Thinking smaller


If you've ever visited a Disney theme park, you might recall the "It's a Small World" ride.

As you drift through the building on mini-boats, hundreds of robotic children from around the world sing their annoyingly memorable song about the shrinking nature of our planet.

Soon, they could be singing about computers.

For years now, the fundamental building blocks of personal computers have been shrinking, at least in the sense that you can pack more and more power or storage into the same space.

Hard drives, for example, have soared in capacity from 20 megabytes to 200 gigabytes and more, although the space needed to house them has remained constant. The same goes for microprocessors and RAM chips, both of which blow away earlier generations in more or less the same space they occupied.

As so often happens, Apple Computer was the first to seize on this opportunity, producing computers in eye-catching new shapes and sizes.

It has taken far too long for the rest of the computer industry to catch on. The boring beige box remains the standard desktop configuration. Mercifully, that's beginning to change.

Prompted by yet another round of miniaturization, computer makers finally seem willing to rethink what PCs can look like. The result could be a revolution not just in style but in convenience.

That boring beige box, for example, no longer need be the size of a small suitcase. Increasingly, it is offered in smaller versions more akin to a briefcase. Whether stored on an actual desktop, or on the floor nearby, the box occupies far less real estate than it once commanded.

These devices are commonly known as "small form factor" PCs, and are especially popular among businesses that want to conserve employee workspace.

Similarly, the growing affordability of flat-panel display screens means that computer users no longer have to sit in front of a giant picture tube.

Taken together, smaller boxes and smaller screens result in slimmed-down computers that have less than half the volume and weight of their predecessors. And that means computers are easier to store, use and move.

If it ended there, such improvements would be pleasing but hardly earth-shattering. Yet those are only the beginning of changes that cutting-edge PC builders are toying with. Others are:

Cube-like machines, no bigger than a shoebox. PCs that fit inside the computer's monitor. Wireless PCs that can easily be carried around the home or office, such as the growing category of tablet computers.

Small is indeed beautiful.

Of course, slim and shapely PCs aren't for everyone. Dedicated computer games typically favor larger PC boxes with plenty of expansion slots for bigger hard drives, faster graphics cards and ear-shaking sound cards. Similarly, high-tech hobbyists like enough room inside so they can tinker and tune their computers by hand.

But the vast majority of computer users never go "under the hood" on their PCs. Sure, they like power and performance and plenty of storage. But they like it even better if it comes in a small, convenient package.

Turns out the Disney kids were right. It is a small world, after all.

The Hartford Courant is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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