The miniaturization is over us – PC’s are getting smaller than ever

As many of you may know, I am originally from Denmark – the home of contemporary Danish design furniture and companies like Bang & Olufsen (B&O), whose futuristic designs for HIFI and home entertainment are second to none. Keeping these design trends in mind, within a short time, my guess is that the design of PC’s will continue to evolve into very cool looking small devices with good performance and low noise.

However, before that is possible, we need to solve the amputation problem that dictates that we cannot have performance, low noise and small form factor in a single PC. Only two of these factors are possible today!

When looking at the PC market, gone are the days where a PC is a big beige box that consumes significant desktop real estate (with gaming boxes as the exception to that rule). In fact, industry reports from prestigious industry analyst firms, such as IDC, predicts that 46% of all desktop PC’s will be small or ultra small form factor by 2011 including the popular emerging blade and all-in-one systems.

If you look at Endpoint Technology’s report on the design evolution of PC’s, you will find some very distinct trends between the past, the present, and the future. PC’s ARE indeed shrinking. Take a look at Apple’s iMac or Dell’s XPS ONE and you will see that creative industrial design is alive and well – and is a thing of the future rather than a thing of the past.

As a company focused on enabling PC’s to have outstanding performance along with low noise in a small form factor, Asetek has purchased most small form factor (SFF) PC types on the market to analyze their design and performance characteristics. What we have found is that in order for them to achieve their small form design, they are all based on either rather low performance CPU’s, mobile CPU’s or special binned CPU’s where the CPU vendor picks the lowest power CPU’s from the yield.

Furthermore, because of their decision to use lower performance CPU’s, most of these PC’s are not capable of doing anything significant or powerful. If they are capable of high performance tasks, they will often become extremely noisy. Small form factor PC’s are, by definition, meant to be at your desk or stereo rack meaning that you would absolutely want it to be quiet all the time – not only when in idle mode or when used in low ambient temperatures!

At Asetek, we do not believe that the SFF market necessarily needs an extreme grade CPU with a TDP of 150W. However, we DO actually believe that in order for the whole SFF trend to take off, it will be necessary to have decent desktop performance (currently it seems as Vista can use all the power any CPU manufacturer can provide). Why would anyone sacrifice performance over what they currently are using today just because they want a smaller PC? It just does not make sense. My guess is that people really want a multi-purpose PC enabling them to perform a variety of tasks such as sending and receiving emails, encoding DVDs and enjoying decent gaming – all in the same SFF box.

So, in order for this to happen, SFF PC’s will require a decent desktop-type CPU in the range of 85W – 100W, just like their bigger form factor counterparts. In addition, with nVidia’s MXM push and both AMD and Intel looking at implementing graphics on the CPU, the need for better and quieter cooling will just explode!

Today it is not really possible to cram a 95W CPU in to a small form factor design, since air coolers simply cannot get enough surface area in this SFF PC to be efficient. Just finding a MiniITX or MiniDTX (MicroATX is way too large) motherboard that will accommodate a “medium power” CPU is a real challenge.

At Asetek, we have found a real solution to this problem, and we will help ODMs and OEMs to successfully integrate current and future mainstream hardware into a small form factor PC without the noise penalty typically found in these units.

At this year’s Computex we demonstrated a reference design of a small 5-liter PC with same performance as a good performance larger desktop PC, but despite its size it is still very low noise. I want you to see it as well, so please take a look at the picture and imagine you have a full blown PC in there at very low noise! I put a graphics card in to the picture, and as you can see the actual PC is very small. Do not pay too much attention to the industrial design – Asetek is not entering the PC market so our main focus was size (who said size doesn’t matter?!?).

The typical OEM or industry analyst never considers liquid cooling as a viable option for a small form factor PC since traditional liquid cooling has always been way too big and clumsy to fit inside such a small for factor. Without revealing too much, I can state that Asetek has already overcome this hurdle and will soon have liquid cooling available in sizes smaller than ever!

While some people may argue that there is a limited future in desktop PC’s since the notebook market is growing faster than the desktop market, we are not seeing significant market cannibalization since both markets are experiencing significant, strong growth. I believe in a great future for the desktop PC, provided that someone solves the performance, noise and size triangle. Someone has!!

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