Unravelling PC form factors

One size does not fit all

Workshop What difference does the form factor of a PC make? The most critical consideration when buying a business computing device is function: does the device support any necessary applications and software packages in a secure manner, at an acceptable base price and with a reasonable rate of maintenance and IT support.

In practice things are not so clear cut, not least because the form of a computer has a considerable impact on how usable it is. Form factors matter in different ways to the user compared to the IT department, and there may not be one size fits all for the different functions in the organization.

In the laptop arena there are now many form factors available, capable of running a variety of operating systems. Deciding which form factor is appropriate can be difficult because every form factor has a trade-off. A 17 inch screen, which is easy on the eyes, can barely fit in most laptop cases for example; and a machine optimized to run graphics is likely to have poor battery life. No one portable machine can suit all the needs of a user nor can it be customized like a desktop, meaning IT must think quite carefully about what is needed and acceptable.

Accepting that needs vary from user to user can help make purchasing decisions easier. In our research we run across a number of different kinds of users, which map onto the following broad categories:

  • Desk dwellers
    These users typically spend their days at their desk, and do not normally travel or work remotely, meaning a laptop has little practical relevance (although more companies are moving to desktop replacement laptops, realizing that workers who can be mobile can be more productive).

  • Campus cruisers
    These users are office based, but spend much of their time away from their desk in meetings, often across a large geographical campus. Having a laptop allows them to make presentations, share files, and maintain network access at all times. These users benefit most from high performance, and have less need for an ultraportable machine though some portability is useful!

  • Work-everywheres
    These users need – or want – access to their computers at work, while travelling, and at home. Users may be on call or like to get a head start on email in the morning. At this level, smaller form factors start to become more attractive, but with the trade-off of less power.

  • Frequent travellers
    These users are on the go, travelling locally to meetings or sales calls, or travelling around the world, but are seldom and unpredictably in the office. To these users, small form factors matter, but so do performance metrics such as battery life, usable screen and keyboard, remote management and diagnostics, security, and machine durability. Between road abuse and infrequent visits to the IT department, this user is very challenging.

  • Road warriors
    Like the frequent traveller, this user essentially lives on the road, as a sales person or consultant, and is quite unlikely to visit the IT department. However the computer platform is a tool to support the task (e.g. service or sales), as opposed to a roving office.

  • Home office workers
    Like frequent travellers and road warriors, this type of worker seldom visits the office, may have limited VPN access, and may need to take care of some software upgrades and other maintenance on their own.

  • Field force
    Engineers, builders, researchers and others who use their computer in the field, often outside and in potentially hazardous conditions. Ruggedized machines are important, and even minimal moving parts (think solid state drives) make sense.

  • Vertical specific
    These users, often found in health care, the plant floor, delivery specialists, retail inventory and so forth, may not use many of the traditional computing applications of the typical user, but need both specific hardware and software, customized to the job. In such situations, tablet-like PCs can make sense for example.

Of course these are stereotypes, and equally, most people will fit more than one category. From this springboard however, it becomes possible to understand which form factors and which technology tradeoffs make sense for the workforce. Consider the following table for example, of the different types of feature and how they map onto different user categories:

TYPE Large screen & keyboard Battery life Performance Breadth of Apps Portability Most suited for
Desktop PC Yes NA Typically very good Typically very good NA Traditional office workers with minimal mobility needs
Desktop replacement laptop Yes Poor to adequate Good Good Adequate Campus cruiser, field force, work-everywheres, home office
Mainstream laptop Adequate Adequate Good Good Good Campus cruiser, field force, work-everywheres
Ultra portables No Good Adequate to good Good Very Good Work-everywheres, Frequent travellers, road warriors
Netbook No Good Poor Poor Good Frequent travellers, field force, road warriors
Tablet Adequate Adequate Adequate Limited Good Vertical specific users

As with the categories of user there are no hard and fast mappings, but such a table when applied to your own organisation would at least give a starting point for understanding individual requirements and how they might fit a corporate standard. It is important to understand when making such a broad decision the habits of workers – are they desk jockeys for example, or more mobile like campus cruisers, or work-everywheres? Or are they really on the go, and would they benefit from a sub-notebook or even a netbook?

In addition, keeping up with the maintenance requirements of remote machines, scanning for viruses, watching for unauthorised content and so forth, isn’t going to be as straightforward to manage centrally. This results in even more complex decisions – more responsibility for the machine rests in the user’s hands, but support calls aren’t going to be as simple to resolve as those at head office, despite the availability of remote control and configuration software.

One size will not fit all, meaning most form factors make sense in some situations—but not necessarily others. You need to think in terms of optimizing your investment, with respect to both up front capital and longer term maintenance and replacement costs. But due to the tradeoffs, it is likely that multiple form factors will need to be implemented.

What role does the user play in making the choice? We think users should be consulted, especially around work styles, and we know that sometimes it is more straightforward to impose a well-thought-out policy that puts the decision in the user’s hands, than defining an ill-fitting corporate ‘standard’. However, if left to their own devices, users are apt to choose the ‘hottest’ form factor, as seen on the news coverage of CES or the best looking device down at the local PC retailer. In hindsight, users might be disappointed after discovering the tradeoffs made to achieve their chosen form factor. Form factor policy therefore needs to be driven top down by IT, with support from the ranks.

Since each enterprise will have a unique story, we’d be very interested in readers’ experiences in making form factor choices, especially any tips and tricks that helped you make the tradeoff between form factor and requirements. We’d also be curious if you have support for multiple device configurations, such as giving a user a desktop for the office and a laptop for home or road use, or indeed multiple laptops for different scenarios, and what motivated the multiple device choice.

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