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CES, the Consumer Electronics Show, has come and gone again this year, and there were a surprising number of business products at the show. Unexpectedly, Panasonic had the deepest effort with a huge assortment of monitors, projectors and electric signage. Their coolest offering was a TV-sized conference room monitor they had imbedded in a glass wall so that it looked like it floated in mid-air. Whoever installs this will likely win the award for best conference room.
However, what really stood out for me were a couple new small PCs that snuck in under the fence. No, I’m not talking about the small consumer PCs that HP showed, but something far smaller. Because one of these products actually came from Intel, I think this trend (which goes back to the concept of the Modular PC) will now take off.
The Modular Computer was one of the most innovative ideas that IBM's PC designers ever came up with. Basically, you’d start with a core module that had the processor, memory, chipset, and drive in it, and then you’d put that module in a small desktop stand, laptop or handheld case. You'd end up with three computers that worked off one module.
Unfortunately, this division had had too many creative product failures over a short period of time, and Louis Gerstner pulled the plug on the effort. Other companies made several attempts to resurrect it, but by that time prices for all PCs, sizes for laptops had dropped, sync had become a more popular way to move between PCs, and handheld computers were being replaced by cell phones. The Modular Computer never caught on.
Intel was under massive pressure to build parts that could go into cell phones and tablets, and the company worked furiously to create something that was small, light and very reasonably priced for these products. This effort resulted in a part, the Atom processor, which was vastly smaller, more energy efficient, and far more reasonably priced than what had been used before.
And suddenly the opportunity for a small modular computer core is viable again.
Intel Compute Stick
Perhaps the most interesting of these new designs is the Intel Compute Stick. This is basically a computer on an HDMI dongle. You can plug it into a monitor or TV and get a PC experience nearly instantly. When it ships in a few months, it will run either Windows 8.1 or Ubuntu Linux, and it has the Atom processor, two USB ports, a Micro-SD card slit, Wi-Fi, 2G of RAM, 32 GB of storage, and Bluetooth 4.0 for a retail price of $149. Basically this is a desktop PC that will fit in your pocket for under $150.
The Intel Compute Stick plugs into the powered HDMI port on a monitor or high definition TV to provide a full desktop PC experience. It should turn almost any current generation HDMI monitor or TV into a rather nice All-In-One computer and it has a port for a touch interface if it is a touch monitor.
Amplicity by Hive
What makes Amplicity by Hive stand out is that it’s iPhone-like design is actually pretty cool. While it isn’t as small as the Intel offering, it is more powerful. It has substantially more storage and a very interesting sales model. With 4G of RAM, that same Atom processor, and 129GB of storage and bundled with a terabyte of cloud storage, it costs less than $100 for six months of use, but you can trade it in for a new one after six months if you want. Strangely, it appears targeted at photographers who need a portable editing workstation, but even with its enhanced configuration, it would seem underpowered for that market. However, it would actually make a pretty decent little desktop PC once inserted into its desktop doc.
Wrapping Up: Cheaper, Better Alternative?
A lot of folks live on their cell phone or tablet while on the road and just want a desktop experience when in the office. Configurations like this are inexpensive and very portable while also being small enough to fit easily in a pocket or purse. These would also be good for some conference rooms or where you wanted to have an all-in-one experience but not lock the display to the PC replacement cycle.
Watch this space because at $100 to $200 these are highly portable PCs that are far cheaper than most tablets or smartphones. That makes them potentially an incredible value and a unique way to keep PC hardware budgets low and security high while giving users the services they want.
It looks like the modular computer is back—and it may make every computer you are now considering buying obsolete.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.