Can a £40 Android dongle finally slay the desktop PC?

Last year saw the launch of the Raspberry Pi computer, a low cost DIY barebone computer that many hailed as the successor to the BBC Micro. The device, which costs around £25, shares similar internals to a modern smartphone, although obviously lacking a screen, data connection and operating system.

On the back of the launch of the Pi came a new wave of barebone Android-based computers that take the form of an HDMI dongle, not unlike a USB flash drive. These have flooded popular e-commerce websites like Alibaba, DealExtreme and even Ebay.

We purchased one these new devices, which cost less than £35. It has a microSD card slot that can augment storage by up to 64GB, Wi-Fi, 512MB of RAM and 4GB onboard storage. There’s both microUSB and USB ports, while Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich comes pre-loaded. The SoC is one of the newer Cortex-A5 models clocked at 1.1GHz with a PowerVR SGX530.

Performance-wise, you should get something that more than matches the grunt of the iPhone 3GS or the first generation Samsung Galaxy S but at a fraction of the price.

So where does it leave the 30-year old desktop PC? In a bad shape am afraid. While gamers and DIYers will still find solace in bulky boxes, the industry will be moving towards the tiny cloud-powered devices, because it’s more cost-effective.

Our small dongle can be plugged to any HDMI-enabled device and run Android ICS. It still needs a USB port to power it but we suspect future HDMI iterations will cater for that. We also believe that someone soon will be able to port Windows RT to it.

Future versions will almost certainly have dual and quad-core SoCs with powerful GPUs, supported by 1GB of RAM or more. Flash memory is the defacto standard and together with on-board storage and cloud computing, make bulky hard disk drives redundant in the dongle itself. The lack of expansion options and audio outputs are a slight annoyance, but hardly deal breakers.

2013 could therefore be the year we witness the arrival of the first £99 Windows-based computer, a pocketable device that will make desktops, particularly in a business environment where space comes at a premium, obsolete overnight.