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Written by Olin Coles   
Thursday, 13 June 2013

Desktop Computer Hardware Component Predictions

What once was, will (never) be again.

For the past six years it has been my duty to contact product manufacturers, and arrange test samples of cutting-edge products for our review team. Since BenchmarkReviews.com started back in 2007, I have repeatedly enjoyed hands-on experience with exotic desktop PC computer components that most techies can only dream of owning. Together with my computer business, I've been afforded a broad view of the market, one that has given me a unique opportunity to see new trends emerge while watching old fads quietly fade away (ie: Rambus RD-RAM, OCZ NIA, HD-DVD, and various Virtual Reality gadgets). My experiences within the hardware industry have enabled me to predict where the technology is driving us with some accuracy, based on historical lessons the younger generation have forgotten. In this editorial I will explain what could happen next in the desktop computer hardware segment, as it attempts to co-exist with a mobile mega-industry.

Things are different in 2013, but it wasn't so long ago when someone could walk into any Best Buy, CompUSA, or Fry's Electronics store and purchase all the necessary computer components right off the shelf to build a complete desktop PC. Hardware items such as computer cases, fan controllers, sound cards, network adapters, optical disc drives, graphics cards, and even processor heatsinks were all readily available. But eventually the demand for desktop components waned, giving way to notebook computers and other portable electronic devices. CompUSA would be forced to close all their stores for lack of demand, and although Best Buy and Fry's shared the remaining customers, shrinking profits would force computer hardware components to yield to the more popular selling mainstream items. What wasn't discontinued for lack of margin, would become end-of-life as it was forced out of the market.

Fan controllers were an interesting component from the days when motherboards lacked the power connections and cases offered no form of speed management. Now most computer enclosures either come with built-in fan controls, or feature fans with variable speed selections. This leaves very little demand, causing it to become a niche item produced in small supply. The same is true for heatsinks, primarily because it has become so costly for manufacturers to keep up with ever-changing socket profiles that emerge every year, but also because most processors have placed emphasis on reduced power consumption which in turn reduces the need for aftermarket cooling. What is fresh and compatible today, becomes stale and unnecessary tomorrow. The modern version of these brick-and-mortar retail computer hardware stores have much less to offer PC builders these days, relegating low-demand components into online catalogs with parts stored deep inside a warehouses distribution center.

Luckily for some, computer hardware never truly goes extinct; it merely lingers on the endangered species list, potentially forever. There are enough consumers the world over that someone, somewhere, has kept something that is no longer made. One of our own staff writers collects rare HP calculators from the 1960's, some of which are so scarce that only two exist on the entire planet. But his collection proves that even the most outrageously obsolete devices can be bought and sold over fifty years later (for way more money than they're worth). So I acknowledge that desktop computers, of any make and from any era, will continue to exist in some small number across the globe until the end of time. But just like the first floppy disk drives, all things come to a useful ending when they're replaced by more advanced technology, such as the optical disc drive. Until, it too, became obsolete.

The momentum of technology pushes the old out of the way, and brings us the new. For half a century people used floppy diskette technology, before transitioning to disc media that contained far more storage space. Apple no longer includes optical disc drives on their computers, and most PC builders have also skipped the ODD in their system builds, both for good reasons. The floppy disk topped out at just over 1MB (excluding less popular high-density models), which were replaced by 800MB CDs, 4/9GB DVDs, and 25GB Blu-ray discs. But the cost of disposable plastic discs and the corresponding optical drive cannot compete with USB flash drives, which can store 64GB of data for half the cost and more than ten times the transfer speed. But in good time, the USB flash drive will also join the ranks of floppy and disc media on the endangered species list, as Internet bandwidth improves and online 'Cloud' storage make physical media less relevant. Eventually everything becomes obsolete, replaced by a technology that forces it off of store shelves.

None of this surprises anyone, at least not now, but back in 2010 when I wrote my Fears and Predictions for the desktop PC Platform, it was a bitter pill to swallow for most enthusiasts. So allow me this opportunity to foreshadow my predictions with a bit more history: once upon a time system builders had to purchase a sound card for their motherboard, if they wanted audio output from the computer. Practically everyone with a computer had a sound card installed inside it, or they simply didn't have sound. This had been the standard for decades, right up until every single motherboard made featured an integrated audio chip that could deliver high-definition sound. It took a few years to change the landscape, but now modern discrete sound cards have evolved into extremely rare and expensive niche items that offer miniscule improvement over the included alternative.

 HT Omega CLARO

Another historical example is the desktop computer case. The tower-style enclosure has been around since the dawn of the desktop PC, ranging in size to squat little mini-mid tower designs and growing to ultra-tower skyscraper heights. At the beginning of 2010, I predicted that the age of over-sized computer cases would soon be behind us in my Computer Chassis Final Thoughts. Later, in an article titled The Future of Computer Enclosures, I argued that small form-factor (SFF) enclosures would become the new standard. It has been barely more than three years since then, but now the industry is awash with SFF choices to appease enthusiasts building now-popular compact mATX or Mini-ITX computer systems. Along with All-In-One systems that fit an entire computer behind a built-in LCD monitor panel, this preference towards a smaller system restricts component size, and has already begun to force hardware manufacturers into adopting compact profiles or integrated designs.

Nobody can dispute the popularity of mobile phones and other portable computing devices, such as notebooks and tablet computers. It's a fact: desktop PC sales, both commercial boxes and enthusiast components, are in steep decline. At the same time, mobile devices are selling at rates no other electronic device has sold before. For example: with each discrete video card sold, there might be ten desktop processors, or a hundred notebook computers, or a thousand portable devices, or even ten-thousand mobile phones sold. For decades the cutting-edge desktop tech helped pave the way for compact applications. But with the understand that consumer markets are ruled by supply and demand, it stands to reason that mobile technology is going to eventually replace most aspects of the computer industry, right down to desktop technology. Essentially, waves that once rippled desktop tech into the mobile space have now started sending back new waves in the opposite direction.

Previously mentioned end-of-life hardware such as the optical disc drive, fan controller, or sound card, are already midway into their transition towards obscurity. Their fate is sealed. However, the transition away from full-tower computer systems in place of small form factor builds is happening now, and is gaining support. But the primary reason for this article is because I've spotted a few additional trends that seem unlikely today, but could become commonplace after a few more years. My first prediction is for the eventual replacement of hard disk drive (HDD) storage devices with solid state drive (SSD) counterparts, followed by rarity for the component SSD itself. My other prediction is for the eventual irrelevance of discrete graphics cards, like the one pictured below.

NVIDIA_GeForce_GTX_780-3qtr.jpg

High-end discrete graphics: only $649.99 (Amazon|Newegg), the same price and size of a portable computer.

The hard disk drive presently has two remaining strongholds: large consumer storage applications, and enterprise datacenters. Despite having much faster transfer speeds, longer potential life cycle, and instant response times, the solid state drive still fails to match HDDs on price/GB, storage capacity, and a proven MTBF that exceeds magnetic storage. Once SSDs surpass HDDs in terms of value and reliability, we'll see hard disk storage products sell for a fraction of their cost just before going the way of the floppy drive. But this won't keep SSDs around for much longer, because their fate is already being sealed.

Sealed-up into compact electronic devices, that is, such as mobile phones, tablets, and some notebook computers. Given enough demand on the market, we could soon see solid state NAND components bonded to desktop motherboards and sold by capacity. This isn't a new idea, mind you, as it's been attempted before with relative success. As more notebook manufacturers build integrated storage into their products, and as desktop motherboards become purely niche and cause longer intervals between platform releases, the component (SATA, mSATA, and PCI-E) solid state drive will have fewer places to call home.

Then comes discrete video cards, which will find themselves replaced by integrated graphics for a myriad of reasons. Make no mistake, discrete graphics will continue to outperform integrated counterparts for the next several years, but there will come a time not far off into the future when the technology has grossly outmatched the application. While integrated graphics presently account for the largest portion of all desktop systems, they are not well suited for modern 3D video games. Those same games, however, haven't pushed the envelope for quite some time, and many games perform just fine using integrated graphics.

Progress has certainly been made up to this point, and single-chip graphics solutions such as Intel Iris and AMD APUs are now capable of modest 3D gaming performance at lower resolutions or multimedia encoding/decoding. Not everyone will use a discrete graphics card to play high-demand games such as Battlefield or Batman; many people can enjoy WoW, GW2, WoT, Eve, Sims, and most other short-named titles with their integrated graphics. Call of Duty: Black Ops II plays fine with modern integrated graphics, and the recently released blockbuster BioShock Infinite plays well (albeit at lower quality) with integrated graphics.

Next-generation XBOX ONE and PlayStation4 game consoles will lock down DX11-level graphics for another seven years, allowing software developers to tailor their titles towards mainstream gamers on consoles, notebooks, and in some cases tablets or phones. At the same time Intel and AMD will continue to improve their technology to the point that discrete graphics no longer makes sense to anyone other than hard-core gamers and 3D modeling professionals. At that point, we might even see NVIDIA make the unprecedented move towards developing integrated GPU support of their own.

These are my predictions. HDDs could be obsolete in as soon as three years, components SSDs might become scarce in just as many years or less. Integrated graphics becoming the mainstream solution could take at least three years, but closer to five before discrete graphics manufacturers begin to abandon the platform. I've been right several times before, but until 3D Camera Technology Becomes The Future there is still room for error in my estimations.

COMMENT QUESTION: How closely do you think these predictions will match with reality?


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