We spent a grand total of around twenty hours meeting with PC component manufacturers while at CES 2018, and based on our discussions with companies large and small, we got a very good sense of what's happening in the PC market today. The news, unfortunately, is not all rosy. So hold onto your hats, because we're about to take you on a bumpy ride through the PC's future!
We lead with the elephant in the room: the challenges facing the GPU industry. It's not so much that GPUs aren't selling; to the contrary, they're selling faster than ever. But they're not selling to gamers, and they're not selling for consumer-friendly prices. In fact, in the face of cryptocurrency mining, you now get far less for your money than you did six months ago, and there's very little indication that this is going to change anytime soon. But GPU companies, particularly Nvidia, are doing just fine. And it's using the billions off dollars it's reaping in the GPU market to invest in big money-losing ventures like AI-controlled vehicles, like the one shown below. Nvidia for the first time ever didn't show a single PC-related product in its vast Las Vegas convention center booth.
So to dig deeper, we spent some time with several of its board partners, including MSI and another that wished to remain anonymous, to learn what was really going on. We were very thankful for the honest perspectives provided by these two companies in light of the difficult market dynamics they face. As one board partner explained, it is allocated a certain number of GPUs on a quarterly basis, and it has seen no increase (or decrease) of GPUs coming out of Nvidia over the past few quarters. In the face of limited supply, it's doing more binning to ensure that it gets the best GPU samples into its high-end ultra-overclocked cards, and must save a sufficent number of lower-performing GPUs for its pre-built systems (which typically offer only stock-clocked GPUs).
MSI similary stated that "we don't know what we'll get next week," which of course is a major headache. But it causes larger problems for MSI, in that it's also one of the biggest motherboard manufacturers in the world. Coin miners aren't buying motherboards, and their purchases of GPUs creates no brand loyalty, unlike the purchase of the very same products by gamers. MSI's representative suggested that it is looking to move more of its limited GPU supply to its own pre-built systems, as these lead to a much larger overall MSI purchase. Furthermore, these systems won't appeal to miners, but rather gaming enthusiasts who will share their love of their MSI systems with friends and social media circles. In other words, if MSI has 1,000 of its coveted GTX 1080 Ti Gaming X cards on hand, it can sell them to scalpers for $800 who will then re-sell them for $1,400 to miners, or it can package them into a $2,500 pre-built MSI Aegis PC. Which would you do if you were in the business of making money?!?
And lest you pin your hopes on AMD to save the day with its Radeon Technologies Group, we hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it's not going to happen. During a private meeting with AMD's top GPU marketing execs, Chris Hook, Antal Tungler, and Scott Wasson, it was suggested that The Tech Buyer's Guru should start promoting mining in our popular PC buyer's guides. AMD wants us to pass along the advice that a single Vega 64 (which is currently selling for a mind-boggling $2,000) could easily bring in $300 in coin revenue per month, making it a fantastic investment vehicle. Yeah, right. Perhaps we should register with the SEC so we can dispense this solid financial advice! From AMD's point of view, gaming and mining are now one and the same, and they believe that all enthusiast gamers are making GPU purchasing decisions based on potential mining value. We'll let our readers decide if this outlook applies to them. By the way, AMD isn't planning on releasing a new high-end GPU until its 7nm Navi architecture arrives, which will likely come no sooner than mid-2019, which would be a full two years after Vega arrived. In other words, nothing to see here.
So while we don't think AMD has much going on in its Radeon division, our meeting with AMD's Don Woligroski, Jay Marsden and James Pryor proved to us that the CPU division is firing on all cylinders. After the tremendously-successful launch of its Ryzen lineup in the spring of 2017, it's set to launch the Ryzen 2000 series of "Zen +" processors in the coming months. Zen + a number of refinements, including Precision Boost 2, which increases core speed based on core use, not system use. In other words, it's much more precise, and can boost individual cores more effectively. First up will be its Raven Ridge APU, with an integrated Vega GPU. The Ryzen 5 2400G will come in at $170 and replace the Ryzen 5 1400, offering better performance plus Vega for around the same cost. At the $100 pricepoint, the Ryzen 3 2200G will replace the Ryzen 3 1200, again offering better performance per dollar on the CPU side while also packing in Vega. The Vega core in the Ryzen 5 comes clocked at 1240MHz, but AMD has overclocked samples up to 1675MHz, which should get budget-conscious enthusiasts very excited. Both APUs will arrive on February 12th.
The big news for enthusiasts, however, is Pinnacle Ridge, which will leverage the advantages of Zen + and combine it with a new smaller 12nm manufacturing process to allow far better performance than the original Ryzen lineup. AMD wasn't ready to announce specific SKUs at CES 2018, but did say they'll be hitting the market in April 2018. Note that the 400-Series motherboards will also arrive around that time, offering improved efficiency plus better memory routing and VRMs, which will enhance overclocking capability. Luckily, existing 300-Series boards will support Pinnacle Ridge with a simple BIOS update, and AMD is rolling out a public education campaign to help motherboard manufacturers communicate whether their 300-Series boards in the retail channel have been updated. Look for the "AMD Ryzen Desktop 2000 Ready" sticker if you're buying one now in anticipation of upgrading to Pinnacle Ridge later.
And what of the biggest name in the PC industry, Intel? Well, judging from its giant booth on the main showfloor at CES, it's barely even in the PC business anymore. The only CPU it was marketing was its hybrid Kaby Lake-G CPU/GPU that incorporates Vega (which AMD is selling, not licensing, to Intel, so this is clearly an AMD product). The one truly innovative product that Intel had in its booth didn't even have a placard to identify it: the long-awaited "Hades Canyon" NUC mini PC, harnessing this Vega-enhanced chip. It's a follow-up to the surprise-hit Skull Canyon PC, but will offer far better gaming performance, thanks to the Radeon DNA it carries. As Intel's rep informed us, it will have a configurable TDP, and the top-end model will hit up to 100W and come in around $1,000, while the base model will be 65W and come in around $800. Both of these prices are above the $700 price tag that Skull Canyon arrived with, which seemed high at the time. We'll see if there are enough enthusiasts willing to shell out that kind of money for a barebones system. Of course, it will have RGB lighting, so maybe that will sway the masses! Hades Canyon arrives in March 2018.
OK, more bad news. If you're looking for ultra-high-performance SSDs to rival Samsung's 960 Pro, shown off at CES 2017, you're going to be disappointed. That's because not even Samsung bothered to display a single SSD in its absolutely enormous booth, and while its big-name rival Intel had a few PCs with Optane stickers slapped on them, no actual Optane drives were on display to gawk at. Likewise, neither Western Digital/SanDisk nor Crucial had any new internal drives to announce at CES, although Crucial did recently release its spectacular MX500 SATA drive, which will likely become a best-seller in 2018.
The biggest news coming out of CES 2018 was in fact the release of a very small drive: Toshiba's new RC100 M.2 2242 drive. It's arriving in Q2'18, and will harness 64-layer BiCS TLC flash to achieve performance rivaling that of the Intel 600p and Western Digital Black SSD. Look for it in 120GB, 240GB, and 480GB capacities, with sequential throughput of 1,600MB/s read, 1,100 MB/s write. We certainly hope that Toshiba doesn't just match the prices of its rivals, which have been on the market for a year. If it comes out of the gate swinging, look for the 480GB model to match the top-selling SATA drive, Samsung's 850 Evo. Now that would be a breath of fresh air in the SSD market! Interesting sidenote about the RC100: the NAND is so compact that Toshiba originally considered releasing this as an ultra-compact M.2 2230 drive, but then realized that most motherboard manufacturers had abandoned support for that diminutive form factor given the lack of drives conforming to it. Luckily, every major manufacturer still supports the 2242 form factor, which in itself is half the size of standard M.2 SSDs!
Oh, goodness gracious, the news is not that great in the RAM market either. Corsair didn't even show off any new modules, and while our friends at HyperX did announce that its new RGB kit will become available in early Q2'18 (which you can check see in action in our YouTube video), it was actually announced at last year's CES. Furthermore, they weren't that optimistic about the RAM market improving any time soon. HyperX and its parent company Kingston together are the largest purchaser of RAM chips in the world, so you better believe they have a finger on the pulse of the chip market. According to HyperX, a new lithography is helping, and as the manufacturing process matures, supply should improve and prices should drop. But HyperX is anticipating tight supply through the end of 2018, with perhaps at least a stabilization of prices by Q3'18. Note that this would mean RAM prices will have risen non-stop for 24 months, which would have been simply unimaginable in early 2016. As HyperX pointed out, it takes three months for chip fabs to correct for missed forecasts, which means there's a very long lag time before supply can improve when demand is higher than expected. Alas, it's been higher than expected quite often lately due to the exploding smartphone market (no pun intended!).
Flip to the next page for some slightly more positive news about the case, cooler, and power supply markets!