The Mac Studio – a new compact Mac desktop – is a powerful example of the constantly evolving nature of desktop form factors, driven by a combination of design innovation and technological advances such as the approximate doubling of the number of transistors per silicon chip every two years (a rule observed by engineer Gordon Moore in 1965) and consequent improvements in computer speed and capability.
With thanks to Wikipedia, here are some of the most influential updates and significant recent changes to desktop form factors and styles.
The first personal computers designed for home use hit the market as recently as 1977 – the Apple II, the Tandy TRS-80 Micro Computer System and the Commodore PET. Apple II's features included external storage on cassette tape and eight expansion slots on the motherboard; the TRS-80 a small size and desk footprint and a cassette drive for program storage, and the Commodore PET a single all-in-one case and a cassette deck.
All in one PCs are a single unit that incorporates the case, system components and monitor, providing a smaller form factor than desktop PCs but are typically more difficult to upgrade and lower-performing than their more traditional counterparts. This form factor excelled in the professional market in the 1980s, while Apple embraced the concept with the original Macintosh, and the iMac that revolutionized personal computing in the late 1990s and 2000s.
The concept of the ‘pizza box’ computer emerged in a server context in 1991, but moved to the workstation arena later in the decade with the Sun Microsystems SPARCstation 1 and SPARCstation 5. Other vendors embraced the form factor, with other examples including the SGI Indy, the NeXTstation and the Amiga 1000.
The motherboard influences the location of components and the shape and size of the computer’s case – and the ATX motherboard and power supply configuration, introduced in 1995, has been the benchmark motherboard form factor for personal computers at home and in the office for 25+ years. As this blog points out, ATX motherboards measure 12 inches by 9.6 inches, meet specifications for mount point locations, the I/O panel, power connectors and other connection interfaces and feature six PCIe slots for graphics, sound and network cards. The ATX has a range of smaller cousins, including the 9.6 inch by 9.6 inch MicroATX motherboard, introduced in late 1997 with up to four PCI Express IPCI Express is a serial computer expansion bus standard and the common motherboard interface for PC graphics cards, SSDs, Wi-Fi hardware connections and more) slots, and the 6.7 inch by 6.7 inch Mini-ITX board released in 2001 by Via Technologies, that has just one slot, for a graphics card. The ATX introduced changes not only to motherboard designs but to personal computer cases and power supplies, and is standard for commercial and home-built personal computers.
Continued advances in desktop personal computer performance and capability led to the emergence of small form factor standards that apply to motherboards and computer cases. Small form factor devices include mini-towers and home theater PCs. Wikipedia notes) that small form factor cases came into their own in 2005, when Apple introduced the Mac Mini and the AOPen mini PC MP915 was launched. Today, small form factor computers include cubic or shoebox computers; nettop computers used for internet access; home theater desktops used to deliver media; ultra-compact computers designed for IoT and PC on a Stick, an elongated, single board computer.
Advances in form factors mean companies like multinational HP can complement desktop computers in traditional tower configurations that provide space for components and expansions with microtowers that are a smaller-scale version of the classic tower and slim form factors that provide an even smaller footprint than the microtower, as well as desktop mini-PCs and small form factor PCs.
In addition, server-based desktop computing prompted the emergence of thin clients ¬ small form factor desktop devices that incorporate only an operating system and connect to a server that runs software and performs most required functions.
However, perhaps the most important recent development in desktop computing is the emergence of ‘no form factor’ computing through desktop as a service.
This model sees virtual desktops and applications hosted in the cloud and accessed via any device over the internet, rather than delivered from on-premises data centers or running on the desktop device itself. This makes many traditional form factors redundant and opens new opportunities to innovate – for example, just this month in Singapore, Alibaba Cloud launched its cloud computer, including both the pocket-sized Wuying Cloud Computer, and Elastic Desktop Service (EDS) in Singapore.
The cloud computer brings businesses desktop as a service for faster IT deployment, increased device flexibility, enhanced security and reduced downtime for technical support, as the setup, maintenance, connectivity and storage issues are all managed by Alibaba Cloud.
Cloud-based computing pushes traditional form factors into the background and is solidifying its place as one of the most important developments in the brief but rich history of personal computing – with considerable benefits available for businesses, developers and users.
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