There are few computer interconnects that have been as pervasive as USB. Its limitations are numerous however the ease at which it could be integrated into electronic devices ensured that it became the defacto standard for nearly everything that needed to talk to a PC. Few other connectors have dared to try to battle it for the connectivity crown, Firewire being the only one that comes to mind, but the new upstart of Thunderbolt as the potential to usurp the crown. Right now it’s mostly reserved for the few who’ve splashed out for a new Macbook but the amount of connectivity, bandwidth and versatility that the Thunderbolt 3 specification from Intel brings is, quite frankly, astounding.
Thunderbolt, in its current incarnation, uses its own proprietary connector. There’s nothing wrong with that specifically, especially when you consider the fact that a single Thunderbolt connection can breakout into all manner of signals, however its size and shape don’t lend it well to applications in portable or slimline devices. The latest revision of the Thunderbolt specification however, announced recently by Intel at Computex in Taiwan, ditches the current connector in favour of the USB Type-C connector which, along with the space savings, brings other benefits like a reversible connector and hopefully much cheaper production costs. Of course the connector is really just one tiny aspect of all the benefits that Thunderbolt 3 will bring.
The new Thunderbolt 3 interface will double the current bandwidth available from 20Gb/s to 40Gb/s, enough to drive two 4K displays at 60hz off a single cable. To put that in perspective the current standard for high resolution screen interconnects, DisplayPort, currently only delivers 17Gb/s with the future 1.3 version is slated to deliver 34Gb/s. On its own that might not be exactly groundbreaking news for consumers, who really cares what the raw numbers are as long as it displays the pictures, but combine that with the fact that Thunderbolt 3 can deliver 100W worth of power and suddenly things are a lot different. That means you could run your monitor off the one cable, even large monitors like my AOC G2460PGs, which only draw 65W under load.
Like its predecessors Thunderbolt 3 will be able to carry all sorts of signals along its wires, including up to 4 lanes worth of PCIe. Whilst many seem to be getting excited about the possibility of external graphics cards, despite the obvious limitations they have, I’m more excited about more general purpose stuff that can be done with external PCIe lanes. The solutions available for doing that right now aren’t great but with 100W of power and 4 PCIe lanes over a single cable there’s potential for them to become a whole lot more palatable.
Of course we’ll be waiting quite a bit of time before Thunderbolt 3 becomes commonplace as manufacturers of both PCs and devices that have that connector ramp up to support it. The adoption of a more common connector, along with the numerous benefits of the Thunderbolt interface, has the potential to accelerate this however they still have a mountain to climb before they can knock USB down. Still I’m excited for the possibilities, even if it will mean a new PC to support them.
Who am I kidding, I’ll take any excuse to get a new PC.
There’s no doubt that we’re at a crossroads when it comes to personal computing. For decades we have lived with the norm that computers conformed to a strict set of requirements such as having a mouse, keyboard and monitor as their primary interface devices. The paradigm seemed unbreakable as whilst touchscreens an motion controllers were a reality for the longest time they just failed to catch on with the tried and true peripherals dominating our user experience. In this time however the amount of computing power that we’ve been able to make mobile changed the way many people did computing and speculation began to run wild about the future, a place that had evolved past the personal computer.
Taking a step back for a second to look at the term “Post PC era” I could find where the term originated. Many point to Steve Jobs as being the source for the term but I’ve found people referencing it for well over a decade, long before Jobs started mentioning it in reference to the iPad and how it was changing the PC game. The definition of the term also seems somewhat lax with some defining it as a future where each niche has its own device whereas others see it more as straight up abolishing of desktop computers in favour of general purpose portable devices. The lack of a formal definition means that everyone has their own idea of what a Post PC era will entail, but all of them seem to be missing the crux of the matter.
What actually constitutes a Personal Computer?
In the most general terms a PC is a general purpose computing device that’s usable by an end user. The term stems from a time when most computers were massive machines, well out of the reach of any individual (both practically and financially). Personal computers then were the first computing devices designed for mass consumption rather than scientific or business purposes. The term “Post PC era” then suggests that we’ve moved past the PC onto something else for our computing needs, meaning our current definition of PC is no longer suitable for the technology that we’re using.
However, whilst the Post PC era might be somewhat loosely defined, many envision a future where something like a tablet PC is the basis of everyone’s computing. For all intents and purposes that is a personal computer as it’s a general purpose computing device that’s designed for mass consumption by an end user. Post-PC era extremists might take the definition further and say that the Post PC era will see a multitude of devices with specific purposes in mind but I can’t imagine someone wanting to buy a new device for each of the applications they want to access. Indeed the trend is very much the opposite with smartphones becoming quite capable of outright replacing a PC for many people, especially if it’s something like the Motorola Atrix that’s specifically designed with that purpose in mind.
Realistically people are seeing the Post-PC era as a Post Desktop Computer Era.
Now this is a term I’m much more comfortable with as it more aptly explains the upcoming trends in personal computing. Many people are finding that tablet PCs do all the things that their desktop PCs do with the added benefit of being portable and easy to use. Of course there are some tasks that tablets and other Post PC era devices aren’t quite capable of doing and these use cases could be easily covered off with docking stations that provide additional functionality. These could even go as far as providing additional features like more processing power, additional storage and better input peripherals. Up until recently such improvements were in the realms of fantasy, but with interconnects like Thunderbolt it’s entirely possible to provide capabilities that used to be reserved for internal components like PCIe devices.
The world of personal computing is changing and we’ve undergone several paradigm shifts in the last couple years that have changed the computing landscape dramatically. The notion that we’ll never touch a desktop again in the near future is an easy extrapolation to make (especially if you’re selling tablet computers) but it does ignore current trends in favour of an idealized future. More I feel we’ll be moving to an ubiquitous computing environment, one where our experience isn’t so dependent on the platform and those platforms will be far more flexible than they currently are. Whether the Post PC era vision or my ubiquitous computing idea comes to fruition remains to be seen, but I’d bet good money that we’re heading towards the latter than the former.
I used to think I wasn’t your typical consumer, what with my inclination for all things tech especially those with a dedicated modding community. Pretty much every device I have in my house has been modified in some way so that I can do things that the manufacturer didn’t intend for me to do, extending the life of many of those devices considerably. Whilst consumers like me used to be small in number, especially when compared to the total market, it seems like ever since Android exploded in popularity that the modding community is now a force to be reckoned with. So much so that even handset manufacturers are beginning to bow to their demands.
I started thinking along these lines back when some of my close mates were talking about Motorola’s super handset, the Atrix. Feature wise its an amazing phone with enough processing power under the hood to give netbooks a good run for their money. A few of my mates were wholly sold on getting one once they were released however reports began came in that the boot loader on the Atrix was locked, removing the possibility of being able to run custom ROMs and some of the more useful features. It really shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise since Motorola has a policy of locking their devices (which is why the Xoom’s unlocked bootloader was odd) but still many people were sold on the device prior to finding out its limitations. The modding community didn’t just vote with their wallets this time around however, they made sure Motorola was aware of just how many customers they were losing.
Motorola, for reasons unknown, decided to put up a poll on their Facebook page asking their fans what apps they’d most like to see their developers working on next. The response was overwhelming with nearly every request being for them to unlock the bootloader. Not a week after these poll results went viral did Motorola issued a statement that they’d be changing their policy to allow users to unlock handsets, as long as the carriers approved it. Whilst that’s yet to happen for any of their current handsets (they’ve alluded to late this year) it did show that the modding community has become very important to the handset manufacturers, more so than I had ever thought they would.
HTC, long known for there awesomely hackable handsets, seems to be going in the opposite direction to Motorola seemingly ignoring the lessons to be learned from them. Whilst they had never made it as easy as say the Google Nexus lines of phones they were always able to be unlocked should you be willing to take the risk. Back in march I wrote about how their Thunderbolt handset was by far the most locked down device we had seen from HTC ever, warning that doing so would be akin to poisoning the well they drink from. More recently it came to light that two of their newest handsets, the Sensation and EVO 3D, would also come with locked bootloaders similar to that of the Thunderbolt. They have since come back saying that they’ll be working to make their handsets more hacker friendly once again, although many are quick to point out that they might not have much say in that matter.
You see the unfortunate truth is that all handsets are at the mercy of the carriers as without them they’re basically useless. Google encountered this very problem when they released the Nexus One as they had to offer both the subsidized version through the carriers as well as their original vision of selling it just through their online store. Indeed they had originally wanted to sell the Nexus One for as little as $99 unlocked paying the subsidy themselves. That plan didn’t last very long once they started talking to the carriers and the best option they could offer was the $179 version with a 2 year contract, a far cry from their original vision. So whilst I applaud Motorola and HTC’s commitment to keeping handsets hacker friendly the carriers could very well scuttle the idea long before it hits implementation, but only time will tell with that.
Honestly I’m very surprised at the recent turn of events that has led to these quick about faces from the big handset manufacturers. Sure I believed that the modding communities were catalysts for the success that they had enjoyed but I didn’t think they had enough sway to get a corporation to change its wicked ways. It shows that a decent percentage of people are committed to the idea of openness and freedom to use their devices as they see fit and whilst it might be an uphill battle against the carriers we at least have some powerful allies on our side, maybe even enough to make Google’s original Nexus vision come true one day.