What's the point of a big PC?

Bit-tech and Custom PC writer Antony Leather strolled into the Labs the other day and, proud of his work, showed me a system he'd just built for an upcoming feature. It's an impressively slick machine: Core i5-3570K, Nvidia GeForce GTX 680, 8GB of RAM, a 128GB SSD and a custom water-cooling loop, all put together with the sort of fastidious tidiness you'd expect.

The best bit? It's the size of a couple of shoeboxes thanks to this case.

It got me thinking. That's enough power to sweep aside every single PC game on the market: Skyrim with dozens of mods, Starcraft 2's hundreds of units, Football Manager with every league loaded. It's enough to play games across a trio of screens, and to run high-end work applications without breaking a sweat.

If that amount of power can be squeezed into such a small PC, along with water-cooling and even room for expansion, what's the point of full-size towers?

Most of the space inside the modern PC is redundant. Look at the fast, quiet and capable systems that turned up in our Ivy Bridge Labs: many of their cases are so big they make ATX motherboards look lost, most of them have four or more hard disk bays that will never be used, and they usually include one or two optical drives bay that'll never be needed.

It's true of my home machine. I've got a Cooler Master CM 690 II, and it's a fantastic chassis, but it's also home to a huge number of slots and bays that, literally, gather dust.

If further evidence is needed, take a look at the components industry. MicroATX and mini-ITX motherboards now provide every feature the vast majority of users require - Antony's Asus P8Z77-I Deluxe includes WiFi, USB 3, SATA 6Gbit/s, PCI Express 3.0 and more - and the current generation of top-end graphics cards are now often smaller than their equivalents of a year ago.

Solid-state drives are smaller than hard disks and cheaper than ever, and the increasing efficiency of Intel's processors means that huge coolers aren't needed, even to keep overclocked chips chilled.

That leaves those who actively choose larger computers, with modders and enthusiasts picking towers and components for their aesthetic appeal as well as performance.

I can certainly appreciate the skill and appeal of a well-designed and executed mod or build, or the requirements of the small number of people who want to use multiple graphics cards, complex water-cooling or high-end RAID setups, but those people occupy a niche, and I'm not sure that a relatively small group of high-spending enthusiasts can sustain the hundreds of companies who sell the products they like to buy.

I've been reading doom-saying reports about the "death" of the desktop PC for years and, while the industry isn't exactly growing, it's not going away either. The full-size tower, though? Full of wasted space, unnecessary slots and pointless ports in a world where every other bit of technology is getting smaller, slimmer and more efficient. When so much can now be crammed into something so small, what's the point?

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