Some years ago I predicted that eventually the core of your desktop PC would morph into a physically tiny compute engine that would merge with your smartphone, talking through standard ports and cables to full-sized peripherals like a keyboard and (a too large to be portable) flatscreen.
More recently I examined the way that compute bricks – small-form-factor fanless PCs running low-power chips – have been encroaching on the territory of traditional tower PCs. Players in this space include Jetway, Logic Supply, Partaker, and Shuttle. Poke a search engine with “fanless PC” to get good hits.
I have a Jetway running production in my basement; it’s my Internet-facing mail- and web-server. There’s a second one I have set up with Devuan that I haven’t assigned a role to yet; I may use it as a backup host.
These compute bricks are a station on the way to my original prediction, because they get consumers used to thinking of their utility machines as small compute nodes attached to human-sized peripheral hardware that may have a longer lifetime than the compute node itself.
At the lowest end of the compute-brick class are little engines like the Raspberry Pi. And right above it is something slightly different – bricks with a fan, active cooling enabling them to run the same chips used in tower PCs.
Of course the first machine in this class was the Apple Mac Mini, but it dead-ended years ago for reasons that aren’t Apple’s fault. It was designed before SSDs were really a thing and has spinning-rust-centric design assumptions in its DNA; thus, it’s larger, louder, noisier and waaay more expensive than a Jetway-class brick. Apple must never have sold very many of them; we can tell this by the fact that the product went four years between refreshes.
On the other hand, a couple days ago I dropped in a replacement for my wife’s aging tower PC. It’s an Intel NUC, a brick-with-fan, but unlike the Mac Mini it seems to have been designed from the start around the assumption that its mass storage would be SSD. As such, it achieves what the Mac Mini didn’t quite; it opens a new front in the ephemeralization wars.
Perhaps I shouldn’t say “new”, because Intel has been shipping NUCs for about five years. But I didn’t really understand what Intel was doing until I actually eyeballed one – and discovered that, as well as having a case design that is almost absurdly simple, it’s really pretty. Like, high-end stereo equipment pretty.
The comparison nobody but a geek will notice: my Jetways have something like ten case screws each, and then if you need to change out the SSD you have to deal with six more on a set of detachable rails. The NUC gets away with just four much larger case screws, which double as posts for its rubber feet. Inside, the SSD sits in a fixed drive bay that’s positioned so you never have to move it and doubles as a guide so you literally cannot engage the SATA connector incorrectly or off axis.
What an end-user will notice is the dark-silver anodized finish on the body, the contrast with a top that looks like black glass, and the nice rounding on the corners.
I mean, damn – somebody did a brilliant job of industrial design here, combining easy teardown for servicing with being a pleasure to look at. It’s hard to imagine even Apple, notorious for its attention to the surfaces of tech, doing better.
That makes the comparison to Jetway-class compute bricks rather stark. Despite occasional twitches at a “media center” look, they mostly have DNA from industrial-control machines and all the aesthetic appeal of a mining truck.
If you wonder why I’m focusing so much on appearance, it’s because having spent engineering and manufacturing budget on pretty does not quite square with the NUC’s official positioning. Somebody had to defend that nice finish against the usual headwind of “reduce bill of materials to the bone”.
NUCs ship barebones – processor on board but no DRAM or SSD – because Intel has a bunch of non-compete agreements with the PC manufacturers it sells chips to intended to keep it out of the consumer PC business. The official line is that the NUC is a “development platform” intended to showcase Intel’s newest CPU chips and graphics hardware. A trustworthy source informs me that its other function is to be dogfooded – Intel issues NUCs to its own developers because it wants to avoid the you-don’t-really-know-what’s in there effects of ruthless cost-cutting in the PC supply chain.
Neither use case explains why they made it pretty.
Now, I could be overinterpreting this. It could be somebody just slipped the nice details past the beancounters and it doesn’t actually mean anything strategic. But if I’m right…
…here’s what I think Intel is doing. I think it’s positioning itself for the smartphone-as-portable-compute-node scenario I sketched at the beginning of this blog post. Intel’s planners aren’t stupid; they know there’s a low-power revolution underway in which ARM and Atom are likely to shoulder the “classic” Intel/AMD architecture aside. They may not be ready to think about making smartphones themselves yet, but they want something to compete with when compute-node-centered peripheral clusters start to displace tower PCs.
Why am I not talking about laptops as the doom of the PC? Because, as I’ve pointed out repeatedly before, the ergonomics of laptops actually suck pretty badly. The biggest deal is that you can’t put a bigger display on a laptop than a person can comfortably carry; the craptasticity of laptop keyboards is an issue, too. Sure, you can close the lid and plug in better peripherals, but now what you have is a compute node that is stupidly heavy and expensive for its job.
Fundamentally, carrying around a display with you is an unstable hack that made sense in the past when that hardware was rare and expensive, but not when every hotel room has an HDTV and even airline seatbacks are growing displays. OK, maybe a screen that’s tablet or smartphone-sized makes sense to carry as an occasional fallback, but we’re rapidly moving towards a world where a compute node in your pocket and a USB-C cable to local peripherals will usually address both PC and laptop deployment cases better than hardware specialized for either.
I say “usually” because there are special cases at the high end. All the other towers
in my house have been replaced by compute bricks, but the Great Beast is still the Great Beast. Tower cases retain advantages when really hotrodding your ride requires component modularity. But that’s a 1% case and going to get rarer.
The NUC gives Intel cred and a bit of early-adopter visibility as consumer-facing compute-node makers. Which is going to be handy when the PC and laptop markets crater. There Intel will be, smiling a disarming smile, with a NUC-descended compute node in its hand, saying “Psst…and it’s pretty, too.”
The first signs of the PC market cratering are already past us. Everybody knows sales volume is down from the peak years of that technology. The common mistake is to think that the laptops that have been eating its lunch so far are a stable endpoint rather than, themselves a transitional technology.
The truth is that in late 2018 conventional PCs are like Wile E. Coyote running on air. When I buy one I’m mostly getting metal and bulk. The motherboard is physically designed to host a bunch of expansion slots I’ll never use because the things cards used to do have migrated onto the mobo. The actual working parts don’t actually take up any more volume than a compute brick. They used to, before thumb drives turfed out DVDs and spinning rust got tiny under laptop pressure only to be mostly displaced by SSDs. But today? The main constraint on reducing the size of a computer is that you need surface for all the ports you want.
I think it’s likely that the last redoubt of the PC will be gaming rigs. We’re already at a place where for 99% of consumers the only real reason to buy a tower case is to put a really bitchen graphics card in it, the kind that has a model name like MegaDoomDestroyer and more fan capacity than the rest of your computer and possibly your next-door neighbor’s computer put together. Your typical home-office user would be, like my wife, better served by a cute brick.
But the MegaDoomDestroyer will pass, too. The polygon arms-race will top out when our displays exceed the highest resolution and frame rate the human retina can handle. We’re already pushing the first and the second is probably no more than two Moore’s Law doublings away. After that all the NRE will go into lowering footprint; on past form we can expect ephemeralization to do its job pretty quickly.
The laptop collapse is further out – harder to see from here. Probably a topic for a future post.