surely Microsoft has a sequel in the works.

In fact, rumors of a Surface Pro 5 release date have been floating around the internet since the current model was launched onto store shelves. The keyword there is "rumors", as none of those reported are citing trustworthy sources, if any at all.

That goes without mentioning folks clamoring across message boards, like Reddit, for their most desired features and improvements. (Can you guess the most popular one? It rhymes with "flattery.")

Cut to the chase

  • What is it? The would-be fifth Surface Pro tablet
  • When is it out? Current rumors point to spring 2017
  • What will it cost? Likely as much as – if not a bit more than – the current Surface Pro 4

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Surface Pro 5 release date

As reported earlier in 2016, the second major update to Windows 10 was delayed until spring of next year to correspond with a new hardware launch. Purportedly, this lineup would consist of the Surface Pro 5 and Surface Book 2, though a new Surface keyboard appears even more imminent.

Moreover, with Intel's 14-nanometer Kaby Lake processors having just released, it wouldn't be out of character for Redmond to push back the hardware a few months. As the previous Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book encountered technical issues early on, it makes sense for Microsoft to allot itself time with the new CPU architecture.

Regardless of when the Surface Pro 5 finally arrives, you don't need to wait for the next iteration to get your hands on a Surface Pro as Microsoft recently revealed a subscription program that lets you upgrade to new hardware as it's released. Otherwise, you could snag a discounted Surface Book if you act now.

Surface Pro 5

Surface Pro 5 price

In case you haven't noticed in the phone market, the prices of later iterations of modern tech products doesn't change all that drastically – if at all – between releases. Applying that logic to the eventual Surface Pro 5, it's likely that the device will start at $899 (£749, AU$1,349) and escalate from there depending on the configuration and accessories you choose.

Is there any chance that the final price will differ? Of course there is. Would it be smart for Microsoft to deviate too far from the standard it has set? Nope. Regardless, the ball is in Microsoft's court here, and the company will naturally preserve its bottom line if pricier new features are implemented as standard.

Surface Pro 5

Surface Pro 5 stylus

One piece of the puzzle regarding every new Surface is how Microsoft will upgrade its Surface Pen stylus accessory that comes bundled with each tablet. Uncovered earlier this year was a patent filed by Microsoft for a stylus that features a rechargeable battery system.

Specifically, the patent details a magnetic charging dock built to give the new Surface Pen its juice, seemingly with connectors meant for a Surface Dock mounting. Such a venture makes a lot of sense for Microsoft, as the iPad Pro's Apple Pencil currently has this exact edge over the Surface Pen, able to charge by awkwardly connecting to the tablet via its Lightning port.

Surface Pro 5

What we want to see

Look, as much as we've been impressed by the Surface Pro 4, firmware issues aside, there will always be room for improvement. (That would be the case even if it had earned our Editor's Choice award.)

From the screen size and resolution to the hardware inside, we have a few ideas for how Microsoft could craft an even better Windows 10 tablet.

Longer battery life

This is a bit of low-hanging fruit, but countless customers have lamented the Surface Pro 4's battery life – regardless of issues with its "Sleep" mode. We rated the device for 5 hours and 15 minutes of video playback.

That's well below Microsoft's promise of 9 hours of video playback, but we all know that few, if any, laptops actually meet their promised longevity. Our video playback figure is in line with the average laptop, though it's a far cry from what its nemesis, the MacBook Air, can produce.

Ideally, and realistically, we'd like to see at least 7 hours of battery life reliably from the next Surface Pro tablet. That would put it closer in line with the MacBook Air as well as competing tablets, like the iPad Pro.

Surface Pro 5

An even sharper (and/or bigger) screen

With the Surface Pro 4, Microsoft managed to oust countless rivals in both the laptop and tablet spaces when it comes to screen resolution. With a razor-sharp 267 ppi (pixels per inch) already at 2,736 x 1,824 pixels within a 12.3-inch screen, it's not as if the Surface Pro 5 needs to be much sharper.

However, if the next Surface Pro were equipped with, say, a 4K (3,840 pixels wide, at least) screen, that would rip its productivity and entertainment capabilities wide open. Film and photo editors could work at the native resolution that's increasingly becoming the norm, while average Joe's (teehee) could finally watch Netflix in 4K on a tablet.

That said, the realm of super sharp resolutions might be reserved for the Surface Book range at this point. So, why not up its size a bit?

The Surface Pro 4 is big enough for almost all tasks, but it's still not the established default size for most laptops: 13.3 inches. Understandably, the point is for the Surface Pro to straddle both sides of the ever-eroding line between laptop and tablet.

However, maybe the iPad Pro is onto something with its 12.9-inch display. Plus, granted the resolution doesn't bump up too much alongside a size increase, the extra space could allow for a battery life boost.

Surface Pro 5

It might finally be time for USB-C

We saw the latest Google Chromebook Pixel and MacBook be two of the first devices to adopt the latest in USB technology, but now it's the standard among a growing number of smartphones, tablets and laptops. Hell, even the HP Chromebook 13 has two USB-C ports.

The reversible, versatile port may be just what the Surface Pro 5 needs to alleviate the product line's slight input/output problem. A single USB 3.0 port and a proprietary charging port aren't going to cut it for much longer.

It helps that Microsoft has already well-tested the USB-C port within its new Lumia phones, so it's practically a no-brainer to apply that same tech to the Surface line.

If scuttlebutt is to be believed, we're about five months out from a release – plenty of time for the rumor mill to fire up. Stay tuned to this space in the coming months for the latest on things Surface Pro 5.

Gabe Carey has also contributed to this article
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Updated: Steam Machines: Valve’s PC-like game consoles explained

Updated: Steam Machines: Valve's PC-like game consoles explained

What are Steam Machines?

Update: While Valve has remained mum on its Steam Machine plans, Microsoft seems to be taking influence and applying the Steam Machine principle more viably.

Original article continues...

When you think of PC gaming, what comes to mind? A mouse, keyboard and monitor on a desk most likely. But, long gone are the days when PC gamers had to be confined to an unenthusiastic office-like setting, numbly perched only inches away from their screens. Especially with the advent of the largely living room-focused VR platforms, it's high time we move away from that antiquated stereotype.

Enter the Steam Machine, a lineup of hardware from a variety of different manufacturers all with one thing in common: they're PCs designed for shared spaces, presumably with a big-screen TV at the center of it all.

What's more, every single one of them runs an operating system based entirely on the Steam client, an application that since 2003 has provided a succinct catalog of computer games all capable of being stored locally in the same directory. Think of it as the iTunes of gaming, or even Spotify (minus the whole streaming-without-ties functionality). Steam, which started off on Windows, now packs considerable market share on both Mac and Linux as well.

The Steam Machines themselves aim to make PC gaming in the living room more accessible, further developing on the precedent Valve set years prior with its 10-foot "Big Picture Mode" user interface.

Think of the Steam Machine not as one device, but a range of hardware configurations signed off – but not designed – by Valve, the publisher who built Steam. Each one comes from an OEM partner like Dell, Origin or Maingear, shipping with the Linux-infused SteamOS operating system (OS) and claiming to "let you enjoy the Steam gaming experience in one box."

But does the Steam Machine deliver on Valve's promises? Let's find out.

Cut to the chase

  • What are they? Home theater-ready gaming PCs with Valve's SteamOS loaded
  • When are they out? You can buy one now from various gaming PC makers
  • How much do they cost? They generally start at $449 (about £311)

Valve already took a big step into the living room with Steam's Big Picture mode years ago, but that still required a desktop PC in your entertainment center – or a really long HDMI cable. Perhaps because of that, a lot of Valve's phrasing regarding SteamOS treats Steam (the service) and the new OS interchangeably.

Steam Machines

Still, Valve's goals with Steam Machines and SteamOS are clear: bestow upon PC gaming the ease and accessibility that console jockeys already enjoy – in a way that lets PC hardware makers continue to compete.

And that puts Steam right at the center of it all, ready to vacuum up its cut of games sold on Steam Machines like it's the Steam summer sale all year long.

The journey from announcement to launch has been long and a tad messy. But, at GDC 2015, Valve revealed the final details of its living room plans, which included Machines, the revised controller and its Vive virtual reality headset. Since then, a few smaller events and announcements kept things going into the 2015 holiday launch and beyond.

Losing steam already, but gaining influence

The journey from announcement to launch has been long and a tad messy. But, at GDC 2015, Valve revealed the final details of its living room plans, which included Machines, the revised controller and its Vive virtual reality headset. Since then, a few smaller events and announcements kept things going into the 2015 holiday launch and beyond.

After a false start or two, Valve went on to finally launch its Steam Machines back in November 2015 to little fanfare. While 15 Steam Machines were slated to launch by the end of 2015, only a handful actually made it out the door.

steam machines

Some hardware, like the Digital Storm Eclipse and the Webhallen S15-01 Steam Machines, is still being held back by manufacturers, with the Steam website continuing to characterize them as "Coming Soon" despite a notable lack of concrete release information.

Falcon Northwest, on the other hand, decided to contest the SteamOS platform as a whole last year after being swarmed with technical issues, according to VentureBeat. The company later clarified to Digital Trends that the one hard drive limit in SteamOS made it harder to save on the high cost of solid-state storage.

Each of these Steam Machines are essentially gaming PCs inside home theater-friendly cases that run on the Linux-based SteamOS and come with one Steam Controller. Unfortunately, it's even more difficult to peg which box is best for the kind of games that you want to play, as they all offer multiple configurations.

In the few reviews of Steam Machine candidates that we've published, we have run up against the same conundrum: do Steam Machines really make PC gaming that much simpler?

It seems as if we're not alone in asking these questions, as PC World reports that a scant 1% of Steam users play their games on Linux or SteamOS. It doesn't help Valve's case that many of the Steam Machines available on the market are also offered in Windows 10 configurations, the generally-accepted default operating system for most PC gamers.

Despite their arguably low tangible impact, Steam Machines may be affecting the gaming industry by their very presence. For instance, rumors of an iterative (but arguably major) hardware upgrade for the PS4, known as the PS4K, have been circling the internet.

Before Steam Machines, such rumors were few and far in between and gained little to no traction, as such an upgrade was practically implausible for how it would disrupt the console cycle. But maybe – just maybe – console makers are feeling the heat to keep up with emerging gaming technologies that, say, Steam Machines and PCs can weather easily.

Steam Machines

Who are Steam Machines for?

The easiest way to answer this one is to say "console gamers that have been put off by the complexity and prohibitive hardware pricing of PC gaming." However, while that may be the case, that hasn't turned out to be the result so far.

Console gamers might find Steam Machines far easier to set up than gaming PCs, but that still doesn't solve the problem that PC games are often developed for a wide range of hardware. Sometimes, PC game makers want to develop for the highest-end systems, which most Steam Machines certainly aren't.

This causes problems that you can probably already foresee. For instance, what if someone who bought a Steam Machine for the next big Fallout game release? She will still have to see whether the parts inside her Steam Machine can run the game well, much less whether Valve's proprietary SteamOS is even supported by the game. That's not at all how consoles work.

Read our hands on SteamOS review

So, when you ask who Steam Machines are for, it's almost easier to answer who they aren't for, and that's discerning hardcore gamers. Folks in this category can either put up with complexity for the sake of a great gaming experience on PC or know enough to avoid it altogether with a console.

steam machines

For those who haven't been following along, here are all of the Steam Machines we know about and their release status:

List of Steam Machines available

  • Syber Steam Machine (SteamOS) - from $499 (£499, about AU$679)
  • Zotac NEN Steam Machine (SteamOS) - from $799 (£839, AU$1,087)
  • Maingear Drift (Windows 10, SteamOS) - from $1,099 (about £759, AU$1,496)
  • Materiel.net Steam Machine (SteamOS) - from about $906 (about £626, AU$1,232
  • Scan 3XS ST Steam Machine (SteamOS) - from about $718 (£496, about AU$977)
  • Alienware Alpha (Windows 10) - from $449 (£449, about AU$610)
  • Origin Omega (Windows 10) - from $1,362 (about £942, AU$1,847)

List of Steam Machines unavailable

  • Asus GR8S (discontinued)
  • iBuyPower SBX (discontinued)
  • Digital Storm Eclipse Steam Machine (coming soon)
  • Alternate Steam Machine (coming soon)
  • Webhallen S15-01 (coming soon)
  • Next Spa NextBox (coming soon)
  • Gigabyte Brix Pro (cancelled)
  • Falcon Northwest Tiki (cancelled)

Steam Machine

The silver lining: Steam Controller and Steam Link

Every Steam Machine comes packaged with what might be the best product of Valve's big coup for the living room, the Steam Controller. Sold separately for a discounted price of $35 (£28), the Steam Controller primarily uses haptic feedback touchpads for input, a first for modern PC gaming.

The controller is affordable, beautifully designed and infinitely customizable. In fact, Steam now offers a fully-fledged community of Steam users that share uploadable controller profiles that can change everything from button mapping to the intensity of the haptic feedback motors.

Furthermore, in June, Valve updated the Steam Controller with a plethora of new features in commemoration of its 500,000 units sold.

Unlike before, motion controls could be used for racing games in addition to the controller receiving game-specific control scheme configurations. And, on an exciting note for HTC Vive users, the hardware gained support for SteamVR's Desktop Theater Mode.

Unfortunately for Valve, what's being celebrated as its shining achievement indicates bad news for its platform on the whole. 500,000 controllers sold might sound like a high point for the company, but considering every Steam Machine was bundled with one, it's now evident that less than half a million consoles were sold in over seven months.

Then there's the Steam Link, which doesn't solve the problem that Valve claims to be tackling with Steam Machines, but does one better. Like the Steam Controller, Valve's set-top box was discounted to $35 (£28) on June 2 and lets you stream games played on your PC via Steam to whatever HDTV the Link is connected to.

Streaming happens over your local network, and essentially allows you to play PC games in front of your TV without the need for a complicated HDMI setup or other methods. Steam Machines running on SteamOS offer this capability too. But why spend 500-plus dollars for that feature when you can spend just 35?

Steam Machines

Where do Steam Machines go from here?

The exact future of Valve's living room project is largely unknown, as there hasn't been much said of future Steam Machine releases from neither their creator nor its partners. At this rate, Steam Link has a better chance of fulfilling Valve's couch-ridden dreams than any Steam Machine does.

With GDC 2016 having came and went with nary a word on Steam Machines, it would seem that Valve is in a holding pattern with the project. However, the firm struck up a deal with Lionsgate in April to stream about 100 films from its catalog on a rental basis, a la Amazon Prime Instant Video.

Then, in June, Dell revealed alongside some other hardware updates that it would be releasing a $749 Alienware Steam Machine equipped with an i5 Skylake processor, a GTX 960 GPU, 500GB of storage space and 8GB of RAM, though buyers could opt for an i7 and a 1TB hard drive for $100 more. Alienware senior marketing manager Chris Sutphen told ITWorld that the company "[expects] the SteamOS catalog to strengthen at the end of the year."

With E3 out of the way, Microsoft seems to be undertaking a similar strategy in unifying its PC and console platforms and adding two new tiers to its Xbox One hardware lineup. Redmond, however, wants to make its games playable across all of its hardware, differentiating it from Valve's initial plans with the Steam Machines.

Valve may be making an effort to get SteamVR working with lower-power graphics cards, but with Microsoft's plans to bring Xbox games to Steam for Windows 10, Valve's ambitious living room computers may be dead in the water. SteamOS, on the other hand, is a different story.

Alex Roth and Gabe Carey also contributed to this article

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