Opinion: Powerful Tablets Can Mean an End for Gaming PCs

With tablets and other mobile devices becoming ever more powerful, is the age of PC gaming desktops and notebooks coming to an end?

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If you ever want to engage with an endangered species, boot up a notebook computer and start using it. Even full desktops, with their imposing sizes, are starting to take on a certain dinosaur-like quality. Gartner (a technology analysis company) reported last July that, after two years of losses, the PC hardware market experienced a flat growth rate. The reasons for the decline in computer sales varies, with some speculating that consumers are now waiting longer before upgrading to faster systems. However, it's no secret that low-cost tablets and smart phones, which are ideal for consuming media and doing everyday tasks like email, web-browsing, and social media, have eaten up a huge portion of potential buyers. Powerful computer systems are still needed by professionals, content creators, and most especially PC gamers, but even the days of the last group may be numbered, especially when it comes to gaming notebooks.

A decade ago, mobile PC gaming was still a distant dream. A number of companies tried to stuff desktop components into notebook casings, which resulted in oversized computers that might as well have been desktop systems, since they were hot, heavy, and had embarrassingly short battery lives. The goal for a truly mobile PC gaming platform was still a goal, but the race to slim down didn't really step up until Apple first iPad released in 2010. In its announcement, Steve Jobs compared computers to cars. He stated that back when the nation was largely farmland, everyone drove trucks, because that was what was needed. However, trucks didn't necessarily fit into city life, so came smaller sedans, and sales of smaller cars eventually overtook truck sales. His prophetic analogy held true. People who value easy access and portability over power use tablets. Those that need performance still need their trucks. PC gaming enthusiasts in particular need big, powerful trucks. Or do they?

Many professionals have taken to carrying both a tablet and a notebook, using whichever best fits their needs. The first Macbook Air was released in January of 2008, and its popularity kicked off the race to design the best ultrabook - a thin and light notebook that still has enough power to get work done. Not enough to do any serious gaming, but it was a start. Then, on January 6, 2011 Razer revealed the Razer Switchblade design concept, which eventually evolved into the Razer Blade computer system. A gaming notebook that measures less than an inch thick and weighs about 4.5 pounds seems like the dream of portable PC gaming had finally been realized. Except, with a starting price tag that exceed $2,000, the dream remains a distant one for many people. Although competing systems like the recently released Alienware 13 aren't quite as expensive, its compact size still comes at the cost of power, as evidenced by the optional Graphics Amplifier, which lets you hook a full sized desktop graphics card to the notebook.

Yet, even the smallest gaming laptop can hardly stand against the ease and portability of a tablet. Razer announced the Razer Edge in 2013, a Windows 8 tablet designed with PC gaming in mind. It can even run Steam. Technically, so can the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 tablet computer, but it is considerably more expensive. Then, last July, Nvidia took a decidedly unique approach with the announcement and subsequent release of the Nvidia Shield Tablet. Not only can it play high-end Android games, but PC games can be streamed to it from a qualifying desktop system, a notebook, or the Nvidia Grid game streaming service. Taking for granted for a moment that you need a strong Wi-Fi or cellular LTE connection for the streaming to work, the idea seems like the perfect compromise for gamers. You can leave the truck at home and still have access to its horsepower whenever you need it using a small, light, and low cost tablet.

However, this approach is starting to look like a stopgap solution. Apple coincidentally announced Metal last summer, which allows game developers more direct access to the iPad's hardware, with initial results that rival PC games. Not one to slow down, Nvidia revealed the Tegra X1 "mobile superchip" a few days ago in its lead up to CES 2015. With more than double the power of any mobile chip on the market today, the processor is a little ahead of Moore's Law, depending on when we start seeing it used in tablets, smartphones, and smart cars. With tablets already starting to rival PC capabilities, it might not be long before they can fully match them. When that happens, it will mark the beginning of the end for gaming notebooks, which is a fairly niche market to begin with. All you would need is a portable keyboard and mouse, similar to the ones you can get for the Surface Pro 3, except with more gaming grade performance.

I don't mean to say that the end of gaming notebooks, and the potential decline of high-end gaming desktops, would mark an end to PC gaming. On the contrary, I think the increased accessibility of quality, high-end, games would make PC gaming more popular than ever. Sony has already acknowledged the importance of mobile gaming by making it possible to stream PS4 games to a Vita or Xperia devices. However, those are tied specifically to the Sony brand. The broader tablet market, on the other hand, has a potentially longer reach.

I once heard it said that PCs were the most popular gaming platform that nobody recognized. The majority of people in the United States had one, but few were of high-end gaming quality. But if the majority of people pick up powerful, but affordable gaming tablets, then we could be entering a new age of PC gaming. One that's not defined by the image of a three-foot desktop computer, a seven pound gaming notebook, or a two thousand dollar luxury system. It'll be one where gamers are playing games like Far Cry 4 and Dragon Age: Inquisition on devices that fit neatly in a backpack. When that happens, there will be no distinction between PC gaming and mobile gaming. They could be one and the same.

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From The Chatty
  • reply
    January 9, 2015 9:00 AM

    Steven Wong posted a new article, Opinion: Powerful Tablets Can Mean an End for Gaming PCs

    • reply
      January 9, 2015 9:07 AM

      It is interesting to see those reveals from Nvidia. I do not know how far out it is, but there is still quite a gap between what a PC with a modest* graphics card can do vs a table. And it gets much worse if you consider heat and battery life as concerns. You do point out Nvidia has both a streaming grid, and supports ShadowPlay and Steam Streaming, and those work for most games that can handle a large latency. That's exactly one of the uses we have for our Surface 3; however, ShadowPlay/Steam In-Home Streaming requires a gaming desktop - and any game that requires sub 200ms reactions (Super Hexagon, Spelunky, VVVVVV, just as examples) are much more difficult to play.

      I guess, what I should say, is I think we're still a number of years out from playing something like the Talos Principal on a tablet at an acceptable quality. (The Surface becomes a little fiery ball when it tries to play something like that).

      * $150-200

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        January 9, 2015 9:08 AM

        How large is the gap between a 750 / 760 class card and a powerful tablet?

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          January 9, 2015 9:09 AM

          I don't actually know. The Surface isn't really a graphic powerhouse and that's the only one I have.

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        January 9, 2015 1:40 PM

        Well Loiosh, I'm glad you pointed this out... there is still quite a gap between what a PC with a modest* graphics card can do vs a table. Because you see... I can do lots of things with my TABLE. :P

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          January 9, 2015 2:04 PM

          Yeah, haha. I was writing and missed like two mistakes in there. :)

          My Surface 3 Table is my favorite.

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      January 9, 2015 9:09 AM

      That's a pretty strong opening couple of sentences.

      The desktop and laptop PC aren't going to go away to be replaced by tablets for quite some time. The numbers will continue to decline but for the foreseeable future anyone that needs to do creative/development/etc work will still be using a laptop or desktop PC.

      Might it mark the end of the gaming laptop? Maybe. That's a pretty small market as it is.

      I still feel like it's going to be quite some time before they'll be able to pack enough hardware into a tablet that you'll be able to play the latest shooter at 1080P with everything cranked up.

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      January 9, 2015 9:11 AM

      Nope

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      January 9, 2015 9:14 AM

      The awesome thing about PC gaming is that I can repair and upgrade my own machine. I don't have to pay for a brand new device should something happen to my computer. For some - maybe a lot of people, that's always going to be the advantage of PC over tablet / laptops.

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        January 9, 2015 11:13 AM

        You and I can. But that's not an advantage to the majority. Joe consumer cant fix or upgrade anything. So the masses don't have the same concerns.

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      January 9, 2015 9:16 AM

      Shouldn't this be labeled as a sponsored article?

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      January 9, 2015 9:16 AM

      Aah, the death of PC gaming is a topic yet again.

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        January 9, 2015 9:17 AM

        The annual "RIP PC Gaming" subject.

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        January 9, 2015 9:19 AM

        Did you read the article? He specifically says PC gaming should remain stronger than ever, and even expand - it's just the types of devices it's done on may shift.

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      January 9, 2015 9:19 AM

      well, I'd take out the PC's part in your headline link, since you explicitly say the end of gaming LAPTOPS... sure, laptops are a subset of PCs but we've come to associate PCs with full size towers and full performance capabilities.

      yes, we see that more casual gaming is reaching a super wide audience, thereby hitting all of these devices. these serve tap n' swipe games just fine, and shorter term little daily games. I don't think tablets are going to knock out the laptops and PCs for more substantive games that lead to longer play sessions.

      since smartphone and tablet gaming is exploding, it does seem like a "well duh" article that gaming laptops are going to be hardly necessary at all. however when you keep the term "PC" around, that seems to wander into territory that mega rigs are on their way out.

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        January 9, 2015 9:20 AM

        Oh, the end of gaming LAPTOPS? How'd I miss that.

        Well of course, they're really just.. kinda the worst of every world. Especailly the heat they make, like the M19x R2. I cannot understand the appeal of it (a friend of mine has one).

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          January 9, 2015 9:23 AM

          Yeah, gaming laptops are terrible. Too heavy for easy portability and usually less capable than an equally-priced desktop.

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            January 9, 2015 9:35 AM

            I've noticed a lot of younger people getting gaming laptops instead of full-fledged PCs. It's weird!

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        January 9, 2015 10:49 AM

        [deleted]

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      January 9, 2015 9:21 AM

      I'm too lazy to go do the research but I wonder how many of these "so and so platform is going to die" messages come out during and right after major tradeshows?

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      January 9, 2015 9:21 AM

      Steven I think you make a great point in the last two paragraphs, unfortunately I think that point needs to be said earlier because most PC gamers ragequit well before then.

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        January 9, 2015 2:36 PM

        headline is misleading. doesn't address the biggest issue of gaming on tablets, overheating.

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      January 9, 2015 9:22 AM

      Touch screen input sucks so much for accuracy. As does having to hold the screen you are looking at.

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      January 9, 2015 9:29 AM

      man if you listen to what the industry has been saying for the last 10 years you'd think the gaming PC would be long dead. nope still here. certainly wont be replaced by an inferior experience with a lot less options to accommodate different types of players.

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        January 9, 2015 9:33 AM

        plus, more and more we also have the mega rigs being media servers TO those new fancy tablets and other connected devices. so if anything, it strengthens the need for a fully capable PC with lots of RAM, SSD space, etc, so people can use those new tablets as mobile controllers and/or monitors essentially.

        what the article is really pointed at are the gaming *laptops* as a subset of PCs.

    • reply
      January 9, 2015 9:32 AM

      Opinion: Powerful New Future Personal Computers Can Possibly Maybe Mean an End for Modern Computers as You Know Them in Today's Form Factor But Will Be an Old Form Factor 10 Years From Now No One Will Recognize

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      January 9, 2015 9:34 AM

      Good god, what a bait and switch.

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      January 9, 2015 9:35 AM

      Anyone else find it a bit weird that an article like this comes out in the middle of all these Nvidia tablet paid-for news posts?

      I don't nescessarily disagree with this oppinion. Basically I will play on the device that offers me the best gaming experience. So when I can connect my phone to a monitor and speakers, play games on it with a mouse and keyboard (Or TV and controler depending on what I'm playing) and have them rendered at the same fidelity that my PC can manage then I'll be happy to do that.

      People (Reporters, especially those who are not specifically games journalists) often seem to mix up gaming on a mobile platform and playing mobile games. A huge percentage of mobile games are shite. The good ones are nowhere near as good as good PC games. So there is no way mobile gaming will take over from PC gaming because you can't play CoD or World of Warcraft or Assassins Creed. And even if you could you have the issue of controls. That has to be resolved before any decent gaming can happen on a mobile.

      I don't care what powers my gaming experience, as long as it gives me what I'm looking for.

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        January 9, 2015 9:37 AM

        Just so we're clear here, the nvidia one includes a controller that is basically like a 360 controller. So most games work just fine with it.

        I do in-home streaming over Steam with a 360 controller and it works great.

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          January 9, 2015 10:33 AM

          I'm pretty sure the nvidia controller is sold separately from the tablet though there are bundles that include it as well.

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          January 9, 2015 10:45 AM

          Yeah. Though when we're talking about in-home streaming I find it a little bizzare. Just how will the desktop go away if we still need it to actually power these games? And what is the advantage of playing on a small tablet screen instead of my TV or monitor?

          If its a glorified go-between for my TV and my PC it doesn't seem that great tbh.

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      January 9, 2015 9:39 AM

      i don't know. i think for one thing cost and ease of use are a factor. A gaming PC can do well because it can do more with graphics and processing than a console can and basically plays the same type of games.

      can you buy a 500 dollar tablet and have something that could play a game at least the quality of a console out of the box? no.

      graphics and speed are getting better but you just can't fit something all that great in a thin small 8-10" tablet to match at least console level of quality.

      in addition to that you need the know how and the extra cash to buy all the peripherals. do you need a keyboard and mouse, does the tablet connect by bluetooth or do you need dongles for those? are you restricted to crappy wireless or do you need a dongle for a network cable, do you also need to buy a controller for it?

      also there are great games that play well on an 8-10" screen but there are even more games, especially PC type games that do not play well on an 8-10" screen. Do we need another dongle and cable for that?

      and then eat the end of the day you have a "portable" gaming tablet in one hand that replaces your low to mid tier gaming PC or laptop as well as an enviro bag full of peripherals and cables and maybe a monitor in your other.

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      January 9, 2015 9:41 AM

      When they figure out why we're still playing games on PC instead of consoles, then they'll understand why tablets are a threat limited simply to those games that fit the UI/control scheme (the Sims?).

      News flash: we're paying a premium (4-5+ times over the cost of a console) for a machine that is more powerful but where the games are less optimized. It's as if they think that cramming a GTX 970 into an iPad is going to kill PC gaming.

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      January 9, 2015 9:42 AM

      I thought that said "Onion: Powerful Tablets Can Mean an End for Gaming PCs" because that about sums up my feelings on that.

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      January 9, 2015 10:15 AM

      That headline appears to not understand the concepts of thermodynamics and electrical engineering.

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      January 9, 2015 10:25 AM

      Thanks to underpowered consoles being primary development platforms, sure. You don't need a $2000 machine to run a game that's optimized for 720p @ 30fps. Oh wait, yes you do, because most ports are complete shit and horribly optimized.

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      January 9, 2015 10:47 AM

      If this vision of the future is intending me to have an underwhelming tablet to which I connect a game pad and then stream games to my TV that I presumably can't mod or configure then to you sir I say this;

      Poos to you with nobs on.

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      January 9, 2015 10:49 AM

      If gaming is switching to tablets over desktop PCs kill me now.

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      January 9, 2015 11:23 AM

      Until you can drive 3D games on ultra high res displays at acceptable frame rates on only 3-4W, I'll stick with PCs. Assuming power required halves every 2 years, we are still looking at over 10 years out to match that of a powerful single card gaming PC.

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      January 9, 2015 11:39 AM

      Trolololololo

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      January 9, 2015 11:51 AM

      People trying to create gripping headlines need to stop imagining that anyone likes playing games on a touchscreen.

      Headline should just be "Tablets are getting pretty fast"

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      January 9, 2015 12:09 PM

      That title and first paragraph needs to be reworked badly. They're confusing and misleading.

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      January 9, 2015 12:47 PM

      When a tablet can run things like Crysis 3 or BF4 or whatever with no compromise and the cost of a new model is the same price as a single $400 video card and you can use a KB+M, hookup an external display if you want, etc... then yes, the PC will die.

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        January 9, 2015 12:50 PM

        The PC is dead, long live the PC

      • rms
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        January 9, 2015 2:13 PM

        A more likely scenario is developers will make more and more simplified games for the reduced hardware specs of this platform, leading to a vicious circle of simpler games requiring less hardware and fewer high-end machine owners to pay for more complex games: The CNN.com Effect -- bigger, simpler headlines, less content.

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          January 9, 2015 3:09 PM

          People probably said the same thing about laptops, they definitely said it about browser games and mobile.

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        January 9, 2015 3:35 PM

        By then PC's will be running Battlefield 7

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      January 9, 2015 2:03 PM

      Steven, why did you write this ? is Nvidia holding your parents hostage ?

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      January 9, 2015 2:20 PM

      Not this bullshit again.

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      January 9, 2015 2:25 PM

      XXXX will kill PC/Console gaming.

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        January 9, 2015 2:27 PM

        Consoles don't kill PC gaming; I do.

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      January 9, 2015 2:43 PM

      Tablets are pcs

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      January 9, 2015 3:11 PM

      What do you think the Starcraft killer will be?

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      January 9, 2015 3:17 PM

      Oh, hell no.

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      January 9, 2015 3:18 PM

      Guys, I hear the Fire Phone is really good too

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      January 9, 2015 3:28 PM

      more like Steven Wrong.

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      January 12, 2015 9:23 AM

      "Opinion" Yea, nice try xD.

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      January 12, 2015 12:28 PM

      * I ' M N O T S A Y I N ' I ' M J U S T S A Y I N ' D *

      "I don't mean to say that the end of gaming notebooks, and the potential decline of high-end gaming desktops, would mark an end to PC gaming."

      Riiiight... we're in an age right now where barely any PC manufacturers (desktop, laptop, OR tablet) provide anything but those pathetic chiclet keyboards, meaning that anyone using their PC for games now has to go buy a mechanical full-sized keyboard. Thankfully, there's a large market for them, and numerous manufacturers (even if the major reputable mechanical switch manufacturer is Cherry MX).

      Also, I've avoided gaming on a laptop because of cooling that's not up to the task at running full-tilt for hours on end, let alone a 30- to 60-minute gaming session. Add to this that decent 3D accelerator chipsets still require a substantial amount of power (though the notebook-based ones have been getting really powerful while being able to run on standard cooling... but I still don't feel that those cooling solutions have been endurance-tested properly).

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      January 13, 2015 6:33 AM

      HIGHLY doubtful. If anything, there will just be space for all. Perhaps it will be a generational thing. Where the new kids find it better to use and shun the stodgy desktop and laptop model in favor for the lighter tablet and cell phones. But I just cant see playing complicated games of NOW on those devices. Some serious re-engineering will have to take place to play the complicated games of today on those devices if they are to be taken seriously.
      If not then what we are discussing here is not simply the phasing one form factor over another, but maybe even the phasing out of and entire industry as we know it. These devices cant all be supported by flappy birds.

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