Return to Level1Techs.com

The future of the PC Gaming form factor


#1

These last few days I’ve started thinking about the future of the form factor hardware.

With the advent of new technology, the need for a classic 1990s full-tower PC for state-of-the-art gaming has all but disappeared. First the need for a 3.5" floppy went away. Then optical media disappeared. Then the 3.5" mechanical harddrive got replaced by 2.5" SSDs, and then even those got put into the m.2 form factor. The need for expansion cards for mice and joysticks disappeared with the advent of USB, and a dedicated sound card was no longer necessary once on-board motherboard sound circuits were good enough. With the advent of Ryzen 2400G, a discrete GPU seems to be next, as Ryzen 2400G today can rival many sub-$100 cards in performance, too - and the gap between embedded and discrete GPUs looks like it will close pretty soon.

So with all this in mind, it sure looks like the only two parts necessary for a full blown gaming rig will be a motherboard and a PSU. Do you think this will transform the form factor of a standard desktop PC to something less bulky, and would that be something many gamers and PC enthusiasts will strive for? Is there merit in shrinking the size of your PC case, or would you prefer to have the full tower ATX form factor until they pry it from your cold, dead fingers? Will the next gen integrated GPU from AMD be strong enough to rival the $200 cards, and is this form factor available already today for serious gaming? Would love to hear your input on this!


Ask L1Techs Anything!
#2

I think the market it’s not shifting but exapanding towards small form factor PCs. SFX parts still cost just as much as ATX parts due to the miniaturization required to make reliable and in-specs products. But that doesen’t mean that standard ATX builds or excessive giant builds will go anywhere. Just like luxury sport cars are still being produced people will still make those PCs. But maybe more and more will be lured in the PC world by PCs the same dimension and power of consoles.
In my situation I prefer having an ATX tower because it gives me options for the future and can keep low levels of noise. I can’t resist the versatility of a big case that can fit anything I can possibly use (within the realm of reality obv lol).
I don’t think AMD has the resources to make an integrated GPU to compete with herself (200$ price bracket). Maybe they will if they can make work the same GPU core on both a CPU and an external GPU and when they’ll be competing truly with nVidia at the high end.
Console size gaming is a thing, for sure. But it’s expensive and not always easy to work with.


#3

I’m not going to lie. I like it when I can have as much space as possible. I find SFX builds attractive.

The convenience of having larger storage is nice though, so I wouldn’t mind a SFX build with an additional compartment/add-on for just dedicated storage.


#4

docked laptop is the future for any resolution 1440p and under


#5

With M.2 storage spaces going through the roof recently it won’t be long before a >2TB stick will be affordable. I think the Samsung 970 at 1TB is going for 250USD at the moment which was unthinkable a few years ago.


#6

This and external gpu (not sure if thats what you meant). That setup Linus did with the dock was cool as hell and made me pretty jealous.

Conventional sff has reached it’s limits and its all about how clever you can be in arranging your components, stx is proprietary (Stalman intensifies) so its basically a dead end. As far as mxm goes its hardly a standard compared to how many generations of gpu i can plug into a pcie slot.


#7

with an external gpu it could go well beyond 1440p


#8

I personally think dGPU’s will sell well for a long time even if an APU is good enough in 2021.
Memory bandwidth will always be an issue with APUs unless they package it with HBM, which they won’t.


#9

If you’re old enough you’ll remember a time when nearly everything on a computer was connected via daughterboards (aka expansion cards). Support for storage, display, networking, sound — nearly everything.

One-by-one that circuitry has been miniaturised and optimised to the point where it can (and has) been moved from the daughterboards to the motherboard. Talented engineers made motherboard-hosted storage, networking and sound circuitry ‘good enough’ and so that’s where it now resides (for ‘normal’ users).

Pretty-much the only holdout — the only thing that people still stick into an expansion slot — is graphics. (Sure, there are some edge cases, but we’re not talking about those.)

Integrated graphics have been around for a while, and dominate the government, corporate and education sectors. Integrated graphics are ‘good enough’ to do what >90% of the planet needs their ‘computer’ to do (>99% if you count phones and tablets as computers).

The key to understanding the future of the PC gaming form factor is realising that PC gaming — in its entirety — is now ‘fringe’. We constitute a small fraction of the ‘gaming’ ecosphere, and that fraction is getting smaller every single year (even though in absolute numbers it may be holding roughly level, or even increasing a tiny bit — depending on which reports you read).

The reason that PC gaming is stagnating/dying is because the desktop itself is stagnating/dying. Here’s a summary of Apple’s desktop revenues (as a fraction of operations):

2001: 51.86%
2002: 49.25%
2003: 39.87%
2004: 28.66%
2005: 24.66%
2006: 17.18%
2007: 16.37%
2008: 14.99%
2009: 10.08%
2010: 9.51%
2011: 5.95%
2012: 3.84%

2013+ figures were so low that Apple stopped reporting them and merged the desktop and laptop categories together in their financial reports under the single heading (‘Mac’).

Even though Apple isn’t the first company that comes to mind when the word ‘gaming’ is used (by PC gamers), that view is dated (iOS gaming is huge). The point is that the PC form factor itself is in decline (as a fraction) everywhere.

So, if ‘desktop’ is declining, and ‘mobile’ is growing, then where does an increasing fraction of R&D investment go for developing new graphics? Towards miniaturisation and integration, of course. There’s less and less reason to invest money into building foot-long dGPUs with obscene power requirements when the majority of your customer’s ‘computers’ aren’t even that long and run on batteries.

Whether the graphics circuitry is a separate chip on the motherboard, or integrated into the CPU, doesn’t really matter. The point is that it won’t be on a card plugged into a PCIe slot.

We already have mini-ITX motherboards with only one PCIe slot. When that slot is no-longer required because ‘onboard graphics are good enough’ then what do we have left? Single-board computers. You don’t need an EATX tower to house one of those puppies.

The other thing to factor in is the software. When a large and increasing fraction of the people that play your games are on mobile, and a small and decreasing fraction of the people that play your games are on desktop, then it makes rational, economic sense to develop for mobile first and foremost. That means that new games will be increasingly designed to run within the constraints of the dominant platform.

We’ve already experienced a decade and a half of many PC game franchises being retarded in their development because of console limitations. Now that mobile is dominating as the gaming platform of choice, PC games will be retarded in their development due to mobile limitations as well. Cross-platform game development engines (e.g. Unity) ultimately pressure developers to produce games for the lowest common denominator. That means mobile graphics limitations will increasingly set the ‘high bar’ for PC games.

Consoles locked in an entire generation of games at 1920x1080 resolution. Mobiles will do something similar. With such low resolutions to cater for, the need for powerful desktop graphics evaporates.

So, in summary, the ‘glory’ days of PC gaming are over. Gamers have gone mobile. Graphics R&D investment is flowing increasingly towards solutions that work for the mobile market. New games are increasingly constrained by mobile resource limits. The ‘need’ for powerful dGPUs is evaporating. The ‘onboarding’ of graphics is already well underway, and is a trend that cannot be stopped. The number of PCIe slots you will see on motherboards will trend towards zero. Single-board computers are the inevitable future. Case form factors will follow.

I can’t say I particularly like what is happening, but mass-market-driven trends don’t care about my personal preferences…


#10

The future of gaming is AR/VR and wearables.

Not necessarily all games will be played that way (i.e., you may sit down and play a traditional FPS with a controller or whatever - at least for the time being - say 5 years out), but the hardware will be small enough to fit on the person.

Once neural interface starts working properly though, then controllers will go away too (once we can control things via brainwaves). And eventually, screens (once communication works the other way and we can project imagery or sound directly into the brain). But i think the brain interface is 15 years out at least. But hey i could be wrong there.

So yes, the classic PC gaming desktop form factor will be very much marginalised (say, <10%) inside of 5-10 years. I’m not saying it will disappear entirely, but it will be for an ever shrinking fringe.

Purely because it isn’t portable, mobile chips are getting “Good enough” and the mobile GPUs enable things that simply aren’t possible with a desktop PC. If you’re going to run a desktop PC, it’s eventually going to be the case that processing like that will be pushed to a regional cloud server.

Because being tethered sucks, and if you’re going to communicate wirelessly to something more powerful than the wearable device, it may as well be within say 50ms of you (and running in a datacenter) for most of the heavy lifting type stuff (i’m talking AI, game world state, etc.).

edit:
With a brain interface, rendering power may actually go down, because rather than having to rasterise the object via compute power, if it is something the user has seen before, you could just get the brain to instantiate a memory of it (i.e., digitally stimulated hallucination)… :smiley: and effectively off-load that processing to the end user’s brain.

I can see that getting all kinds of sketchy with regards to people’s sanity, etc. though.


#11

I think APUs are exciting. As for having to pry me from full ATX form factor for pc I want to say yes but I also game on consoles and have fun with that. The thing is though if they switch to a small form factor will it be to where we can only choose between things that are not able to upgraded on our own or not even upgraded at all? That is a definitely worry for me. So with all that said I think I am prepared to console game even more and also gather up older hardware at cheap prices to continue pc gaming the way I want to in the future. Finally I also am prepared to go back to where I don’t game at all in terms of video games as I lived life before without. Heck there are alternatives right now that I would jump all over and spend more money on for sure and heck the other day I bought a dice bowling game my son and I used to play and we are soon going to relive old times having fun with that.


#12

Had a 386 Above Board something
Motherboard was just ISA expansion slots, everything was on daughterboards, inclusing the 386sx, everything above 1meg had to be accessed through a page frame.

I did not understand why people went gaga because the Plan9 OS made everything a file. Even hardware. Maybe a precursor to the IOT?

I think smartphones and tablets, combined with smart glases (AR/VR) will somehow be intergrated with being chipped. Human/hardware interface and trans-humanism. The interface already exists. Trans-humanism will be here much faster then anyone expects.

The disappointment from anything labeled Star Wars will continue through my lifetime.


#13

Re: Putting the discrete GPU on the motherboard directly in a slot (think Xeon-style tech but GPU + CPU instead of 2 CPU chips), that thought didn’t even occur to me. Yes, I can definitely see GPUs go that way in the future, instead of an add-on card we simply integrate it through a standard slot interface, much like the CPU is today.

Personally, I’m quite excited for a desktop with as little surface as possible used by the workstation. Perhaps an ITX shoebox such as the Loque Ghost plus the space monitor could be something, then I just need to figure out what to do with the mouse and keyboard when not in use… :slight_smile:


#14

I don’t have a problem with small form factors — heck, my daily driver is a Streacom DB4 — but I do share the following concern:

Once components get small, they tend to get soldered onto the motherboard and become non-user replaceable/upgradeable. Apple-style ‘planned obsolescence’ then becomes the norm, and I personally find that business practice repulsive.

The era of custom-built personal computers seems to be drawing to a close. :cry:


#15

I believe the future is going to be GPU centric and that would pull towards external boxes , more soldered components there and DRM thanks to non-direct bus.


#16

The growing of Mobile gaming doesn’t mean PC gaming market is shirnking and also doesn’t mean it will become second tier.
Also i doubt the micro transaction heavy mobile market growth is sustainable. We have seen the collapse of that kind of growth too many times, it rely heavily on continues coming of new users, which has it’s limitations.


#17

While I can definitely see PC’s getting smaller over the years, I like super towers and cases that can hold multiple motherboards. Got the same problem with Laptops, they keep getting lighter and thinner, while what I want in a laptop is thick and waterproof with a battery that can last a few days.

I think gaming pc’s will start to move in that direction more but a lot of people still want their RGB and liquid cooling setups, those used to be enthusiast only things but now it seems a decent amount of PC gamers do that now. Gaming is mostly done at 1080p now but also need to get to decent 4K on the APU’s first for that to work, Doesn’t really matter how many people say 1080p is good enough 4K is going to be the standard for awhile. Mostly I think we are just a few generations off of it doing that.

For some reason this topic is bringing back memories of all the old 8bit computers vs PC’s that happened in the 90’s. When people would keep going on about all you need is a commodore or Apple II and when will they make PC’s smaller…


#18

I took great pains in my post to stress that it was declining as a fraction. Maybe you missed that? Market share (aka fractions) are the most meaningful way to look at these sorts of things. Absolute numbers aren’t as important.

Also, PC Gaming is already 3rd-tier — behind Console and Mobile (which has been #1 for a while). We got knocked out of the #1 slot by consoles the good part of a decade ago. You must have missed that as well.

Presented with no need for further comment:


#19

I will always use expandable form factor (ATX/MATX) as long as PCI-E is used. So a can adopt new techs like 10Gbps nic, NVME storage faster. The only time i will migrate to ITX or smaller for gaming is when usb type-c or what ever new replaced PCI-E.


#20

I see gaming evolving from being something you do on the couch, to something you are able to do wherever, whenever.

I also see the desktop metaphor dying, and being replaced with AR (with cameras, bar code scanners, etc.) that overlays onto the real world.

People forget, computers (in a work context) exist in order to assist with getting “real” or “actual” work done. Which is not necessarily at a desk. e.g., inventory control is a lot easier if you can look at something and have your GPS location, etc. automatically tag where it is in a database. Or have “widgets” physically fixed in terms of physical location to be “location relevant” for the tasks you do in that area. e.g., recipe reference in the kitchen, car repair manual open in the garage, etc.

Gaming will follow suit. Even if you sit down to play, having an AR/VR display available will give you a much better viewing experience than a TV 6 feet away or a monitor on your desk.

The tech isn’t there yet, but it is coming, and when it is here, a bulky desktop tower is not going to help much. Graphics is pretty scalable with more GPU resources; think what can be done in an iphone for example, and consider what you could do with something slim-backpack sized - assuming that none of that space is used for a display… then look at how mobile GPU power has scaled over the past 10 years…