Why PC Modularity Could Be Successful

Modularity in electronics is defined as being able to transform or extend from one device into another. In smartphones, it has been very successful and for the most part, it has displaced the mp3 player, and GPS.  For many, the smartphone displaced a portable game device and a camera.  Some consumers are using their phones as their stereo by plugging it into a speaker bay, and some college kids will even link their phones to their HDTVs to watch videos.  Years ago, one could claim that the PC sucked in the typewriter, but it’s hard to say that recent modularity attempts have been a commercial success.  With all the PC “gloom and doom” though, I do see a few likely scenarios where PC modularity could be a success.

With today’s technology, if one wants to have a modular PC, they need to accept a few trade-offs.  The Dell XPS 12 is a great notebook, but because of its size and weight, it is only secondarily a tablet.  The HP ElitePad 900 is a really good tablet, but doesn’t have enough performance nor does its display size serve the PC function. New technology is coming down the road that changes a lot of these challenges where a PC tablet could successfully transform into a small notebook and serve as a good desktop solution as well.  Let’s talk chips first.

Intel is bringing out Bay Trail which will maintain the ten hours battery life, double CPU performance, and triple GPU performance.  This means 2-3X the performance of the current chip, Clovertrail, that already gets high performance marks versus the competitive set.  It has also been rumored that Intel will offer a 4.5 watt Haswell, enabling PC performance with less than Bay Trail battery life.  This passes my smell test of 20+ years working in and around the chip industry.  These two potential (one rumored) choices enable a fanless tablet that can then transform with the help of peripherals. One very interesting peripheral showed up on my doorstep last week that got me thinking about modularity again.

What got me thinking more about this was actually using a new peripheral for the HP ElitePad, the ElitePad Productivity Jacket.  When it was announced months ago, it looked good, but I had no idea just how well it could be used to replace a small notebook.  I already use the Expansion Jacket and the Docking Station, but the Productivity Jacket pulled it all together.    I want to reiterate that the current solution has Clovertrail, not Bay Trail or Haswell, so it’s a bit pokey, even on basic productivity. Let me outline how I use these devices to complete the experience:

  • ElitePad, no peripherals: use this when you want the lightest and thinnest tablet experience.  I get 10 hours battery life and use primarily Metro-based apps.
  • ElitePad + Expansion Jacket: I use this when I want extended battery at 20 hours, and I want tablet protection.  I dropped it twice on concrete with nothing more than a slight, temporary compression.It also gives me two full USB, full HDMI, and an SD card slot.  I would take this to my kid’s volleyball, football, and basketball games.
  • ElitePad + Productivity Jacket: This jacket adds a full keyboard, a protective case, two USB and an SD card slot.  I plan on taking this on business trips and to meetings.  The keyboard is not full size, but large enough for me to call it my #2 productivity device.
  • ElitePad + Docking Station: This is where I get the “real work” done.  I work primarily with Windows Desktop apps here.  I attach the dock to a large wireless keyboard, large wireless mouse, and a 32″ display.  The dock has four USB ports, RJ45, HDMI and an audio line out.  It’s nice, too because I can use the docked ElitePad as a second monitor and its size is perfect to display a calendar or email.

So I see a day when we have Haswell-based tablet parts, where one device, in specific use cases, can effectively be used in bed, on the couch, at the desk, in a car, on a train, and on a plane.  I see this working extremely well for those who use a desktop and a 10″ tablet today.  I see also see it as very good for someone who has a thin, 11″ notebook and a 10″ tablet.  For someone who prefers a larger 13-15″ notebook, I don’t see it as optimal nor someone who needs workstation-class performance.

All of this discussion precludes that CPU and GPU innovation will outpace the performance needs of non-workstation personal computer applications.  This is a bet that I would gladly take given Intel is ramping at a pace I haven’t seen since the early Core days.  Intel’s continued business model hinges on PC growth, defense of their PC turf, and taking mobile share.  When Intel’s backs are against the wall they have performed best, so I believe they will over-serve the performance needs of tablets and hedge by pulling Haswell down into that power range.  All of this translates into a lot of tablet performance that, through modularity, can effectively be used as a PC.