The desktop PC needs a makeover

My PC is too big. Much too big. I'd always vaguely suspected it, but testing Corsair's Obsidian Series 350D case earlier this week made it quite clear.

My PC is full of air and unoccupied slots and bays. I have four 5.25" optical drive bays that I don't use. The top one houses a DVD burner, but I can't remember the last time I stuck a disc in it. I moved to Canada over three years ago, and I'm positive that I've never purchased a blank DVD in this country.

Half of the expansion slots on my motherboard are set dressing. I only have a dual-slot graphics card and a sound card. In fairness, I use five of my six hard-drive bays—but that's because I'm still holding on to old drives, including a 320GB WD Caviar SE16. If I were to build a new system today, I would probably need just two 3.5" bays, with one 4TB hard drive in each. Add a 2.5" solid-state drive for my OS and applications, and I'd be set.

I'm sure I'm not alone. In fact, I'm willing to bet the vast majority of PC gamers and enthusiasts out there have just as much empty space in their PCs. Oh, don't get me wrong; leaving room for upgrades is fine. However, in the age of laptops, iPads, and smartphones, it seems a little strange that we should all have humongous mid-tower PCs full of air.

Over the past few days, I've been trying to picture what a modern desktop PC ought to look like. We could redesign everything completely, of course—introduce new form factors all over the place and wind up with something close to perfection. However, I think we can already improve things greatly with a few simple, practical steps:

  • Let's make microATX the new default for desktops. microATX provides enough expansion for a couple of graphics cards plus one wildcard, uh, card, which is about all most of us will ever need. We can keep ATX around for workstations and extreme quad-GPU rigs.
  • Get rid of 5.25" bays. Just get rid of 'em. Optical media is dead, and there are far better ways to back up your data than to burn a DVD or Blu-ray.
  • While we're at it, let's have smaller power supplies, too. Pretty much nobody needs a 1kW PSU. Heck, I figure most gaming PCs draw less than 500W. I'm sure we don't need to devote a cubic foot at the bottom of every case to AC-DC conversion. Switching to the SFX form factor could be a viable option there; Silverstone already makes a nice 450W SFX PSU.
  • Speaking of power, we could save users a lot of grief by simplifying power cabling. Heck, we could build it right into the enclosure—connect the PSU to the case with a big, standardized connector, and have strategically placed plugs and connectors sprout off where they're needed. All of the sudden, you no longer need loads of space around the motherboard and behind the motherboard tray for cable routing.
  • In line with the above, we might as well integrate SATA data connectors into drive bays, too. Just make every bay behave like a docking station and pre-route the cables. I guess we'll also want an option to bypass or upgrade the integrated cables, since high-end SATA Express SSDs are presumably just around the corner. Not all drives will need a 2GB/s interface, though.
  • Come up with a unified connector for front LEDs and buttons. This is long, long overdue. Seriously, how hard could it be to call up major motherboard makers and make them all agree on a common pin-out? Give it a snazzy marketing name, add it to the list of features along with your military-grade capacitors and auto-overclocking voodoo, and move on. Sheesh.
  • On the cooling side of things, let's try to arrange the stock fans in order to maintain positive internal pressure. And let's avoid having huge, unfiltered grates at the top of the case. You don't see anyone cracking open their laptop to vacuum dust out of it every six months. Desktop PCs shouldn't require that, either.
  • Oh, and give us more I/O at the front. Even high-end cases usually have only four front USB ports, and those tend to be all crowded together. I'd like to be able to leave at least a couple of charging cables plugged in permanently and still have room for chunky thumb drives and USB headsets.

That's about as far as I've gotten just now, but I'm sure there are other things we could do. And I'm sure you folks have ideas, too.

The broader point, though, is that desktop PCs could use a makeover. With just a handful of good initiatives, and maybe a new standard or two, we could make desktop PCs substantially simpler to build, more straightforward to use, and easier to carry around. Not every enclosure needs built-in cabling for everything plus a dozen front-panel ports, but we should at least offer those options. The easier it is to build a PC, the more people will do it, and the better the industry will be.

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