Unravelling PC form factors
One size does not fit all
Workshop What difference does the form factor of a PC make? The most critical consideration when buying a business computing device is function: does the device support any necessary applications and software packages in a secure manner, at an acceptable base price and with a reasonable rate of maintenance and IT support.
In practice things are not so clear cut, not least because the form of a computer has a considerable impact on how usable it is. Form factors matter in different ways to the user compared to the IT department, and there may not be one size fits all for the different functions in the organization.
In the laptop arena there are now many form factors available, capable of running a variety of operating systems. Deciding which form factor is appropriate can be difficult because every form factor has a trade-off. A 17 inch screen, which is easy on the eyes, can barely fit in most laptop cases for example; and a machine optimized to run graphics is likely to have poor battery life. No one portable machine can suit all the needs of a user nor can it be customized like a desktop, meaning IT must think quite carefully about what is needed and acceptable.
Accepting that needs vary from user to user can help make purchasing decisions easier. In our research we run across a number of different kinds of users, which map onto the following broad categories:
These users typically spend their days at their desk, and do not normally travel or work remotely, meaning a laptop has little practical relevance (although more companies are moving to desktop replacement laptops, realizing that workers who can be mobile can be more productive).
These users are office based, but spend much of their time away from their desk in meetings, often across a large geographical campus. Having a laptop allows them to make presentations, share files, and maintain network access at all times. These users benefit most from high performance, and have less need for an ultraportable machine though some portability is useful!
These users need – or want – access to their computers at work, while travelling, and at home. Users may be on call or like to get a head start on email in the morning. At this level, smaller form factors start to become more attractive, but with the trade-off of less power.
These users are on the go, travelling locally to meetings or sales calls, or travelling around the world, but are seldom and unpredictably in the office. To these users, small form factors matter, but so do performance metrics such as battery life, usable screen and keyboard, remote management and diagnostics, security, and machine durability. Between road abuse and infrequent visits to the IT department, this user is very challenging.
Like the frequent traveller, this user essentially lives on the road, as a sales person or consultant, and is quite unlikely to visit the IT department. However the computer platform is a tool to support the task (e.g. service or sales), as opposed to a roving office.
Home office workers
Like frequent travellers and road warriors, this type of worker seldom visits the office, may have limited VPN access, and may need to take care of some software upgrades and other maintenance on their own.
Engineers, builders, researchers and others who use their computer in the field, often outside and in potentially hazardous conditions. Ruggedized machines are important, and even minimal moving parts (think solid state drives) make sense.
These users, often found in health care, the plant floor, delivery specialists, retail inventory and so forth, may not use many of the traditional computing applications of the typical user, but need both specific hardware and software, customized to the job. In such situations, tablet-like PCs can make sense for example.
Of course these are stereotypes, and equally, most people will fit more than one category. From this springboard however, it becomes possible to understand which form factors and which technology tradeoffs make sense for the workforce. Consider the following table for example, of the different types of feature and how they map onto different user categories:
|TYPE||Large screen & keyboard||Battery life||Performance||Breadth of Apps||Portability||Most suited for|
|Desktop PC||Yes||NA||Typically very good||Typically very good||NA||Traditional office workers with minimal mobility needs|
|Desktop replacement laptop||Yes||Poor to adequate||Good||Good||Adequate||Campus cruiser, field force, work-everywheres, home office|
|Mainstream laptop||Adequate||Adequate||Good||Good||Good||Campus cruiser, field force, work-everywheres|
|Ultra portables||No||Good||Adequate to good||Good||Very Good||Work-everywheres, Frequent travellers, road warriors|
|Netbook||No||Good||Poor||Poor||Good||Frequent travellers, field force, road warriors|
|Tablet||Adequate||Adequate||Adequate||Limited||Good||Vertical specific users|
As with the categories of user there are no hard and fast mappings, but such a table when applied to your own organisation would at least give a starting point for understanding individual requirements and how they might fit a corporate standard. It is important to understand when making such a broad decision the habits of workers – are they desk jockeys for example, or more mobile like campus cruisers, or work-everywheres? Or are they really on the go, and would they benefit from a sub-notebook or even a netbook?
In addition, keeping up with the maintenance requirements of remote machines, scanning for viruses, watching for unauthorised content and so forth, isn’t going to be as straightforward to manage centrally. This results in even more complex decisions – more responsibility for the machine rests in the user’s hands, but support calls aren’t going to be as simple to resolve as those at head office, despite the availability of remote control and configuration software.
One size will not fit all, meaning most form factors make sense in some situations—but not necessarily others. You need to think in terms of optimizing your investment, with respect to both up front capital and longer term maintenance and replacement costs. But due to the tradeoffs, it is likely that multiple form factors will need to be implemented.
What role does the user play in making the choice? We think users should be consulted, especially around work styles, and we know that sometimes it is more straightforward to impose a well-thought-out policy that puts the decision in the user’s hands, than defining an ill-fitting corporate ‘standard’. However, if left to their own devices, users are apt to choose the ‘hottest’ form factor, as seen on the news coverage of CES or the best looking device down at the local PC retailer. In hindsight, users might be disappointed after discovering the tradeoffs made to achieve their chosen form factor. Form factor policy therefore needs to be driven top down by IT, with support from the ranks.
Since each enterprise will have a unique story, we’d be very interested in readers’ experiences in making form factor choices, especially any tips and tricks that helped you make the tradeoff between form factor and requirements. We’d also be curious if you have support for multiple device configurations, such as giving a user a desktop for the office and a laptop for home or road use, or indeed multiple laptops for different scenarios, and what motivated the multiple device choice.
just as well posted as AC 20:03
as if i knew where you lived i'd knock your house over and setup stall at a car boot.
form factor in home
were a bunch of geeks living together. so we have a variety of tools.
We have 3 myth boxes running under various tV's all are silent based on small boxes. All the TV's are CRT based although we have talked about upgrading our main myth box to HD s soon as the new happauge HD box comes out in the UK. At some point we expect to upgrade to using LED backed LCD's as screens but not now.
we are running a bunch of wifi systems currently a fon router plus a B wifi unit for nintendo ds use, a G unit for day to day use and a N unit for shipping data to two of the Myth boxes .
were currnetly only running about 3TB's of data. Currently our nas is actually handled by a raid 6 box running slackware but we are thinking about switching to a synology box, and moving that box to mail handling and possibly doing some local caching of sites Welso have a pile of usb hard drives, sticks, and sdcards hanging of a couple of 8 way USB units
We currently use a cable modem but were interested in sky broadband as backup option. We currently use vonage because we have got round to switching over to a sip system
were currently running 4 main laptops 9consisting ofa an IBM r40, a x61, a Hp 17" unit and a vaio X505) around the house, plus a computer dedicated to encoding, another handling downloads, another acting as desktop, all switched via a 4 port KVM. We also have a TV edit suite running a video toaster v. 4 and a Pinnacle editing suite running on G5 dual head.
two main kyocera printers one colour and one mono, plus photo printer and a all in one printer
obviously we also have an a couple of Xbox's, ps2's and ds's. our singular major lack right now is not PC gaming unit which I'm planning to build fairly soon around a 4 core/radeon box
Future plans include buying some external camera's, probably a synology box, as mentioned a gaming rig, hopefully plastic logic will bring out something cool, and at least one tablet
this might seem like a lot of kit, by the standards of my community this is actually very normal, I have friends with a lot more kit, friends whose storage is more in the 10+ TB range
The problem we've had with trying to eliminate docks / bricks is that we invariably wind-up with users complaining they want external keyboards, rats, monitors, &c. -- and that they can't be arsed to (dis)connect them every time they leave their offices.
Then we get people screaming up their management chain that they simply MUST have a desktop AND a laptop, so they don't have to bother. Their management chain screams to ours, and suddenly we have orders to purchase a bunch of shiny new desktops which the little darlings will use along with their mobiles and laptops. Then comes a never-ending of complaints and support requests that it's much too difficult to keep everything synchronised between all the above and isn't that something we're supposed to take care of for them?
I rarely order full-fledged docks anymore (when they're available) but the bricks (port replicators) are a godsend. Both for our budget and for our sanity's sake.
[Paris, because she'd demand a desktop, laptop, BlackBerry and dedicated IT staff just to type things in for her.]
Same job, different requirements
I worked for a software house in a European city that was acquired by a US multinational. At some point in the 2 year transition (Borg-ification) the developers desktops were replaced with the corporate standard laptops.
It seems that the US based developers all drove to work on a large campus, and laptops worked for them because they could attend meetings, and carrying the laptop home in the car wasn't a big deal. The European developers typically took the bus or walked to work, often went to a pub or restaurant after work, and all worked in the same office. If they needed to work at night or the weekends, it was usually more convenient for them to come into the office than to work from "home" which was often a "bedsit" or shared apartment without broadband (not because they didn't want it, but because they couldn't get it!)
Desktops, with bigger monitors and more RAM, would have been far better fits for the European developers needs than the laptops that worked so well for the US based developers. The only time the laptops were an advantage were the (rare) occasions when a developer had to travel to the US - and it probably would have made sense to just provide a couple of "travel laptops" for those occasions.
So even though someone had actually looked at the needs of their users, they ended up imposing that template on a group of users who did a similar job, but whose needs were actually quite different.
No mention of docking stations that I can see. My laptop's got a 22 inch screen and a full width IBM Model M keyboard... when it's "at home". On the road, it's a 12 inch screen.