Tech Innovation

The changing face of the personal computer

Dean Evans Technology Writer Twitter

According to IDC, worldwide shipments of traditional PCs (desktop, notebook and workstation) posted an 0.6% rise in the first quarter of 2017, the first since 2012. But that’s not the whole story. With growth in the US driven by sales of Chromebooks, it reveals that the idea of the ‘traditional PC’ has changed.

IBM launched the first PC, aka Personal Computer, back in 1981. While the IBM 5150 was a bulky machine with a 4.7MHz Intel 8088 processor, a mere 64K of memory and a pair of 5.25-inch floppy disks, it defined the look of desktop PCs for years to come. But 36 years later, our idea of a personal computer isn’t just one type of machine, it’s many.

Compute Stick
Devices like the Intel Compute Stick, for example, cram an entire PC into a USB dongle the size of a pack of chewing gum. Plug one into the back of any HDMI display and you transform it into a Windows 10 computer with 2GB of memory, built-in WiFi and Intel HD Graphics, all powered by a quad-core Intel Atom CPU.

Intel Compute Stick
This Intel Compute Stick is a Windows 10 PC the size of a pack of chewing gum.

Mini PC
I remember my first PC — a beast of a 386, unashamedly beige, with a chassis as lightweight as a sack of bricks. In contrast, you can hold one of today’s mini PCs in the palm of your hand with ease. These miniaturised desktops, like the Intel NUC or Acer Revo, provide another alternative to the traditional idea of a PC. They’re small and discrete, perfect as a space-saving desktop or as part of a home entertainment system.

Acer Revo Build Mini PC at IDF 2016 Shenzhen
The Acer Revo Build is a compact base unit that can be stacked with additional modular upgrades.

All in one
Some PC are simply variations on the traditional desktop. The All In One (AIO) PC defines a computer where the PC and the monitor are integrated into the same case.

While AIOs, like the Dell XPS 27 and the Apple iMac with 5K Retina display, are popular today, the form factor predates the 1981 IBM PC. The Olivetti Programma 101 from 1965, for example, combined a keyboard, printer and processor into one revolutionary supercalculator.

Dell XPS 27 CES 2017
This Dell XPS 27 All In One desktop PC features 10 speakers for the ultimate in PC audio.

While the Osborne 1, released in 1981, can argue for its place in computing history as the first commercially-available laptop computer, it wasn’t until 1985 that the Toshiba T1100 took the ‘clamshell’ form factor mainstream. It wasn’t until the 90s, however, that laptops started to catch on and provide a real alternative to desktop systems.

Lenovo ThinkPad
This Lenovo ThinkPad represents the traditional clamshell design that has proved so popular.

As the IDC story points out, “the commercial PC market came out strong mostly backed by growth of Chromebooks.” Again, it’s a variation on the idea of a traditional PC. This time, while all the technology inside remains the same, a Chromebook drops the heavyweight Windows OS in favour of the Linux-based Google Chrome OS.

Samsung Chromebook Plus
The Samsung Chromebook Plus gives you a laptop form factor with a lightweight, tablet-style OS.

Is a tablet a PC? A device like the Microsoft Surface Pro 4 would argue so. Microsoft’s messaging is that the Surface Pro is a “tablet that can replace your laptop.” After all, add the thin Type Cover to its 12.3-inch PixelSense Display and you can turn it into a more traditional portable PC.

Microsoft Surface Pro 4
The Microsoft Surface Pro 4 is a Windows tablet that can transform into a laptop.

2 in 1
If you can turn a tablet into a laptop with the addition of a keyboard, then a 2 in 1 works the other way around. Machines like the Dell XPS 13 and the Lenovo Yoga 910 typically offer users four ways to use their device — a traditional laptop configuration plus tent, stand and tablet (by either folding the display back on itself or detaching the screen) modes.

Yoga 910 7th generation core
The versatile Yoga 910 is a 2 in 1 that can be used in one of four different positions.

If a tablet can be considered a personal computer, then it’s not much of a stretch to consider a smartphone as one. After all, with modern apps and cloud computing services, you can work on a Samsung Galaxy S8 or LG G6 and be surprisingly productive.

At one end of the wearable PC spectrum you have a backpack PC like the MSI VR One, designed for untethered virtual reality gaming. At the other, developer Nick Lees managed to get Windows 95 running on an Apple Watch back in 2016.

MSI VR One backpack PC
The MSI VR One packs an Intel Core i7 PC into a plastic backpack.

Even the traditional desktop computer has been transformed. Today’s PCs don’t look much like the big beige boxes and sombre towers of yesteryear. The Deepcool Tristellar from Scan looks like a three-pointed star, while the ASUS Republic of Gamers G20CB Gaming PC looks like it’s been sculpted from slabs of Welsh slate.

Tristellar deep cool case
This Tristellar PC case moves away from the traditional desktop tower design. Far away…

Yes, the tag ‘PC’ still tends to mean an x86 computer that uses a monitor, mouse and keyboard. But a ‘personal computer’ doesn’t have to be a traditional desktop, laptop or workstation. It can be anything inbetween, big or small, high-end or low-powered, portable or desk-bound.

The sort of computer you buy will ultimately depend on what you want to use it for. Check out some of your options here.

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