Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Desktop is Dead

Stick computers like the Chromebit are part of our future- tiny, portable, cheap.

As someone who consults frequently on personal computer issues, it was interesting to hear about a new form factor- the stick computer. The leading example is the Chromebit. Chrome books are better known- petite laptops that give you a Google Chrome browser that is a portal to the whole web, including a series of web apps and soon, android apps as well. The Chromecast product is also better known, as a tiny computer that lets you channel WiFi streams into your TV, using a phone as a remote controller.

The Chromebit is a bit of each, with a small size of the Chromecast, a bargain basement price of $85, and the computer capabilities of a Chrome computer. Like the Chromecast, it plugs into an HDMI port on any TV or monitor. But it turns that screen into a computer, given that web apps such as mail, docs, and storage now allow one to work entirely online, including cloud printing. Storage is negligible, so everything has to go to Google drive or some similar online service. Likewise, connectivity is minimal, with one USB 2.0 port- enough for connecting a camera in a pinch, or a keyboard or mouse, though these should be bluetooth. Naturally, you have to be online to do anything with this device.

Intel and Android also offer stick computers. At $150, the Intel stick is a fully stocked Windows 10 computer, though with only 32G of storage. Android sticks do not offer full computer capability, being restricted to apps, like a tablet, but these capabilities obviously run quite a gamut, from skype to web browsing, voice control, and millions of other programs.

For a person on a tight budget, these computers are an impressive way to get online with minimal expense, and one can use an existing TV to save even more. A full system would run something like...

$85 - computer
$15 - bluetooth mouse
$30 - bluetooth keyboard
$70 - cloud-compatible printer (optional)
$100- monitor with HDMI (or use existing TV)

This is impressive from a budget perspective, but it also indicates something about the future. One can imagine a world where our phones act as the computers behind everthing we do, which we can plug into dumb screens wherever we want, turing them into secure, full computers. Whether the applications also reside in the cloud as Google is working towards, reducing reliance on any local computing power, is uncertain. This depends only on slightly faster network connections than most of us have today to make fully animated clients driven almost entirely from distant sources. How much we can trust those corporate, centralized sources in an always-connected ecosystem to serve us faithfully is, naturally, another question.

Meanwhile, while we are on tech issues, to power all these bluetooth devices, rechargeable batteries are the sustainable and cost-effective solution. Charging such batteries can be tricky. It pays to use a smart charger that operates not just on a timer as most chargers do, but by sensing the status of the battery.

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