Subject: Systems
Manufacturer: ECS

Introduction and Design

The ECS LIVA Z Plus is a mini-PC with far more capable processors than the non-Plus variants of the current LIVA family, and we have for review a version with the top-end Intel Core i5-7300U CPU option, along with a 128GB SSD and 4GB of RAM. These specs position the LIVA Z Plus against similarly-powered Intel NUC mini-PCs, and the LIVA has the advantage of being ready to go out of the box (just add an OS).

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We recently took a look at the entry-level ECS LIVA mini-PC, which is a fanless device equipped with a low-power Intel Apollo Lake Celeron N3350 in its base configuration (as reviewed). The performance was merely 'okay' for most desktop computing, and that entry-level LIVA Z was more of a need-specific choice, useful for some applications such as a DIY router as it includes dual NICs in addition to the wireless networking on board. But I kept wishing I had more CPU power the entire time I was testing out the base LIVA Z, and the Plus version seemed like the perfect solution. There is just one catch: it isn't fanless. (Gasp!) Was this an issue? Was it even audible? How were thermals with a 15W Intel Core i5 processor inside such a small enclosure, even it is was being actively cooled? Read on to find out!

First, a look at the specs from ECS:


Specifications:

  • Platform:
    • Intel Kaby Lake Core i5-7300U SOC
    • Intel Kaby Lake Core i5-7200U SOC
    • Intel Kaby Lake Core i3-7100U SOC
    • Intel Kaby Lake Celeron 3965U SOC
  • Memory:
    • DDR4 Up to 32GB
    • 2x SO-DIMM Memory Slots
  • Storage Support: 1x M.2 2242 SSD (SATA / PCIE)
  • Audio: 1x Combo Jack, 1x Digital Mic
  • LAN: 2x Gigabit LAN (1x Intel LAN)
  • USB:
    • 3x USB 3.1 Gen1 Ports
    • 1x USB 3.0 Type-C port
  • Video Output:
    • 1x HDMI Port (HDMI 1.4)
    • 1x mDP Port
  • Wireless: Intel 802.11ac Wi-Fi & Bluetooth 4.0
  • PCB Size: 115 x 111 mm
  • Dimension: 117 x 128 x 33 mm
  • VESA Support: 75 mm / 100 mm (bracket included)
  • Adapter: Input AC 100-240V, Output DC 19V / 3.42A
  • OS Support: Ubuntu 16.04 LTS, Windows 10
  • Accessories:
    • 1x Power adapter
    • 1x VESA Bracket
    • 6x VESA Mount Screws
    • Quick Guide & Driver DVD

  • ECS LIVA Z Plus: $489 MSRP

Package contents are identical to that of the non-Plus LIVA, as we are presented with the LIVA Z Plus, power adapter, and VESA mount.

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The LIVA Z Plus is externally identical to the LIVA Z, with the same complement of three USB 3.1 Gen1 ports, a USB 3.0 Type-C port, and 3.5 mm audio jack on the front, and dual NICs, HDMI 1.4, and mini DisplayPort on the back.

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The side panels are also identical to the passively-cooled LIVA Z, with vented sides that in this case allow for intake and exhaust for the small internal fan.

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If you think this LIVA Z Plus looks like the standard LIVA Z, you're right. Externally, the two are identical:

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Next we'll take a look inside and then see how it performed with a few benchmarks.

Continue reading our review of the ECS LIVA Z Plus!!

Subject: Systems
Manufacturer: ECS

Introduction and First Impressions

The LIVA family of mini PCs has been refreshed regularly since its introduction in 2014, and the LIVA Z represents a change to sleek industrial design as well as the expected updates to the internal hardware.

DSC_0542.jpg

The LIVA Z we have for review today is powered by an Intel Apollo Lake SoC, and the product family includes SKUs with both Celeron and Pentium processors. Our review unit is the entry-level model with a Celeron N3350 processor, 4GB memory, and 32GB storage. Memory and storage support are improved compared to past LIVAs, as this is really more of a mini-PC kit like an Intel NUC, as the LIVA Z includes an M.2 slot (SATA 6.0 Gbps) for storage expansion, and a pair of SODIMM slots support up to 8 GB of DDR3L memory (a single 4GB SODIMM is installed by default).

The LIVA Z is a very small device, just a bit bigger than your typical set-top streaming box, and like all LIVAs it is fanless; making it totally silent in operation. This is important for many people in applications such as media consumption in a living room, and like previous LIVA models the Z includes a VESA mount for installation on the back of a TV or monitor. So how does it perform? We will find out!

Continue reading our review of the ECS LIVA Z fanless mini PC!

Author:
Subject: Systems, Mobile
Manufacturer: Apple

What have we here?

The latest iteration of the Apple MacBook Pro has been a polarizing topic to both Mac and PC enthusiasts. Replacing the aging Retina MacBook Pro introduced in 2012, the Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch with Touch Bar introduced late last year offered some radical design changes. After much debate (and a good Open Box deal), I decided to pick up one of these MacBooks to see if it could replace my 11" MacBook Air from 2013, which was certainly starting to show it's age.

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I'm sure that a lot of our readers, even if they aren't Mac users, are familiar with some of the major changes the Apple made with this new MacBook Pro. One of the biggest changes comes when you take a look at the available connectivity on the machine. Gone are the ports you might expect like USB type-A, HDMI, and Mini DisplayPort. These ports have been replaced with 4 Thunderbolt 3 ports, and a single 3.5mm headphone jack.

While it seems like USB-C (which is compatible with Thunderbolt 3) is eventually posed to take over the peripheral market, there are obvious issues with replacing all of the connectivity on a machine aimed at professionals with type-c connectors. Currently, type-c devices are few and are between, meaning you will have to rely on a series of dongles to connect the devices you already own. 

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I will say however, that it ultimately hasn't been that much of an issue for me so far in the limited time that I've owned this MacBook. In order to evaluate how bad the dongle issue was, I only purchased a single, simple adapter with my MacBook which provided me with a Type-A USB port and a pass-through Type-C port for charging.

Continue reading our look at using the MacBook Pro with Windows!

Author:
Manufacturer: Corsair

Overview

Despite its surprise launch a few weeks ago, the Corsair ONE feels like it was inevitable. Corsair's steady expansion from RAM modules to power supplies, cases, SSDs, CPU coolers, co-branded video cards, and most recently barebones systems pointed to an eventual complete Corsair system. However, what we did not expect was the form it would take.

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Did Corsair hit it out of the park on their first foray into prebuilt systems, or do they still have some work to do?

It's a bit difficult to get an idea of the scale of the Corsair ONE. Even the joke of "Is it bigger than a breadbox?" doesn't quite work here with the impressively breadbox-size and shape.

Essentially, when you don't take the fins on the top and the bottom into account, the Corsair ONE is as tall as a full-size graphics card — such as the GeForce GTX 1080 — and that's no coincidence. 

Corsair ONE Pro (configuration as reviewed)
Processor Intel Core i7-7700K (Kaby Lake)
Graphics NVIDIA Geforce GTX 1080 Watercooled
Memory 16GB DDR4-2400
Motherboard Custom MSI Z270 Mini-ITX
Storage 960 GB Corsair Force LE
Power Supply Corsair SF400 80+ Gold SFX
Wireless Intel 8265 802.11ac + BT 4.2 (Dual Band, 2x2)
Connections 1 X USB 3.1 GEN2 TYPE C 
3 X USB 3.1 GEN1 TYPE A 
2 X USB 2.0 TYPE A
1 X PS/2 Port
1 X HDMI 2.0 
2 X DisplayPort 
1 X S/PDIF
Dimensions 7.87 x 6.93 x 14.96 inches (20 x 17.6 x 38 cm)
15.87 lbs. (7.2 kg)
OS Windows 10 Home
Price $2299.99 - Corsair.com

Taking a look at the full specifcations, we see all the components for a capable gaming PC. In addition to the afforementioned GTX 1080, you'll find Intel's flagship Core i7-7700K, a Mini ITX Z270 motherboard produced by MSI, a 960GB SSD, and 16GB of DDR4 memory.

Click here to continue reading our review of the Corsair ONE Pro Gaming PC!

Subject: Systems, Mobile

Vulkan 1.0, OpenGL 4.5, and OpenGL ES 3.2 on a console

A few days ago, sharp eyes across the internet noticed that Nintendo’s Switch console has been added to lists of compliant hardware at The Khronos Group. Vulkan 1.0 was the eye-catcher, although the other tabs also claims conformance with OpenGL 4.5 and OpenGL ES 3.2. The device is not listed as compatible with OpenCL, although that does not really surprise me for a single-GPU gaming system. The other three APIs have compute shaders designed around the needs of game developers. So the Nintendo Switch conforms to the latest standards of the three most important graphics APIs that a gaming device should use -- awesome.

But what about performance?

In other news, Eurogamer / Digital Foundary and VentureBeat uncovered information about the hardware. It will apparently use a Tegra X1, which is based around second-generation Maxwell, that is under-clocked from what we see on the Shield TV. When docked, the GPU will be able to reach 768 MHz on its 256 CUDA cores. When undocked, this will drop to 307.2 MHz (although the system can utilize this mode while docked, too). This puts the performance at ~315 GFLOPs when in mobile, pushing up to ~785 GFLOPs when docked.

You might compare this to the Xbox One, which runs at ~1310 GFLOPs, and the PlayStation 4, which runs at ~1840 GFLOPs. This puts the Nintendo Switch somewhat behind it, although the difference is even greater than that. The FLOP calculation of Sony and Microsoft is 2 x Shader Count x Frequency, but the calculation of Nintendo’s Switch is 4 x Shader Count x Frequency. FMA is the factor of two, but the extra factor of two in Nintendo’s case... ...

Yup, the Switch’s performance rating is calculated as FP16, not FP32.

nintendo-2016-switch-gpu.png

Snippet from an alleged leak of what Nintendo is telling developers.
If true, it's very interesting that FP16 values are being discussed as canonical.

Reducing shader precision down to 16-bit is common for mobile devices. It takes less transistors to store and translate half-precision values, and accumulated error will be muted by the fact that you’re viewing it on a mobile screen. The Switch isn’t always a mobile device, though, so it will be interesting to see how this reduction of lighting and shading precision will affect games on your home TV, especially in titles that don’t follow Nintendo’s art styles. That said, shaders could use 32-bit values, but then you are cutting your performance for those instructions in half, when you are already somewhat behind your competitors.

As for the loss of performance when undocked, it shouldn’t be too much of an issue if Nintendo pressures developers to hit 1080p when docked. If that’s the case, the lower resolution, 720p mobile screen will roughly scale with the difference in clock.

Lastly, there is a bunch of questions surrounding Nintendo’s choice of operating system: basically, all the questions. It’s being developed by Nintendo, but we have no idea what they forked it from. NVIDIA supports the Tegra SoC on both Android and Linux, it would be legal for Nintendo to fork either one, and Nintendo could have just asked for drivers even if NVIDIA didn’t already support the platform in question. Basically, anything is possible from the outside, and I haven’t seen any solid leaks from the inside.

The Nintendo Switch launches in March.

Author:
Manufacturer: NVIDIA

A Holiday Project

A couple of years ago, I performed an experiment around the GeForce GTX 750 Ti graphics card to see if we could upgrade basic OEM, off-the-shelf computers to become competent gaming PCs. The key to this potential upgrade was that the GTX 750 Ti offered a great amount of GPU horsepower (at the time) without the need for an external power connector. Lower power requirements on the GPU meant that even the most basic of OEM power supplies should be able to do the job.

That story was a success, both in terms of the result in gaming performance and the positive feedback it received. Today, I am attempting to do that same thing but with a new class of GPU and a new class of PC games.

The goal for today’s experiment remains pretty much the same: can a low-cost, low-power GeForce GTX 1050 Ti graphics card that also does not require any external power connector offer enough gaming horsepower to upgrade current shipping OEM PCs to "gaming PC" status?

Our target PCs for today come from Dell and ASUS. I went into my local Best Buy just before the Thanksgiving holiday and looked for two machines that varied in price and relative performance.

01.jpg

  Dell Inspiron 3650 ASUS M32CD-B09
Processor Intel Core i3-6100 Intel Core i7-6700
Motherboard Custom Custom
Memory 8GB DDR4 12GB DDR4
Graphics Card Intel HD Graphics 530 Intel HD Graphics 530
Storage 1TB HDD 1TB Hybrid HDD
Case Custom Custom
Power Supply 240 watt 350 watt
OS Windows 10 64-bit Windows 10 64-bit
Total Price $429 (Best Buy) $749 (Best Buy)

The specifications of these two machines are relatively modern for OEM computers. The Dell Inspiron 3650 uses a modest dual-core Core i3-6100 processor with a fixed clock speed of 3.7 GHz. It has a 1TB standard hard drive and a 240 watt power supply. The ASUS M32CD-B09 PC has a quad-core HyperThreaded processor with a 4.0 GHz maximum Turbo clock, a 1TB hybrid hard drive and a 350 watt power supply. Both of the CPUs share the same Intel brand of integrated graphics, the HD Graphics 520. You’ll see in our testing that not only is this integrated GPU unqualified for modern PC gaming, but it also performs quite differently based on the CPU it is paired with.

Continue reading our look at upgrading an OEM machine with the GTX 1050 Ti!!

Subject: Systems, Mobile
Manufacturer: Dell

Introduction and Specifications

Dell's premium XPS notebook family includes both 15 inch and 13 inch variants, and ship with the latest 6th-generation Intel Skylake processors and all of the latest hardware. But the screens are what will grab your immediate attention; bright, rich, and with the narrowest bezels on any notebook courtesy of Dell's InfinityEdge displays.

DSC_0530-2.jpg

Since Ryan’s review of the XPS 13, which is now his daily driver, Dell has added the XPS 15, which is the smallest 15-inch notebook design you will find anywhere. The XPS 13 is already "the smallest 13-inch laptop on the planet", according to Dell, giving their XPS series a significant advantage in the ultrabook market. The secret is in the bezel, or lack thereof, which allows Dell to squeeze these notebooks into much smaller physical dimensions than you might expect given their display sizes.

But you get more than just a compact size with these XPS notebooks, as the overall quality of the machines rivals that of anything else you will find; and may just be the best Windows notebooks you can buy right now. Is this simply bluster? Notebooks, like smartphones, are a personal thing. They need to conform to the user to provide a great experience, and there are obviously many different kinds of users to satisfy. Ultimately, however, Dell has produced what could easily be described as class leaders with these machines.

DSC_0430.jpg

Continue reading our review of the Dell XPS 13 and 15 notebooks!!

Subject: Systems, Mobile
Manufacturer: Lenovo

Introduction and Specifications

Lenovo made quite a splash with the introduction of the original X1 Carbon notebook in 2012; with its ultra-thin, ultra-light, and carbon fiber-infused construction, it became the flagship ThinkPad notebook. Fast-forward to late 2013, and the introduction of the ThinkPad Yoga; the business version of the previous year's consumer Yoga 2-in-1. The 360-degree hinge was novel for a business machine at the time, and the ThinkPad Yoga had a lot of promise, though it was far from perfect.

DSC_0945.jpg

Now we fast-forward again, to the present day. It's 2016, and Lenovo has merged their ThinkPad X1 Carbon and ThinkPad Yoga together to create the X1 Yoga. This new notebook integrates the company's Yoga design (in appearance this is akin to the recent ThinkPad Yoga 260/460 revision) into the flagship ThinkPad X lineup, and provides what Lenovo is calling "the world's lightest 14-inch business 2-in-1".

Yoga and Carbon Merge

When Lenovo announced the marriage of the X1 Carbon notebook with the ThinkPad Yoga, I took notice. A buyer of the original ThinkPad Yoga S1 (with which I had a love/hate relationship) I wondered if the new X1 version of the business-oriented Yoga convertible would win me over. On paper it checks all the right boxes, and the slim new design looks great. I couldn't wait to get my hands on one for some real-world testing, and to see if my complaints about the original TP Yoga design were still valid.

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As one would expect from a notebook carrying Lenovo’s ThinkPad X1 branding, this new Yoga is quite slim, and made from lightweight materials. Comparing this new Yoga to the X1 Carbon directly, the most obvious difference is that 360° hinge, which is the hallmark of the Yoga series, and exclusive to those Lenovo designs. This hinge allows the X1 Yoga to be used as a notebook, tablet, or any other imaginable position in between.

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Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Yoga (base configuration, as reviewed)
Processor Intel Core i5-6200U (Skylake)
Graphics Intel HD Graphics 520
Memory 8GB LPDDR3-1866
Screen 14-in 1920x1080 IPS Touch (with digitizer, active pen)
Storage 256GB M.2 SSD
Camera 720p / Digital Array Microphone
Wireless Intel 8260 802.11ac + BT 4.1 (Dual Band, 2x2)
Connections OneLink+
Mini DisplayPort
HDMI
3x USB 3.0
microSD
Audio combo jack
Dimensions 333mm x 229 mm x 16.8mm (13.11" x 9.01" x 0.66")
2.8 lbs. (1270 g)
OS Windows 10 Pro
Price $1349 - Amazon.com

Continue reading our review of the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Yoga Notebook!!

Author:
Subject: Systems
Manufacturer: Various

More power for VR

Early this year I started getting request after request for hardware suggestions for upcoming PC builds for VR. The excitement surrounding the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive has caught fire across all spectrums of technology, from PC enthusiasts to gaming enthusiasts to just those of you interested in a technology that has been "right around the corner" for decades. The requests for build suggestions spanned our normal readership as well as those that had previously only focused on console gaming, and thus the need for a selection of build guides began.

Looking for all of the PC Perspective Spring 2016 VR guides?

I have already given suggestions for a minimum specification build, with a target price of just $900, in a previous build guide. Today we are going to up the ante a bit more with some additional cash. What can we change and upgrade if given a budget of $1500 for a PC that will handle VR and standard PC gaming?

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It turns out you can get quite a jump in performance with that added budget:

VR Build Guide
$1500 Spring 2016
Component Amazon.com Link B&H Photo Link
Processor Intel Core i7-6700K $362 $374
Motherboard MSI Z170A Gaming M5 $200 $183
Memory 16GB Corsair Vengeance LPX DDR4-3000 $79 $94
Graphics Card MSI GeForce GTX 980 Gaming 4GB $459 $466
Storage 500GB Samsung 850 EVO
Seagate 2TB Barracuda
$149
$71
$149
$71
Power Supply Seasonic X650 Gold 650 watt $129  
CPU Cooler Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO $29 $28
Case Fractal Design Define S Windowed $111  
Total Price   Full cart - $1,589  

For those of you interested in a bit more detail on the why of the parts selection, rather than just the what, I have some additional information for you.

cpu.jpg

The Core i7-6700K is the highest end consumer processor in Intel's lineup based on the Skylake architecture. This part is a quad-core CPU with HyperThreading enabled that allows for eight threads of processing at an extremely high base clock of 4.0 GHz. Even better, because of the K-designation, if you chose to venture into the world of overclocking, you'll be able to hit 4.5-4.7 GHz with little effort. The MSI Z170A Gaming M5 motherboard has all the overclocking features you'll need to get the job done while also including support for SLI and CrossFire multi-GPU setups, USB 3.1, dual M.2 storage connections and an improved audio interface. We were able to bump from 8GB to 16GB of DDR4 memory in this budget - a benefit for more than just gaming.

Looking to build a PC for the very first time, or need a refresher? You can find our recent step-by-step build videos to help you through the process right here!!

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MSI is also the manufacturer of the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980 graphics card we have selected, a a product that is easily the most important (and most expensive) component for your gaming and VR PC. With 4GB of GDDR5 memory, 2048 CUDA processing cores and the highest level of software and driver support for modern GPUs, the GTX 980 nets you anywhere from 15-25% additional performance over the GTX 970 from our $900 VR system build. For users considering an AMD option, the Radeon R9 390X and the Radeon R9 Nano are both fantastic options as well. 

Continue reading our selections for a $1500 VR system build!!

Author:
Subject: Systems
Manufacturer: Various

The entry point for PC VR

Early this year I started getting request after request for hardware suggestions for upcoming PC builds for VR. The excitement surrounding the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive has caught fire across all spectrums of technology, from PC enthusiasts to gaming enthusiasts to just those of you interested in a technology that has been "right around the corner" for decades. The requests for build suggestions spanned our normal readership as well as those that had previously only focused on console gaming, and thus the need for a selection of build guides began.

Looking for all of the PC Perspective Spring 2016 VR guides?

This build will focus on the $900 price point for a complete PC. Months and months ago, when Palmer Lucky started discussing pricing for the Rift, he mentioned a "total buy in cost of $1500." When it was finally revealed that the purchase price for the retail Rift was $599, the math works out to include a $900 PC. 

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With that in mind, let's jump right into the information you are looking for: the components we recommend.

VR Build Guide
$900 Spring 2016
Component Amazon.com Link B&H Photo Link
Processor Intel Core i5-6500 $204 $204
Motherboard Gigabyte H170-Gaming 3 $94  
Memory 8GB G.Skill Ripjaws DDR4-2400 $43  
Graphics Card EVGA GeForce GTX 970 Superclock $309 $334
Storage 250GB Samsung 850 EVO
Seagate 2TB Barracuda
$88
$71
$88
$71
Power Supply EVGA 500 watt 80+ Bronze $49  
CPU Cooler Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO $29 $28
Case Corsair SPEC-01 Red $52 $69
Total Price   Full cart - $939  

For those of you interested in a bit more details on the why of the parts selection, rather than just the what, I have some additional information for you.

cpu.jpg

Starting at the beginning, the Core i5-6500 is a true quad-core processor that slightly exceeds the minimum specificaiton requirement from Oculus. It is based on the Skylake architecture so you are getting Intel's latest architecture and it is unlikely that you'll find an instance where any PC game, standard or VR, will require more processor horsepower. The motherboard from Gigabyte is based on the H170 chipset, which is lower cost but offers fewer features than Z170-class products. But for a gamer, the result will be nearly identical - stock performance and features are still impressive. 8GB of DDR4 memory should be enough as well for gaming and decent PC productivity.

Looking to build a PC for the very first time, or need a refresher? You can find our recent step-by-step build videos to help you through the process right here!!

The GPU is still the most important component of any VR system, and with the EVGA GeForce GTX 970 selection here we are reaching the recommended specifications from Oculus and HTC/Valve. The Maxwell 2.0 architecture that the GTX 970 is based on launched in late 2014 and was very well received. The equivalent part from the AMD spectrum is the Radeon R9 290/390, so you are interested in that you can find some here.

Continue reading our selections for a $900 VR PC Build!!

Author:
Subject: Systems
Manufacturer: Various

Part 1 - Picking the Parts

I'm guilty. I am one of those PC enthusiasts that thinks everyone knows how to build a PC. Everyone has done it before, and all you need from the tech community is the recommendation for parts, right? Turns out that isn't the case at all, and as more and more gamers and users come into our community, they are overwhelmed and often under served. It's time to fix that.

This cropped up for me personally when my nephew asked me about getting him a computer. At just 14 years old, he had never built a PC, watched a PC be constructed - nothing of that sort. Even though his uncle had built computers nearly every week for 15 years or more, he had little to no background on what the process was like. I decided that this was perfect opportunity to teach him and create a useful resource for the community at large to help empower another generation to adopt the DIY mindset.

I decided to start with three specific directions:

  • Part 1 - Introduce the array of PC components, what the function of each is and why we picked the specific hardware we did.
     
  • Part 2 - Show him the process of actual construction from CPU install to cable routing
     
  • Part 3 - Walk through the installation of Windows and get him setup with Steam and the idea of modern PC gaming.

Each of the above sections was broken up into a separate video during our day at the office, and will be presented here and on our YouTube channel

I would like to thank Gigabyte for sponsoring this project with us, providing the motherboard, graphics card and helping work with the other vendors to get us a great combination of hardware. Visit them at Gigabyte.com for the full lineup of motherboard, graphics cards and more!!

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Part 1 - Picking the Parts

Selecting the parts to build a PC can be a daunting task for a first timer. What exactly is a motherboard and do you need one? Should you get 2 or 4 or more memory modules? SSD vs HDD? Let's lay it all out there for you.

The specific configuration used in Austin's PC build is pretty impressive!

  Austin's First PC Build
Processor Intel Core i5-6600K - $249
Motherboard Gigabyte Z170X-Gaming 5 - $189
Memory Corsair Vengeance LPX 16GB DDR4-3200 - $192
Graphics Card Gigabyte GTX 970 Gaming Xtreme - $374
Storage Corsair Neutron XT 480GB - $184
Western Digital 3TB Red - $109
Case Corsair Obsidian 450D - $119
Power Supply Corsair RM550x - $117
Keyboard Logitech G910 Orion Spark - $159
Mouse Logitech G602 - $51
Headset Logitech G933 Artemis Spectrum - $192
Monitor Acer XB280HK - $699
OS Windows 10 Home - $119
Total Price $2054 (not including the monitor) - Amazon.com Cart

Continue reading My First PC Build on PC Perspective!!

Subject: Systems
Manufacturer: PC Perspective

That Depends on Whether They Need One

Ars Technica UK published an editorial called, Hey Valve: What's the point of Steam OS? The article does not actually pose the question in it's text -- it mostly rants about technical problems with a Zotac review unit -- but the headline is interesting none-the-less.

Here's my view of the situation.

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The Death of Media Center May Have Been...

There's two parts to this story, and both center around Windows 8. The first was addressed in an editorial that I wrote last May, titled The Death of Media Center & What Might Have Been. Microsoft wanted to expand the PC platform into the living room. Beyond the obvious support for movies, TV, and DVR, they also pushed PC gaming in a few subtle ways. The Games for Windows certification required games to be launchable by Media Center and support Xbox 360 peripherals, which pressures game developers to make PC games comfortable to play on a couch. They also created Tray and Play, which is an optional feature that allows PC games to be played from the disk while they installed in the background. Back in 2007, before Steam and other digital distribution services really took off, this eliminated install time, which was a major user experience problem with PC gaming (and a major hurdle for TV-connected PCs).

It also had a few nasty implications. Games for Windows Live tried to eliminate modding by requiring all content to be certified (or severely limiting the tools as seen in Halo 2 Vista). Microsoft was scared about the content that users could put into their games, especially since Hot Coffee (despite being locked, first-party content) occurred less than two years earlier. You could also argue that they were attempting to condition PC users to accept paid DLC.

Windows_Media_Center_Logo.png

Regardless of whether it would have been positive or negative for the PC industry, the Media Center initiative launched with Windows Vista, which is another way of saying “exploded on the launch pad, leaving no survivors.” Windows 7 cleared the wreckage with a new team, who aimed for the stars with Windows 8. They ignored the potential of the living room PC, preferring devices and services (ie: Xbox) over an ecosystem provided by various OEMs.

If you look at the goals of Steam OS, they align pretty well with the original, Vista-era ambitions. Valve hopes to create a platform that hardware vendors could compete on. Devices, big or small, expensive or cheap, could fill all of the various needs that users have in the living room. Unfortunately, unlike Microsoft, they cannot be (natively) compatible with the catalog of Windows software.

This may seem like Valve is running toward a cliff, but keep reading.

What If Steam OS Competed with Windows Store?

Windows 8 did more than just abandon the vision of Windows Media Center. Driven by the popularity of the iOS App Store, Microsoft saw a way to end the public perception that Windows is hopelessly insecure. With the Windows Store, all software needs to be reviewed and certified by Microsoft. Software based on the Win32 API, which is all software for Windows 7 and earlier, was only allowed within the “Desktop App,” which was a second-class citizen and could be removed at any point.

mozilla-2016-donothurt.png

This potential made the PC software industry collectively crap themselves. Mozilla was particularly freaked out, because Windows Store demanded (at the time) that all web browsers become reskins of Internet Explorer. This means that Firefox would not be able to implement any new Web standards on Windows, because it can only present what Internet Explorer (Trident) draws. Mozilla's mission is to develop a strong, standards-based web browser that forces all others to interoperate or die.

Remember: “This website is best viewed with Internet Explorer”?

Executives from several PC gaming companies, including Valve, Blizzard, and Mojang, spoke out against Windows 8 at the time (along with browser vendors and so forth). Steam OS could be viewed as a fire escape for Valve if Microsoft decided to try its luck and kill, or further deprecate, Win32 support. In the mean time, Windows PCs could stream to it until Linux gained a sufficient catalog of software.

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Image Credit: Wikipedia

This is where Steam OS gets interesting. Its software library cannot compete against Windows with its full catalog of Win32 applications, at least not for a long time. On the other hand, if Microsoft continues to support Win32 as a first-class citizen, and they returned to the level of openness with software vendors that they had in the Windows XP era, then Valve doesn't really have a reason to care about Steam OS as anything more than a hobby anyway. Likewise, if doomsday happens and something like Windows RT ends up being the future of Windows, as many feared, then Steam OS wouldn't need to compete against Windows. Its only competition from Microsoft would be Windows Store apps and first-party software.

I would say that Valve might even have a better chance than Microsoft in that case.

Author:
Manufacturer: AMD

May the Radeon be with You

In celebration of the release of The Force Awakens as well as the new Star Wars Battlefront game from DICE and EA, AMD sent over some hardware for us to use in a system build, targeted at getting users up and running in Battlefront with impressive quality and performance, but still on a reasonable budget. Pairing up an AMD processor, MSI motherboard, Sapphire GPU with a low cost chassis, SSD and more, the combined system includes a FreeSync monitor for around $1,200.

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Holiday breaks are MADE for Star Wars Battlefront

Though the holiday is already here and you'd be hard pressed to build this system in time for it, I have a feeling that quite a few of our readers and viewers will find themselves with some cash and gift certificates in hand, just ITCHING for a place to invest in a new gaming PC.

The video above includes a list of components, the build process (in brief) and shows us getting our gaming on with Star Wars Battlefront. Interested in building a system similar the one above on your own? Here's the hardware breakdown.

  AMD Powered Star Wars Battlefront System
Processor AMD FX-8370 - $197
Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO - $29
Motherboard MSI 990FXA Gaming - $137
Memory AMD Radeon Memory DDR3-2400 - $79
Graphics Card Sapphire NITRO Radeon R9 380X - $266
Storage SanDisk Ultra II 240GB SSD - $79
Case Corsair Carbide 300R - $68
Power Supply Seasonic 600 watt 80 Plus - $69
Monitor AOC G2460PF 1920x1080 144Hz FreeSync - $259
Total Price Full System (without monitor) - Amazon.com - $924

For under $1,000, plus another $250 or so for the AOC FreeSync capable 1080p monitor, you can have a complete gaming rig for your winter break. Let's detail some of the specific components.

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AMD sent over the FX-8370 processor for our build, a 4-module / 8-core CPU that runs at 4.0 GHz, more than capable of handling any gaming work load you can toss at it. And if you need to do some transcoding, video work or, heaven forbid, school or productivity work, the FX-8370 has you covered there too.

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For the motherboard AMD sent over the MSI 990FXA Gaming board, one of the newer AMD platforms that includes support for USB 3.1 so you'll have a good length of usability for future expansion. The Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO cooler was our selection to keep the FX-8370 running smoothly and 8GB of AMD Radeon DDR3-2133 memory is enough for the system to keep applications and the Windows 10 operating system happy.

Continue reading about our AMD system build for Star Wars Battlefront!!

Subject: Systems
Manufacturer: ECS

Introduction and First Impressions

When I reviewed the first LIVA mini-PC from ECS one year ago I was impressed by the concept of a full Windows computer in an enclosure about the size of a can of cola, which included everything you needed to get started out of the box. The problem with that first LIVA was that it was a little underpowered for the current generation of operating systems, and with the introduction of the LIVA X the performance improved only slightly; though it was a much more polished product overall. So how does the latest LIVA - the X2 - stack up? We'll find that out here.

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The first thing you're bound to notice with the X2 is the markedly different style compared to the first two. Where last year’s LIVA X had a sleek, lower-profile appearance, with the LIVA X2 we have something completely different, which I won’t judge one way or the other as this is a matter of personal taste. I do miss the angular black plastic housing from last year’s version, but the fit and finish of the X2 is very nice regardless of what you think of the rounded body and white and chrome plastic finish. (ECS also offers a LIVA “Core” barebone kit that follows the aesthetic of the LIVA X.)

So what’s new beyond the appearance? After only the most minor tweak to the SoC between the first LIVA and its followup, the LIVA X (moving a single SKU up from an Intel Bay Trail-M Celeron N2807 to the N2808), this new X2 has a completely different Intel solution under the hood with its Braswell SoC - the Intel Celeron N3050 processor, a dual-core part with 2 MB of cache and a 2.16 GHz top speed. Considering that even the <$150 Intel Compute Stick offers a quad-core CPU (the Z3735F, a Bay Trail SoC) I was a little skeptical of the dual-core option here, but we’ll just have to see how it performs.

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Three generations of LIVA

Continue reading our review of the ECS LIVA X2!!

Author:
Manufacturer: AMD

Four High Powered Mini ITX Systems

Thanks to Sebastian for helping me out with some of the editorial for this piece and to Ken for doing the installation and testing on the system builds! -Ryan

Update (1/23/16): Now that that AMD Radeon R9 Nano is priced at just $499, it becomes an even better solution for these builds, dropping prices by $150 each.

While some might wonder where the new Radeon R9 Nano fits in a market that offers the AMD Fury X for the same price, the Nano is a product that defines a new category in the PC enthusiast community. It is a full-scale GPU on an impossibly small 6-inch PCB, containing the same core as the larger liquid-cooled Fury X, but requiring 100 watts less power than Fury X and cooled by a single-fan dual-slot air cooler.

The R9 Nano design screams compatibility. It has the ability to fit into virtually any enclosure (including many of the smallest mini-ITX designs), as long as the case supports a dual-slot (full height) GPU. The total board length of 6 inches is shorter than a mini-ITX motherboard, which is 6.7 inches square! Truly, the Nano has the potential to change everything when it comes to selecting a small form-factor (SFF) enclosure.

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Typically, a gaming-friendly enclosure would need at minimum a ~270 mm GPU clearance, as a standard 10.5-inch reference GPU translates into 266.7 mm in length. Even very small mini-ITX enclosures have had to position components specifically to allow for these longer cards – if they wanted to be marketed as compatible with a full-size GPU solution, of course. Now with the R9 Nano, smaller and more powerful than any previous ITX-specific graphics card to date, one of the first questions we had was a pretty basic one: what enclosure should we put this R9 Nano into?

With no shortage of enclosures at our disposal to try out a build with this new card, we quickly discovered that many of them shared a design choice: room for a full-length GPU. So, what’s the advantage of the Nano’s incredibly compact size? It must be pointed out that larger (and faster) Fury X has the same MSRP, and at 7.5 inches the Fury X will fit comfortably in cases that have spacing for the necessary radiator.

Finding a Case for Nano

While even some of the tiniest mini-ITX enclosures (EVGA Hadron, NCASE M1, etc.) offer support for a 10.5-in GPU, there are several compact mini-ITX cases that don’t support a full-length graphics card due to their small footprint. While by no means a complete list, here are some of the options out there (note: there are many more mini-ITX cases that don’t support a full-height or dual-slot expansion card at all, such as slim HTPC enclosures):

Manufacturer Model Price
Cooler Master Elite 110 $47.99, Amazon.com
Cooltek Coolcube  
Lian Li PC-O5 $377, Amazon.com
Lian Li PC-Q01 $59.99, Newegg.com
Lian Li PC-Q03 $74.99, Newegg.com
Lian Li PC-Q07 $71.98, Amazon.com
Lian Li PC-Q21  
Lian Li PC-Q26  
Lian Li PC-Q27  
Lian Li PC-Q30 $139.99, Newegg.com
Lian Li PC-Q33 $134.99, Newegg.com
Raijintek Metis $59.99, Newegg.com
Rosewill Legacy V3 Plus-B $59.99, Newegg.com

The list is dominated by Lian Li, who offers a number of cube-like mini-ITX enclosures that would ordinarily be out of the question for a gaming rig, unless one of the few ITX-specific cards were chosen for the build. Many other fine enclosure makers (Antec, BitFenix, Corsair, Fractal Design, SilverStone, etc.) offer mini-ITX enclosures that support full-length GPUs, as this has pretty much become a requirement for an enthusiast PC case.

Continue our look at building Mini ITX systems with the AMD Radeon R9 Nano!!

Subject: Systems
Manufacturer: PC Perspective
Tagged: quad-core, gpu, gaming, cpu

Introduction and Test Hardware

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The PC gaming world has become divided by two distinct types of games: those that were designed and programmed specifically for the PC, and console ports. Unfortunately for PC gamers it seems that far too many titles are simply ported over (or at least optimized for consoles first) these days, and while PC users can usually enjoy higher detail levels and unlocked frame rates there is now the issue of processor core-count to consider. This may seem artificial, but in recent months quite a few games have been released that require at least a quad-core CPU to even run (without modifying the game).

One possible explanation for this is current console hardware: PS4 and Xbox One systems are based on multi-core AMD APUs (the 8-core AMD "Jaguar"). While a quad-core (or higher) processor might not be techincally required to run current games on PCs, the fact that these exist on consoles might help to explain quad-core CPU as a minimum spec. This trend could simply be the result of current x86 console hardware, as developement of console versions of games is often prioritized (and porting has become common for development of PC versions of games). So it is that popular dual-core processors like the $69 Intel Pentium Anniversary Edition (G3258) are suddenly less viable for a future-proofed gaming build. While hacking these games might make dual-core CPUs work, and might be the only way to get such a game to even load as the CPU is checked at launch, this is obviously far from ideal.

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Is this much CPU really necessary?

Rather than rail against this quad-core trend and question its necessity, I decided instead to see just how much of a difference the processor alone might make with some game benchmarks. This quickly escalated into more and more system configurations as I accumulated parts, eventually arriving at 36 different configurations at various price points. Yeah, I said 36. (Remember that Budget Gaming Shootout article from last year? It's bigger than that!) Some of the charts that follow are really long (you've been warned), and there’s a lot of information to parse here. I wanted this to be as fair as possible, so there is a theme to the component selection. I started with three processors each (low, mid, and high price) from AMD and Intel, and then three graphics cards (again, low, mid, and high price) from AMD and NVIDIA.

Here’s the component rundown with current pricing*:

Processors tested:

Graphics cards tested:

  • AMD Radeon R7 260X (ASUS 2GB OC) - $137.24
  • AMD Radeon R9 280 (Sapphire Dual-X) - $169.99
  • AMD Radeon R9 290X (MSI Lightning) - $399
  • NVIDIA GeForce GTX 750 Ti (OEM) - $149.99
  • NVIDIA GeForce GTX 770 (OEM) - $235
  • NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980 (ASUS STRIX) - $519

*These prices were current as of  6/29/15, and of course fluctuate.

Continue reading our Quad-Core Gaming Roundup: How Much CPU Do You Really Need?

Subject: Systems
Manufacturer: Zotac

Introduction and First Impressions

The Zotac ZBOX CI321 nano is a mini PC kit in the vein of the Intel NUC, and this version features a completely fanless design with built-in wireless for silent integration into just about any location. So is it fast enough to be an HTPC or desktop productivity machine? We will find out here.

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I have reviewed a couple of mini-PCs in the past few months, most recently the ECS LIVA X back in January. Though the LIVA X was not really fast enough to be used as a primary device it was small and inexpensive enough to be an viable product depending on a user’s needs. One attractive aspect of the LIVA designs, and any of the low-power computers introduced recently, is the passive nature of such systems. This has unfortunately resulted in the integration of some pretty low-performance CPUs to stay within thermal (and cost) limits, but this is beginning to change. The ZBOX nano we’re looking at today carries on the recent trend of incorporating slightly higher performance parts as its Intel Celeron processor (the 2961Y) is based on Haswell, and not the Atom cores at the heart of so many of these small systems.

Another parallel to the Intel NUC is the requirement to bring your own memory and storage, and the ZBOX CI321 nano accepts a pair of DDR3 SoDIMMs and 2.5” storage drives. The Intel Celeron 2961Y processor supports up to 1600 MHz dual-channel DDR3L which allows for much higher memory bandwidth than many other mini-PCs, and the storage controller supports SATA 6.0 Gbps which allows for higher performance than the eMMC storage found in a lot of mini-PCs, depending on the drive you choose to install. Of course your mileage will vary depending on the components selected to complete the build, but it shouldn’t be difficult to build a reasonably fast system.

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Continue reading our review of the Zotac ZBOX CI321 nano!!

Manufacturer: AMD

Digging into a specific market

A little while ago, I decided to think about processor design as a game. You are given a budget of complexity, which is determined by your process node, power, heat, die size, and so forth, and the objective is to lay out features in the way that suits your goal and workload best. While not the topic of today's post, GPUs are a great example of what I mean. They make the assumption that in a batch of work, nearby tasks are very similar, such as the math behind two neighboring pixels on the screen. This assumption allows GPU manufacturers to save complexity by chaining dozens of cores together into not-quite-independent work groups. The circuit fits the work better, and thus it lets more get done in the same complexity budget.

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Carrizo is aiming at a 63 million unit per year market segment.

This article is about Carrizo, though. This is AMD's sixth-generation APU, starting with Llano's release in June 2011. For this launch, Carrizo is targeting the 15W and 35W power envelopes for $400-$700 USD notebook devices. AMD needed to increase efficiency on the same, 28nm process that we have seen in their product stack since Kabini and Temash were released in May of 2013. They tasked their engineers to optimize their APU's design for these constraints, which led to dense architectures and clever features on the same budget of complexity, rather than smaller transistors or a bigger die.

15W was their primary target, and they claim to have exceeded their own expectations.

Backing up for a second. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.

When I met with AMD last month, I brought up the Bulldozer architecture with many individuals. I suspected that it was a quite clever design that didn't reach its potential because of external factors. As I started this editorial, processor design is a game and, if you can save complexity by knowing your workload, you can do more with less.

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Bulldozer looked like it wanted to take a shortcut by cutting elements that its designers believed would be redundant going forward. First and foremost, two cores share a single floating point (decimal) unit. While you need some floating point capacity, upcoming workloads could use the GPU for a massive increase in performance, which is right there on the same die. As such, the complexity that is dedicated to every second FPU can be cut and used for something else. You can see this trend throughout various elements of the architecture.

Read on for more about what Carrizo is, and what it came from to get here.

A substantial upgrade for Thunderbolt

Today at Computex, Intel took the wraps off of the latest iteration of Thunderbolt, a technology that I am guessing many of you thought was dead in the water. It turns out that's not the case, and this new set of features that Thunderbolt 3 offers may in fact push it over the crest and give it the momentum needed to become a useable and widespread standard.

First, Thunderbolt 3 starts with a new piece of silicon, code named Alpine Ridge. Not only does Alpine Ridge increase the available Thunderbolt bandwidth to 40 Gbps but it also adds a native USB 3.1 host controller on the chip itself. And, as mobile users will be glad to see, Intel is going to start utilizing the new USB Type-C (USB-C) connector as the standard port rather than mini DisplayPort.

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This new connector type, that was already a favorite among PC Perspective staff because of its size and its reversibility, will now be the way connectivity and speed increases this generation with Thunderbolt. This slide does a good job of summarizing the key take away from the TB3 announcement: 40 Gbps, support for two 4K 60 Hz displays, 100 watt (bi-directional) charging capability, 15 watt device power and support for four protocols including Thunderbolt, DisplayPort, USB and PCI Express.

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Protocol support is important and Thunderbolt 3 over USB-C will be able to connect directly to a DisplayPort monitor, to an external USB 3.1 storage drive, an old thumb drive or a new Thunderbolt 3 docking station. This is truly unrivaled flexibility from a single connector. The USB 3.1 controller is backward compatible as well: feel free to connect any USB device to it that you can adapt to the Type-C connection.

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From a raw performance perspective Thunderbolt 3 offers a total of 40 Gbps of bi-directional bandwidth, twice that of Thunderbolt 2 and 4x what we get with USB 3.1. That offers users the ability to combine many different devices, multiple displays and network connections and have plenty of headroom.

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With Thunderbolt 3 you get twice as much raw video bandwidth, two DP 1.2 streams, allowing you to run not just a single 4K display at 60 Hz but two of them, all over a single TB3 cable. If you want to connect a 5K display though, you will be limited to just one of them.

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For mobile users, which I think is the area where Thunderbolt 3 will be the most effective, the addition of USB 3.1 allows for charging capability up to 100 watts. This is in addition to the 15 watts of power that Thunderbolt provides to devices directly - think external storage, small hubs/docks, etc.

Continue reading our preview of the new Thunderbolt 3 technology!!

Author:
Manufacturer: NVIDIA

SHIELD Specifications

Announced just this past June at last year’s Google I/O event, Android TV is a platform developed by Google, running Android 5.0 and higher, that aims to create an interactive experience for the TV. This platform can be built into a TV directly as well as into set-top style boxes, like the NVIDIA SHIELD we are looking at today. The idea is to bring the breadth of apps and content to the TV through the Android operating system in a way that is both convenient and intuitive.

NVIDIA announced SHIELD back in March at GDC as the first product to use the company’s latest Tegra processor, the X1. This SoC combines an 8-core big.LITTLE ARM processor design with a 256-core implementation of the NVIDIA Maxwell GPU architecture, providing GPU performance previously unseen in an Android device. I have already spent some time with the NVIDIA SHIELD at various events and the promise was clearly there to make it a leading option for Android TV adoption, but obviously there were questions to be answered.

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Today’s article will focus on my early impressions with the NVIDIA SHIELD, having used it both in the office and at home for a handful of days. As you’ll see during the discussion there are still some things to be ironed out, some functionality that needs to be added before SHIELD and Android TV can really be called a must-buy product. But I do think it will get there.

And though this review will focus on the NVIDIA SHIELD, it’s impossible not to marry the success of SHIELD with the success of Google’s Android TV. The dominant use case for SHIELD is as a media playback device, with the gaming functionality as a really cool side project for enthusiasts and gamers looking for another outlet. For SHIELD to succeed, Google needs to prove that Android TV can improve over other integrated smart TV platforms as well as other set-top box platforms like Boxee, Roku and even the upcoming Apple TV refresh.

But first, let’s get an overview of the NVIDIA SHIELD device, pricing and specifications, before diving into my experiences with the platform as a whole.

Continue reading our review of the new NVIDIA SHIELD with Android TV!!