This has definitely been the year of high-powered miniaturization. We’ve got phone manufacturers promising us full 1080p in 5 inch screens. We’ve got full ARM-based PCs on a USB stick for $50 bucks or less (if you can find the right sale), running Android or Linux. (And how long before someone hacks Windows RT onto one?) We’ve even got 7 and 10 inch monitors running on a USB plug for laptops that need more real estate.
But first, some background:
Not so many a year ago, when I was looking to build my latest PC, I said unto myself, “Self, wouldn’t it be neato-keen if I could actually have a little window unto my PC’s soul that would tell me handy things like, ‘Good morning, Arah,’ or warn me if my temps were getting too high, or even just tell me the time and if I had any new email come in?” There were so many things that potentially the Windows system tray / notification area should do for me … but doesn’t. For you see while many programs will do these things, you can’t see them if you’re running a game full-screen. (And who doesn’t play most games that way?) Yet gaming would be what would push my rig to overheating, if anything could. And that’s when Microsoft doesn’t try to get you to hide the dratted notification area to begin with. And if you have programs that use it properly, which most don’t. It’s an idea that failed in execution. But it’s not a bad idea. So I began a search for 5.25” CD-ROM bay type screens to bring it back in a much improved way.
Well, I did find some 5.25” bay screens, but they were all character-based. Who wants two lines of text? All at one set color at that. Talk about going back to the 1980s! What, am I supposed to write my programs for them in COBOL while we’re at it? Is this what people who turn their PCs into set top boxes and media PCs are supposed to use?
To say that it was lame and made little or no sense was an understatement of extreme proportions. Sure, it was better than nothing … but not by much.
So, failing to find any product of merit, I gave it up as a bad concept.
Well, this year, feeling in the mood to tune up my PC a bit, I re-examined the idea. I figured I’ve gotten myself a pretty snifty little Villiv S5 UMPC “laptop” years ago. I’ve upgraded my cell phone to a nice Nokia C6-01 touchscreen gizmo running Symbian Belle. We’ve got computing power in ridiculously small sizes and vibrant full-color nice resolution touchscreens to match. (Bringing us back to the introduction about high-powered miniaturization.) So surely, by now, someone has a decent 5.25” bay touchscreen device to make me smile, right? By now we practically have to be falling over brilliant little gizmos to fit that need, don’t we?
Not so much, no.
That makes Arah sad.
I can pick up a relatively cheap (especially if used) “feature” phone designed around a touchscreen, with a full ARM processor, plenty enough RAM, and a USB port … all of the IT doo-dads needed to build such a 5.25” touchscreen monitor panel (and a crapload extra like 3G, wifi, micro SD storage, even FM radio, etc.) for easily less than a hundred bucks. Without the extra crap involved, a plain Jane 5.25” CD-ROM bay touchscreen monitor running off of USB should be able to be manufactured and sold brand new at a profit for like … $25 – $50 I recon. Done right, put an ARM-based PC in there as well to really snaz-up the capabilities of it to that of a stripped-down phone (or in other words a USB PC-on-a-stick with a touchscreen monitor built in) and it couldn’t possible retail for more than $150, available for less than $100 on sale.
No one has done this.
Now, there are some improvements. Kind of. If you look hard enough you can at least find screens that are no longer character-based. They’re typically still monochrome. And they’ll have parts you just don’t want/need. Like an oversized volume knob. Or an IR with remote control. Because they’re meant for use in media center PCs. And they’ll come with a plethora of software you don’t want. (No, seriously. Why would you replace Microsoft’s fairly decent media software some third party crap? You’d have to make your software significantly improved to be worthwhile there.) It’s a lot of junk that you just don’t want in your trunk. And it’s still not a full-color screen, let alone a touchscreen. It still has a crappy resolution. And you’ll be lucky to even find a screen that isn’t a 4:3 aspect ratio. As if that makes any sense in a 5.25” bay. Heck, even 16:9 isn’t widescreen enough for a CD ROM bay.
Except for those few bigger devices that take up two bays. Oooh. Ahhh.
Meh. Why would I need something that large just to tell me I have mail? Or what temps I’ve got?
Still junk, really.
I don’t get it. I could just velcro my phone to the front of my PC and do infinitely better than any such device out there! And since my phone has wifi, I wouldn’t even need to devise a USB communication layer for it. Heck, I can get email notifications on my phone. It has a clock. I could easily set up a home screen to cover most of my needs right there. The Nokia Belle widget concept works pretty well for me.
Which isn’t such a bad idea. I might even end up doing that in the end. Out of desperation.
But it isn’t what I want!
What I _want_ is a 5.25” bay Linux (or Android) ARM-based PC-within-a-PC. I want it to have its own touchscreen, taking up most of the single bay with a vertical edge-to-edge design. (Horizontal can have spare space if needed.) It can use two 16:9 screens kludged together as one if needed, so long as it looks like one screen. I’d prefer AMOLED-based screens to save power. And the ARM processor really doesn’t need to be very powerful. Run it off of a USB cable for power and communication to my computer, preferably with a motherboard header connector instead of an external USB connector, because this is an internal part after all. And have it operate both as a standalone PC with its own OS and as a USB monitor. (The touchscreen monitor space should always be “on” to my computer, but a switch – be it hardware or software – flips the screen between showing the monitor space or the native pc-within-a-pc space.) So you can run “apps” tailored to the little bugger to do things without interfering with Windows in any way. They wouldn’t even consume PC processing power because they’d be running in the ARM core, not on the computer. And you can flip that to running a teeny-tiny extension monitor for Windows. (Or Mac. Or Linux. Etc.) That kind of flexibility should open up plenty of options and make it easy for folks to write their own applications for it to tailor it to their needs.
And throw in an all-format SD card reader or something if you have too much panel real estate left over. But it’s really not necessary. Just something infinitely more useful than an IR sensor for a keyboard that no one will use because they already have their own Bluetooth or wireless USB dongles plugged into USB slots or what have you.
Seriously. Why has no one made such a device? I can find all sorts of cheap and useless Android tablets up the asterisk! Why can’t I find one designed to fit into a 5.25” bay? It wouldn’t even need its own wired or wireless networking because it can leach that off of the USB connection. Nor does it need any battery, because it’s just a monitor. Let the driver signal it to turn off when Windows shuts down. Run the audio through the PC so that it doesn’t even need speakers. It’s a super-simplified device compared to a phone or a tablet.
Heck, you could even be really demented and make it an x86 Windows device on Atom if you wanted to. Now that would be a PC-within-a-PC! (And pretty silly if you actually had to have two licenses for Windows because of it.)
I was even thinking, you could do Siri-type voice commands from it pretty well too. You wouldn’t have to struggle against the processing power limitations of your tiny ARM core. You could pull an iOS trick, offload the real processing to something bigger. But instead of a server where they’ve cut your runtime too short to get the right answer, it’d be sent to your real computer through the USB cable and drivers, where it could run happily amok until it does what it’s supposed to do. (And would likely have to run on the PC at some point anyway because your Outlook calendar isn’t likely to be running on the pc-within-a-pc space.)
It would be the ultimate IT assistant.
A few years ago that kind of thinking would have been insane. Who’d want to eat up CPU space like that? But in today’s multicored world, no big deal. We’ve got cores to spare.
And I suppose, for people who want it to be ridiculously sized, you could make a two-bay version.
(Or if you really wanted to mess with people’s minds, at some point you could make it an actual smart phone that docks horizontally into the 5.25” bay, for techies on the go. Worse yet would be that it could still be paired to the PC via wifi or 3G or 4G after being removed for remote desktop to the PC, making it possibly the only monitor in the world that could accidentally monitor itself in a quasi-useful way.)
I know. It’s a lot to ask for something so ridiculously simple. I’d build one myself if I had any idea how to. (It’s mostly the screen part that throws me. How do you even order just one or two AMOLED screens from a manufacturer? How do you even go about finding the right size? How do you control one? That’s the part that has me baffled. In theory it should be no big deal to take one of those computer-on-a-stick devices and toss a screen at its HDMI port, but in practice…)
And yes, if I Frankensteined one together myself, I would name it GLaDOS, and do my best to give it a matching voice assistance feature, Turing test antisocial AI and all. Hey, it’s at least a step up from being a potato. We’ve got testing to be done.
With a whole internal bay space available I could even see plenty of room (and need) for expansion modules. Fan controllers. Extra temperature monitoring sensors. Radiator reservoir with pump and flow rate monitor/controller. A webcam to monitor inside of your PC as it runs! Who knows what else people might want from it once they have it? Make the device generic enough and easy to program for, and even better to make the API layer open source, and you could end up with something that even Dell might find a use for in their PCs. It’d be awfully convenient to finally be able to control specific fanspeeds based on other specific temperature readings, perhaps throwing other new logic into the equations as well. Who knows all the neat things that you could do? As extras to an already great device!
And then make the version that you can duct-tape to a laptop (or build it in if you’re a manufacturer) so that you can see if you have email (or Facebook updates) from the outside of the laptop without having to open it to find out.
I get why the 4-inch monitor for a laptop is a Bad Idea. It’s too darn small to really be of use to anyone. I get why the 5 inch (or smaller) tablet is stupid. We have phones for that! They do everything that a tablet does, and then some. But this is a whole different ballgame. It’s for case modders. It’s for media PCs. It’s for geeks with greenbacks. For dorks with dosh. For nerds with … err … nickels. Well, you get the idea. It’s a niche product that no one has successfully mastered.
For someone who’s spending uber-bucks on a 27-inch extreme-definition monitor, what’s a hundie for a PC case widget that brings the system tray / notification area back to you in a meaningful way? People spend more than that on just a clock if it’s nice enough, and this is so much more, and something that you can customize to your needs.
If I had the money to just give up my day job I’d start my own company around gizmos like this. Well, that and super-cool PCs cases that are silent. But I don’t. And flirk-all if I can figure out how to get the parts from suppliers to make my own one-off prototype for this.
Besides, I’d rather consume than be consumed by. I can afford that. So drat-it, someone else make one so that I can consume it already! Buy buy buy! :p
And if someone doesn’t license a Portal-based personality core Siri-like assistant software for PCs (We’re in space.) … then I don’t know what this world is coming to. GLaDOS, Wheatly, that demented space-obsessed core, the cake recipe core, adventure core, fact core, who knows how much fun that could be to switch between them? (Or worse, have a group-mode where they’re all “assisting” you.)
Anyway, the point is, no one really seems to be taking IT gadgets seriously enough. We have the technology and parts to make all sorts of interesting things happen, but then we don’t make them. Grown-ups deserve good toys too. (Especially since we’re the ones with the money to buy them.)