Let’s Talk About Home Computing Form Factors

When I say “form factors”, I’m talking about the general ergonomic thing we humans mash our meat mitts upon, as apposed to what the Wikipedia entry for the subject entails. In my estimation, there are ten form factors, each having their own benefits and drawbacks, but for the most part today’s computing world has really been honed down to just three. Let’s start by having a look at all of them, starting with my favourite!

Commodore 64c with Samsung LCD TV

Computer Inside the Keyboard

Commodore PET 2001

Desktop All-In-One

IMac G5 Rev A - Photo By Matthew Welty (fiveaside) from Sacramento, USA - Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

Computer Inside the Monitor

ATX/mATX/Slim Tower

Horizontal Desktop

Laptop/Notebook

Tablet with Keyboard

All-touch Smartphone

Smartphone with Keyboard

Single Board Computer

If you’re alive in 2018, you probably already know that the top three form factors are:

  1. All-Touch Smartphone
  2. Laptop/Notebook
  3. ATX/mATX/Slim Tower

Let’s look at why this is the case…

All-touch smartphones, especially the large “phablet” ones, absolutely are the most common home computers, even though their form factor is significantly different from all of the others. People are now able to carryout all of the same type of tasks on their all-touch smartphones as they are on any of the other platforms, with the biggest differences being the human interfaces and the software capabilities.

Where the all-touch smartphone fails to meet people’s needs, most often in the areas of entering large amounts of data and using specialized software that isn’t available on smartphones, the laptop/notebook form factor easily comes to the rescue. This design has the benefits of being ergonomic to use, all in one, and easily portable, making it probably the best overall computer design for average home use (or human beings in general). Most laptops are able to connect to external keyboards, mice, and screens as well, which dramatically increases their potential to meet the user’s needs, unlike the vast majority of smartphones which remain limited in this regard. As a result, laptops tend to be the most popular home computer systems for everything other than playing modern 3D games and extreme/niche productivity applications.

Finally, where both laptops and smartphones fail the user, the common ATX/mATX/Slim Tower (aka “Desktop PCs”) swoops in to fill every imaginable niche. Being that there are several standardized sized for the towers and only a handful of complimentary standards for the hardware components that go inside, people are able to mix and match components to build home computers that meet their specific needs – provided those needs do not include being effortlessly portable. It’s this versatility, along with the high requirements of hardware to play to modern PC-exclusive 3D games, that keep desktop PCs in homes. As game consoles become increasingly more powerful though, the need for “desktop PCs” will continue diminish, as nearly all the other home user’s computing needs can be satisfactorily met by laptops and smartphones.

Where does that leave all the other form factors?

With the exception of TV connected media player style computers that somewhat resemble Horizontal Desktop computers (yet are most often operated by remote controls or a combined wireless mouse/keyboard), the only remaining form factor of note for home computing is that of the Single Board Computers. The interesting thing about both media player computers and single board computers is that the diminutive size of their components and the low processing requirement of their software generally mean their form factors can be as large or as small as the user would like. In fact, many media player computers are indeed built using single board computers, such as the Raspberry Pi; In many respects, as far as home computing goes, they’re one in the same. Of course, single board computers are small enough to also being useful as hobby devices which can be integrated within robots and other electro-mechanical devices within the home. And with those exceptions behind, let’s look at why the other form factors have fallen out of favour with home computer users.

Computer In the Monitor
I’m sure Apple would disagree, but I think the truth here is that apart from people who like the specialized Apple ecosystem, most home computer buyers are leery of tying the heart of their computer purchase to the size and quality of the screen. If they want something bigger later, they’ll have upgrade the whole system. If the screen breaks and the warranty is up, chances are it would be cheaper to buy a new system – but if they had a tower, with its separate monitor, they could even go so far as to make due to a used $10 monitor. And perhaps the combination of laptop level performance, limited upgrade options, and lack of portability just makes this style of computer less attractive to the average home computer user.

Desktop All-In-One
No one has made this style of computer, with the screen, keyboard, and computer all built into a single chassis, for a very long time. This is probably largely due to the reasons I mentioned above. Indeed, if one part breaks or simply no longer suits your needs/desires, you’re likely facing the decisions to replace the whole unit rather than fixing or replacing the one aspect that needs attention. I’m not surprised this design fell out of favour relatively quickly (by the early 1980s). Still, as we can see with the Commodore PET line, the concept is capable of creating some very handsome and inspiring machines!

I think I’d also consider the “luggable” computers, such as the early Compaq, Commodore, and IBM machines, as all-in-one desktops, rather than laptops/notebooks. None of those machines physically operate in a manner similar to how laptops operate (like the front and back covers of a book) and all of them are as heavy or heavier than your average modern PC tower. So yeah, the luggables of yore are effectively all-in-ones too.

Computer in the Keyboard
I really like this design, probably in large part due to nostalgia, but it does have a number of practical merits as well. Firstly, the keyboard mechanism is far easier to replace than a screen would be, so provided the person likes using it, the having the keyboard built into the computer isn’t a big deal. Again, provided the keyboard isn’t made such that the computer is uncomfortable to use, having all of the computer parts inside the keyboard that’s going to be sitting on the table/desk is pretty handy. Really, a modern laptop is essentially the same thing when it’s built in screen is removed, which truly is a testament to the portability of the “Computer in the Keyboard” design. I like the concept, because it puts everything right where my “monkey tools” are interacting with the machine, thereby making the whole experience more tactile and personal. Yes, I am looking up at the screen, but I am always touching the keyboard! That said, it was the advent of the cheap rubber dome keyboard that caused this style of computer to fall out of favour in the mid 1990s. It just made more sense for OEMs to put the expensive parts into a cheap generic tower so they could plug in cheap (and easily replaceable) keyboards and mice, and so that’s how the industry evolved over the years. It’s a crying shame, because when you look at the variety of units that were made by Atari, Acorn, Sinclair, Amstrad, Commodore, Amiga, and other companies from the 1970s to 1990s, there’s just so much inspiring industrial design and personality to touch and feel and love! I really wish this form factor would make a comeback!

Smartphone with Keyboard
It seems that Blackberry is the final holdout in the smartphone with a keyboard market. Unfortunately, in my personal opinion as a former Blackberry Bold/Curve/Q10 user, I think their current products completely miss the target. What made the Bold 9900 such an excellent device was that it could be used with one hand – literally every function could be accomplished using only my thumb! I miss that so much that I would honestly trade my Samsung Galaxy S8 for a Bold 9900 that had an updated camera, because as a communications device, the Bold 9900 is perfect. These new “Key” branded devices on the other hand are so tall that they are unwieldy, meaning you’re really better off to just use an all touch smartphone with an on screen keyboard. It’s not like the on screen keyboards are as tiny and inaccurate as they used to be. I think eventually Blackberry will stop making phones with keyboards, because the devices they are making are for a niche of an already niche group, rather than being targeted explicitly towards busy people need a quality device that excels at calls, SMS/MMS/BBM, email, and pictures.

Horizontal Desktop
As much as I do like the cutesy looks of the IBM PS/2, Commodore 64D, and Apple IIGS horizontal desktop computers, I think they fell out of favour for logical, if mundane, reasons. People got used to looking at the 4:3 LCD monitor that was plunked on their desk as work. I know I did for a few years, until I decided to prop my monitor up on a box in the hopes that it would help me stop slouching (it has helped!). Putting the “computer box” on the floor meant people had more room for stuff on their desk. That said, I imagine the single biggest factor in shoving the desktop computer to the floor was that hard disk storage capacity displaced the need for removable media – people simply didn’t need to fiddle with storage media anymore, so the box may as well be out of their way! Again, this makes me a little sad, because I really like the physical and auditory aspects of using 3.5″ floppy disks. It’s too bad we don’t have anything similar anymore, but really, it’s not very often I need to plug my smartphone into the computer, let alone use a USB stick or CD/DVD. Yup, with so little reason to touch the desktop “box”, off the desk it went.

Wrapping Up
I think as time goes on we’ll see more of the tablet/laptop hybrid devices in people’s homes, as processing power increases, power consumption decreases, and software becomes more optimized for lower power devices. Eventually gaming consoles will be robust and cheap enough to cross the point where “gamers” won’t bother with the extra issues PCs bring with them. Instead they will, like most everyone else, do the majority of their communicating and data processing on their smartphones, while filling in the holes in their productivity with a convertible tablet/laptop style machine. Perhaps in as little as a decade the only computers resembling the “ATX Tower PC” will be the workstations that power content creation and research in the business and education sectors, with the most powerful home computers essentially being the laptops we’re using today. On the whole, I think that’s probably a positive progression for home computing, as the laptop/notebook form factor really is the culmination of all the aspects of computing that we humans enjoy. And hey, if the screen breaks at least you’ll have your very own modern-retro computer when you hook it up to an external monitor! 🙂

The World (Still) Needs PCs

When someone writes or says something along the lines of, “the PC is dead”, what’s immediately obvious to me is that said person isn’t a content creator and they have confused low PC sales with the usefulness of PCs. That latter part about low PC sales is doom and gloom that is always “in the news”, yet the explanation for it is simple: Any PC from about the year 2006 and on is perfectly acceptable for daily use by the vast majority of PC users and given that many of the PCs sold in the last 10 years still work, people haven’t felt the need to replace them. I don’t know about you, but I don’t toss out my forks every year, “just because”, when my 20 year old ones still work fine at shovelling food into my face.

With that important myth dispelled, allow me to help you better understand my perspective, by taking a step back for a moment and considering what a PC physically is.

What’s the fancy word OEM’s such as Dell, HP, and Lenovo use to refer to “business class” PCs?

Workstation

That single word pretty much sums up my whole argument as to why the PC is not only very much alive, but is also fundamental to our modern “connected” lives. However, let’s take some more time to explore the concept. 🙂

PC manufactures spend a lot of money on selling the concept that a “Workstation is a professional grade, reliable machine for all aspects of business and development”. To their credit (and to varying degrees), most of the workstation class PCs on the market have, at the very least, a more robust chassis than your average consumer desktop. A factor that’s important for handling those surprisingly common occasions where employees use them to hold up their cars while rotating their tires in the parking lot. Internally, apart from the power supplies that OEMs love to skimp on, there’s very little difference between consumer PC hardware and workstation hardware – to the point where most of the time they’re entirely identical. What does this mean?

For the most part, Desktop PCs are Workstations.

This is especially true when you consider that an Intel Core i5 6500 CPU performs the same in a workstation as it would in a custom built desktop. A difference of +/-2%, usually in favour of the custom build due to custom builders often choosing faster RAM than OEMs, doesn’t really make for a compelling argument that one is better than the other. They’re pretty much the same thing in every tangible, realistic way (even well beyond the warranty periods of the products).

So why do we care that a PC is Workstation?

Well, it boils down to the reality that almost every piece of technology you use and much of the media content you consume, is designed and built on PCs. Some of those PCs might be called Workstations or even Macs (heck, they may even be in the form of a “laptop”), but they’re still PCs.

Smartphone Apps?
Designed, updated, and managed with PCs.

Movies?
Edited, rendered, modelled, story boarded, etc. on PCs.

YouTube?
Edited, rendered, modelled, story boarded, etc. on PCs.

Music?
PCs!

Cars?
Yup, they’re designed with PCs too!

And then there’s the obvious stuff, such as console games and other software that is designed and built entirely on PCs, along with countless other products and services. Indeed, many services these days are delivered “through the cloud” (I really hate that nonsense term btw…) and are hosted on servers, which are definitely not PCs, but… people don’t sit at servers making content – they sit at PCs making content and the PC uses the resources of the sever. And, all that server hardware and software itself was… designed on PCs! 🙂

If the “Personal Computer” as we know it, in its desktop and its laptop form, magically ceased to exist, the instant it happened the world as we know it would grind to an almost immediate halt. You know, because a lot of it only works when connected to a PC, but also because millions of people would all of a sudden have absolutely nothing to do at work. Millions more people, such as content creators around the world, especially software programmers and “YouTubers”, would have to do something crazy like… go outside or clean up their house or something… because without a PC, their crafts would be nightmares to achieve on other devices. Heck, even novelists wouldn’t be happy and computer work doesn’t get any more simple than processing text, so that’s saying something.

What about tablets? People say they’re just as good a PC for making content.

Sure they are, once you connect a keyboard and a mouse to them. Then guess what? That’s a PC too!

So there ya go, not only do you now know that the PC is not dead, you have a pretty clear understanding that in many ways our modern existence wouldn’t be what it is without the PC being part of our daily lives. From content creators in professional or “indy” settings to the kind folks who keep the electricity running, the fingers of the world dance the 104 QWERTY with no sign that they’ll ever sit down.