Saturday, October 3, 2009

Honey, they shrunk the PC

Small form factor has made the CPU the size of a shoebox

As you were trying to find some space on your computer table to squeeze in a new set of speakers, computer makers have squeezed the computer itself into the size of a regular desktop speaker. Surprised? Well, welcome to the world of small form factor, the biggest change your home computer has seen since the CD drive.

While the first computers were big enough to fit into entire floors of university buildings, the shrinking began when scientists started makings smaller chips, processors and motherboards. With most of them shrunk to the size of postage stamps, the computer had no business to be as big as the ones we now have at homes. The transformation started in 2005, when Apple introduced its Mac Mini, a complete CPU in all of 1.4 litre. The Mini was uncommonly small for a PC at just 6.5 inches square and 2 inches tall and weighing just 1.31 kg. Things have moved on since, and if you haven’t noticed, the latest rage is the all-in-one PC where all you see is the LCD screen, with the CPU tucked away behind it.

S Rajendran, CMO of Acer India, which recently launched its 1-litre AspireRevo R3600 PCs in India, says, “Small form factor has become a reality due to a combination of components that form the core of the PC. The Revo’s platform includes the MBD (Nvidia ION) and an Atom processor. The Hard Disk and RAM used here are similar to the ones in notebooks, thus enabling a decrease in the overall product size.” The only component which the Revo does not have is an optical drive or DVD-RW.

“Most of the components needed in a regular PC are present in these compact PCs. However, the heavy processing power required in professional units might not be possible with the options available now. But it won’t be long before your see PCs with heavy processing power which will completely make the current bulky structure redundant,” adds Gautam Ghosh, Country Manager of ViewSonic India .

His company recently launched the VPC100, which with a 19” LCD display at just 35mm could be one of the thinnest desktops available. ViewSonic is now planning to launch its PC Mini, a 0.6 litre CPU, in India. Acer is also in the all-in-one PC race with the ultra-compact Gateway ZX2300, an 18.5-inch LCD display with a touch panel, 160 GB hard drive and DVD writer.

HP has taken things up a few notches with its HP Touchsmart PC, which, as Ketan Patel, the company’s Country Manager for Consumer Desktop PCs, explains, “does not look like a PC at all”. The Touchsmart, as the name suggests, has an all-touch interface, making it an ideal entertainment kiosk for the home, a replacement for the TV, music system and DVD player. The company’s CQ 2000 and CQ3000 range of CPUs are also in the slim-fit category, using much lesser space than regular CPUs.

Small not only means lesser space, but also lower power consumption. “Atom in its small form is a low thermal processor and its power consumption is astonishingly low, just 4W. This along with the smaller/leaner form factor and new motherboard platform ensures that the smaller PCs also justify their energy star certification,” Rajendran explains.

The evolution of the small form factor has reached a crucial stage with the extremely small, power efficient and cheap Nettops or Net PCs, meant for surfing the Internet and accessing web applications. However, most of them have no, or very limited, storage capacity and processing power. One of them, the Nivio Companion is already available in India through Airtel.

But what is the real cost of the small size? Since small form factor PC are devoid of most internal expansion slots and memory slots, the scope for expansion is limited. You might have to buy a few accessories, like DVD writers, which are inbuilt in regular PCs. That could be a small price to pay for those who get space at a premium. Couple this with the low carbon footprint and there is no doubt that small is the future of computing.

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