Are HDMI PC Dongles the ultimate thin clients?

The advent of cheap, almost disposable computers, has been confined to the enthusiast consumer market for now but it is only a matter of time before the mainstream and business markets get to enjoy these powerful and yet affordable devices.

That would be, we guess, much to the glee of Larry Ellilson, the CEO of Oracle Corporation who predicted as early as 1996 the demise of so-called “Fat Client desktops” and coined the term Network Computer to describe these diskless devices.

The average price of these so-called HDMI PC dongles has dropped down significantly over the past 12 months while their general performance has improved dramatically thanks to the widespread adoption of dual-core processors like the Rockchip RK3066.

Given that they use the same hardware as tablets or smartphones (without a screen, 3G connectivity, a battery or cameras), one can expect that, by the end of the year, quad-core models will be prevalent as pointed out by a recent report.

They will therefore almost certainly reach, in terms of performance, the same levels as the Nvidia Tegra 3, at which point, a sub-£30 device will have enough raw power to run Windows RT and Windows 8 Embedded

Indeed, a quick look at eBay brought up a few dongles such as this unbranded model that costs only £26 (excluding delivery). It features the ubiquitous RK3066 (clocked at up to 1.6GHz), 1GB of RAM, a quad-core GPU, 8GB onboard storage, Wi-Fi, a microSD card slot and Android 4.0.

Other than price, two other key factors that makes it a viable alternative to existing tethered computing resources like traditional think clients or dumb stations are power consumption and size. The tantalising prospect of being able to carry a dozen of computers in your pocket that, altogether consume less than a light bulb and cost less than a mainstream laptop is very enticing.

The only major disadvantage is that you don’t have many expansivity options that would allow the user to physically plug, say, an additional monitor or even a printer although (a) things will change as early as 2014 with the arrival of WiGig products that offer wired-like experience on wireless (b) in a business environment, generally the less ports you have, the better it is.

We believe that the PC-in-a-dongle design is possibly the most important evolution in form factors over the past few years, something that has only been made possible thanks almost single-handedly to the ARM ecosystem. It managed to produce chips that are very powerful, run on very low power, are highly integrated and are very cheap.