- By Jamie Lendino on April 27, 2015 at 10:58 am
As of last week, Moore’s Law is 50 years old, and with some adjustments here and there, it has more or less governed every major technological advance in the computer industry. Now we’ve come to the point where the price of computing itself — at least for casual users — is falling to zero.
It’s tough to pick any one recent development that tipped it over the edge. What got me thinking about it, as the headline indicates, is Acer’s new $199 Chromebook 15 CB3-531 configuration, unveiled Thursday. By today’s standards, that machine is kind of bulky. And given its specs, it probably won’t deliver the best user experience: It has a dual-core Intel Celeron N2830 processor, 2GB RAM, 16GB of flash storage, and 802.11ac WiFi. But if you need a new laptop and have a hotspot available most of the time, it will totally get you there. We’ve had $199 Chromebooks before, but not with a 15.6-inch display and 11.5 hours of battery life. (The CB3-531 will be available in July, if you want one.)
Meanwhile, the Intel Compute Stick may have its own version 1.0-style flaws in the Bluetooth stack and USB-required setup, as has been widely reported around the Web. But it’s a full-blown Windows PC you just plug into a monitor, keyboard, and mouse for $150, and it should be hitting stores the first week of May. And while I don’t want to disparage a potential hot product before its release, it’s probably safe to bet this summer’s upcoming $100 Google Chromebit won’t be the fastest thing in the world, either. There’s also the Raspberry Pi, now in its second iteration (pictured below) and still costing just $35. It’s a DIY hacker’s dream come true. You can even (slowly) run Windows 10 or Ubuntu on it.
None of the hardware above will set the average PC enthusiast’s heart pumping. With low-end products like these, you won’t get speedy graphics or video editing. Gamers, not to mention professionals in niche industries like engineering and audio recording, will need heavy local computing power for some time to come. And with these low-end machines’ single-antenna WiFi and piddly amounts of onboard RAM and storage, you’re lucky if you get steady Internet performance and enough memory for basic Web browsing.
In other words, they’re not for you and me, except maybe as second or third devices. But what’s fascinating here is that they’re almost entirely removing the price barrier to computing. In other words, you don’t have to compute just with old hardware, or hardware with horrible commercial restrictions. (Remember those so-called “free PCs” from the late 1990s that required sitting through ads all the time and a monthly service contract? That kind of thing is history.) School labs, developing countries, DIY projects, your uncle with the 10-year-old desktop he still refuses to upgrade –these new low-cost machines are shoo-ins.
Today, you could buy a $200 Chromebook, and, say, a $190 unlocked Moto G LTE with 8GB and without a contract, store your data in the cloud, and just use free or marginal-monthly-cost services for music, photos, movies, email, and more. If there’s reader interest, I could see us doing a story on what it’s like to live that way these days. I know some sites (including ours) have touched on that in the past, and I personally wouldn’t want to give up a Core i7 desktop PC or a MacBook Pro with Retina Display for this setup for more than a few days. But I find the notion of free computing incredibly compelling.