The biggest news at Computex 2019

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Our week in Taiwan is coming to a close, and as Team Engadget bids goodbye to the dumplings and beef noodles, it’s time to look back on all the news we saw this week. As always, ASUS was the star of the show in its home turf, and this year was especially significant as the company celebrated its thirtieth anniversary. It unveiled attractive new special editions of the ZenBook and ZenFone, as well as a dual-screen laptop.

This Computex, chip makers ruled the show with their powerful new products. Intel even wowed us by showing off intriguing concept devices with dual and integrated companion screens, as well as the first slate of laptops from its Project Athena program. Qualcomm and Lenovo were also here to announce their “Project Limitless” collaboration with the first 5G laptop. And then there’s the usual onslaught of new gaming PCs, laptops, keyboards and accessories. It’s been a particularly interesting show with exciting news for the PC industry, and we can’t wait to come back next year for more.

Catch up on all the latest news from Computex 2019 here!

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Pushing a 28-core CPU to its limits: 6GHz and beyond

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I’m mesmerized by the way liquid-nitrogen vapor flows across the motherboard. There’s something oddly therapeutic about extreme overclocking, especially when the cold air gently touches my skin, making even the tiniest bumps in clock speed the more worthwhile. There’s probably no better place to see it in action than Taipei’s Computex, where gaming PC memory maker G.Skill gathers the world’s best overclockers for its OC World Cup event (with a $10,000 top cash prize).

Our previous attempt to tame the 18-core Intel Core i9-7980XE was already rather ambitious, but this year, we decided to go all the way with the massive 28-core, 255W Intel Xeon W-3175X, a rare CPU gem that costs at least $3,000 — if you can even find one. Our goal was to break the chip’s records at the time: pushing it from its 3.1GHz base frequency to beyond 5.68GHz on Cinebench R15, or at least beyond 6.5GHz via the more lightweight CPU-Z validation. With this many cores, it posed a much bigger cooling challenge to run at higher speeds, especially compared to the quad-core i7-7700K I tinkered with the year before.

Overclocking at Computex 2019

Like before, G.Skill let us go wild with its tanks of liquid nitrogen on the far end of the stage. Once again, I teamed up with my overclocking Meister, Joe “Steponz” Stepongzi, who secured an impressive rig for our CPU challenge: a beastly ASUS ROG Dominus Extreme motherboard with 12 G.Skill Trident Z Royal 8GB sticks, totalling 96GB of RAM (though the motherboard supports up to 192GB), plus a cooling pot made by another professional overclocker, Roman “der8auer” Hartung. With the CPU included, the whole rig costs somewhere between $8,000 and $10,000. “Why buy a car when you can have this setup?” Stepongzi joked.

The challenge with overclocking the W-3175X is partly due to having to keep tabs on all 28 cores, which creates more variables in power and thermal properties. The most important prep work, according to Stepongzi, is finding a suitable mounting mechanism to ensure the hefty cooling pot touches the CPU evenly. For a CPU of this size, uneven mounting will risk losing some of the memory channels — six here instead of the usual two or four — and drastically reduce performance.

An overclocker applying thermal paste onto an Intel Xeon W-3175X before mounting a cooling pot.
Richard Lai/Engadget

The usual precautions apply. The motherboard has to be insulated with dielectric grease to fend off any accidental drops of water. Likewise, paper towel lines the gap between each memory slot, and then yet more paper towel wraps around the pot and memory sticks, to soak up condensation. A small fan helps blow the vapor away, too. When CPU performance drops or the paper towel gets too wet, you’ll want to bring the kit’s temperature back up using a blowtorch, dismantle everything, clean thoroughly and then reassemble to try again. This process alone could take a good 20 minutes at least.

Depending on the benchmark, the W-3175X had to be lowered to between -100°C/-148°F and 120°C/-184°F. That gave us more leeway compared to last year’s i9-7980XE, which would stop functioning — hitting a “cold bug” — if it went below -104°C/-155.2°F.

After spinning up CPU-Z, we made some some fine adjustments on the clock speed and voltage in between pours, eventually stopping at 6.1GHz. That was still some way away from the 6.5GHz world record at the time of writing, but we had to make-do with the piece of silicon we got.

Looking serious

But the benchmark that we cared more about was Cinebench R15, which pushed all 28 cores and 56 threads to run at 100 percent — as opposed to around 10 percent or less for the CPU-Z validation. That’s tough. We even sought help from another top overclocker, Hiva “Hiwa” Pouri, but the PC kept ending up with a blue screen whenever we went beyond 5.5GHz. Dismantling and cleaning the kit didn’t help much, either, so we settled with a score of 7,865 cb at 5.5GHz — not far off from the 8,391 cb (at 5.68GHz) record.

According to Stepongzi, this was really impressive, considering that his i9-7980XE last year reached 5.6GHz on “just” 18 cores, and now we have a similar 5.5GHz speed but on 28 cores. That is to say, Intel has come a long way with the W-3175X’s stability when overclocked. Stepongzi added that this easily blows away the i9-9900K, Intel’s recent octa-core flagship, in the same benchmarks (though the i9-9900KS announced at Computex should see much improved performance).

Even though we failed to break any record, there are ways to improve our chances in the future. For one, a less humid environment would help a lot. Steponz said he could set up a rig in a dry place, like Las Vegas, and then bench for hours with no ice or vapor potentially affecting performance. The rest is all in the prep details. That, and a bit of luck.

Catch up on all the latest news from Computex 2019 here!

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PC makers are getting better at copying smartphone innovation

For a long time, the PC industry was stagnating. Computer makers had grown comfortable with iterative annual updates to their devices, relying on yearly processor advancements to push consumers to buy new laptops. But recently, things changed. PC makers started borrowing features from smartphones to make their laptops stand out, just as phones keep trying to become more like computers. There were plenty of examples at Computex 2019, but instead of displaying purely imitated features, the PC industry showed it can actually do some of them better.

Companies at Computex this year are continuing to take features like eSIM, built-in LTE and instant unlock and advancing them for laptops. For example, Lenovo and Qualcomm announced they are collaborating on the first 5G laptop, bringing next-gen cellular connectivity to the PC world. Meanwhile, Intel showed off the first devices from its Project Athena program, whihch promises to deliver computers that wake up from sleep in under a second. Instant resume is already a feature that Microsoft offers, but Intel uses nifty new tricks to make sure your laptop is always ready for you to get to work.

Companies also want to make their PCs last at least as long as smartphones, and this year’s Computex announcements had a major focus on battery life. For instance, Lenovo and Qualcomm promise days of juice on the Project Limitless 5G laptop, while Intel is enforcing a minimum of nine hours on its Project Athena devices. That’s still not close to what you’d get on your phone, but it’s a marked improvement.

PCs are also starting to look different — we’re thankfully seeing fewer boring black rectangles here. Many of them have aesthetics that appear to be inspired by phones. The new Dell Inspiron series, for example, comes in a lilac hue that’s reminiscent of the lavender Galaxy S10. HP also unveiled Envy laptops with wood inlays, and this, along with the leather in last year’s Spectre Folio, feel similar to Samsung’s leatherette Galaxy Note 3 and S4 as well as Motorola’s wood finish on the Motos.

HP Envy x360 wood

In addition to borrowing (ahem, stealing) fundamental traits from phones, PCs are also exploring the wilder concepts that burgeoned in the mobile realm. Fascination with dual screens and foldable fever is taking hold in smartphones, and laptop makers want in on that fun, too. Ahead of Computex, Lenovo showed off a prototype of what it’s calling the “world’s first foldable PC” — a laptop with a bendable screen. Here at the show, though, we saw companies experiment more with dual displays and secondary screens.

These ideas had been tried to death in the smartphone world with little success, but that doesn’t mean they won’t work on laptops. In fact, with their bigger bodies and larger batteries, notebooks might just be the right vehicle for the dual-screen format to take off. The ZenBook Pro Duo seemed surprisingly useful, while ASUS’ refined ScreenPad 2.0 promises to be more intuitive and power efficient than its predecessor. The Intel prototypes that we saw also offered intriguing applications, with dual-screens that weren’t just eye-popping but, more importantly, had purpose.

Finally, PC and chip makers have also started to use AI to allocate a device’s resources to optimize performance and prolong battery life. That’s basically what Huawei introduced with its AI-powered Mate 10, and it’s a feature Samsung then borrowed in the Galaxy S10, which it calls Intelligent performance.

Samsung Galaxy S10 hands-on

With Intel’s Dynamic Tuning, for example, a computer can figure out what you’re doing and optimize system settings to give you the best experience. If you’re using a chat app or working on an essay, for example, it will tap low-power components. It’ll only fire up the more energy-sucking parts, like the GPU, for when you launch more intensive tasks like gaming or video editing.

As the line between laptops and smartphones continues to blur, it’s nice to see the two industries inspire each other to deliver compelling new features in their respective products. Imitation, as they say, is the sincerest form of flattery.

Catch up on all the latest news from Computex 2019 here!

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Intel and AMD won Computex 2019

You can thank AMD and Intel for the influx of news out of Computex over the past week. Both chip companies announced some major new products: Intel showed off its 10-nanometer 10th-gen laptop chips, and AMD gave us details on its third generation Ryzen CPUs and first Navi GPUs. At first glance, that might all sound like typical tradeshow news, the next steps in a boring, iterative upgrade cycle. But each announcement spoke volumes — they’re not just showing us what Intel and AMD are working on for the next year, they gave us a preview of what’s to come for the next decade.

Intel’s new 10nm chips — which have a smaller and more efficient architecture than their previous 14nm process — have been a long time coming. Initially expected for 2015, the company suffered delay after delay until finally releasing a 10nm “Cannon Lake” chip last year. (Anandtech has a great breakdown of the drama Intel faced over the years.) But that processor was only a lowly Core i3 without onboard graphics, and it only showed up in an obscure Lenovo Chromebook. It’s hard to call that a ceremonious launch. Intel admitted they were only shipping the processor in low quantities, perhaps as a test run for large-scale 10nm manufacturing.

Now with its 10th-gen chips, Intel’s true foray into smaller chip production has begun. And thanks to that architecture revamp, the new processors offer some transformative improvements. That includes significantly faster integrated graphics and an 18 percent increase in instructions per clock (IPC), something that’ll speed up performance across every app. And of course, the new chips will finally help Intel catch up with AMD, which has gone all in with a more sophisticated 7nm production process for its new GPUs and CPUs. The real question is if Intel will be able to keep up its supply of 10th gen hardware as manufacturers start to implement it. That’s one reason why the company kicked off the chips with a focus on thin and light laptops.

For now, Intel’s new processors are targeting ultraportable notebooks like Dell’s XPS 13 2-in-1. The company said earlier this month that it plans to start shipping 10nm chips in June, and it also expects to have a 7nm discrete GPU ready for 2021. And now, it’s in a better position to implement its Foveros technology, a 3D chip design that’s able to stack things like CPU and graphics chiplets together. After being forced to stick with its 14nm process for the past five years, Intel finally has a gameplan for the road ahead. The company still needs to prove it’s taking security more seriously, though, as vulnerabilities for its Core lineup are still popping up.

The main takeaway for consumers? You can expect ultraportables to get even thinner while being more powerful than ever, with the ability to run games at playable framerates. And it’ll be interesting to see what sorts of new devices Intel’s 10th-gen chips will enable. At Computex, we saw a dual-screen laptop concept, as well as a wild gaming notebook with a secondary screen right below the main display, similar to the ASUS ZenBook Pro Duo. More realistically, the latest CPUs will likely be key to Intel’s Project Athena initiative for next-generation laptops.

AMD’s third-generation Ryzen chips target an entirely different type of user: Desktop users who demand tons of power. The highlight is the 12-core/24-thread Ryzen 9 3900X, which will sell for an astoundingly low $499. While that might not sound cheap, it’s competing directly with Intel’s Core i9-9920x, which sells for $1,189 today. Sure, Intel might be able to lower its price eventually, but I wouldn’t bet on it being cut in half anytime soon. AMD also claims its 12-core processor is around 16 percent faster than Intel’s during multithreaded rendering in Blender — so it’s not only cheaper, it outperforms a chip that costs more than twice as much.

AMD Ryzen 3900X

The key to AMD’s win is its new 7nm Zen 2 architecture, which allows its chips to be dramatically more power efficient than Intel’s. That 12-core monster CPU has a 105-watt thermal design profile (TDP), which describes the typical amount of power that it’ll eat up under max load. Intel’s chip, meanwhile, has a 165W TDP. In real-world usage, that means Intel’s hardware needs beefier cooling to keep temperatures down, and it’ll be a bigger hit on your power bill.

For power users, AMD’s third-generation Ryzen chips are a truly compelling choice compared to Intel’s 9th-gen Core lineup. All of AMD’s chips are cheaper and faster in multi-threaded benchmarks. Intel’s only counter-point during Computex was the 9900KS, a beefed-up version of its popular i9 processor with the ability to hit 5GHz across all of its cores. The company hasn’t revealed much about that chip yet though, including its TDP, so it’s unclear what sort of cooling you’d need to tame that beast.

AMD also announced the Radeon RX 5000 GPUs, its first 7nm next-generation “Navi” (now known as RDNA) video cards. We only got a few brief details about the RX 5700, which will take on NVIDIA’s mid-range RTX 2070. The new cards will have speed and power improvements across the board, thanks to the more efficient architecture, and they’ll be the first to support PCIe 4.0. Again, the focus here is on being fast and efficient. Unfortunately, we’ll have to wait until E3 to hear more about these new GPUs.

I’m just hoping AMD manages to give us some sort of hints about ray tracing. That’s the technology NVIDIA banked on with its RTX video cards, and it allows for far more realistic lighting, shadows and reflections. The company’s CEO and graphics leads have admitted it’s working on ray tracing, but it’s unclear exactly when and how it’ll show up. Ideally, AMD will have it ready in time for the next-generation gaming consoles from Sony and Microsoft, since they’ll be relying on its new GPUs.

Given that both Intel and AMD are focused on very different consumers with their announcements, it’s hard to say who actually won. Intel’s chips will make ultraportable laptops better than ever, while AMD’s will make it easier for consumers to build desktops for powerful multi-threaded performance with tons of CPU cores. Intel’s laptop gains will force AMD to work harder on notebook hardware, while AMD will continue to push Intel to try harder with its desktop CPUs. It’s the best outcome of true technology competition: The consumer always wins.

Catch up on all the latest news from Computex 2019 here!

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Intel's Project Athena laptops can sense when you're near

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We’ve heard Intel talk up its Project Athena program to provide long-lasting, high-spec laptops for months now, and the company finally shared the specifications a few weeks ago. Here at Computex, we’re getting our first look at the initial slate of devices that are part of Athena, which include the Dell XPS 13 2-in-1, HP Envy x360, an Acer Swift laptop and the Lenovo S940.

All these laptops are attractive, thin and light devices that meet Athena requirements. That means they should deliver at least nine hours of battery life at a minimum level of brightness (250 nits), get up to four hours of power in 30 minutes of charging, and cost just slightly more than $800. They’ll also offer features like Instant Resume, which requires the PC to wake up from sleep in less than a second, as well as WiFi 6 connectivity.

To provide those quick wake times and minimize battery drain, Intel is implementing something it calls user awareness in Athena devices. Through a proximity sensor built into the lid next to the webcam, the system can detect if someone is sitting in front of it. Engadget video producer Brian Oh and I checked out a demo at Intel’s technology open house here in Taiwan, and we set the minimum distance and required time away to 50mm and three seconds.

Intel Project Athena

We backed away from the demo laptop and waited the requisite amount of time. The screen started to dim after a few seconds, and a few more seconds after that, the computer shut off and went to sleep. When we got back closer in front of the display, the laptop turned on and the Intel rep on standby quickly unlocked the device with his face via Windows Hello. All told, the sign-in process took just a few seconds from sleep.

Intel’s reps also told us that they were working on another method to detect if a user is present. It does that through the onboard camera which scans for faces in front of the computer, and then does basically the same thing it did with the proximity sensor. We checked out a beta version of this, and had to be more careful about what was in the scene. In fact, we had to be so careful not to get any faces in the frame that the Intel rep basically pointed the camera at the ceiling.

A few seconds after it recognized that there were no people in the scene, the system started to dim the screen until it got to the lowest brightness level. When a face came back into view, the display lit up again. During our demo, the laptop was so good at recognizing faces that it had reactivated even from seeing just the side profile of the Intel rep’s head.

Intel Project Athena presence-based lock wake

This method is still in testing because Intel needs to iron out some quirks, like how to behave when there are multiple faces in view. Plus, if the system is so good at recognizing faces, it might turn on the device even when passersby walk by.

Project Athena sounds similar to many other programs in the past, like Microsoft’s Always Connected PCs, NVIDIA’s Max Q or even Intel’s own Ultrabook classification from before. While I’m slightly weary of all these new, confusing PC branding plays, I am heartened by the industry’s collective efforts to make laptops better. The first wave of Athena laptops will be available by the holiday season this year, so we’ll see then if this branding will mean anything to PC shoppers.

Catch up on all the latest news from Computex 2019 here!

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