Back in 2016, Intel® introduced its Compute Stick, which is a device about the size of a pack of gum that can transform any HDMI display into a small computer. Intel’s upcoming Compute Card is slated to take this concept even further and potentially revolutionize portable computing yet again (Figure 1). With a Compute Card and a docking station, you can take your computer—at least the most important bits—with you, as the Card comes complete with a processor, onboard storage, memory, wireless connectivity, and flexible I/O options.
Figure 1: The Intel Compute Card is like a thick credit card at just 95mm × 55mm × 5mm. (Source: Intel)
Intel is starting out with a family of four Compute Cards that use a USB Type-C port for physical connection and can be swapped in and out of a dock. Easy and convenient, not to mention potentially cost effective as well. Updates would be to the Card, not the whole computing platform (and all the trimmings) when you want to upgrade performance. Adding docking stations to infrastructure would be less expensive than incorporating entire computer stations. Security could be improved, too, as it’s harder to hack an HDMI port than a full computer, and as it’s easier to secure a Card in your wallet than a laptop in your briefcase.
Imagine a world where Compute Card docking stations—with a monitor, keyboard, and requisite ports—are in libraries, hotel business centers, conference halls, coffee shops, airports, and Internet cafes. Docking stations are not widely available yet, but several companies are making docks that suit all kinds of end products. To jump-start development, Intel offers a reference design dock and a ready-made 19V dock with an HDMI® v1.4 port, Mini DisplayPort® 1.2, a LAN RJ-45 port with 10/100/1000 Mbps Ethernet controller, and three USB 3.0 ports. Intel has also made a reference design dock available to speed compatible docking products to market (and if anyone can make docking stations proliferate, it’s Intel).
USB charging cables are everywhere now. Part of this can be traced to 2009, when Europeans decided to make the USB charger a common external power supply instead of having multiple chargers unique to each electronic device (including cell phones). The intention was partly to prevent landfills from receiving excess electronic waste, and it was a very good idea. The same is possible with Compute Cards. Those all-in-one workstations would be instantly upgradeable. And if everything that could were to go the route of cartridge-like performance updates, there would be less e-waste.
The Intel Compute Card has other applications beyond portable personal computing. Digital signage is everywhere these days. From restaraunt menus and billboads to placards in hotels and conference centers, digital signs are everywhere. A small, modular computing platform means easy upgrades without replacing the entire system because you could swap out an entire computing platform like a game cartridge. The display and chassis would remain, but how often do displays need updates, especially if the existing system includes a display with 4K Ultra High Definition (UHD) or 8K highest Ultra High Definition Television (UHDTV) resolution? At some point, the human eye will not be able to discern much difference between 8K and whatever display technology comes next.
Figure 2: Digital signage in New York Times Square. (Source: pixabay)
Applications with cumbersome existing physical installations can use the Intel Compute Card. Updating the digital signs in New York Times Square would be easier; displays would stay, and a card would be changed out for one that can render more complex images. As software gets more complex, it requires resources that only a higher-performing computer can provide. That’s one of the reasons why we tend to upgrade our smartphones so often; newer and more applications can bog down performance on a wimpy processor with inadequate working memory (RAM).
Product scalability is another potential benefit. A whole range of products can be offered based on different Compute Cards while the surrounding platform stays the same, allowing users to start at the low end and buy up to higher performance later on without having to replace everything. If the Intel Compute Card gets wide enough acceptance, applications will be found in the Internet of Things (IoT), smart TVs and other appliances, tablet-based systems, interactive whiteboards, mobile video production, intelligent vending machines, robotics automation, security systems, and point-of-sale systems, among other things.
Swapping out a cartridge for an industrial robot would be much easier than connecting to the robot’s USB port and bringing up some software to install. If the upgrade procedure is at all complicated, the robot’s manufacturer would need to send out a field technician for upgrades. Imagine shipping a new Compute Card to the customer’s factory, with instructions to power down, remove the cartridge, insert the new cartridge, and turn it on again. I think just about anybody could do that, and the technician doesn’t need to fly out to the factory to do it. What about upgrading the menu displays at a hip burger joint? The decision is something of a no-brainer. Storage corrupted? Menu hacked? Mail a new Compute Card.
The Intel Compute Card builds on the capabilities of the Compute Stick introduced in 2016. At about the size of a thick credit card, the Compute Card could revolutionize portable computing yet again by enabling users to carry the most important bits of their computer along with them and use just a docking station to fire up their computer where they left off. Docking stations—which include a monitor, keyboard, and requisite ports—are currently under development by several companies, and Intel provides both a reference design and ready-made dock as well.
Portable computing made even easier. Now why didn’t I think of that?
Lynnette Reese holds a B.S.E.E from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. Lynnette has worked at Mouser Electronics, Texas Instruments, Freescale (now NXP), and Cypress Semiconductor. Lynnette has three kids and occasionally runs benign experiments on them. She is currently saving for the kids’ college and eventual therapy once they find out that cauliflower isn’t a rare albino broccoli (and other white lies.)
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