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Phones as desktop PCs: Is this just a user interface problem?
Until recently, the concept of a “desktop PC phone” would have been laughable. Even now, in the era of phone-PC crossovers like Samsung Dex and HUAWEI’s PC mode (Easy Projection), the idea still seems slightly unbelievable. It’s sobering — at least for we (*ahem*) older watchers tech industry enthusiasts — that modern smartphones or tablets pack about as much computing power as was found not too long ago in a pretty high-end PC.
A Snapdragon 660 SoC — a fairly typical midrange chip in 2018 — is an octa-core, up-to-2.2-GHz-clock-rate number cruncher. It often comes with 2GB of RAM and upwards of 64GB of flash storage these days. A little bit of work with your favorite search engine will show these numbers are pretty comparable to what you would’ve had sitting on your desktop just a decade ago
The modern smartphone or tablet packs about as much computing power as was found not too long ago in a pretty high-end PC.
It’s always a fool’s game to compare computing devices on such gross measures as clock speed and memory. There are still considerable differences between even a 2008 desktop PC and a 2018 phone or tablet. Graphics processing power is still an area of considerable difference. No one will confuse a mobile OS with its “mainstream PC” counterpart, either (but they are getting a lot closer). However, if like so many users, your computing needs stay within the bounds of web browsing, email, video streaming, and running a word processing app or spreadsheet, you’ve got all the power you need in the palm of your hand.
Capabilities aside, we have yet to see any product truly realize the potential of using your phone or tablet as your primary computing tool. The industry has long since moved away from the traditional desktop setup to the laptop on one side of the spectrum and the Chromebook on the other. I personally haven’t had an actual “desktop PC” at either home or work for over 20 years. Taking that a step further and relying on an even smaller device for everything still hasn’t happened, though.
Probably the closest attempt at achieving this came with HP’s Elite x3 phone, a Windows product intended for use with an external monitor and keyboard via Microsoft’s Continuum feature. These came very close to the vision of “phone as PC,” even running such apps as AutoCAD and Photoshop, but they failed to gain traction in the market. As a result, both these products and Windows Mobile itself have quietly faded. The Elite x3 has been discontinued, and Windows Mobile is essentially on hold, planned now for only bug and security fixes through the end of 2019. Other attempts at crossing the smartphone-PC border, such as Samsung’s Dex mode (and accessories) or Huawei’s EMUI “Easy Projection” via just an HDMI cable are still hanging in there on the Android front, but to decidedly mixed reviews. Is this whole concept just something no one really wants?
I find myself carrying a laptop, a tablet and a smartphone practically all the time. That’s a lot of redundancy when you think about it, but there’s no way I can make calls on my laptop (no, Skype isn’t the answer — I’m not firing up the laptop and hoping for a Wi-Fi connection while dashing through an airport terminal!), and I can’t use my phone to give presentations or edit documents. While the tablet is great for streaming video, playing some games, and chilling out with a good book, it’s not going to replace either of the other two. Right now, there’s little choice.
I can't count on having a better screen to connect to wherever I am, and even if I did, I can't run all the apps I need on any single one of these three platforms.
I can’t count on having a better screen to connect to wherever I am, and even if I did, I can’t run all the apps I need on any single platform. So I’m carrying all three, along with their chargers, cables, a keyboard, and other various bits of ephemera. Of course there’s also duplicate data across the three, since there’s usually compatibility problems trying to transfer files.
One big problem is that our mobile tech has the muscle, but it’s not really equipped to make that power very accessible. What prevents you from doing a lot of these basic, not-so-processing-power-intensive operations on your phone or tablet is you. You’re a human being, which means you can’t really use a keyboard on your touchscreen as well as a full size one, and you certainly don’t really want to edit documents or browse through web pages on a screen not much bigger than an index card. We need some way to use these devices with a bigger screen and better input devices.
Complicating that situation, of course, is the fact that our mobile devices need to be just that: mobile. If you’re making a product for people to carry in their pockets (or a purse, briefcase, or backpack) it needs to be small and lightweight. Too small to carry a lot of the standard connectors the industry uses for video or input devices, or a larger display or keyboard (or the battery you’d need to power these, especially the display). There is, after all, a reason that laptops, phones, and tablets are all pretty different products.
Bluetooth, the ubiquitous wireless interface in everything from smartphones through desktop PCs, covers the input requirements quite nicely. It’s a megabits-per-second connection, which means there’s plenty of capacity for things like keyboards, mice, and audio I/O, but not really enough for high-resolution video. So getting to a decent external display is the real problem. Let’s take a look at what’s needed here, what solutions have been developed, and — perhaps most importantly — whether this is all just another case of trying a solve a problem no one’s really all that worried about.
The challenge in developing any standard for carrying video data is that there’s just so darn much of it. Even a basic 1,280 x 720, 24 bits/pixel, 60Hz video stream (pretty average by current mobile-tech standards) still represents a whopping 1.33Gbps of data. Going “full HD” (1,920 x 1,080) kicks that up to just about 3Gbps. On top of that we’d need small, low-power products to hit those speeds. Not only do higher speeds generally require more power, smaller connectors mean smaller conductors in the cable, and smaller conductors mean more loss, especially at higher rates. It’s a lose-lose situation.
That hasn’t stopped anyone from trying, though, and two standards have been particularly successful at providing a video interface option for these sorts of products. After creating the digital video interface of choice in the consumer TV market, several of the makers of the HDMI format turned their attention to the mobile market. The result was the Mobile High-definition Link (MHL), which was first demonstrated by MHL promoter Silicon Image in 2008 and first released by the new MHL Consortium in 2010. The original spec permitted up to 2.25Gbps in 24-bit mode, sufficient for 1080p or 720p video.
Despite the advancement on the video-interface front, we still don't have a truly universal mobile device video connection.
Not to be outdone, the Video Electronics Standards Association (VESA), publisher of the PC industry’s DisplayPort (DP) standard, countered with a version of the DP spec known as Mobility DisplayPort, or (MyDP). A key point about both MyDP and MHL is that neither standard defined a new physical interface; they simply noted that these new interfaces could be supported on various existing connectors. VESA member company Analogix Semiconductor developed a MyDP-compatible implementation called SlimPort which put the interface on the standard 5-pin micro-USB connector. MHL has been provided on both the 5-pin micro-USB, as well as the less-common 11-pin version (usually in Samsung products).
There are a few reasons why the industry hasn’t rushed to embrace these formats and freed us from dragging so many different gadgets around. Despite advancement on the video-interface front, we still don’t have a truly universal mobile video connection standard, at least for now. With the USB Type-C standard’s introduction in 2014, micro-USB’s days were numbered, and with it the support for either MHL or MyDP/SlimPort on that connector. USB Type-C established the Alternate Mode feature, which permits some of the interface’s high-speed data channels to support alternate protocols. The USB Implementers Forum has been working closely with the publishers of the major digital video interface specs to ensure they all work on the connector. The interface (which, even while carrying high-resolution video, still offers enough extra data capacity, charging power, and more to act as a full-fledged dock connection) continues to grow in popularity in the mobile market. It’s already found on plenty of Android devices. Even Apple is rumored to be switching from its proprietary Lightning connector to USB Type-C starting next year.
Having a single universal interface connecting a mobile device to external displays, keyboards, and storage might make it possible to rely on just a single device for everything, or at least transition seamlessly from that device to a computer. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean we’re finally about to achieve one-device Nirvana.
One major hurdle still remains, and until it's resolved there's going to be little motivation of any manufacturer to try to create such a unified system.
One major hurdle still remains, and until it’s resolved there’s going to be little motivation to create such a unified system. Of the major operating system providers across both the PC and mobile markets, only Microsoft has had any real success in unifying its operating system, though the company has also clearly given up on smartphones since then. Apple has reiterated it has no intention of merging macOS and iOS, despite years of rumors to the contrary.
While there have been some third-party attempts with varying degrees of success to put Android on a desktop (or at least to give Android devices a sort-of-desktop-ish mode, as with the Dex and EMUI examples), it’s clear Google’s official position is that the desktop or laptop solution is the cloud-centric Chrome OS. There have been several attempts to make Chrome OS play nice with Android apps in one way or another, but the situation today is nowhere near what anyone would call well integrated.
What do you think? Is there, as these companies claim, just not enough desire to warrant unifying the market? Would you want to see a single environment for all your computing needs? Do you think smartphones should be smartphones, PCs should be PCs, and never the twain shall meet? Sound off in the comments, and a bit later we can take another look at how this situation might develop longterm.