Small form factors may be beautiful, but do home users care?

As an IT journalist I am often asked by friends for my advice when they are thinking of buying some computer kit.

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By  Mark Sutton Published  July 19, 2003

As an IT journalist I am often asked by friends for my advice when they are thinking of buying some computer kit.

Naturally I’m quite happy to share my expertise, although usually when I start explaining what I think about brand X or technology Y, their eyes glaze over and after ten minutes or so I have to wake them up.

On several occasions recently this has happened with notebooks. Typically the friend will ask me what I think of a notebook they have seen on promotion somewhere. My response is the same—‘it looks like a good spec, the brand is pretty reliable, but what do you need a notebook for?’

For most of my acquaintances that don’t need a notebook for work, this is a pretty pertinent question, in my humble opinion. Mostly these friends are going to surf the web, maybe send some email or watch a DVD. Whether the notebook ever goes any further than their front door is arguable, so portability is not an issue, and they are not hardcore gamers (if they were then they would know they need a desktop, not a notebook).

Instead, I ask them if they have considered one of the ultra small form factor PCs that are coming into the market. Something like Shuttle’s XPC can handle all of the computing tasks they need, it is small enough to be stored on a shelf when not in use, and costs a fraction of the price of an expensive notebook. It’s about then that I notice their eyes have glazed over, and I have to wake them up. Needless to say, all of my friends are now the proud owners of expensive new laptops...

But will the small form factor take off? At present, the vendors that are backing the segment with components like boards and CPUs designed for small form factor say they are just on the edge of breaking into the market. The technology is there, systems integrators have the designs in place, but the devices have yet to ship in volume. Once these small form factors are on the shelves in front of consumers, then they predict a booming market.

There are a few obstacles in the way of this market however. One of the most pressing arguments from my friends is that a desktop takes up too much space. They want a PC they can use sitting in bed or in front of the TV, that can be packed away when they are not using it.

A wireless keyboard can go a long way to providing this flexibility, and an LCD monitor will only take up a bit of shelf space, but the display is still the weak point in making small form factors truly flexible and convenient to use in the same way as a laptop.

More important is changing the perception of the buyers. Most of my friends wanted a laptop. They hadn’t given much thought as to whether a laptop was the best device to address their computing needs, it was simply a case that they wanted one.

Educating the end user to consider other form factors will not be easy—it is likely to have the most impact in markets where home users are already used to the idea of using non-PC devices for computing, such as sending email via cable TV—but making buyers aware they have a choice, is going to take marketing investment. The big name PC vendors aren’t showing a lot of interest in promoting the segment—they may have some small form desktops, but they are aimed at the business user not the home user.

This leaves the form factor in the hands of the systems integrators and their channel partners. They have turned out some highly marketable designs, but the question is whether resellers and retailers have enough influence to gain mindshare with the customers. If the customers prove as receptive to the idea as my friends, then good luck to them.

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