Saturday, 10 January 2009

Why the Budget All-in-One Desktop Will (NOT!) Fail

I just read an interesting post on Wired about the phenomenon of all-in-one desktop computers, built with laptop or netbook components (for example the Asus Eee Top). They point out that budget devices such as netbooks do well in poor economic conditions, and that compartmentalisation has proven acceptable in many Apple devices. However, they then go on to claim that these devices will fail because they're not mobile. Huh?

These devices aren't intended to be mobile! They're intended to be cheap and cheerful desktops that nonetheless look good. The fact is, great as netbooks are, you would NOT want to use one as your primary computer, unless you used it for only a few minutes a day. For a price that's not much more than a netbook, these devices offer a full-sized screen and keyboard. And I don't know about anyone else, but I find I'm often more productive on a desktop than a laptop for tasks that require you to spend long lengths of time typing, such as coding. An ergonomic desktop will always be more effective for that kind of task than a laptop which is designed for mobility.

Furthermore, they're missing the point. These are affordable, stylish devices for the ordinary user, rather than the type of user who reads Wired. They don't actually need to be that powerful. Here's what the ordinary user tends to use their computer for:
  • Web browsing (typically Facebook or another social network, eBay, maybe Flickr etc, and sometimes buy something online)
  • Email
  • Instant messaging
  • Writing letters
  • Sync their iPod
And that's pretty much it. These machines will perform fine for this kind of task. Ultimately they are designed for people who use their computer primarily as a portal to the Internet.

I suspect the Wired writer may have fallen into the "power user trap". Just because a power user wouldn't necessarily find it a good deal doesn't mean everyone else would feel the same way. These are ideal computers for the following uses:
  • A child's computer (I believe strongly that children should have their own computer if possible, it encourages them to tinker with it in a way you wouldn't want them to do if they had to share the family computer)
  • For elderly relatives.
  • People who just want to surf the net etc
  • A first computer for almost anyone
They compared it to the iMac. Well, that's a far more expensive computer, so you'd expect it to have a lot more features. No-one would consider these as an alternative to the iMac, nor would they consider the iMac as an alternative to these.

In fact, I've been considering buying some kind of small form factor desktop myself, because I really don't have the room for a full-sized desktop, but I really could do with that kind of productivity boost. I have had back problems caused by using a laptop in the past, and also have occasionally suffered from RSI, so a desktop might work better for me as my main computer. I'm not much of a PC gamer, and I prefer Linux to Windows or OS X so I can get by with a machine that isn't very powerful - just use a minimal window manager like Fluxbox.

There's several options - one of these net-tops like an Eee Top, a Mini-ITX machine (has the advantage that it comes without an OS so I could just install a Linux distro of my choice), an Eee Box, or a Mac Mini. If Apple had actually updated the Mac Mini like they were rumoured to have done then I might well have gone for that as I already have a mouse and keyboard I could use, I'd just need to buy a display for it (although I strongly suspect that a Mac Mini refresh is on the cards at some point later this year, maybe when Snow Leopard is released, and if I hadn't got a desktop by that point a refreshed Mini with Snow Leopard would be a strong contender). So either the Mini-ITX or Eee Box might work well for me.

So, in my opinion the phenomenon of the budget All-in-one desktop will not fail, because it's targeted at ordinary users, and it's often hard for power users to appreciate what people like that want.

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