Every January, PC gaming companies get a full week during CES to show us the latest and greatest in new processors, graphics cards, monitors, and everything else that’s been cooking for the last year or longer. Normally, the PC industry gets to do this without its console counterpart encroaching on its turf. It’s a place for discussions about totally unfettered gaming performance and the kinds of ludicrous hardware you could buy if money was no concern. But this year is a bit different.
A new console generation from Microsoft and Sony is arriving later this year, and that shift is poised to change everything about the gaming landscape whether you play in front of a TV or your computer monitor. New consoles will mean a huge step up in the production values game developers can squeeze out of baseline hardware.
And because most games today are developed both for console and PC simultaneously, that means the overall performance bar is going to take a big leap this fall. Games are going to look better than ever, no matter where you play them. It also means PC owners can look forward to upgrading their rigs to take advantage of a much higher performance ceiling in the years to come.
But that situation has also cast a long shadow over this year’s PC gaming announcements at CES. The industry is somewhat stuck in a kind of technical purgatory until the new console generation lands. That way, we can measure performance against current graphics chips — and then against a meaningful new generation of GPUs coming next year.
It’s clear even at CES that Microsoft and Sony’s new hardware are the most talked-about gaming news on everyone’s minds. Sony showed up to its annual press conference in Las Vegas with a tiny morsel of gaming news — the official PS5 logo — that nonetheless generated a ton of buzz. And AMD made the mistake of using a fake render of the Xbox Series X during its CES presentation, leading to a wave of press coverage over something as minor as the port selection on the back of the box.
That doesn’t mean the PC gaming industry is taking a back seat at CES. Instead, we’re actually seeing an interesting trend where companies like Alienware, Razer, and others are acknowledging the benefits of consoles and trying to tempt traditional console-only consumers over to the PC platform. In years prior, this would mean touting all the performance benefits you get with a gaming PC. But with new consoles on the horizon that are inching closer to becoming full-fledged computers, we’re seeing PC manufacturers try to offer the benefits of both worlds in a single package.
For the last seven years, the PC has been unequivocally the best and most performant platform out there. The new consoles were basically outdated by a run-of-the-mill gaming PC as soon as they launched in 2013, and even the mid-cycle refreshes in the form of the Xbox One X and PS4 Pro were well outpaced by Nvidia’s Turing architecture that was introduced in 2018. But in the years since, we’ve seen the console industry innovate with regard to portability, like with the Nintendo Switch, and cross-platform play and subscription services.
The PC and console ecosystems have never been closer than they are today, and it’s never been easier to jump between the two. If you’re a Microsoft fan, you can just pay $15 a month to get hundreds of games playable across your Xbox One and your PC, making it sensible to own both if you want both a big screen, controller-ready setup and a more performance-geared mouse-and-keyboard one. That was a pipe dream when the Xbox One first launched.
At CES 2020, we’re seeing the PC gaming industry acknowledge this new reality, and try to develop products that cater to the audience that may eventually want to own devices that can do everything and appeal to all audiences. Alienware arrived with its Concept UFO prototype, a powerful Nintendo Switch-like handheld that aims to let you play PC games on the go. Both Intel and Razer came to CES with fascinating small form factor NUC PCs that try to bring the accessibility and size of consoles to something that can be easily upgraded to meet your needs.
PC gaming manufacturer Origin came back to the show with a new version of its Big O rig that stuffs either a PS4 Pro or Xbox One S inside the same case as a gaming PC. It’s the best of both worlds in the most literal sense.
How many consumers will actually buy any of these products? Probably very few. But CES has always been a place where PC manufacturers can show off experimental prototypes that are more of a signal of where a company thinks the industry is going rather than what it thinks might sell right here and now. It’s also these ideas that do occasionally transition into more marketable and feasible products down the line. Before the NUC-based Razer Tomahawk modular PC announced this week, there was the company’s Project Christine experimental version of the same idea first shown six years ago.
This doesn’t mean Alienware, Razer, and other big-name PC makers necessarily want to convert console gamers, although I’m sure neither company would complain if you bought one of their pricey prebuilt towers or gaming laptops. But it is a realization that there’s a growing market of consumers who have traditionally owned consoles and may be looking to upgrade that box sitting under their TV. What better way to do that than to remind them that the world of PC gaming is much more than just gigantic, ugly tower PCs that cost a fortune and can be complicated and cumbersome to maintain?
It may be the case that the new console generation keeps its hold on the existing PlayStation and Xbox fans. After all, owning a PS4 or Xbox One now is probably the most likely sign you’ll be buying the respective upgrade come this holiday season. But that outcome used to be a predictable one, with the rare exception being a switch to the competing console platform. Nowadays, it feels more likely that a console owner might be willing to take the plunge into PC gaming, just as a lifelong PC gamer might actually pick up the PS5 or Xbox Series X if the rumored specs are indeed as high as they seem.
The PC and gaming accessory manufacturers, better than most companies, know that this convergence will only continue to accelerate. We’re living in an industry where the differences between the gaming platforms you play on are largely insignificant outside the restrictions these platform owners place on their customers and the exclusive games they finance to keep diehard fans committed to the brand.
At CES, it’s apparent PC gaming isn’t going to be taking big leaps anytime soon, at least not until the new consoles come out. It’s not the right time, but updates on the horizon — like Intel’s new discrete graphics chip and the renewed processor war between the chipmaker and its rival AMD — could seriously shake up the laptop market and, in turn, the whole PC gaming landscape.
In the meantime, we’re seeing evidence of the kind of market we might see five years from now when consoles are even more like PCs and vice versa. It may not sound like something a gaming enthusiast with a multithousand-dollar rig is looking for right now. But a handheld PC-level machine with the form factor of the Nintendo Switch, like Alienware’s Concept UFO, is the kind of innovation that could, many iterations down the line, truly marry the best of both platforms in one device. And it’s those big swings that make CES a place where you can still peek around the corner and glimpse an exciting future.