90s

The 90s in one glorious photo.

Once upon a time, desktop computers actually did fit on your desktop (though they looked pretty horrible). Even then, though, they were quite cumbersome. With the ATX motherboard standard, and the rise of more popular ‘tower’ enclosures, PC cases seem to have gotten bigger, and usually end up being relegated to the floor. At the same time, though, the trend in recent years has been towards mobile computing. Since CPUs and GPUs have become smaller, cheaper, and more power efficient, for most general use cases, the added computing power of a desktop does not compensate for its larger size, power usage, and noise.

However, even though homes are ditching the desktop, there are still some distinct advantages to owning one:

  • A lot more computing power per unit of currency
  • Expandability and serviceability
  • The ability to customise components to your requirements

Despite this, the cumbersome ATX enclosure factor still looms large, unless you are willing to sacrifice things like cooling, expandability, ease of service, and graphics power. If you make these sacrifices, a laptop suddenly becomes a more attractive alternative. But components have become far better in recent years. Intel have shrunk their die every couple of years or so, resulting in more transistors on less silicon. This means that processors are cheaper, faster, less power hungry, and run cooler.1It looks like progress in this area is slowing, however, at least until some physical hurdles are overcome. The last one – temperature – is the key for creating a more compact computer system. Not only has the advance allowed for smaller and faster portable computing, it also has alleviated the need for extreme cooling solutions in desktops. A similar trend has followed in the graphics department, with nVidia, in particular, having managed to achieve high performance at relatively low wattages.

Aside from core processing components, the other big space sucker in desktop computers has been drives – both hard and optical. Optical drives are pretty much dead in most computing devices now (I wrote about this previously). Hard storage too has undergone a pretty dramatic change. The 3.5″ mechanical hard drive, which has been standard for decades, and has required a large amount of physical space to accommodate (especially when multiple drives are required) is now on its way out. Solid State Drives (SSDs) have become standard in the last few years, although capacities are yet to match the traditional hard drive. They offer a huge speed advantage, and since there are no moving parts, they use less power, generate less heat, and make no noise. Originally, these drives came in a 2.5″ form factor, and this still appears to be the most popular today. But since the memory chips themselves require little space, it is quite easy to put them on a small PCB which slots directly into a motherboard. Although these are more expensive at this point in time, they allow for faster speeds (using PCI, and potentially even the same channel as used for RAM in future).

Towards a new desktop standard

Here are the innards of a good ATX case from tweakers.net. Ignoring the depth, this is 45cm high and 52cm across:

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Here’s a schematic diagram version (the number of pixels is equal to the number of mm to make the size translation easy):

cases.001

Let’s try to stick to the existing components and see how we can improve upon the design. You can see that the entire right section has been taken up by hard drive and optical drive bays. Given motherboard-based storage, we can go ahead and cut all of that out:

cases.002

Already a lot smaller. The case has a smaller footprint but is the same height. It’s a bit of a topple risk though, so let’s rotate it:

cases.003

At the moment, we are sticking to a standard ATX motherboard. Since we are moving exclusively to on board SSDs, the 7 expansion slots may not be enough. A graphics card takes up 2 slots, leaving us with 5 potential drive slots, but we may have other cards that we want to use too. One solution would be to use the Ultra ATX motherboard, which is the same as a regular ATX, but with 3 extra PCI slots:

cases.004

Notice that I’ve still tried to leave some room around the edges for cable routing. Therefore, a very simple rearrangement has led to this:

cases.005

In two dimensions, the regular ATX version is now 28cm high by 43cm wide. The ultra ATX version is 49cm wide but the same height. Note a couple of things. First, we have not compromised performance, expandability or ease of service in any way, unlike the reduced form-factor desktop PCs we have been seeing lately. Secondly, we are using existing component designs. It is entirely possible that once computers are just reduced to this ‘one board’ interior, we can see an overall redesign of the motherboard, or a change in power supply dimensions. Notice that a longer but thinner power supply would reduce the overall width of the case.2We could even use an external power brick, but I hate them, and I don’t think I’m alone.

The one thing we haven’t addressed here is case depth. This hasn’t changed much, owing to the fact that the power supply and the graphics card take up some space in the third dimension. However, thinner power supplies are available. There is also something we could do with the graphics card – mount it parallel (rather than perpendicular) to the motherboard and have a ribbon cable running to the motherboard for connection. Not only would this allow for a slimmer case, it would completely alleviate the problems you get with other slots being blocked by large graphics cards.

With not a lot of work and existing components, we have managed to improve upon desktop computer design without compromising on performance. Yes, there are some practical considerations that I’ve ignored, but I imagine these would be easily solvable by experienced system builders. As components require less cooling than in the past, as long as we are careful about maintaining good air flow, we can get away without wasting huge amounts of space. What’s more, since we have less weight, the computer isĀ  more likely to be portable in a similar way to a games console, and yet able to provide far greater functionality.

Notes   [ + ]

1. It looks like progress in this area is slowing, however, at least until some physical hurdles are overcome.
2. We could even use an external power brick, but I hate them, and I don’t think I’m alone.