So, for my first column of the year, what to write about? As I sit here, wracking my brains, my mind seems empty. I'm looking around me at the shelves of hardware, the empty boxes, the jiffy bags, the mountains of anti-static sleeves, and none of it seems to inspire me.
What about the hardware? Well, I'm up to my eyeballs in PSUs, it seems. A couple of people were unhappy at our coverage of enthusiast PSUs this week, but I realise I am up against a fundamental problem. Today, you can pretty much plug any enthusiast PSU into any system and it will work. Despite the 'features' each one sports, no unit really 'does' any more than any other. So how to differentiate, how to make it interesting for the reader? We tried to keep it interesting by including lots of pictures and keeping it short and to the point, but it seems that in doing so, we might have cut it a bit too fine. Perhaps we'll revisit them in the future with a more in-depth look, I ponder.
"Part of being a journalist is learning to be skeptical..."
I can spot an X800 in a test rig next to me, one of the many boards that we've seen based on the ATI reference design. Where performance is identical across numerous reference-based boards and image quality is entirely down to the reference driver, is there a lot of worth in 10-page reviews? I wonder quietly. Conversely, is it worth featuring initial technology previews in any depth, since you can't buy that initial reference product? Indeed, when we're looking at graphics cards, are we really reviewing the card from the vendor or the technology from the chip creator? Poor HIS have been cranking out ace cards based on the X800 but have been messed up by the fact that the 6800 is faster. Is it unfair to give them bad scores?
Memory. Damn, I've got about 10 gigs sitting on my desk, and I can't tell the difference between it without really stressing out my system. Unlike graphics, where cards can go as fast as they like, memory has to stick to a standard, a speed limit. It's no good having outrageously fast memory when your front side bus will only go so far, as defined by Intel and AMD. Consequently, the difference between different brands of enthusiast RAM can really only be seen by doing some serious overclocking, and that's something that I'm increasingly disinclined to do, in a year where it seems image quality is the new frame rate and stability is the new speed. The only really new product is the Corsair Xpert that we saw at CES - now that is different. The general ubiquity of speed, however, doesn't stop the memory companies going at it like heck. I fired up Anandtech yesterday and ever single advertising slot was occupied by a memory manufacturer. Wowsa.
As I look at a sleek new Western Digital model, I find myself thinking that hard drives are perhaps the most satisfying upgrade that a user can install. The pleasure of having a disk that is brimming to capacity, chucking it out and throwing in a new one that's 5 times the size is immeasurable. You can reinstall Windows, copy all your games and MP3s back across and realise that you still have room to store your entire collection of Futurama. Twice. The grin on my face as I see that 'Disk Free' figure is one that's pretty hard to beat. What can I say; I'm a guy that finds happiness in potential.
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Part of being a journalist is learning to be sceptical - you have to learn to read people's true intentions, to spot what's going on between the lines. As I stare down the barrel of 2005, I realise that part of that scepticism comes from disappointment. As I write this, I'm sure many hardware enthusiasts are eager, desperate to find out exactly what's going to happen to their favourite companies and product lines during the year. There's little excitement here for me: I'm on top of most of the new technologies that I'll see this year, and the days of attending new press briefings like a 6 year old on Christmas Eve are gone. The cynicism seems inevitable going forward - some of the best journalists I know are also the grumpiest people I know.
Hmmm. Turn around. Behind me is my rack of computer discs, operating systems, applications, games. Perusing the shelf, I realise that 2004 was a real bumper year for games. Doom 3, Half Life 2 and Vampire: Bloodlines all revolutionised genres in their own little ways. Whilst there are less big-name licenses to come in 2005, I'm looking forward to FEAR and STALKER (what is it with these capitalised names?) more than any others. I'm pretty hopeful that there'll be some cool new console games too, if the Xbox 2 makes it out before Christmas.
On my shelf is a disassembled Asetek Waterchill kit. Extreme cooling might just become a little more mainstream this year, I'm thinking. I picked up a Waterchill kit with the intention of writing an in-depth article as a beginner's guide to watercooling. It turns out, however, that there's nowhere near enough material there for anything other than a couple of pages. Asetek have made the whole thing so simple that I just opened the kit, followed the instructions to the letter and hey presto! Worked first time. You can barely even class it as enthusiast technology any more, since that usually implies 'a lot of fiddling needed' to me.
"Apple have slowly eroded the anti-Mac feeling..."
I stare at the screen in front of me, at the PowerBook that I craft my words on. Apple have slowly eroded the anti-Mac feeling so prevalent years ago by consistently releasing cool products that people want to have. I keep telling the guys that we should have a Mac section on the site, and they keep telling me to go back to my triple-whipped cinnamon mocha. One day, I mutter, one day I'll get my way. Just wait.
Bah. Inspiration can be so hard to come by, I still can't find a single topic to focus my diatribe on. I need to get writing something, otherwise Friday will be here and I won't have a single thing to show for it.
Wait a minute...