FOR geeks over 40, the term “pocket PC” might evoke memories of circa 1990s palmtop devices such as the HP 95LX, which looked like a scientific calculator but was actually a computer running MS-DOS and built-in applications such as Lotus 1-2-3 on an Intel 8088-compatible processor. With a primitive LCD screen that could display only 16 lines of text 40 characters wide, this early palmtop PC came nowhere close to the power of the smart phones we take for granted today, but it represented an early stage in the evolution of ultra-portable computers.
Along the way, we saw the development of personal digital assistants such as the Palm Pilot and its successors in the Palm line, as well as Apple’s original tablet, the Newton.
Later on, “Pocket PC” became a hardware specification released by Microsoft for hand-held touch-screen devices capable of running its Windows Mobile operating system. Microsoft dropped the Pocket PC name in 2007, just as Apple’s iPhone was poised to revolutionize mobile phones—and Google’ was waiting to hijack the revolution with its Android operating system.
With the processing muscle and memory built into it these days, the average smart phone is literally a computer in your pocket.
Alongside smart phones, however, new devices are being developed to bring desktop computing power and convenience to compact devices, going much further than the “pocket PCs” in the past.
The smallest so far is the Intel Compute Stick, which was announced at the International CES in Las Vegas earlier this month. About four inches long and resembling a USB dongle, the Compute Stick is a fully-functional PC that you can carry in your pocket.
The Compute Stick is powered by a 1.3GHz quad-core Atom processor and comes with a USB port, a MicroSD slot, a Micro USB port, Bluetooth 4.0 and Wi-Fi.
Plug in the Compute Stick into the HDMI port of your monitor or flat-screen TV and link it to a wireless keyboard and mouse and you’re ready to do some real work.
A Windows 8.1 version, which sells for $149, features 2 gigabytes of RAM and 32GB of storage, while the Linux version that sells for $99 has only 1GB of RAM and 8GB of storage.
While the Compute Stick looks like a really cool device, the dichotomy bugs me. Why sell an underpowered version of the product simply because it is running Linux? Do manufacturers who do this believe that Linux users would be unwilling to pay for the extra memory and storage?
This is not a problem with the MintBox Mini, a mini PC device that runs the popular Mint distribution of Linux.
Compulab, the company that is behind the MintBox hardware, says the MintBox Mini, due in the second quarter this year, will run on a 1GHz quad-core 64-bit AMD A4 6400T processor, a Radeon R3 graphics card, 4GB of RAM and 64GB of internal storage.
The MintBox Mini also comes with three USB 2.0 ports, two USB 3.0 ports, an Ethernet jack, built-in Wi-Fi, sockets for a microphone and headsets, a microSD card reader and two HDMI slots.
The manufacturer doesn’t specify its size, but says it is about 1/5th the size of the earlier MintBox, which measured 19cm x 16cm x 4cm, and is just under an inch thick.
The MintBox Mini will also be three times smaller than Intel’s NUC, small-form factor desktops that were introduced in 2013.
While these won’t quite fit in your pocket, the NUC (short for Next Unit of Computing) packs a lot of power in a compact, mini-desktop package.
At the CES earlier this month, Intel showed off its latest NUC desktops, including a slimmed down version that uses only a solid state drive. The updated NUCs are now designed to use Intel’s fifth-generation Broadwell-U 14nm processors. A Core i3 version is designed for everyday tasks, while Core i5 and Core i7 models are better suited to video and image editing.
Customizable, the latest network-ready NUC models can accommodate up to 16GB of memory and come with two USB 3.0 ports on the back panel, two USB 3.0 ports on the front (one of which can be used for charging), two internal USB 2.0, and an infrared sensor on the front panel. It can also use solid state drives or 2.5-inch hard drives.
As cool as they are, it is unlikely that these compact computers will turn traditional desktops into dinosaurs any time soon, as some pundits predict. In a way, laptops and tablets are already doing that. But the PC desktop too will evolve, and most likely incorporate some of the best features of the mini-desktops that are coming into the market. Chin Wong
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