The IT industry is still big: It’s the desktops that got smaller

It sits there in the corner of my office, waiting for me. One of these days, it’ll take over and I’ll be stuck with it for years.
I’m making it sound worse than it is. I’m sure the Compaq Evo is a decent computer. The only problem is its size: a dark grey hulk, it’s sure to take away a couple of square feet of much needed desk real estate.

I’m currently working on a new Apple iMac. What it lacks in raw power it makes up for in elegant design. The entire system – monitor and CPU – is integrated into one sleek unit, which fits very neatly on one side of my desk. Unfortunately, it won’t be there for much longer.

You may have already heard, but the IT Business Group, including Computing Canada, was bought by former archrival, IT World Canada Inc. As is often the case, a change in ownership means moving offices. It also means new hardware.

In the coming weeks, my beautiful iMac will be replaced with the aforementioned grey hulk. I should say here that I’m not exactly what you would call one of the Mac faithful. I’m quite happy to work on OS X, but I’m equally at home on Windows XP. The problem, at least for me, is one that has plagued Windows machines since the dawn of PCs: they’re butt ugly.

PC makers have known this for years, but repeated attempts to break this cycle have been met with mixed success. Probably about five or six years ago, we brought an HP eVectra into the office to test it out. It was about the size of a two-slice toaster, and it wasn’t long before we referring to it as such, instead of its brand name. Did we give it a good review? I don’t remember, but then, not many people remember this machine, which did little to impress the market.

Most other vendors have tried shrinking down PCs. Dell, Lenovo, Acer . . . they all sell tiny computers, but a common complaint is they lack power. They’re also short on expansion slots and USB ports, and they’re notoriously difficult to upgrade.

Businesses don’t buy them because they’re not ideal for enterprise apps. PC enthusiasts don’t buy them because . . . well . . . they’re PC enthusiasts, and cuteness isn’t terribly high on the specs sheet when they go shopping. These diminutive computers tend to work best in the home, particularly as a second desktop, but they really don’t pose much of a threat to the clunky boxes we’re all familiar with.

Intel is the latest manufacturer to attempt to shrink the PC. They’ve come up with means to stuff the guts of a PC into a box about half the size of a regular case. Using what Intel calls the microATX design, case makers could produce shells that are 7.5L and 5.8L small. These sizes can be achieved by using an external power supply, a thin optical drive or low profile cards.

That in itself isn’t groundbreaking, but their architecture has tackled the most persistent problem in PCs: cooling. By using a thermal partition to separate the motherboard, cooler air from outside the box is allowed in rather than just re-circulating the hot air from other parts of the PC.

Intel is also making the design available to white box manufacturers. That could make a real difference. System builders made PCs more affordable in the ’90s and they could help lead a “small is beautiful” campaign in today’s enterprise. That isn’t likely to happen overnight, though. It’ll take the combined efforts of component manufacturers and OEMs to arrive at a PC that’s truly small in stature but big on power.

Until that happens, I’ll make do with my grey behemoth of a PC. At least I’ve got a bigger desk in my new office. Looks like I’ll need it.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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