About five years ago I reacted to a lot of hype about the impending death of the personal computer with an observation and a prediction. The observation was that some components of a computer have to be the size they are because they’re scaled to human dimensions – notably screens, keyboards, and pointing devices. Wander outside certain size extrema and you get things like smartphone keyboards that are only good for limited use.
However, what we normally think of as the heart of a computer – the processing and storage – isn’t like this. It can get arbitrarily small without impacting usability at all. Consequently, I predicted a future in which people would carry around powerful computing nodes descended from smartphones and walk them to docking stations bundling a screen, a pointing device, and a real keyboard when they need to get real work done.
We’ve now reached an interesting midway point on that road. The (stationary) computers I use are in the process of bifurcating into two classes: one quite large, one very small. I qualify that with “stationary” because laptops are an exception for reasons which, if not yet obvious, will be in a few paragraphs.
The “large” class is exemplified in my life by the Great Beast of Malvern: my “desktop” system, except that it’s really more like a baby supercomputer optimized for fast memory access to extremely large data sets (as in, surgery on large version-control repositories). This is more power than a typical desktop user would know what to do with, by a pretty large margin -absurd overkill for just running an office suite or video editing or gaming or whatever.
My other two stationary production machines are, as of yesterday, a fanless mini-ITX box about the size of a paperback book and a credit-card-sized Raspberry Pi 3. They arrived on my doorstep around the same time. The mini-ITX box was a planned replacement for the conventional tower PC I had been using as a mailserver/DNS/bastion host, because I hate moving parts and want to cut my power bills. The Pi was serendipitous, a surprise gift from Dave Taht who’s trying to nudge me into improving my hardware hacking.
(And so I shall; tomorrow I expect to solder a header onto an Adafruit GPS hat, plug it into the Pi, and turn the combination into a tiny Stratum 1 NTP test machine.)
And now I have three conventional tower PCs in my living room (an old mailserver and two old development workstations) that I’m trying to get rid of – free to good home, you must come to Malvern to get them. Because they just don’t make sense as service machines any more. Fanless small-form-factor systems are now good enough to replace almost any computer with functional requirements less than those of a Great-Beast-class monster.
My wife still has a tower PC, but maybe not for long. Hers could easily be replaced by something like an Intel NUC – Intel’s sexy flagship small-form-factor fanless system, now cheap enough on eBay to be price-competitive with a new tower PC. And no moving parts, and no noise, and less power draw.
I have one tower PC left – the recently decomissioned mailserver. But the only reason I’m keeping it is as a courtesy for basement guests – it’ll be powered down when we don’t have one. But I am seriously thinking of replacing it with another Raspberry Pi set up as a web kiosk.
I still have a Thinkpad for travel. When you have to carry your peripherals with you, it’s a compromise that makes sense. (Dunno what I’m going to do when it dies, either – the quality and design of recent Thinkpads has gone utterly to shit. The new keyboards are particularly atrocious.)
There’s a confluence of factors at work here. Probably the single most important is cheap solid-state drives. Without SSDs, small-form-factor systems were mostly cute technology demonstrations – it didn’t do a lot of practical good for the rest of the computing/storage core to be a tiny SBC when it had to drag around a big, noisy hunk of spinning rust. With SSDs everything, including power draw and noise and heat dissipation, scales down in better harmony.
What it adds up to for me is that midrange PCs are dead. For most uses, SFF (small-form-factor) hardware has reached a crossover point – their price per unit of computing is now better.
Next, these SFF systems get smaller and cooler and merge with smartphone technology. That’ll take another few years.