Windows 8: despised at launch by gamers, written off by Valve's Gabe Newell as a catastrophe for PC gaming. It was the upgrade nobody wanted, or seemingly needed - a misbegotten attempt to meld tablet and desktop interfaces into one OS. Two years on, things are looking up. Microsoft has finally got its act together and in combination with new Intel silicon, some remarkable mobile products are emerging that show the OS in a more favourable light. Indeed, while it won't be the best choice for everyone, Windows 8.1 is swiftly becoming our favourite tablet operating system - mostly because of the tantalising options it offers for the core gamer.
Let's put this into context. The recent release of Portal and Half-Life 2 on Android proved a bittersweet experience. On the one hand, the sheer class of these titles is a world apart from the vast majority of action games on mobile platforms, and even a decade on (in Half-Life 2's case) both titles are still a pleasure to play. On the other hand, we couldn't help but expect better from the ports from a technological perspective - sub-native resolutions and dialled back settings aren't quite what we expected from Nvidia Tegra 4, one of the more powerful mobile chipsets on the market today. In short, we wanted the full PC experience and at that point, Android just couldn't deliver - but an entry-level Windows 8.1 device does.
More specifically, it's the Asus T100 Transformer Book that delivers the goods. It's a machine with a range of attractive attributes: full Windows 8.1 as opposed to the more limited ARM 'RT' version, along with the Bay Trail chipset and its revised Intel quad-core Atom architecture along with a pared back version of the same GPU found in Surface Pro. The T100 is bundled with a remarkably solid keyboard dock - and all for less than £300. Oh, and did we mention that you get Office 2013 too? This is a laptop that's also a pretty decent tablet and crucially, it plays a bunch of classic PC titles very nicely indeed.
Of course, there are many areas where the default tablet choice - the iPad Air - beats it hands down: build quality and materials, for starters. The display for another. But the fact remains that this is a full, mobile PC - a junior Surface Pro if you will - so there's nothing stopping you installing Steam or anything else on it. Virtually anything will run (though 64-bit software is off the table) but the question is really whether there's enough horsepower - and indeed storage - to run your games. Visit YouTube, search for T100 and the game of your choice and be prepared for a lottery of both delight and disappointment. We'd peg the T100's Bay Trail processor as equivalent to a mid-range 2004 gaming PC - and with that in mind, from a performance perspective, you're at the mercy of the games you choose to install on it.
But one thing's for sure - the T100 provides something closer to the mobile Half-Life 2 and Portal experiences we were yearning for with Tegra 4, and then some. Forget 600p resolution and reduced settings - 720p, 30fps or thereabouts and high presets are all on the cards with the Asus T100. Indeed, what we're looking at is Half-Life 2 and Portal running with arguably better image quality than the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions with the same ballpark frame-rates - though you should seek our a frame-rate limiter to cap update at 30fps, otherwise things can go a bit haywire.
From there, it's a case of installing the games you want to play and seeing how well you get on. Doom 3 BFG Edition appears to utilise the same horizontally scaling dynamic resolution as the console versions, the upshot being you get a pretty damn good experience at a notional 720p in the 30fps range. Most indie titles should run with few issues - we played Spelunky, Fez, Hotline Miami and others with no problem at all.
In terms of running more demanding software, crowd-sourced data available on the internet is invaluable - not least this excellent NeoGAF thread where T100 owners describe their experiences with various games. The beauty of the PC is its flexible, open design, and its rich back-catalogue of legacy software. In effect, the 2004 gaming desktop is roughly equivalent to the entry-level PC mobile technology of today, opening up an enormous library of classic software you can now play on the move, placing Windows in an entirely unique situation compared to iOS and Android.
And if a 2004-level gaming PC doesn't sound quite exciting enough for you, remember that mobile technology is effectively doubling in power every year - a seemingly unstoppable level of momentum that outstrips the legacy annual increases in CPU and GPU power on the desktop PCs of yesteryear. The end result of this is that with each leap in mobile power more of your PC library becomes viable for mobile gameplay - and we can look to other Windows tablets available to buy right now as proof of that.
Microsoft's Surface Pro tablets using Intel's most advanced Core architecture represent the next generational leap over the Bay Trail chip found in the Asus T100. We're looking at around twice the level of CPU power, while the GPU is literally 4x the size of Bay Trail, based on the same technology but running at a higher frequency. It is handicapped to a certain extent by the need to keep the chip cool - necessitating lower clocks when the chip's under stress, but the fact remains that the original Surface Pro could run both PC classics and select modern titles: in our Surface Pro review we had fun with Tomb Raider, StarCraft 2, DmC and Skyrim but again, YouTube searches bring up videos showing just about every major game running on Microsoft's high-end tablet line.
In effect, the 2004-vintage threshold for quality gaming on the Asus T100 bumps ahead a few years with the move to much faster silicon. The Haswell refresh for Surface Pro 2 allows even more modern games to run, though it appears that the new form-factor for Surface Pro 3 may be a regressive step: according to Anandtech's review, more aggressive throttling of performance is the price to pay for its thinner, lighter form factor. However, the point remains - today's high-end mobile performance level is tomorrow's entry-level product.
In the immediate future, it won't be too long until we see what Intel has come up with to replace Bay Trail for inexpensive tablets like the Asus T100. There are rumours that the GPU in the new chip - dubbed Cherry Trail - has been upgraded to the full Intel integrated graphics solution found in the Surface Pro, while retaining a more power-efficient iteration of the quad-core Atom CPU component. Meanwhile, the arrival of Intel's new high-end chip design - codenamed Broadwell - allegedly sees a 40 per cent boost in GPU power. We heard similar claims about Haswell, so take those figures with a pinch of salt, but the fact remains that Intel's strategy is all about bringing its high-end line of CPUs to mobile devices and Broadwell is a crucial step. By extension, Core's increasing power efficiency and higher emphasis on GPU power allows more of your PC games to migrate away from the desktop, with an ever-expanding selection of your PC gaming library potentially joining you on your morning commute.
But what of the more far-flung future? Will there ever come a time where today's PC titles can join you on the go? Well, once again, this isn't a pie-in-the-sky fantasy - we actually have a working proof of concept: the Razer Edge, as reviewed by Tom Morgan last year. It's one of the most gloriously over-the-top examples of gaming technology ever made, consisting of an Intel Core i7 dual-core processor paired with an Nvidia GT640M LE graphics chip in a 10-inch 768p tablet. Revisiting the product over a year later it's clear that it is still remarkably ahead of its time - and capable of some stunning performance bearing in mind that fact that it is a mobile device.
Crysis 3 runs at between 20-40fps on medium settings (add 10fps by dropping down to the low preset) while Battlefield 4 hits 30-50fps at the same quality preset. In short, while mobile graphics still grapple with matching last-gen console standards, the Edge effortlessly moves beyond them. Of course, the disadvantages are numerous - it's rather fat for a tablet, battery life isn't great and it gets hot quickly. But despite all its obvious drawbacks, it is by far and away the most powerful gaming tablet ever made. You can't help but enjoy the sheer power it offers and the freedom of running any PC title in a fully mobile form-factor. Disregarding its bulk and lastability, the Razer Edge is almost everything we could want from a tablet - and Windows is the only OS that can provide that all-important access to our existing games library.
In the here and now, the Edge is an outrageous example of almost ridiculous excess, a product that that only the most elite of niche gamers will ever enjoy, but with the yearly 2x increase in processing power we're seeing in the mobile space, it's not a matter of if, but when, we'll see gaming capabilities along these lines integrated into a form-factor more akin to the Asus T100. Indeed, Nvidia's mobile Tegra K1 processor - shipping now - is based on the same architecture as the GT640M LE found in the Edge.
We have a K1 product in hand now (look out for our Xiaomi MiPad review tomorrow). Despite roughly comparable GFLOPS performance, the GT640M LE comprehensively beats it in the benches we've run so far - indeed, we're looking at something like a 2x differential. Could next year's Maxwell mobile part bridge the gulf? Quite possibly. The only problem is, Nvidia doesn't hold the rights to x86 architecture - it can't make a processor that runs full-blooded Windows. As an indicator of the rapid progress of mobile technology, it's exemplary, but Nvidia mobile tech won't be running our x86 Steam library any time soon.
This means that the path to a truly mobile modern PC games collection isn't quite the slam-dunk we wish it was. For starters we are entirely reliant on one vendor - Intel - to create the necessary silicon. While its CPU technology is without par, it is playing catch-up to the major players in the field in terms of mobile graphics efficiency. Razer's visionary Edge tablet draws upon the processing technology of Intel and ties it up with Nvidia's architecture - a dream combination we find it hard to believe we'll ever see in a tablet again. That's a shame, as the table below demonstrates. While multi-core CPU performance is close, the new Tegra K1 positively annihilates the Bay Trail's GPU prowess and is creeping up on the Surface Pro 2. Based on these numbers, just one more of those annual 2x leaps in graphics performance and even the top-end Razer Edge is overcome.
|Asus T100 Transformer
|Xiaomi MiPad/ Tegra K1
|MS Surface Pro 2
|3DMark IceStorm Unlimited
There's also a basic interface problem. Your Steam collection requires keyboard and mouse, or at least a joypad controller, to be viable. Razer's dual-stick mount does the job quite nicely, but it's unwieldy in action and it's obviously not the most portable of solutions. The obvious way around the issue is to pair up a wireless joypad to do the same job - it works, but again it's quite a clumsy set-up, not exactly the best solution for a commute compared to a completely self-contained device. Valve's Gabe Newell has already started to look beyond the touchscreen as the final solution for the mobile interface, describing a potential bracelet style interface that could more finely read the movements of your fingers.
But perhaps the biggest challenge to this mobile Windows scenario is the competition. Android isn't sitting still - gaming accounts for the vast majority of the revenue derived from the Google Play store and the momentum of the platform is undeniable. Indeed, we still think it's just a matter of time until Steam releases its own client for the open source platform but in the meantime, Google is upping its game. On top of market supremacy in the games arena, iOS also has the crucial advantage of a fixed range of devices developers can optimise for, while the recent reveal of its Metal API demonstrates a platform that is evolving to meet the needs to game developers.
And if there's one thing lacking in the Windows ecosystem right now, it's momentum. However, even if this alternative vision for the future of mobile gaming remains a niche compared to the iOS/Android juggernauts, that's cool - there's always room in just about any market for both the mainstream and the enthusiast. And in terms of core gaming, there's only one platform that offers a scalable solution, allowing for the library of games you may have been building up for years to run on anything from 11.5 teraflop gaming behemoths down to a highly portable tablet. That's the PC, and unless SteamOS really takes off, the chances are that it'll be hosting a Windows operating system.
For all its initial troubles, the much-maligned Windows 8 is a crucial step for the PC platform - but perhaps not in the way Microsoft intended. It is the all-in-one OS that liberates PC gaming from its traditional desktop confines, just requiring the right product to become irresistible - a combination of Razer Edge power in the Asus T100 form-factor. That looked impossible just a few short months ago, but those remarkable Tegra K1 benchmarks suggests that it's just a matter of time until new mobile technology delivers the power and efficiency we need to make it happen.