After several fits and starts in the past, the minitower is expected to cede its most favored status to small PCs during this decade, based on changes in technology as well as buyers tastes as the PC market matures.
In the first major shift since minitowers themselves came to dominate the desktop space, the less obtrusive small form factor desktop is expected to gain the upper hand in as soon as three years in some markets, said a recent forecast by researcher IDC.
Small form factor machines will gain favor with corporations, and consumers to a lesser extent, according to IDC, as, in addition to taking up less space, they generally produce less heat and noise than minitowers, in part by using more power-efficient processors.
However, some view the shift as having more to do with the dominance of notebook PCs—shipments of which are also increasing—than changing winds in the desktop space.
"The person who used to buy a big tower, because they wanted a lot of functionality in it, is the notebook buyer now. People left on desktops value small" size, said Howard Locker, an architect for desktop and notebook product design at Lenovo Group in Raleigh, N.C. "I think, in the future, desktops [shipments] will be half the size [that they currently are]. Notebooks will be 75 percent [of total computer shipments], desktops 25—and the majority of them small."
Indeed, the transition to small machines has already begun. Most computer makers, including Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Lenovo, offer at least one small desktop to their business customers. The trend is picking up steam, said Richard Shim, an analyst with IDC, in San Mateo, Calif.
"Now, instead of just a single alternative [size for desktops] theres a bunch. Theres small form factor, theres ultra-small form factor, theres all-in-one, [and for consumers] theres living room PCs and theres blade desktops" for corporations, Shim said.
Given the trends, IDC predicted that small form factor machines will dominate the desktop market in the United States as early as 2009.
The shift comes as U.S. corporations are beginning to seek smaller desktop machines for advantages such as reductions in heat and noise. Consumers tend to choose their machines for price and appearance, but value these considerations as well. But neither group is likely to pay extra or to want to give up a lot of performance.
As a result, technology is expected to become a major player in the acceleration of small form factor shipments. More powerful processors will play a major role—dual-core chips that lend greater performance, but use less energy, are the main driver.
Thanks to design work on smaller PC platforms by Intel and others in the industry, PC manufacturers will be able to pair the dual-core chips with standard parts such as add-in cards and hard drives, which helps to keep costs low.
"The crossover from minitowers to small form factor desktops will happen in 2008 and 2009, driven by [the U.S.] commercial market," IDCs Shim said.
During 2005, about 31 million minitowers were shipped in the United States, representing 77 percent of U.S. desktop shipments. Small form factor machines saw shipments of about 5 million units or about 12 percent of the market. But by 2009, minitower shipments will fall to roughly a third of their 2005 numbers, meaning that only about 11 million of the machines will ship, IDC predicted, while small form factor machines, gaining the upper hand, will jump to about 15 million units or 42 percent of shipments.
The remainder of the U.S. desktop market in 2009 will be populated by a mix of ultrasmall desktops (even smaller than small form factor) such as the Apple Computer Mac Mini—about 4 million ultrasmall machines will ship in 2009, according to IDC, compared with less than a million in 2005—as well as towers, all-in-one desktops and living room PCs.
Whereas a basic minitower stands around 16 inches tall, is about 16 inches deep and roughly 8 inches wide and has an internal volume of around 30 liters, a small form factor machine is inches shorter and less than half as wide, and its internal volume is generally about half of a minitowers.
Industry observers say multiple small form factor designs will abound, based on different hardware standards, including the Micro ATX motherboard format and the Pico BTX format—smaller versions of the popular ATX motherboard and the newer BTX or business technology extended designs, backed by Intel.
At its Developer Forum in March 2006, Intel recently showed off a BTX slim tower design that was just over 17 inches tall, 12.5 inches deep and 3.5 inches wide, but could still fit a dual-core Pentium D chip, two hard drives, a graphics card and a pair of PCI add-in cards.
The platform, which Intel said can be used for corporate desktops or home machines, will be able to offer Intels latest 95-watt Pentium D chips. Ostensibly, its 65-watt Conroe chip, a higher-performing and more energy-efficient dual-core chip due in the second half of 2006, will fit as well.