The desktop is dead, and Intel's NUC killed it: AMD to build a SFF PC kit

Optical media and traditional hard drives are giving way to streaming video and SSDs for end users. As a result, the ATX form factor is falling by the wayside.

Apple's Mac Mini 2018 model is a much-needed improvement Mac Mini fans rejoice: The four-year wait for a new model is over, and the 2018 version is a vast upgrade.

Development of a barebones small form factor (SFF) PC kit is "well underway" at AMD, according to a report in FanlessTech, as the company is looking to compete with Intel's Next Unit of Computing (NUC) series. While AMD's Ryzen Embedded CPUs have been seen on single-board computers from ASRock, among others, AMD's upcoming SFF PC will use higher-power parts, according to FanlessTech.

AMD's first-party entry into the SFF PC market effectively concedes the future of computing is moving away from traditional ATX-based desktops toward more diminutive, bespoke form factors. Consumers have been adopting notebooks as their primary computer for well over a decade, bringing economies of scale to notebook-class parts such as SODIMM RAM modules and SSDs used in SFF PCs. 

SEE: Top 20 Apple keyboard shortcuts for business users (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Gartner's preliminary Q3 2019 PC sales results, published Thursday, found a 0.3% decline in US sales year-over-year, with a 5.3% decline in APAC, excluding Japan. Global sales were 1.1% higher, buoyed partially by increased spending in Japan in advance of a sales tax increase. Although Gartner does not track SFF PC sales specifically, the "general trend is that desktop box size got smaller and SFF is a popular choice for businesses," said Mikako Kitagawa, senior principal research analyst at Gartner.

SFF PCs have existed for years, with Shuttle among the most popular PC OEMs producing systems for embedded and space-constrained computing. Typically, SFF PCs are sold with memory and storage integrated; Intel sells NUCs as barebones kits, but requires users to add their own memory and storage. NUCs are also substantially smaller than SFF PCs from other vendors, with the current generation Coffee Lake series measuring in at 4.6 x 4.4 x 2.0" (116.8 x 111.8 x 50.8 mm). 

Intel released the first NUC in 2013, leading to speculation that AMD would release a competing system to keep up. The first-generation NUC was available with a relatively low-power (17W) Celeron. Successive generations of NUC products allowed for 15W Core i5 CPUs to be used, with the sixth-generation gaming-targeted Skull Canyon NUC becoming the first to use a (45W) Core i7 CPU.

AMD is no stranger to working on NUC systems. The Hades Canyon NUC using Intel Kaby Lake-G processors, which integrates an AMD Radeon RX Vega M GPU with an 8th generation Intel CPU, marked a rare collaboration between AMD and Intel, and the first NUC to include a discrete GPU. Intel is planning to develop their own GPUs, making the Hades Canyon design a one-off product, as Intel announced the Kaby Lake-G CPUs are being discontinued in favor of Intel's discrete GPU options.

Apple also sees the appeal of SFF PCs, with the (Intel-powered) Mac Mini offering Mac OS users the ability to bring their own monitor and keyboard, without needing to pay the comparatively steep prices of the Mac Pro—the 2018 Mini starts at $799, while the 2019 Pro starts at $5,999, far outside the reach (and needs) of many mainstream consumers.

What killed the desktop PC?

The ATX form factor (and diminutive variants) are becoming something of a relic—while direct attachment of GPUs effectively still requires ATX, this is relegated to a niche territory occupied by compute-intensive applications, such as gaming and video editing. Use of optical drives is becoming increasingly rare as users turn more toward streaming media services such as Netflix or Spotify, with boxed software becoming a rarity with the rise of app stores and distribution networks like Steam. Likewise, adoption of SSDs is relegating traditional hard drives to external enclosures and NAS equipment, which allows for easier sharing of data on home networks. 

As traditional optical and hard drives are not indispensable for mainstream consumers, the empty space needed in PC cases is redundant, pushing OEMs toward smaller designs. Given that typical buyers of pre-built desktops from HP, Dell, and others rarely upgrade their systems, the ability to shrink empty space in cases will, in turn, decrease the packaging required to transport a system safely, allowing for more systems to be bundled onto a single shipping pallet.

Other equipment that formerly required PCI add-on cards were rendered obsolete ages ago: hardware accelerators such as MPEG-2 decoder cards are a thing of the past, while integrated digital audio makes third-party audio cards a decidedly niche product. Other devices, such as HDTV tuners, are now more commonly (if not exclusively) offered in USB 3.0 versions. External GPUs have grown in popularity for users seeking the portability of a notebook PC while preserving the pixel-pushing power of a traditional desktop.

Hardcore gaming battlestations and professional use cases will continue to buoy the old-school ATX desktop for the foreseeable future. AMD's entry into the SFF PC market makes it clear that the future of PCs, for mainstream consumers, is in compact computing—this shift will drive the amount of engineering time toward SFF PCs, at the expense of desktops.

For more, check out "2018 Mac Mini blocks Linux, here are alternative small form factor PCs" and "Intel officially unveils Chaco Canyon, first fanless NUC in five years" at TechRepublic.

Update (October 9, 2019): Added details about notebooks, and Intel's discrete GPU business.
Update 2 (October 11, 2019): Added Gartner 2019 Q3 PC sales data.

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Photo: Intel