Is a $35 PC the Future of Computing?

Tuesday Jan 24th 2012 by Matt Harley

Just as the tablet is poised to take over computing, the Rasperry PI Foundation plans to launch a full-featured machine for the price of a fancy lunch.

As the economy continues to recover, many companies are seeking ways to streamline efficiency without spending a fortune. One area of efficiency that has seen a significant boost recently is low cost computing.

Currently, the UK-based Raspberry PI Foundation is getting ready to release what is being hailed as the $35 computer. Unlike many past attempts at sub-$100 PCs, this PC can run Ubuntu, stream 1080i video and provide connectivity video output to PC monitors and TVs of all types. The Raspberry PI seems like it might be like a super-low cost thin client, when in reality it's a fully functional standalone PC.

Now, as exciting as it is to have access to computers that range from $25 for 128MB to $35 for the full 256 MB unit, there are some concerns that need to be addressed. And one of these concerns is whether you’ll be able to readily buy one of these computers.

Purchasing availability

In order for super-cheap computing to take off, it would help to have more than one group selling a reliable product. Thankfully, this appears to be on the horizon, even if it's not always at a $35 price point.

For example, the CuBox may cost more at $135, but it offers the end user more out of the box. First, you can pre-order yours now instead of waiting for the Raspberry PI to offer pre-ordering themselves. Secondly, you can get more RAM for your unit with a rock solid 1GB vs the 128-256MB seen with the Raspberry PI.

The more expensive CuBox will be the more likely candidate for developers looking to get their hands on a low cost PC than the Raspberry PI. Why is this? Because the Raspberry PI is (mostly) going to be offered to non-profit organizations while the CuBox will be available on a first come first served basis.

The big question that remains in my mind: who will end up being the buyer for these low cost PCs? The CuBox is marketed as a development platform, while the Raspberry PI is designed to meet the computing needs of schools and other non-profits. In either case, I don't expect to see low cost computers making their way into big box stores anytime soon.

Access to distributed computing

The concept behind distributed computing isn't anything new. Giving away CPU cycles has been a big thing among computer enthusiasts for years with programs such as SETI@home, in addition to other distributed computing concepts.

But it's really not worthwhile for anyone to participate in if it means running a full-sized PC 24/7. Plus, it also means that you won’t be able to run a distributed computing network in-house since it would require a ton of additional resources.

This means that if you have a few rooms full of these sub-100 dollar PCs running distributed computing software with a common goal in mind, private companies would able to create their own virtual supercomputers on the cheap.

Even better, there's no need for soliciting assistance from the outside world such as we've seen from other distributed computing projects. So any large distributed computing projects that a company would rather keep in-house would definitely be workable.

How much computer do we need?

Over the years, I've seen many people fall victim to the “newer is better” PC marketing nonsense put forth by many PC manufacturers. And while it's important for some intensive tasks to have access to the best resources possible, not every computer out there needs 4 Gbs of RAM with the latest processor.

Depending on the duties assigned to the workstation in question, it's entirely possible that a lower powered, low cost PC might be a great match for most common computing needs.

Think of it this way. If you're working from a workstation that is used to simply access resources from another server, while running office suite-type applications, the odds are a low cost PC will offer you plenty of power for these types of tasks.

The fact of the matter is it's really difficult to dismiss the benefit of using a sub-$100 workstation. Even if it meant sharing another more powerful workstation to handle image or video editing.

I've found that often, most people in the workplace have more PC power than they really need. The alternative to this, of course, is to simply use these low cost units for something less taxing than standard computing in the first place.

Low cost media centers

Whether it's for internal training, or perhaps to be used for other purposes, there is something to be said about having access to a low-cost media center. And when you look at all of the options available, I find myself leaning heavily toward the Raspberry PI or the CuBox, as both options will run XBMC without any problems. This means old company training videos can legally be dropped onto one of these PCs and then shared easily thanks to the various display ports provided.

Need to display a much heavier program for training purposes but can't because the original PC is in another part of the building? Why not use VNC and one of these low cost PCs to share the demonstration in a better-suited environment? At $35, using a Raspberry PI as a method to provide demonstrations has a lot of potential. Especially considering how portable it and similar low cost PCs truly are.

Need to send some video from your iPad to a Raspberry PI or CuBox PC so the others in a meeting can see it? Not a problem, as you can see in this video, Linux users can run a small Airplay service and push video content to their low cost Linux computers with relative ease.

Schools and Non-profits environments

After having an opportunity to research both the Raspberry PI and CuBox recently, I can see there's a lot of potential here. Even if the enterprise world simply isn't interested in implementing these low cost PCs into the daily work-flow, there are other areas where these PCs could do well.

The first area that comes to mind is in the education sector. With shrinking budgets and the need to keep our kids tech-savvy, using sub-$100 PCs offers a lot of merit.

Another related area these types of PCs could see success is with cash-strapped non-profits. Cheap to purchase, reasonably simple to maintain, the only challenge here is deciding how many of these PCs are enough!

And considering the fact that these PCs can run full Linux distributions without having to work as a thin client, the sky is the limit for any non-profit looking to expand the number of available workstations.

Low cost PCs of the future

So what will the future of low cost PCs look like? Will they continue to evolve into tablets and netbooks? Or perhaps we'll see an up-tick in more computers similar to Raspberry PI or the CuBox, due to their overall cheapness? However this all shakes out, I believe that price will eventually trump portability with the masses.

As fun as tablet computing can be, the cold-hearted fact of the matter is that they're a poor substitute for real computers. Therefore, I suspect we will be seeing more and more emphasis on ultra-cheap computers as time goes on. Maybe even with Raspberry PI or the CuBox leading the way forward!

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