Why PC Modularity Could Be Successful

Patrick Moorhead / June 18th, 2013

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.

Patrick Moorhead

Patrick Moorhead was ranked the #1 technology industry analyst by Apollo Research for the U.S. and EMEA in May, 2013.. He is President and Principal Analyst of Moor Insights & Strategy, a high tech analyst firm focused on the ecosystem intersections of the phone, tablet, PC, TV, datacenter and cloud. Moorhead departed AMD in 2011 where he served as Corporate Vice President and Corporate Fellow in the strategy group. There, he developed long-term strategies for mobile computing devices and personal computers. In his 11 years at AMD he also led product management, business planning, product marketing, regional marketing, channel marketing, and corporate marketing. Moorhead worked at Compaq Computer Corp. during their run to the #1 market share leader position in personal computers. Moorhead also served as an executive at AltaVista E-commerce during their peak and pioneered cost per click e-commerce models.
  • Glaurung-Quena

    You start by talking about how pocket computer phones have eaten the markets for pocket music players, pocket gaming devices, and so on… and how PCs have eaten the typewriter. I was expecting an article talking about what other seemingly unrelated devices the PC could assimilate, or arguably is in the process of assimilating.

    Instead I got an article about convertable notebooks and how they might somehow, once the hardware gets a little more energy efficient, be able to do double duty as tablets. An article that I’ve seen in different guises many times before, including on this very site.

    “Isn’t it interesting how this computer has taken over the jobs of all these unrelated devices” is a very different concept than “hey, this portable computer could be both a tablet computer and a desk computer if only the chips in it became a bit more powerful/less energy hungry.”

    • I could have been more overt in saying that a 10″ Haswell or Bay Trail tablet with peripherals could eat the 11″ notebook and desktop. This is what I am saying. It’s not for everyone (workstation/13-15″ notebooks) but very relevant to those with a 10″ tablet, a mainstream desktop, and 11″ notebook.

    • Patrick Moorhead

      I could have been more overt in saying that a 10″ Haswell or Bay Trail tablet with peripherals could eat the 11″ notebook and desktop. This is what I am saying. It’s not for everyone (workstation/13-15″ notebooks) but very relevant to those with a 10″ tablet, a mainstream desktop, and 11″ notebook.

      • James King

        Disagree on this point. More people will probably find better use for a tablet, but I think people who desire small notebooks are a distinct enough class of consumers that they will be surprisingly relevant as notebooks become thinner, lighter and have truly significant battery life.

  • benbajarin

    “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. -”

    Isn’t it interesting that Apple just released Haswell based core notebooks with 12 hour battery life claim and in real world tests its getting 15 hours.

    • Patrick Moorhead

      This brings yet another reason to buy a notebook and that’s good for users and the industry.

      • James King

        I agree that the “death” of PCs, particularly laptops, is greatly exaggerated. I sold my IPads awhile ago because I get by fine with just my phone and laptop. For me, life is easier with a real keyboard.

        Haswell is one of the best technologies Intel has ever introduced. The battery life advances alone are game changing. The fact that the graphics are finally pretty good too is an amazing bonus. I’m looking forward to the new stuff.

  • Defendor

    IMO you would be much better off with an ultrabook (bigger screen, proper keyboard space, more storage, more powerful CPU) and a small 7″-8″ tablet.

    Here you pay a lot of money for what is a more compromised solution in most situations.

    Convertible/Modular devices continue to have physical size mismatch for task problems, even if the technology inside were several generations better.

    Make it small enough for a tablet, and the keyboard is too small to be anything but a compromise.

    • This is a likely scenario, and one that I tried to call out with the 13-15″ notebook thinking.

    • FalKirk

      The right tool for the right job or one tool right for all jobs? The latter is the dream of engineers but it’s usually a nightmare for consumers.

      • Patrick Moorhead

        I remember when the industry was saying that about the need for a separate smartphone and GPS. GPS was “much more accurate” and provided “longer battery life.” Well, Garmin isn’t doing great these days. 🙂

        John, have you personally tried a decently-engineered modular device? Just wondering because I find it very difficult to assess the experience without actually trying many different implementations.

        • Defendor

          The GPS argument was largely one of technology catch up. Though I still prefer my dedicated GPS for hiking because battery life, and swappable standard AA batteries.

          The problem I see is physical mutual exclusion which is much harder for technology to solve.

          I don’t think there are many people that are juggling a 10″ tablet and 11″ notebook. Even a 11″ notebook can have very close to normal key spacing. 10″ just doesn’t cut it. Also 10″ tablets have become a harder sell.

          The real mass of the mobile (people that actually travel with them as opposed to using them as a desktop they can move) notebook market is likely 13″, and the mass of the tablet market seems to have shifted to the 7″-8″ range.

          So having a small tablet and 13″ ultrabook really seems like it will be the real solution for the majority.

          The ~10″ do it all, just seems like compromise all around.

    • Patrick Moorhead

      This is a likely scenario, and one that I tried to call out with the 13-15″ notebook thinking.

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