Insight Constellations, Part Four

The New PC: Sticks and Chips

CCS_predicts_lAs the CCS Insight Predictions for 2016 and Beyond event approaches, we’ve been looking back at some recurring themes from Daily Insights in the past year or so. Here’s the fourth part of a list that highlights some clear patterns.

It’s no surprise that computers have become smaller in the past half century, but now they’re appearing in designs approaching the size of a pack of chewing gum: little dongles with full operating systems capable of the connectivity basics. Other PCs are coming in card-sized packages, created to encourage innovation and learning. It’s been a year of sticks and chips.

Stick figures

At the beginning of 2015, Intel introduced a device aptly named the Compute Stick. The PC, about the size of a 10-pack of Wrigley’s chewing gum, runs a full version of Microsoft Windows or Linux on top of a quad-core Intel Atom processor. It plugs directly into an HDMI port in any supporting display and connects to input devices via Bluetooth. The small computer is available on Amazon for as low as $101.

A few months after Intel introduced its stick device, Google and hardware partner Asus unveiled a dongle PC called the Chromebit. It runs Google’s Chrome OS and can convert an HDMI-capable display into a smart, connected device (see Daily Insight: System on a Stick).

Other stick computers have more dedicated purposes. One example is Amazon’s Fire TV Stick — a small device with the role of a set-top box, allowing users to connect to Amazon’s video streaming service. The unit has been available for as low $10, providing households looking to cut the cord or find an inexpensive way to connect the living room to Internet-based content with a tempting way to do so (see Daily Insight: Seven-Pound Scissors).

The “pluggable” was another interesting PC design in 2015. In June, Quanta introduced the Compute Plug: a full computer built into its power adapter. It’s a Windows 10 PC that’s slightly larger than a phone charger, and another example of how components can be stuffed into the smallest of places (see Daily Insight: Plug and Play).

These small PCs aren’t powerhouses, but low-cost components, fanless designs, HDMI-rich displays and cloud computing are combining to enable a class of products that could provide households and enterprises with low-cost Internet appliances offering convenient connectivity.

Open-faced computers

Extremely low-cost, single-board board computers about the size of a playing card aren’t for your average customer, but have become among the hottest products of 2015.

Start-up Next Thing demonstrated how small and inexpensive these can get with its Kickstarter campaign for development of a $9 computer not much larger than an SD memory card. The computer, C.H.I.P., runs on a 1 GHz ARM processor and includes RAM, connectivity, a dedicated graphics unit, 4GB of storage and a version of Linux. Next Thing took only a few days to surge past its fundraising goal of $50,000 in sales by a factor of ten (see Daily Insight: Enabling a Hacking Culture).

In mid-2015, the BBC teamed with several private partners including ARM, Freescale, Microsoft and Samsung to give away 1 million tiny, programmable chip PCs to students in the UK. The small devices and software development kits will enable users to write simple applications and hook into sensors like the built-in accelerometer, magnetometer and Bluetooth connector. It’s a learning initiative, but highlights how inexpensive basic computing power and sensors have become (see Daily Insight: Micro:bit — a Coding Kit for UK Kids).

The Raspberry Pi, launched by the UK-based Raspberry Pi Foundation, has become the flagship product of the single-board computer trend. Wikipedia states that it’s among the fastest-selling PCs in some markets. The $35 Pi isn’t aiming to win any design awards — the credit-card sized computer looks like an abandoned component — but it’s being used to enable innovative products.

Professionals and hobbyists use devices like the Pi and C.H.I.P. to experiment and create. These aren’t PC replacements, but provide the ingredients for learning.

To learn more about our thoughts on the future direction of the industry, sign up for CCS Insight’s Predictions for 2016 and Beyond event on 18 November 2015.

If you’d like to receive free Daily Insight
e-mails every day, click here to sign up