The Incredible Shrinking PC

The Incredible Shrinking PC

June 30

My first computer arrived in a box about the size of a mini-fridge. It was heavy and imposing and exactly how I pictured it would be when I first spotted it in the ZEOS catalog. I dropped $2500 in order to avoid the long lines at the University of Utah computer lab where I went to write reports in WordPerfect. In many regards, I bought myself a dedicated WordPerfect machine whose screen flashed flying toasters when not in use.

Every personal computer at the time was basically a beige box hooked up to a VGA monitor running mainly DOS programs and games. Windows would soon take come to dominate this space, but the size of the computer would remain the same for the next two decades. Computer owners became accustomed to placing the case underneath a desk to keep fan noise at bay. One benefit of the larger case was that computer components could be easily removed, replaced and upgraded which helped drive the popularity of Windows PCs in business.

But things have changed.

“The Stick”

I recently got my hands on the Intel Compute Stick. At first glance it looks like a USB thumb drive, but it’s actually a fully operational Windows (or Linux) computer that’s a lot more powerful than that first computer of mine.

Cost? About $150.


This isn’t the first time Intel has strayed from its normal role of building processors to creating new computer form factors. A couple of years ago Intel released the NUC (Next Unit of Computing) that crammed a Sandy Bridge Celeron CPU into an enclosure smaller than a Mac Mini. The Compute Stick goes a lot further to the point of putting a computer in the palm of your hand. Intel has crammed a quad-core Atom CPU, 2 GB memory and 32 GB of 0n-board storage into the Stick. It also includes support for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth along with a single USB port and micro SD slot for adding more storage.

The Compute Stick won’t replace your workstation or gaming PC anytime soon. But Intel is committed to adding more powerful processors, and with upgraded graphics, it might one day be possible to play casual games on it. At Puget Systems, we have two Sticks capturing video from around the office while another Stick streams music to the foyer.  All you need is a monitor that supports HDMI and a wireless keyboard/mouse, and you’re set.

The Future

So maybe you won’t be using a tiny, low-power, computer-on-a-stick anytime soon, but pieces of the puzzle are coming together so that colleagues you support could ditch their desktops and laptops for such a device. As more services move to the cloud, not every person needs an Intel i7 or Xeon processor. If you do your job from within a browser today, a Compute Stick might be all you need.

Back in 2009, then-CEO of Microsoft, Steve Ballmer spoke to an audience at CES and downplayed the importance of the PC saying it was simply one of three screens; the two others being a smartphone and TV. Microsoft has since revised Ballmer’s vision under the “three screens a cloud” moniker. The idea behind this is that Windows 10 will enable its users to compute seamlessly across their phones, PCs and TVs.

The key product behind this strategy is Windows 10, which arrives on July 29, 2015. Windows 10 will run on desktops, laptops, tablets, hybrids and phones. Sure, each version will be tweaked to run on suited hardware, but Microsoft is spending a lot of money to get across the idea that Windows is the product you can count on to consolidate your computing experience across all your devices.

It’s a powerful message, whether you agree with Microsoft’s vision or not. Some might say we already have a pocketable computer in our mobile phones. Mobile processors have seen such dramatic performance jumps in the past few years that it’s not unimaginable they could serve as the only device you need. You’d have one device that wirelessly connects to a screen whether you’re at work, home or on the road. In a sense, I witnessed something similar when I visited one of University of Washington’s computer labs last year. I was shocked to only find tables full of large monitors; not a PC in sight.  Students connected their tablets and laptops to the monitors when having a larger screen made sense.

But we’re not there yet.

The cloud is getting us closer to that day though providing storage, synchronization as well as computational power. I expect we’ll see many form factors emerge over the next few years as personal computing continues to redefine itself.

*Image courtesy of Intel

Photo by Elliot Moore