Shapes and Sizes

Personal computers come in wide variety of shapes and sizes. What started as a choice of one—the desktop—has become a broad spectrum that includes “stick” computers, NUCs, ultrabooks, 2-in-1s, and all-in-ones. This article will outline some of those choices, and point out some their strengths and weaknesses.

In the early 80s, IBM and Apple each came out with their ideas of the desktop computer. Even today, with all our other electronics, the idea of a non-portable computer isn’t dead. It is true that many of the functions of a desktop PC are now done by portable devices or purpose-built devices, but for some, there is still a place for the power and expandability of a desktop computer, in their many different forms. I’ll get back to desktops later in this article.

Shortly after the introduction of the desktop came portable computers, the earliest of which I like to call “arm-stretching luggable” (I still have mine from 1983). As technology advanced, these became laptops: portable computing power complete with screen, keyboard, and pointing device. These devices tended to have less computing power, and fewer choices for expanding … but they made up for it in their portability. Today, the power and price of laptops make them a strong contender against most desktops. Ultrabooks are simply fast laptops without the extra bulk of a CD/DVD drive.

Over the years, many attempts were made in the area of “tablet” computers, but it took a while to develop the screen and computing technologies required to achieve this goal. Initially, we were satisfied with the PDA, or Personal Data Assistant, but fast forward 30 years and we now have incredible power at our fingertips. A true tablet has no physical keyboard, so many of today’s tablets are actually “2-in-one”s … a tablet with touchscreen when “undocked” from the keyboard, but a laptop when you have a keyboard attached. This is currently the most popular computer form-factor.

Back in 1984, Apple transitioned to an all-in-one desktop design—called the Macintosh—that merged the desktop with the monitor. We now have the iMac, and many Windows all-in-one computers. The advantage of this design is “fewer cables” at the expense of upgradeability: generally speaking, it is more difficult to upgrade all-in-ones, and there is more to throw away as parts die or become obsolete.

Which brings us back to the desktop. They come in many shapes and sizes themselves. The smallest is called the computer-on-a-stick, or stick computer, that simply plugs into USB for power and HDMI for audio/video … they are hugely underpowered, but have their place in some cases. Next, in terms of size, is the NUC (which stands for Next Unit of Computing) … these can be very powerful, even game-worthy, so there’s a good chance this could be your next desktop computer. Then there are the SFF (Small Form Factor) desktops … these can often have issues around cooling and lack of standards, so beware.

Which brings us back to the good old desktop. Not dead. Only fading away.