By Paul Barthram
PC form factors have been pretty much the same since the first IBM clones, with little to choose between tower and desktop, or a notebook for mobile users. Now a new breed of small form factor PCs is looking to change computing in the office and at home.
I|~||~||~|PC form factors have been pretty much the same since the first IBM clones, with little to choose between tower and desktop, or a notebook for mobile users. Now a new breed of small form factor PCs is looking to change computing in the office and at homeUsually when you are buying a PC you have two choices, a desktop or a notebook—desktops are for homes and offices, notebooks are for mobile users or anyone who doesn’t want to take up a lot of space. Aside from the choice between tower and desktop configurations, PC form factors have been pretty much the same since the first IBM clones. Some big vendors have offered small footprint PCs, but often these machines haven’t really been that much smaller than a regular tower, and they usually come at a price premium. But there is a new breed of PCs aiming to take desktop computing into a new, smaller dimension.Small form factor PCs are not a completely new idea. Intel and PC vendors have designed concept models for years, and there have been a few attempts at commercial PCs that used compact designs, but with little success. Now, with advances in processor technology, cooling systems and motherboard design, small form factor PCs are ready to create a whole new category of computing, for both business and home users—if the market can be convinced to buy them.While the size and form of the various mini PCs are different, they mostly share a few common traits, particularly their origins in the Far East. While Asia Pacific tends to be the birthplace for many new technologies, it is noticeable that none of the big name PC brand vendors are pushing mini PC models—all of the main players are OEMs such as Shuttle, Iwill, FIC, MSI and ASUS.The mini PCs are also built on technology that has been in development for some time. Small form factor motherboards have been around for a few years, but integration of functions such as graphics and sound on the board allows builders to save space inside the case. Also, integrated functions are no longer the compromise they used to be, meaning that integrated functions can hold their own against regular desktops.The functionality of these boards also takes some of the workload off of the CPU. VIA has been developing its EPIA platform for embedded and small form factor PCs, including functions such as onboard MPEG decoder.“With the EPIA mini ITX board, with integrated MPEG decoder for video playback, we have introduced a new concept to computing, where the CPU doesn’t do all the work, most of the work is shared by the whole platform,” said Tim Handley international marketing specialist for VIA.
While the boards have provided the chassis, new CPU and cooling technologies are the building blocks that are completing the product. Solid state cooling systems are negating the need for noisy fans, while CPU are getting smaller, using less power and giving out less heat, reducing the need for fans even further. Ferruh Gurtas, business development manager, Intel Middle East & North Africa commented: “Once you have the small board, then the [processor] manufacturing technology becomes important, here is Intel is the leading company, we are going to go down to 0.09 micron [die size] and that will really decrease the temperature levels on the CPU.”If the technologies inside the mini PCs are similar, the target markets for these devices are not. Companies in the Middle East are selling mini PCs designed for the high and low-end performance-wise, for both corporate and home users, with different selling points for all.Probably the biggest draw for any buyer of a mini PC is size. At somewhat less than half the size of a normal tower, a mini PC represents considerable space saving, either on a desk or at home. ASUS has been shipping its Pundit PC to the region since May, and has had several big wins. The Pundit is a tower shaped barebone, aimed at business users. Its small size make it ideal as a point of sale machine or in customer facing offices where the customer wants to hide the PC—Emirates Tower Hotel has 400 Pundits deployed as in-room PCs in its guest rooms. While space isn’t important to every deal, it is certainly a factor, according to Yasir Alka’ar, regional operations manager, ASUS Middle East.“It is an ideal solution to save space in the office. Here in Dubai, the building space is there, but go to Cairo, office space is very expensive, so saving desk space is really important,” he explained.Space is also an important concern for home users. While many people want to have a PC at home, they often don’t want to have to permanently give over a table or desk to a desktop, preferring to have a notebook that can be used then put away. The appeal of a mini PC, especially when teamed with wireless mouse and keyboard, with a TV-out port to eliminate the need for a dedicated monitor, is that it doesn’t take up a lot of space in a home.“Homes and apartments are getting smaller, so people want to have the same advantages and quality of a full PC, but that will save space,” commented Rio Altaie, marketing manager for SCE. SCE is set to launch its range of small form factor PCs before Gitex, under the Future Digital brand. The company is launching a number of different models, aimed at both corporate and home users. The finished systems will be sold with very high end components, to appeal to the more discerning buyer, plus a three year warranty to increase consumer confidence.
“If an IT decision maker sees the configuration, what exactly is inside this product, they will know it is worth it. We want to deliver a finished product where the customer has full satisfaction,” said R Chandra Sekar, product manager for Future Digital.The products also go for a high aesthetic appeal, with cases in sleek black, silver, aluminium and a range of styles—these aren’t beige boxes, they are intended to look good sitting in an executive’s office or in an elegant living room. The mini PC is not pitched at the hard core gamer, but at someone who wants a PC without something that looks like it belongs in a computer lab. Many of the mini PCs is intended to act as home entertainment centres, with audio and DVD playback functions, so they are meant to be on show in the living room, not tucked away in a desk.An important part of this design aesthetic is noise. By using heatsinks, venting and cooling pipes the mini PCs eliminate fans. This is particularly important for the multimedia applications, where customers don’t expect to have to turn up the sound on a DVD to drown out noisy hard drives and fans. While the products are ready, the market is still tentative. Handley believes that the market is currently just about ready to take off. Products based on VIA’s hardware have won a number of design awards, the products are there, so now it is time to put them in front of the customers. Convincing customers about the value of the mini PC is not going to be easy.“It needs a huge effort. We are not fighting to get market share, we are fighting to create the market. With this product there is no market yet,” Alka’ar said.“We don’t see this as trying to eliminate the PC, it is a third solution—you have the laptop and the PC, and somewhere in between we would fit the XPC, it will have its own niche,” said Altaie. “The problem with this product is awareness, not many people are aware of it, so to come up with a concept that is entirely different, it is going to take a bit of time to educate them.”Not all customers are ready to buy into the concept however, and there are still some factors to overcome that could prove difficult in local markets. Earlier this year eSys launched its ePC, a budget PC based on a small form factor. The ePC was intended to provide budget users with a converged entertainment system that could handle computing tasks as well as playing audio and videodiscs. Customers were very happy with the price point of the ePC, but they did not take to all aspects of it.“I am very happy, the numbers have come in and exceeded what we planned for, but looking beyond the bottom line, I am not so happy,” Pavan Gupta, country manager for eSys commented. “The original idea was to offer a black box, a convergence device for the living room, but when you analyse where the machines have gone, a negligible percent has gone where we wanted.”
Demand for a low cost PC was huge, especially from export markets like Africa, but in such cost-sensitive markets, the extra few dollars that the small form factor imposed on cost was not feasible—so eSys switched to standard PC design. There were a few reasons aside from price that meant the concept didn’t take off in the Middle East, Gupta said. One was the low level of Internet penetration in the region. Whereas the Internet is seen as an entertainment tool in other parts of the world, the demand for a web surfing machine that can plug into something like an LCD TV, has not taken off here.Another reason was the user interface. Like many other small form factor PCs, the ePC was designed as a home entertainment centre. ESys based it on Linux, to cut costs, but the user interface didn’t have the same simplicity as a home entertainment device—users don’t want to have to wait for an operating system to boot up before they can watch a DVD.“The interface is being refined more, to make it really user friendly,” Gupta explained. “We want to be able to switch it on and play a DVD, instead you have to go though six or seven steps to reach that. When you use a DVD player, you don’t even have a user menu, you just plug it in and play, that is the aim.”Gupta is confident however that the form factor will be a success, although the Middle East may take longer than other markets to adopt it. For the hardware side, the falling cost of optical drives, particularly combo drives is making true multimedia functionality a reality. On the software side, interfaces are being refined to allow more simple operation, but it will still take the right retail approach to get consumers to buy.“We have not given up on it, it is just a matter of time. This form factor will be a huge success, if you have a good retail chain,” Gupta said. “There are not many big organised chains in the Middle East, not like in Europe, where you sign up with one chain and they have 200 outlets, so we are more focused on Europe now.”While business users are more readily convinced by specs, the retail consumer is slower to adopt new technologies. This will all change however, Gurtas believes, as the industry develops the concepts more. Intel has been working with PC vendors for a long time with its Intel Innovative PC Programme, and though groups such as the Digital Home Working Group, an association of IT and consumer electronics vendors who are working to establish standards for digital convergence devices.“I think there are two aspects to this. I think standards are what was missing, that is why the Digital Home Working Group has been established,” he said. “Without standards, everybody has their own solutions, and the consumer is confused and won’t buy. As the standards are agreed upon, first the price level will drop, because it is a standard product with standard building blocks, then, because they are standard products, there will be ease of use.”