The personal computer era has been around for a while, for those that have missed the memo, and during that time the consumers have had very little say in the direction this industry has headed. What I mean by that is that we, as consumers did not get a say as to when advancements were needed or even wanted. We would make our purchase and suddenly 6 months to a year later find out that we “needed” to buy again. The good news for consumers however, is that over the last couple of years that has changed. The technology has been forced to slow down by more clearly defined consumer demands and software jumping off the hardware bandwagon and working with consumers instead of hardware companies to figure out what the next product needs to have.
The good news is many of the tech companies out there have figure out this shift in the way business is done and have begun to adapt. They have changed the business model from telling consumers what they want to instead listing to what consumers want. However a few old die-hards have decided that they know best and we should listen to them, drink what they tell us as it were.
We can see some of this in todays offerings for consumer level computers. We could start with Apple and spend the entire article there, this is basically their business model and always has been. However I think we should instead focus on Microsoft. Windows 8 is an old story so I am not going to spend a lot of time talking about the OS itself. I have covered that pretty well I think and if you missed the three articles I did on it feel free to browse the archives and read them. However I will focus on their efforts to change the way we look at a computer.
Now let me explain this a bit before I make my point. You see Microsoft has always made an effort to help define the image of a what people see as a personal computer. It was after all in their best interest to exercise some level of control in this area. However up until recently that control has been a quiet guiding hand. To use the popular phrase, they led us to water but never forced us to drink. That however has begun to change.
Microsoft has launched a number of sites that are supposed to be designed to help the lay people, such as many of you, make a good choice when it comes to getting a new PC. On the surface this sounds like a great idea, something to help people see the choices they have and help them make solid decisions. We do this all the time on the show and people find it helpful. That would be good it did offer real choices. Every one of these setups I have looked at only offer laptops, tablets or all in one systems. Now this would not be bad except many of these recommendations are being listed as good for gaming. NONE of the recommendations I saw would make a good gaming PC for any but the most casual gamer. Also what about other form factors?
Thing this is just because of the move to Windows 8? You would be wrong, this started before that. Go back and look at the various Windows commercials were Microsoft talks about helping people buy a new PC. Every one of them were laptop and all in one models. You did not even seen an HTPC or tower configuration system in the videos.
One of the things I have always loved about the PC and the PC world is the freedom of choice. You can have a PC that is HUGE or tiny. One that is designed for pure hard core gaming or design for only light web browsing. Companies would offer us a range of choices, often to our dismay because we had so many but still we had choices. Over the years as the focus has shifted from hardware to software we have seen those choices diminish, not in a bad way. We have found that the budget system, at least the cost of it we used to pay, now buys us a more powerful machine. This has caused some overlap in the type of PC we buy but that is a natural progression. A natural change to the way we see PCs might not be something we like but I for one can accept it. However when we see companies that have traditionally let the market direct the path with them offering gentle nudges, switch to heavy handed tactics of forcing a direction, this is a problem to me.
Is our hobby moving to smaller form factors, well of course it is, I mean why do you think our build series is looking at ITX designs? However we can make this move in a way that does not limit our choices. Small Form factor of today is not the same as yesterday. Heck even yesterday was not that bad. Back in 2008 when enthusiasts said you needed a full tower to build a “real” gaming rig, I did a build we called the Itsy Bitsy Might Spider. This was a full powered gaming rig built in a micro ATX case. Now we see the move to even smaller, but the key here is that we can make this move without making a sacrifice. That is not the choice given to us today by some in the industry.
This of course is all my opinion and I would love to hear your opinions on this subject. Email in your comments or post them here under comments for this entry. Any comments of course might be used on the air for further discussion on this topic.
The idea of an entertainment PC has been something we have looked at on this show before. We have built systems before based on this ide and are looking at doing so again but these are traditionally fairly large boxes. Sure you can get them down in size and even make them look like entertainment center components but in the end they are still not what you would call tiny.
Sapphire decided to take a stab at building a super small form factor PC, the idea however was to not be limited to just an HTPC role, they wanted a fully functional uber small form factor PC. The result of this effort is the Sapphire Edge HD3.
Now let me make clear this system is a fully functional PC. The computer has a dual core Fusion based processor and video, 4 gigs of DDR3 RAM and a 320 Gig HD. The system has dual USB2 ports in the back and dual USB3 ports in the front for connectivity as well as a wired network card and built in wireless. For video output the syst5em comes with the ability to connect via a standard VGA connector or HDMI and comes with an adapter to convert the HDMI to DVI if needed.
Sapphire actually lists this on their website as a Paperback PC and that description is not far off the mark. The computer is TINY, weighs next to nothing and takes up only a tiny amount of space. This small form factor makes this full PC able to fit into quite a few areas and not just the HTPC arena. The small size means this could fit well in a work place as it can hide behind monitors and other devices. It can also use this size to effect in a home or dorm room were space is at a premium.
With this small size however some tradeoffs had to be made. The HD3 is powered by a Fusion CPU, the E-450. This is a low cost Fusion processor designed for netbooks and low cost notebooks. This dual core processor has onboard graphics using the HD6320 and has a very small power signature. At no time during ANY level of testing did the power draw go above 40 watts, yes even under full load or a WoW session.
As a Family PC the idea would be for this to be a small form factor second PC and as use as a general family PC for people looking to basically browse the web and steam entertainment options. In this capacity I set this PC down for my family on our 46” Plasma and let flay. My family members found the wireless internet was more than up to the task of allow easy internet access and worked well for streaming video from YouTube, Hulu and Netflix as well as audio from Pandora. We also found that the wireless worked well for streaming audio and video from the wife’s machine, such as my large CD collection that has been put on the wife’s machine in WMA format.
As a small business workstation this PC again worked really well. The small form factor let it set pretty much anywhere there was open desk space. We fired up a full office suite and the Edge did not even blink an eye, easily handling the various documents we threw at the system ranging from simple Word files to complicated Publisher files and Excel spreadsheets of various sizes.
When we hit the Gamer we began to see some limitations to this mighty mite. I was able to load up WoW and play at 720 resolution with some pretty good detail level. While I was not getting blazing frame rates the game play was smooth enough to be playable. I tried to throw Champions online at the Edge and it just was not up to the task, at 720 resolutions the system just did not have the power. I fired up Reckoning and Skyrim and again the system lacked the horsepower to really make these games happen, however older titles faired better.
As I was about to finish testing the gamer side of this computer I had a thought, I was testing an online game streaming service, Onlive, I wondered how it would work. I quickly installed Onlive and fired away. Within minutes I was playing Arkham City at 720 resolutions on high detail butter smooth, something the system could not do if I installed the game directly.
As I looked back over our experiences with using the Edge I realized that this was a system built to use the Stream as it is beginning to grow on the internet. What I mean is this is a system built for making the most of streaming services. With this system not having an optical drive the ability to stream shows is how this will be most effective, even with a decent size HD in it. The same goes for music and thanks to streaming services like Onlive even gaming. These streaming services allow the PC to not need high powered hardware to enjoy high end entertainment and this is were the Edge excels. The small form factor means it will fit anywhere and the system might be not be a power house of processing power but it sips electricity even at full load. I mean seriously I played Arkham City for 2 hours non stop at good resolution and detail and only used about 75 watts power the whole time. My big PC uses that just sitting there.
Now this is not a simple plug and play PC, there is some work required. The system comes with no optical drive or OS. This means you will either need to buy and external optical drive or put your OS on a flash drive for install. Also this does not come with a keyboard and mouse, so these will need to be purchased as well.
The device design is very well thought out with the cooling handled by a small fan on the CPU and the use of natural thermal motion. The air intakes are at the bottom on the case and the exhaust at the top. Despite the readings showing a warm CPU temp of around 50C I can tell you the top of the box never got above anything but a little warm. The case is coated in a rubbery compound that feels very durable. The power the HD activity lights are actually very subdued and did not glare at me during use in a dark room.
The dual USB3 ports in the front of the computer are hidden behind a small panel. The panel in this case a small rubber cover that is held on by a rubber hinge. I can tell you I personally do not like this design as you have to hold it open to plug in USB devices. However it does hide well when it closed.
I cannot spend enough time talking about how small this PC is. In the picture here you see it next to a Wii, a very small game console. As you can see this thing is really small, this makes it easy to put it on any entertainment cent or PC cart in an office and not feel like you had to cram it into a space.
When you understand the design of this PC and what it is targeted at then this is actually a very attractive device. The small form factor, good solid basic PC function and a device that seems built to stream everything it can makes the Edge a really neat little PC.
If you are looking for a general family PC for someone that does a lot Facebook and net browsing then this is a great choice. If you need a small workstation to access internet application or do basic office work this is a great option. If you gaming is limited to older games, simple games, social games or the games you want to play can be found on a streaming service like Onlive then this is a solid buy.
This is not your ordinary PC and is not for everyone but in it’s nitch this PC has a definite Edge.
Sapphire Edge HD3 Review as aired live 10 March 2012