The big history of small computers

At CES 2014, running this week in Las Vegas, Intel announced Edison – a tiny computer that’s the size of an SD card. The minuscule circuit board uses the company’s Quark chip, originally announced at IDF 2013,  and pitched as the procesor that would power the Internet of things. And those things could be sensors on a car’s headlights, monitors inside a baby’s crib, or all the wearable computing devices that will be released in the future.

Edison itself, though, is yet another reason for our love affair with tiny devices. Who doesn’t want a phone the size of their fingernail? Or a camera that fits in a pen? Or a computer that fits in any imaginable space?

Perhaps it’s because computers started life as ungainly machines that took up entire rooms. Ever since then we’ve been scrambling to miniaturise them, making them usable in businesses and at homes. Really then, Edison’s ancestors are some of the landmark machines below, which helped pave the way for small computers.


Computers that took up entire office floors were the norm, back in the day. Remember, this was before the term “microprocessor” was even an idea, and Jack Kilby’s integrated circuit was still a few years away from being invented. So IBM’s 610 – also considered the first personal computer – was as small as computers would get, some 60 years ago.


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The $55 000 machine didn’t have a conventional processor. Instead, it had vacuum tubes doing the calculating – and instructions were fed to it using punched paper cards.


Around 10 years after the IBM 610 was released, Olivetti gave the world the first computer that would actually fit on a desk, rather than being the size of one, the Programma 101. In fact, the Programma 101 was launched at the 1964 World’s Fair – the equivalent of today’s CES. How cool that 1964’s smallest computer turns 50 as Intel gives us the 2014 version.


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Technically the Programma was more a calculator, but it was programmable and could save programs onto magnetic cards. The product of Italian innovation, it had a great deal of attention paid to its appearance. Internally, though, it used discrete transistors (eschewing the then-new integrated circuits) and its memory system was based on audio physically manipulating wires.


Another decade passes, and by now computers were definitely more useful as well as being a far cry from the cabinet-sized behemoths of the 50s. In 1977 Commodore released the PET – or Personal Electronic Transactor. Thankfully that term never caught on. This desktop machine had a keyboard, tape drives, 1MHz processor, a choice of either 4KB or 8KB of RAM, and a monitor.

Image credits: Wikipedia

Image credits: Wikipedia

In the same year, Apple also released what would be its first commercial personal computer, the Apple II. It was similar in size to the Commodore PET, but had separate disk drives and a colour monitor – something that set it apart from the competition. It had the same 1MHz processor used in the PET, and could be had with a maximum of 48KB of RAM (which would cost $1 300 more than the 4KB model).




While the 1980s saw the introduction of IBM’s PC, and the use of Intel’s processors, they weren’t any more compact than the machines from the 70s. Without a doubt, the most compact computers in the 80s were the computer-in-a-keyboard machines from Sinclair, Commodore, and BBC. Yes, the British broadcaster, with the BBC Micro, also had a hand in popularising computers.

Image credit: Wikipedia

Image credit: Wikipedia

The 80s also saw electronics shrink enough to be seriously considered for portable machines. NEC released the best of the lot: 1988s NEC UltraLite, a 2kg laptop with a 9-inch display and a footprint the size of an A4 page. It was powered by an NEC chip running at 4.92MHz or 8.14MHz, a Bill Gates-approved 640KB of RAM, colour screen, built-in modem, and a few other high end (for 1988) features.


The 90s saw personal computers invading homes across the world. The electronics were now finally more affordable, and Intel’s Pentium chips gave users access to the kind of performance the living-room-sized machines of the 50s couldn’t even begin to compute. And all of this arrived in packages that were still more or less the same size as machines from the 70s.


The ultra small computers like the Spectrum weren’t quite a priority now, especially since the power available in an Intel-powered desktop machine (along with the upgradeability) meant that the size was a non-issue. Until 1998, when Apple announced its revolutionary iMac. The machine was powered by one of IBM’s PowerPC processors, and stuffed all the components inside a translucent casing that also housed the monitor. It was the first iconic computer from this decade – its place at the Museum of Modern Art is testament to this – and started a new drive for simpler, more compact computers.

The 90s also saw further innovation for laptops and portables, and American computer manufacturer Gateway had the smallest laptops of the decade with the Gateway Handbook. Just 25cm x 15cm x 4cm in size, and 1.4kg heavy, it was technically a forerunner of netbooks. The most powerful versions could be had with an Intel 486DX/50 processor, 120MB hard drive, and 4MB of RAM

2000 and onwards

At the turn of the millennium the adoption of technology and exponential advances in silicon technology meant that computers were becoming more powerful, while shrinking. This did come with issues such as extra heat that needed to be dissipated – one of the major concerns when fitting electronics into small spaces – but these engineering challenges were conquered with efficient processors that used little power and gave off little heat.


In the early 2000s Intel worked hard to change the idea of the PC being a beige tower, and worked with its partners to develop out-of-the-box designs for computers. While none of the initial concepts made an impact, but the best – which arrived in 2002 – was a small form factor computer from Shuttle, called the XPC. These tiny cubes could house a then range-topping Pentium 4, a graphics card, hard drive, and DVD drive. A proper computer in something about the size of a toaster.


In 2005 Apple took the miniaturisation of desktop computers even further, with the Mac Mini. The first generation machines still used IBM’s PowerPC processors, but in 2006 Apple moved to Intel power. Granted, the design of the Mini and the technology of the time meant that these were technically low-power laptop components in a tiny machine designed for desktop use. As a result, it wasn’t as powerful as actual desktops, but served the needs for most computers users.

Intel's NUC - a Core i7 machine that can clip onto the back of a monitor.

Intel’s NUC – a Core i7 machine that can clip onto the back of a monitor.

As silicon tech improved, though, small computers like the Mac Mini and design concepts like Intel’s NUC (Next Unit of Computing) have started offering the kind of performance that would leave all but hardcore gamers wanting.

The same technology has also made laptops more powerful, while still growing thinner by the year. Netbooks were a noble cause, but ultimately proved to be underpowered. However, Ultrabooks and the MacBook Air have given us self-contained computers that are smaller than ever.


Microsoft’s Surface Pro – Intel computing in a machine that’s the ultimate incarnation of small computing.

More recently we’ve seen tablets with Intel processors – entire machines that have displays larger than the first laptops and desktops. Then there are smartphones. While they’re not quite desktop computers, they are personal computing devices. Even the most entry-level of Android devices today has more power than the smallest machines of the 90s, never mind earlier decades.


The basis for many DIY projects right now is this here circuit board that’s actually a PC – the Raspberry Pi.

And that’s before we get to specialist computers like the Raspberry Pi. A circuit board that’s the size of a credit card, but with enough compute power to run a web server or a media centre PC. Great for hackers and DIY gadget lovers. The Pi is joined by other ARM-powered devices, the cutest of which is the Picotux 100. Looking like a circuit board that only has a serial connector and Ethernet port, it’s actually a low-power Linux computer that can serve web pages.

That might be useless to some, but this tiny machine still has more computer power than the big box at the top of this page.

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