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Computers have been shrinking since the day they were first invented. Early computers filled entire rooms, so the release of the personal computer—the PC—was a major breakthrough. A computer that would fit on a desktop! We’re at the point now where a mini PC small enough to hold in one hand can run all your Windows software and even drive a 4K monitor. Here’s a look at the developments that have made the mini computer possible, along with new technology that will help your PC continue to downsize even as it gets more powerful.

Moore’s Law


Chances are you’ve heard this term in reference to PCs. First used in 1970 (by Gordon Moore, an Intel co-founder who should know a thing or two about CPUs), Moore’s Law essentially says that the processing power of computers will double every two years.

On average, Moore’s Law has been pretty accurate. And that’s been a big part of why PCs have shrunk from the size of a room to the point where many are smaller than a laptop.

CPUs Getting Smaller, More Efficient and More Powerful


Processor manufacturers continually refine their products and each CPU generation is smaller, more powerful and more energy efficient than the last.

Haswell vs Broadwell.jpgThe latest chips from Intel are known as the Broadwell series, the fifth generation of its Core-series CPUs. The transistors in this chip are 14 nm (nanometres) in size. To put that in perspective, a sheet of paper is roughly 100,000 nm in thickness. The previous generation Core CPUs used 22 nm transistors and the first generation from 2006 used 65 nm transistors.

That means more transistors (for increased computing power) on a smaller chip. The photo on the right from Intel showing a 4th generation Haswell chip (left) beside a new, smaller Broadwell CPU illustrates the difference just two years makes.

Each generation CPU has been getting more power efficient as well. No big deal in a desktop PC, right? Only laptop owners care about power efficiency. Actually, a more power efficient CPU means less heat and less demand on the power supply. Less room needed to circulate air and a smaller power supply let the desktop PC shrink further. Running with less heat can mean ditching the cooling fan as well, a development that has greatly helped mini PCs.

Integrated Graphics


The processors in modern PCs often include integrated graphics, eliminating the need for a standalone video card. Naturally, this saves considerable space and also cuts down on heat.

Intel has been boosting the integrated graphics capabilities of its CPUs and says that since the first Core CPU was released in 2006, 3D performance has increased by nearly 100 times.

Integrated graphics are why last year I was able to connect a Chromebox small enough hold in a hand to 28-inch 4K monitor and drive the display at its full 3840 x 2160 resolution. It was a pretty impressive demonstration of what a mini PC could do.

New Technology and Shrinking Components


When you crack open a PC case and look inside, the CPU and graphics chips are a big part of what’s taking up space, but there are other components that have been both space hogs and performance bottlenecks.

One of the best examples of this is the hard drive.

Every PC needs storage and the hard drive has dominated the industry for decades. However, a mechanical component with spinning platters and moving heads takes up a lot of space and can use a lot of power.

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A new alternative, SSDs—solid state drives— first started showing up in Ultrabooks and ultraportables like the MacBook Air. They are a fraction of the size of a hard drive, have no moving parts and require less power to operate. They are also a lot faster for writing and reading data, making a PC feel faster. As costs of SSDs have come down, they’ve begun to make their way into desktop PCs as well, for a big savings in space and lowered power requirements. That Chromebox I mentioned earlier? Another reason it can be so small is it skips the hard drive in favour of an SSD.

Speaking of storage, removable storage has also evolved considerably during the tenure of the PC. We went from 5-1/4 inch floppy drives to 3-1/2 inch disks, ZIP drives and CDs to DVD and now we’re at the point where desktop PCs are beginning to ditch the removable media altogether.

Instead, USB ports that were originally intended to connect peripherals are used to mount USB thumb drives. And with 802.11ac Wi-Fi, downloading and installing even something as big as an operating system is practical. Ditching the drives means PCs can get even smaller.

Even those USB ports themselves can shrink. A new standard called USB-C is picking up traction and that means the speed of USB 3.0 with a smaller connector. The combination means peripherals that used to rely on other high speed connection standards such as Thunderbolt could use USB-C instead, reducing the overall number of ports required. Physically shrinking the size of the port plus its versatility means space savings. To get the full scoop on USB-C, check out Gadjo Sevilla’s post covering this latest development in PC connectivity.

How Small Will PCs Get?

 

In part, this depends on your definition of a PC and what you want to be able to do with it. We’re already seeing new “PC on a stick” devices coming out from Intel and Google that put all the basics on something the size of a large thumb drive. Plug one of these into a TV’s HDMI port and you have a functional PC or Chromebox. You wouldn’t want to try anything fancy on one of these ultra mini PCs, but they help to illustrate just how small the form factor can go.

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When you throw software into the mix, things can get even more interesting. Microsoft’s Windows 10 operating system uses two strategies that blur the line between smartphone or tablet, and a traditional PC: universal apps and Continuum. Together, they let a user run an application like Word or Excel on s smartphone that’s connected to a computer monitor, along with a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse. The user interface adapts to the big display and suddenly that smartphone is running a traditional desktop app, just like a mini computer.

Again, at this point the user experience will be better with software that’s not particularly demanding, but you can see where all this is going. Combine Moore’s Law with ongoing miniaturization and new technology like USB-C, and today’s mini PCs are just the start of what’s to come.

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Read more about Windows 10, universal apps and Continuum here. To see how technology has also led to ultra thin laptops with all day battery life, read my post on the incredible shrinking laptop.

Brad Moon
Editor Computing solutions
I’m a long-time electronics and gadget geek who’s been fortunate enough to enjoy a career that lets me indulge this interest. After 13 years as a product manager with a leading Canadian tech company, I transitioned into a full-time career of writing about technology. I’ve contributed to a range of publications and websites including Forbes, Wired, Gizmodo, Lifehacker, About.com, MSN Money, the Winnipeg Free Press, InvestorPlace Media, Shaw Media and—combining technology and my three kids—I’ve been a Core Contributor to the award winning GeekDad blog since its launch in 2007.