The perfect computer?

Do we have the technology to build a perfect computer? Would it be perfect for a specific purpose or is it possible to build a perfect general purpose computer? Small Business Computing's Mark Beckley has some answers.

Do we have the technology to build a perfect computer? Would it be perfect for a specific purpose or is it possible to build a perfect general purpose computer? Computers seem to be getting cheaper, but are they getting better?

The last question is easy to answer…certainly not! The other questions are a little more difficult to answer. In order to build a perfect computer we would need to understand and address all of the problems that today’s computers have.

Static electricity
The computers primary components,- the motherboard, processor, add-in cards and memory -- are all vulnerable to electrostatic discharges. This is the common everyday static that you get from rubbing your feet on a carpet and it will instantly destroy any of the computer’s electronic components that it comes into contact with.. This weakness must be fully understood and managed in order to make a perfect computer.

Michael Faraday, a British Physicist widely known for his invention of the electric motor in the 1830’s, solved this problem centuries ago when working with Van de Graff generators. He built a steel cage (today called a Faraday cage) around the operator to protect them from man-made lightning strikes. The steel bars absorbed and grounded the lightning strikes and the operator inside the cage was perfectly safe from the multi-billion volt lighting strikes. We see this same solution today in cars where the outer metal shell of the car keeps the occupants inside safe from lightning strikes. In order to render the computers components impervious to electrostatic discharges we need a “full metal jacket” around the computer. If we build the computer case out of a lightweight metal conductor like aluminum or titanium and remove any plastic, we can completely remove any problems associated with static electricity.

The all-metal case should also be designed for easy service and every component should be removable, off-the-shelf and industry standard. Hard drives should be able to be accessed from the front without opening the computer. The Motherboard should be on a slider for easy removal. All components should be easily accessed and easily removed. There should not be any proprietary components in the computer so that any qualified technician can work on it. The case should use thumbscrews exclusively, so that no tools are required to work on the machine.

Heat
Today’s computers still produce enough heat that the problem has to be addressed and properly managed in order to build a perfect computer. Plastic cases, commonly used in less expensive computers, don’t dissipate heat as well as metal ones. Also, plastic cases are a source of static that actually act as an insulator to trap heat inside the computer. To address the problems associated with heat we need to do three things:

1) Make a metal case for the computer that is the appropriate size
2) Carefully manage the airflow inside the computer case
3) Manage and monitor the fans that are driving the airflow

Concerning the first issue, don’t just assume that the smaller the better. The best way to manage heat problems is to have a case large enough to make airflow and heat management easy and simple. Most quality motherboards monitor the CPU fan and the chip temperature these days, but why not put a Plexiglas window in the computer case so that all the fans can be monitored with quick glance inside the computer.

Power
The next computer problem is power spikes and brown outs. The power supply of a perfect computer would be a critical component for many reasons. In order to build a perfect computer we need a power supply that is insulated so that it will not burn out any of our other internal components if it ever fails. Most power supplies in the “cheap” computers that are available today are vastly underpowered. Electric power is prone to spikes and brown-outs in residential and light industrial environments. In fact, brown outs are fairly common and electrical grids will at times go down from 110 to 55 volts. Anything below 55 volts will generally trip breakers at the power company and become a blackout rather than a brown out.

So let’s take a look at that and do the math. Most inexpensive desktop computers ship with a 230 watt power supply and the load on that power supply is generally about 185 watts. So if that computer gets hit with a 55 volt brown out (amps x volts equals watts so if the volts get cut in half the watts get cut in half) then we have a 115 watt power supply trying to handle 185 watts. The truth is, that machine will fail and power down. Even if you paid a little more for your computer and got a 300 watt power supply, it is still underpowered and is still likely to go down in the scenario described above.

A perfect computer would need to have enough excess capacity to allow it to continue working through a 55 volt brown out. So let’s say that we install a 700 watt fully insulated power supply (these do exist). Let’s also assume that our perfect computer has a few more bells and whistles, so it can run at about 215 watts of load. Now when we get hit by that 55 volt spike, the 700 watt power supply becomes a 350 watt power supply pulling 215 watts of load. It will continue working through that 55 volt spike with no problem while every other computer in the area affected by the brown-out goes down.

Capacity
In mechanical engineering it is fairly well-known that machines that are running close to full capacity generally have short, problematic lives and machines running at low capacity generally have long, productive lives. This is why automotive engineers have to build cars that will go 120 to 130 miles per hour in order to have them go 70 mph all day long and not break down. That computer with a 230 watt power supply pulling 185 watts of load is running at 80 percent of capacity. A perfect computer would want to be running at about 35 percent of capacity. Again, some quick math shows that a 700 watt power supply pulling 215 watts of load is running at about 31 percent of capacity.

Motherboards and Chips
In the past if we had done everything described above we would most likely have had a computer that ran trouble free for five to seven years and then, despite its near perfection became obsolete and ended up in a landfill. Clearly, a perfect computer would not end up in a landfill. Several computer and motherboard manufacturers have tried to address this problem by introducing motherboards that can be upgraded in the hopes of keeping them out of landfills. In every case they failed because of Moore’s law which says that chip technology doubles every 18 – 24 months. Chip technology just moves too fast. It is impossible for the motherboard manufacturers to anticipate how the next generation of chips will perform and the upgrades that were available for those upgradeable motherboards were still obsolete three to four years out.

There is a solution to this problem. If the motherboard assembly was built onto a removable slider for easy service and the machine was built with entirely off-the-shelf industry standard components (as opposed to proprietary technology) then the motherboard and chip could be replaced fairly easily and instead of throwing the entire computer into a landfill we just toss the motherboard and chip. We would then get a new motherboard and chip and get another five to seven years out of it and then toss the motherboard and chip again indefinitely. While this is somewhat less than perfect it is in fact an 80 plus percent improvement over current practices.

Usage
Arguably one of the most difficult aspects of the perfect computer would be to get the end user to keep the computer off the floor. They are called “desktops” for good reason. If your computer is living on the floor it essentially becomes a very expensive dust filter and kick collector. The careful management of airflow described earlier makes for a computer case with negative air pressure (lower than the surrounding environment) so that all manner of animal hair and dust bunnies end up inside the machine. That five inch board on the wall right behind your computer is called a kickboard also for good reason.

Customization
Lastly a perfect computer would have to be a custom machine designed for a specific purpose. While we all know that there are tens and probably even hundreds of thousands of applications available for Windows… we all also know what happens to a computer if you load even just a hundred applications onto it. A perfect computer would have everything described above, be designed for specific applications and have a very finite number of applications (ideally less than a dozen) running on it.

It is certainly possible to build the machine described above. Is it perfect? Well it is at least the best machine available today and will last a lifetime. In that lifetime, the user will not only be driving the best machine available, they will end up spending far less money than the user who puts a machine into a landfill every three years.

biography
Mark Beckley is the founder of Small Business Computing, a provider of custom “green machine” computers to businesses and residents of the New England region. He can be reached at www.greenmachinecompany.com or 781-454-9612.