In 1989, Apple introduced the Macintosh Portable. It weighed 16 pounds—imagine carrying that through an airport. Personally, I’m thankful that I don’t have to, not with personal computers continuing to get smaller, thinner, and lighter. Where the first digital computer filled 1,800 square feet (the size of some homes) and weighed 50 tons, and the first PCs were the size of a suitcase, today the smallest PCs are roughly the size and length of a credit card and weigh less than half a pound. For these new tiny PCs, all you have to do is attach user-interface devices and you’re good to go.
It’s Moore’s law that enables the seemingly perpetual shrinking of computers. Moore’s law is based on Intel co-founder Gordon Moore’s observation that the number of transistors per square inch on integrated circuits doubles each year and will continue to do so. That’s two times more compute power per inch, so you can get the same computer in a smaller case. It’s that shrinking motherboard—combined with some ingenuity—that fuels the ever-shrinking computing form factors.
Moore’s law aside, what is striking to us here at Prowess Consulting is not just the shrinking of PCs, but the growing variety of small PC form factors. While full-featured laptops continue to get thinner and lighter—a five-year old Lenovo ThinkPad T420 is 4.78 pounds, whereas a new HP Spectre 360x is just 2.45 pounds and about half as thick—and desktops have shrunk from towers to minis, there’s also a proliferation of niche form factors, including some touting themselves as full-featured. The following is a look at a few of these mini-PC form factors.
The Next Unit of Computing or NUC
The NUC is a customizable mini-PC from Intel that is about four-inches square. It’s available with motherboards that range from Intel Atom processors to 7th generation Intel Core processors, allowing it to fit just about any use case. It’s sold as a replacement for a traditional desktop PC or for use as a home entertainment system, a gaming solution, a thin client (see below), a digital signage solution, or even a video-surveillance solution. Essentially, an Intel NUC is a box that you can customize with your choice of processor, memory, and OS to power virtually anything. You can learn more about Intel NUCs in our previous post, A Mini-PC with Mighty Specs.
Stick PCs look like slightly oversized USB sticks or slightly skinny packs of gum, and they are marketed as portable computing solutions. Sticks plug into the HDMI ports on displays or TVs. One stick, the Azulle Quantum Access LAN PC Stick, has an Ethernet port as well, which expands its use beyond others sticks to enable its use as a miniature file or media server. The original stick PC is the Intel Compute Stick. The size of a pack of gum, this device turns any HDMI-capable TV or monitor into a PC, and it is available with both lighter and heavier-duty Intel processors to fit a variety of needs. You can get variations of the Intel Compute Stick directly from Intel and from a variety of OEMs, such as Lenovo. Asus also offers its Asus Chromebook with a Rockchip RK3288 processor. Like NUCs, stick PCs can act as thin clients (see below), and if equipped with a heavier-duty processor, like the Intel Compute Stick with an Intel Core M processor, they can perform as full PCs. Sticks even include built-in fans to keep them cool and functional.
Compute cards are cousins to stick PCs and can be used for the same purposes. However, instead of being the size of a pack of gum, they are slightly bigger and deeper than a credit card. Intel reports that it will introduce its Intel Compute Card in the middle of 2017 as an “optimal solution to power everything from entry-level to full featured host devices.” The InFocus Kangaroo mobile PC is available now and runs on an Intel Atom processor.
Thin clients are not terribly new; they first hit the market in roughly 1997. Unlike the other form factors covered in this post, they are not intended as replacements for full PCs. They are instead intended as a go-between for users and servers in virtualized environments where the servers do the computing. Most thin clients lack enough storage to house more than a few local clients and will hold only a browser, email client, PDF viewer, device drivers, and a light version of an operating system. A few thin clients offer enough storage that some additional applications can be installed locally, but the primary intent is for the server to do the bulk of the processing and storage work needed for application access. The market for thin clients is limited to enterprise environments with IT staff that manage the virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) and servers.
Thin clients come in a variety of form factors themselves, ranging from small thin devices of roughly seven by seven inches to all-in-ones that integrate the client and a monitor into a single unit. NUCs, stick PCs, and even full laptops can also be configured as thin clients if desired.
Zero clients are a stripped-down cousin to thin clients in terms of storage—they store nothing on the device locally. They run only a VDI protocol that talks to a server, housing nothing, even an OS, locally. Their use, like thin clients, is limited to enterprise environments where virtualization is in use. One advantage of thin clients over zero clients is that zero clients are limited to one VDI protocol where thin clients can communicate with several protocols, making migrations between protocols easier with thin clients.
Zero clients also come in a variety of form factors, ranging from small thin devices of roughly seven by seven inches to all-in-ones that integrate the client and a monitor into a single unit.
Round and Round It Goes
Where small form-factor evolution ends, if it does, will depend on users’ perception of the devices, the devices’ ability to perform, and users’ willingness to adopt small form factors. I know, for me, some of the smaller form factors are so light that they seem cheap, which hurts their credibility for me. They perform well, but perception win out in the end for some of these form factors and users migrate away from them. And who knows, maybe soon our computers will be chips embedded under our skin. I sort of hope not.
 Intel. “Introducing Intel Compute Card—The Latest in Integrated Compute.” www.intel.com/content/www/us/en/compute-card/intel-compute-card.html.