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Smartphones and tablets have replaced PCs and laptops for many users, but PC platforms are more functional and powerful than ever. They are also sporting the latest technologies like PCI Express Gen 3, USB 3.1 with the new Type-C connector, and M.2 connectors for motherboard-based flash storage.
Desktop PCs pack a punch that is hard to carry around and they usually have displays that exceed the capabilities or size of most mobile devices. Tower and mini-tower systems are still the norm for high-end gaming and workstations, but more compact solutions are available when top-end performance is not a requirement.
Building a PC from scratch used to be common, but now it is more common for those looking for high-performance platforms like gamers. Leading the charge is GIGABYTE’s GA-Z170X-Gaming G1 motherboard for Intel's 6th generation Core processors (Fig. 1). It uses an Intel Z170 chipset and it will be paired with the hottest chips around so liquid cooling might be used with the processor. Keeping the rest of the board cool can also be done using liquid cooling as the motherboard heatsinks have G1/4 thread fittings.
The motherboard uses DDR4 and exposes the HDMI support available with the processor’s integrated graphics, but most gamers will populate one or all of the four PCI Express Gen 3 slots that have metal reinforcement for those large GPU cards. There are two x16 and two x8 slots plus three x1 slots. They support 2-, 3-, and 4-way AMD CrossFire/NVidia SLI technologies for multiple GPU configurations.
Full-size motherboards and even more compact systems like those based on Mini-ITX are still common and they are often used for embedded applications. The flexibility to plug in an expansion card allows systems to be customized for particular applications.
Still, packing the standard display and communication interfaces with a processor, memory, and storage is often all that is needed except for the display and user interface peripherals. Intel’s NUC (Next Unit of Computing) is a popular form factor that has been adopted by a number of vendors. The 4-in. by 4-in. motherboard typically includes an Intel Core processor plus Gigabit Ethernet and flash storage. The NUC often includes WiFi, Bluetooth, and even NFC support (Fig. 2). Core i3 and i5 versions are often fanless with higher-end versions running tiny fans. Standard VESA mounts for the back of monitors is typical as well. Flash and DRAM are in sockets to allow user configuration of storage.
Even smaller platforms are available in HDMI sticks like Intel’s Compute Stick (Fig. 3). It is more of a scaled-down NUC in an even smaller-form factor designed to plug into a HDMI socket. The quad-core Atom has access to 2 Gybtes of memory and 32 Gbytes of flash, making it suitable for Windows 10, Ubuntu, and other operating systems. A USB port and micro SD card slot provide limited but useful expansion options. Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are standard. The Stick is handy for digital signage applications.