Thresholds in computing: Part 4 – Death of the desktop

(Part 4 in a series of posts on small-form-factor computing)

The oversized desktop #

I said something pretty obvious in the last post: “when we shrink a desktop by 50%, it does not necessarily become 50% slower, nor does it use 50% less power—power consumption and processing speed do not scale with size.” At that point I could imagine you, rolling your eyes at me and going “well duh!”. Perhaps you might try to explain to me why PC makers still use size as a segment differentiator:
Dell Inspiron 660s, 2013. Configurable up to i3 processor.
Dell Inspiron 660s, 2013. Configurable up to i3 processor.

Dell Inspiron 660, 2013. Configurable up to i5 processor.
Dell Inspiron 660, 2013. Configurable up to i5 processor.

Dell Inspiron XPS 8700, 2013. Configurable up to i5 processor.
Dell Inspiron XPS 8700, 2013. Configurable up to i5 processor.

Make a guess how much empty space is in each one. It’s hard to find pictures of each with side panels removed, but they are unlikely to be much different from images you have seen in the previous two posts.

Side note: The 660s is too narrow to fit a full-width graphics card, so it is definitely not an option for a gaming build. Yet it still occupies a larger volume than the SG08, which does accommodate mid-end gaming builds.

If size scaling does not translate to proportional increases in performance, why do PC makers do this? Whatever their reasons—economies-of-scale, or marketing (making “traditional” desktops less attractive compared to all-in-one desktops)—clearly their desktop systems can afford to be much smaller without sacrificing performance.

Death of the desktop #

Each time sales figures at the turn of the quarter- or half-year are reported, a fresh spate of desktop-is-dead op-eds never fail to pop up on various tech blogs. I’m not going to agree, disagree, or comment on these (it would take up much, much more than one blog post). Rather, I want to point out some perspectives that these articles adopt, that are worth revisiting.

  1. The desktop as a desk-based OS. Some articles can’t help heaping on Windows 8(.1) and how ill-adapted it is for single-apping, or ripping into its various UI issues. I just want to point out that Android has already been ported to x86, and does already run on x86-based smartphones. The Dell Venue 7 and 8 will run Android on Intel Atom (x86) processors. The desktop is a hardware platform, and does not necessarily come bundled with Windows.
  2. The desktop as a tethered system. Desktops these days come in all sorts of sizes, although dead-desktop analysts like to write about them as the familiar huge and chunky towers that I am also talking about.
    We have thin-and-lights like the IdeaCentre Q190 series, with specs similar to mid-range laptops.
    We have all-in-ones (AIOs) like the Dell XPS 18″ Touch, which comes with processor options ranging from Pentiums to i7s (the ultrabook kind), and battery life up to 5 hours.
    Or the Dell XPS 23″ Touch, configurable up to a gaming-laptop i7.
    Or for LAN gaming, the Lian Li TU200 case, basically a carrying case with handle into which you can build an ITX system.

    While we’re trying to bury unnecessarily bulky desktop towers here, let’s be more astute before we lay all desktops to rest.

  3. Portability as an all-or-nothing checkbox. Tablet = portable. Laptops = portable. Desktops = not portable. That’s the impression I get from reading death-of-the-desktop articles. Naturally, since it would be harder to declare the desktop dead if we can’t also call it non-portable.

    Asus Transformer AiO P1801
    Asus Transformer AiO P1801

    What about the ASUS Transformer AiO P1801? Or “desktop replacement” laptops like the Eurocom X5? Or the aforementioned XPS 18 Touch? A more comprehensive idea of portability lies at the intersection of weight, size, and untethered functionality, not just a simple marketing classification.

    Dell XPS 18 with optional stand
    Dell XPS 18 with optional stand

    Sometimes all you need is an entertainment device to carry with you at all times. Sometimes you just need a way to share data between work and home (carrying a laptop to and fro is only one way of achieving that). Sometimes you just want to be able to take whatever you are doing from your desk (if you have one) and bring it to the couch (if you have one). Let’s not take our proverbial laptop/tablet hammer and apply it to every computing-need nail.

  4. The desktop as a power-guzzling behemoth. Welcome to the second decade of the 21st century, when small-form-factor desktops can use mobile processors and be powered by external power adapters.

    Impressions of desktops unfortunately seem to be stuck very much in the Pentium 4 era, and the desktop has maintained a reputation as a power guzzler till today. Desktop power consumption is a very flexible sliding scale, depending on how much you overclock/underclock your desktop, and how much you try to optimise for power consumption (in hardware and software).

    Alienware X51 gaming desktop, between Xbox 360 and PS3 [The Verge]
    Alienware X51 gaming desktop, between Xbox 360 and PS3 [The Verge]

    As far back as 2007, after the Intel Core 2 series was launched, desktop load power consumption fell by as much as 50% (core for core) compared to the Pentium 4 and Pentium D (dual-core Pentium 4). And since then, it has been on a roughly downward trend (load power is now in the 100–140W range for typical high-end quad-core systems). The Alienware X51, a small-form-factor gaming PC, has power consumption ranging from 46W at idle to 172W at load, including a mid-range graphics card. That is of course much higher than for a laptop, but performance is higher as well (not to scale of course, remember what was said about PC allometry).

    Some low-power desktops can have low power consumption (“well duh!” But it hasn’t occurred to most people I ask). The XPS 18″ All-In-One has a 65W AC adapter option, which is what most laptops use. Power consumption is a result of hardware, not form factor.

    That said, the desktop can be a power guzzler. If you overclock a quad-core and throw in two graphics cards, expect power consumption to hit 300W and possibly higher. That does not mean it happens all the time, and certainly not everyone does that on their desktops. It’s time to recalibrate our idea of desktop power consumption.

  5. Laptops as power consumption angels. Laptop reviews seldom go into detail on power consumption for some reason, so it is hard to know for sure just how much power they are using. Again, a lot of impressions about laptop power consumption come from naive ideas about scale: it is small, therefore it must consume little power.

    Eurocom X5 [Anandtech]
    Eurocom X5 [Anandtech]

    At the upper bound, large, expensive workstation notebooks like the Eurocom X5 come with a 180W or 250W AC adapter as part of their standard configuration. Typical laptops come with 65–90W AC adapters. This is not a direct indication of how much power they draw at the wall, only an indication of possible max power—a laptop can’t draw more power than the adapter provides, after all.

The retina Macbook Pro’s official specs peg its idle power at ~17W with display on, ~5W with display off. When running a high-graphics load, it can be drawing ~48W or more.

My brother’s Core 2 Duo laptop idles at ~25W, and loads at 63W, measured with a Kill-A-Watt. These numbers match quite well with what Jeff reports on Coding Horror. Meanwhile, my underclocked, hyperthreaded quad-core desktop idles at ~32W, and goes up to 105W at load. Of course, we need to keep in mind that the laptop’s figures include the LCD’s power usage, which can be 4W or more. But we also need to keep in mind the performance difference between a quad-core hyperthreaded desktop and a dual-core laptop.

The power consumption angels are the ultrabooks and tablet-hybrids. While I don’t have direct power consumption numbers, extrapolating from i7-4500U benchmarks peg its average power usage at ~9W while running PCMark 8 Battery Life benchmarks. My Surface Pro, with an i5-3317U, has a 48W adapter. Meanwhile, tablets stay well below 8W sustained power consumption, because they don’t have fan-blown heatsinks to help them dissipate heat.

Summary #

Reading one too many desktop-vs-laptop articles, it is tempting to think that there are only two sides to this form factor war. We should keep in mind that it has only been seven years since Intel’s Core 2 was launched and desktop processors started their slow descent in power consumption.

While the tech industry tends to move fast, form factors take a while to adjust and establish their niches. Detachable-screen hybrids have only been around for about two years (starting with the Asus Eee Pad Transformer), and today they are still striving for dominance alongside other mobile form factors.

The bulky-tower desktop has been the mainstay of the computing industry for a few decades, but that has already started to change. Today, the desktop market is finally waking up and starting to experiment with different form factors (and about damn time too!). While it is fun to hate on a hated form factor, this is not your father’s desktop we are talking about. The playing field has changed, and it’s time to update our stereotypes.

In Part 3, we eliminated more empty space, shrunk the motherboard and power supply, and crossed a major threshold: by bringing case dimensions close to internal system dimensions, we managed to do away with a few cooling fans, running our SG08-sized system with only 1 case fan. Next, in Part 5, we are going to build something for non-gamers, and see what we can accomplish if we remove the graphics card entirely.

On to Thresholds in computing: Part 5 – Steam Machine, ITX done right

See also

Thresholds in computing: Part 3 – The compact desktop