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February 4, 2015

Honey, I shrunk the PC

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As a fan of all things Sci-fi, I am also into technology. I imagine how it will affect our lives, what will it mean for business, commerce, education, travel and yes watching your favorite sci-fi video episode. Recently my eye caught a headline that read, “HP Launches Stream Mini and Pavilion Mini Affordable Compact PCs”. These computers fit on the palm of your hand. After sending a picture of the computer to my business partner telling him that soon we will be able to make anything a smart device, he wrote me back saying he’s got Tupperware bigger than this new PC. Now keep in mind, we don’t sell any kind of hardware, but we love technology. And this brings up my most important question. Just how low can computers go in the next five years? Matchbox size? In this article I will explore the ever shrinking personal computer, how they will be used and where they will take us. So strap yourself in and turn on “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” so that you can find the limits (if any) to the ever shrinking personal computer.

I have had a personal computer right from the get-go. I purchased my very first Apple II in 1979. I had already owned several special purpose computers before (chess computer, etc…) and was stoked at what the future would bring. In the beginning, personal computers actually got bigger. As functionality was added (like floppy drives, hard drives, more memory, faster processor and so on) the PC physical size went up. Portable devices came into being around 1983 with the Osborne One and soon to follow, Compaq computer. By the end of the eighties the size trend began to splinter with high powered computers getting somewhat larger and regular small business and personal systems shrinking in size by a marginal amount. This trend continued in the 1990s with the overall size really starting to accelerate with the widespread acceptance of laptop and notebook computers. The early 2000’s saw the domination of laptop over desktops and the emergence of tablets, smart phones and even phablets. Recently we have seen the emergence of Chromebooks and Apple and Android tablets of varying size. Until recently, there were only a few mini size PCs that could actually run full blown Windows 8.1. Most had a foot print of say 10 inches by 6 inches or so and had very specific limits on processing power, memory and storage.  With HP’s launch of their new minis, we see the emergence of full powered small footprint computers today.

The majority of people do not realize is that our high-tech world has already spawned dozens, if not hundreds of miniature and micro computing devices that are smaller than the HP Stream. Early Smartphones (PDA) have been around since the early 1990. Today, many Smartphones have more computing power than the computers used in the moon mission space crafts. Today Smartphones run the gamut from ultra-portable, super thin do everything devices to large format phablets that act as tablet substitutes. Speaking of tablets, these devices have made huge inroads towards replacing laptop computer systems.

Small Smart devices can also be found in the medical industry. For example, blood glucose meters have been shrinking in size for years. Ingestible video cameras with tracking devices have been around for quite some time. There is a whole horde of medical devices that use smartphones as the smarts in the system where the smartphone is used to record and store the measured biological function from a micro transmitter measuring device. Today health tracker wearables are all the rage.

Smart devices encompass everything from watches to clothing, drones, small robots, even smart prosthetics come to mind. Let’s face it, miniaturization of transistors, CPUs, memory, storage and other computing devices have always been the norm.  But how many are actually full blown computers that include everything you expect in a desktop or laptop system that you’d buy today.

Hewlett Packard was not the first to market small foot print personal computers. A number of them have been around for several years. A quick internet search reviles small footprint PC from companies like ASUS, MSI, Acer, Lenovo, Zotac and many more. Some of these are even smaller that the newly announced HP Mini’s. The smallest of these are still full featured and come in with dimensions as small as 4 inches by 6 inches by 1 inches and can run Windows 7 or 8. Most of these small footprint computers have been used in specialty/vertical markets, which is why most consumers haven’t yet seen them. It usually takes a company like Apple or HP to push a new technology to the consumer market.

Despite that, however, the new HP Stream sets a new standard for low price and features while at the same time being one of the smallest new PCs for sure. It includes a powerful Intel Celeron CPU, 2 gigs of RAM memory, 32 gig SATA solid state drive, Intel graphics, support for two displays, four USB 3.0 ports, Wireless integrated Bluetooth 4.0, wireless LAN, wired Ethernet port, HDMI out, headphone out, built in power supply and comes with a wireless keyboard and mouse. Plus, it comes with windows 8.1 and a stack of software apps. The dimensions are approximately 5.7 inches square and two inches thick. Price tag – around $179.

To get more power, upgrade to the HP Pavilion which comes with a faster processor, twice the RAM (4 gigs), 3-n-1 card reader, 500 gig hard drive (up to a 1 terabyte in top model), and more s/w.  Both come with antivirus s/w and cloud services. Price tag – starting at around $319

Before you start thinking this is an HP commercial, understand HP was not the first to offer a small footprint PCs. There have been many white label small footprint systems running Android and chrome. Also Apple beat HP to the punch with its 2014 October 16th release of its own Mac Mini. The Mac Mini is a tad more expensive (starting at around $499) is a full powered, full featured and comes with Apple’s latest IOS. Its footprint is around 7.7 inches square by and inch and half or so. Any Mac user will love this mini Mac because it’s essentially a “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” version of a Mac system.

How Low Can You Go?

But just how small can these devices really become? The actual limit is the size of the connected port you need. You need physical space for video, audio, network etc… ports. However the more we move to higher speed wireless devices the less you need physical connected ports. One day we will easily have match box sized PC’s. Some futurists have even predicted nano-sized computing devices. I don’t know about nano- sized devices, but they would be cool because you could attach them to most anything which is where this article started.

These new small footprint, full featured personal computer systems will allow us to upgrade the smarts of many of our personal devices we currently have at home or in our offices. Want a smart TV? Just plug in a small footprint PC. Want to have your own steaming music or video service, just plug in a small footprint PC and add software for your specific needs. Need to clear up desk space. These little devils are a pint sized godsend for saving space and removing clutter.  I don’t know about other people, but I really like the idea of connecting one of these devices to my large flat panel TV. The idea that I can have two full screens on my desk with “virtually no desktop PC” is very appealing. So the next time you go shopping for a new desktop PC, think small, Tupperware small and save all your desktop space for important things like pictures of your family, your lunch or other necessities of life.


Hector Cisneros is the president and COO for W Squared Media Group LLC. A digital Marketing Agency in the N.E. Florida Area. He is also the co-host of the BlogTalkRadio Show Working The Web To Win. W Squared Media also does Business as Working The Web To Win online and in Florida.