|The Future of Computer Enclosures|
|Articles - Opinion & Editorials|
|Written by Olin Coles|
|Sunday, 20 February 2011|
The Future of Computer Enclosures
I was born in the mid-1970s, and can vividly remember the lead-sleds that rolled with a curb weight similar to moving vans. It reminds me of modern-day desktop computer cases, which is why it's difficult to ignore the trends circling the industry of late. For each year that I've have been professionally involved with computer technology (which officially began for me around 1998), the same collective trends have repeated themselves without relent. Originally, giant-sized computer cases painted in beige were once the de facto standard for system builders wanting to construct their own IBM clone personal computer from separate components. The focus of this early trend seemed to revolve around chassis strength or add-in hardware capacity for drives and fans, while fashion was completely overlooked and creature comforts were roundly neglected. I believed this horrible trend would phase itself out around the turn of the century, but when Y2K came and went and there was still significant demand for large full-tower cases I knew something was wrong.
Despite a growth in system building interest, beige was still the only color you'd expect on the palette when choosing a computer case. This was still at an early time when every enclosure was built of steel. By today's standard it seemed hopeless, because the most any hardware enthusiast could expect from high-end computer cases of this era were colorful (usually purple) plastic cages for small 60mm cooling fans; 92mm in some rare cutting-edge occasions. Case strength was still a marketing buzz word used in advertisers to show how much lumpy geek weight could be supported by their chassis. Even though these products were often anchored to the floor due to their excessive weight, a constant spin of marketing hype seemed to hypnotize the masses. This is all slowly bringing me to my point, which is: the more things change in this industry, the more they seem to remain the same. Now more than ten years later, we're still building our PCs with the same heft as an Oldsmobile Toronado.
Sometime around 2002 there would be a change to desktop-style personal computers, and they would eventually evolve away from the bland beige-syndrome condition that plagued the industry for decades. Around this time tier-one OEM's like Dell began shipping desktop systems with a black contoured plastic shell, and aftermarket chassis manufacturers began selling aluminum versions of their own cases. It would take a little while to catch on, but once it did we began to see colored plastic bezels and see-through side-panel windows available on just about everything that could hold a motherboard. With the exception of a few minor tweaks here and there, today's computer cases have remained virtually the same product as a decade ago. Thanks to smartphones and netbooks, the computer industry has changed so much that the landscape now looks very different from those first days I began eating in bytes. Ironically, everything else in the computer industry has become more compact and efficient - except the modern desktop computer enclosure.
There are three major problems with this portion of the market, as I see it. The first is the advertiser-driven premise that computer cases must be rugged and durable enough to survive a harsh post-apocalyptic environment. Special welding techniques and solid 3mm aluminum panels are well above and beyond what any normal consumer would actually require, and yet designs like these (read our NZXT Adamas review) were popular then just like they still are now. Since Benchmark Reviews first launched back in March of 2007, I have personally reviewed many dozens of computer cases. I sometimes think that I've seen it all, but then I browse a company's website to discover they've designed a computer case to look like a snail shell. It's a bizarre world for sure, but what can we leave behind as we evolve away from our ancient computing roots?
Hopefully we'll drop the second major issue with this industry: size. Not all that long ago enthusiasts wanted full-tower computers with ten drive bays, and it took almost twenty years to reduce these demands by almost half and make the mid-tower size popular. The desktop platform of modern-day 2011 isn't much different than how it looked a decade ago, but if small form factor (SFF) can catch on, it could see desktops enjoy an extended stay. The last problem is efficiency, a term that I define as using the internal volume to ergonomically place hardware components. Size and construction could be solved together, by making smaller enclosures that require less material and fewer welds. Designing a better chassis system is where we'll see the most competition, because it involves going 'modular'.
Computer Cases Need One Small Step
Small Form Factor (SFF) cases have become more popular over the past few years, and now they make up a measurable portion of the do-it yourself desktop market segment. There's a small portion of enthusiasts already making the shift towards compact (desktop) computing, albeit very slowly, but the platform requires change in order to become mainstream. If consumers could be trained into buying more efficiently, the industry would follow. This is without question the hardest lesson for people to learn, so I'll cover some obvious points that illustrate how much we cling to illogical fundamentals.
Back in the day combo drives didn't exist, and having at least two (or more) optical drives was practically a requirement for anyone wanting to work with CD-ROM and DVD-ROM media formats. Now consumers can easily use a single optical drive that reads and writes to CD, DVD, and Blu-ray Disc media (or HD-DVD is you're a sore loser). This makes it pointless for an enclosure to feature more than two 5.25" external drive bays, three if you're one of the very few people who add-in an aftermarket fan-controller. I think that manufacturers have done an excellent job making I/O ports readily available on the front, top, and side of most cases we see produced. Thankfully the 2.5" external drive bay used exclusively for Reagan-era floppy disk drives are finally gone, making that one less bay that we need. Based on recent desktop system sales most users require only one 5.25" bay in their computer to accommodate an optical multi-drive, so there's obviously some fat to be trimmed from modern designs and small form factor enclosures could play a role.
Another hold-out is the hard drive cage, which has historically (if not traditionally) held up to eight 3.5" hard disk drives. This made sense back around the turn of the century, when capacities were on the level of only 8 GB, but we now currently enjoy a world of affordable multi-Terabyte sized drives that can store a lifetime of movies and music. Even solid state drives are offered in 512GB capacities, and will soon be the standard for storage. It's taken manufacturers only a few years to update their drive cage design to include trays for the 2.5" SSD profile, so perhaps they can see fit to reduce the cage down to four drive trays... or less.
There are two other components that could be optimized: the motherboard and power supply unit. Actually, the motherboard would fine if more people actually used the mATX form factor. mATX motherboards can usually fit up to two PCI-E video cards, so CrossFire and SLI would still be possible. it's not like many people are using the PCI bus anymore, since network adapters, sound cards, and even Bluetooth are now all integrated. Power supply units are a little more difficult, because they've enjoyed the ATX standard for decades. Perhaps it's time for Intel to step in and define a new form factor; one that stretches the PSU but lowers it to half it's current height. Alternatively, cases could use a design that turns the PSU sideways and places it atop the CPU. All fo these things combined could produce a smaller system with the exact same performance we already enjoy.
The average desktop computer user only needs one external 5.25" optical drive bay, and an internal 2.5/3.5" storage drive bay. This has been proven time and again with the masses of converted notebook computer users who have left desktops behind. Power users, like those who build their own PCs, often go the extra mile for better performance. Using more than two 5.25" drive bays could happen, but needing more than four storage drives is unlikely. Even with gamers making up the majority of hardware enthusiasts and system builders, not many of them use more than one PCI-E video card. In fact, according to Steam hardly anyone uses more than two graphics cards. Which brings me into my final thoughts: how much longer are we going to foolishly cling to the past when we build or computer systems?
Manufacturers have tried to introduce more efficient computer case designs in the past, but nobody bought into them. If we continue to do what we've always done, then we can expect to get what we've always gotten: mediaocracy. These companies are still in business for the profit of it, and won't do anything without consumer support. I know what the data says, but I don't know what each of you need out of a computer case. I can begin to imagine that none of you will be using your PC chassis to support body weight while you change a light bulb. I also think that full-tower computer cases, while still in demand for a tiny slice of enthusiasts, are about as necessary for home users as Cadillac Escalades are for grocery-getters. I think it's great that we can have all of this extra space, but personally I think we need manufacturers to begin to think outside the box and come up with product designs more in-line with our evolved hardware needs. Mid-tower cases are a different story, and without some major changes to consumer expectations we'll be stuck with them for a long time to come. Mini-mid towers are a start, but SFF is where most people should be. Where we're at is still in 2002, and nobody is thinking outside the box.