Last of the Desktops

I got my first desktop computer in 1985. I recall the year very specifically, because it was the Christmas that my parents decided to pay me off in exchange for burdening me with a sibling after 12 years of being an only child. It was a sound strategy.

The computer was an Apple IIc, and even after all these years I still recall that old machine, with its cassette tape drive and embarrassingly limited color palette, with great fondness. With this glorious paragon of mid-80s technological superiority, I spent countless hours in the worlds of games like The Bard’s Tale, Ultima and Lode Runner. The only thing that could pull me from a box full of Transformers, Star Wars figures and GI Joe vehicles, these were the formative days that would make me a lifelong gamer.

My current desktop PC, a custom-built machine likely ten-thousand times faster than my IIc, if not more, was built to a spec somewhere just north of average in 2008. Even though it was never a particularly advanced machine for its day, it has served me well for the better part of 4 years. Back when I first ordered the various pieces that eventually came together, full-on Voltron style, to become a functioning tower of computer, it never occurred to me for a moment to not get a desktop. Now, even as I consider replacing the stalwart old girl, I realize with some degree of disappointment that the era of the household desktop is coming to a rapid end.

It occurs to me that my next desktop might be my last.

I began laying the foundation with my wife for replacing my current desktop back in January (Hello, Sweetie. I was just talking about you). I knew it was going to be a hard sell, particularly because I had successfully transitioned my primary machine to a portable system over the past two years. This plan was flummoxed further by a faulty video card in my Sager laptop that required either seven hundred bones to repair or a new laptop altogether. Around May, I chose the latter..

Don’t get me wrong. I love having a laptop. I love the flexibility, the portability, the convenience that comes with having my central media machine go wherever I need it. Want to watch old Star Trek episodes on Netflix in bed? I can do that. Want to take my work with me on a flight to visit the grandparents? Not a problem. Want to watch my Blu-ray DVDs in the hospital following massive surgery to my circulatory system? Yup, these are all things I can’t do with a desktop. And, the fact is that the laptop makes for a good enough game machine.

But, I have to admit it. That situation with the Sager burned me bad, and is something I still haven’t really gotten over. Even a minor visual glitch with my current laptop brings back visions of high replacement costs and spendy insurance packages. There is no getting around the fact that to this day, laptops cost a lot more and give you a lot less. Someday, probably during this winter gaming season not quite a year out from the day I bought it, I’m already going to start reaching the limits of what this machine can do.

Admittedly, most modern games have also long since passed the capacity of my aging desktop, which now often feels like it is holding on to even some basic functionality by its virtual fingernails. It has been relegated to being little more than a data holding platform with a monitor, basically a central location to store work files, pdfs, e-mails and invoices. I long for a beefy piece of technology that bristles with electricity and hums with potential. After 25 years with a desktop, I’m not ready to move on yet.

The world, on the other hand, has apparently not kept the same quaint sentimentalism. A trip to my local Best Buy reveals laptops galore, while a discarded row of dingy-looking, cheap desktops sit quietly ignored by sales staff and consumers alike. These machines have been antiquated down to the hierarchical retail station of music on CDs and projection televisions. The thing is, even these crappy, low-end, brand name towers have as much if not more power than the mid-range laptops perched on their lofty pedestals.

For all the complaints you can levy against the desktop PC, from a pure bang-for-your-buck perspective, there is no better option. Even if, like me, you’ve lost the taste for putting together your own custom rig, components such as processors, memory and video cards are universally cheaper and usually better in a desktop. Fact is, I don’t begin to imagine that my laptop will still be functional, much less viable, in four years, but even in its current sad shape my aged desktop is still more than enough to fire up World of WarCraft, StarCraft II or a quick game of Civ V.

On top of that, practically speaking, the desktop just makes a better family computer. I have a sense of jealous ownership over my laptop that doesn’t exist the same way for a desktop. Part of it is that the laptop has an unceasing penumbra of fragility, and the idea of putting it in someone else’s hands, particularly those of a young person, is unthinkable. The desktop, though, isn’t as much a possession as it is a location.

I know that this next desktop will probably be my last, and I can’t help but feel oddly sad about that. Maybe the market will somehow turn back around in the next four years as quickly as it has turned away from the tower computer over the last four, but I doubt it. Portability and on-the-go computing don’t have the feel of a passing fad to me, and the old idea of having your data, media and access limited to one location is as tired as a sated housecat that has found a warm sunbeam.

So, even as I rejoice in the resurgence of my preferred platform, I also mourn the ending days of the desktop PC. I’ve no doubt that these machines will still make the circles of enthusiasts and throwback users, but I don’t think in a few more years that either of those descriptors will match my desire or needs. No, when my long conceived plan of upgrading my current desktop finally comes to fruition, I very much sense that after 25 years, this will be the last of my desktop computers.

Comments

I'd be interested to hear how you feel after you've built your new machine. I'd thought myself fully reconciled to a life of using a laptop as my only computer, but I built a new gaming rig around the time Starcraft 2 came out, and I think I'm going to stick with desktops as long as it's viable. Everything about the experience is just so much better.

The iPad more than makes up for the lack of portability, and is much more comfortable than a laptop in bed, etc. And you know? I kind of hate working in coffee shops, anyway.

I think my next major computing purchase is going to be a Mac Pro with a KVM switch.

I had the Nvidia 9800M GT go out on my Sager. Cost me over 400$ to get a new one because they don't make it anymore. I was NOT happy about that and am considering building my own Desktop again as a result. (Also, the video card crapped out my first day in Hospital Recovery after major surgery. I had to watch Hospital TV for two weeks, instead)

So I'm a huge nerd who owned a similar Apple and wanted to find out just how far we've come.

A direct MHz comparison of the two processors places a low end Core-i7 10,400 times faster than an Apple II. This is a bad comparison though considering differing architectures and the amount of processing we've offloaded to the video card.

Things get a bit bigger when we move to RAM, a current 6GB system has 1.5 million times more RAM than an Apple II. Storage is interesting too because at the time hard drives for the Apple II wern't widespread, although they could be purchased. A mid range 2 TB hard drive is about a 200,000 times bigger than a top of the range hard drive of the mid 80's.

It's interesting to note how far ahead of everything else RAM has pushed. I guess address space scales with processor architecture and it all comes down how many registers you can fit on a chip. Whereas CPU and Hard Drive technology has been a bit more of an uphill battle with us only very recently seeing a big jump in consumer SSD technology.

Bring on the light based CPUs!

I was thinking about this early today. Everything seems to be steering away from the humble desktop and into the laptop world. Even though as I type this I'm on a laptop. I love the desktop in my home with a passion.

Desktops are much better for gaming in my opinion as well.

I just built myself a new desktop a couple of weeks ago and am loving it. I have a work laptop that I use on the couch for everything non-gaming (or for light or retro gaming) but I use the desktop for major gaming and when I want a larger screen. iPads are overpriced, won't last and too restrictive in my opinion and I'll likely never buy one unless my work buys it for me to test (which they keep grumbling they may do).

I can understand anyone who would rather use a laptop as opposed to the desktop. I'm a tinkerer and desktops are great for people like me. But I'm in the minority, though I'm not sure it's a shrinking minority. Elysium largely hit the nail on the head though. Laptops aren't as reliable, often only the RAM and storage can be upgraded (I remember when they tried swappable video, I wish that took off) and if something does break, you paid a lot more for a paperweight. When you just want a basic PC to surf, do e-mail and watch video on, that laptops have become disposable isn't a big deal. But if you're a gamer or a content professional who requires horsepower and longevity, it can be an expensive proposition.

The real problem? People now expect to pay $999 for something that by all rights, should cost 2-3 times as much. That's why most laptops are cheaply made crap that wears out right after the warranty expires and it's why companies like HP are getting out of the PC business (well there's other, dumber reasons for that but that's another thread). The adage of "they don't build em' like they used to" is very true in the PC space. The PC industry drove it to this commodity state it now finds itself in and the problem is, they see people paying $500 for tablets that aren't nearly as powerful as equivalent $500 PCs and they all want in on that rather than trying to fix the current mess. Anyone who thinks PCs are going away is kidding themselves but I do think the market's in for a big correction. I think in the next few years, less people will be making PCs and the prices will go back up some, making the remaining players healthily profitable again.

I think the desktop segment will shrink but will always be around and the portable space will be a combination of laptops and tablets. The current tablet fashion trend will level off and soon enough, the click-hype stories about "laptops are dying, post-PC blah blah blah" will disappear. Thing is Elysium, unless you really play a lot of games on the go, if you buy a moderate laptop and put the rest of the money you would have put into a gaming laptop into a gaming desktop, you'll get WAY more total bang for your buck.

I love my desktop for its value. I can cram a lot of power in that thing for not much money. Hell, my $160 dollar Corsair case is more expensive than my $100 AMD quad-core CPU.

I have considered trying gaming with a laptop after some trouble with a couple of builds a few years ago. Then I hear horror stories from buddies of mine with big, powerful gaming laptops about parts failing and having to send the unit away for several weeks. I love that if my PC dies, I can have it up and running again within two days (thank you Newegg!), even if it means rebuilding it.

In the years to come, I do see companies like AMD focusing more on the mobile space. Desktop parts will still be around, but I would imagine we will see less variety. Instead of 20 different desktop Radeon cards to choose from in each generation, we might only see 7? But desktop folks will still be able to build their machines. Just a prediction.

So yeah, that desktop is not going anywhere, although I do find myself not needing the highest of high end parts these days, despite my continued love of PC gaming. Frankly, I never travel these days so I don't need a gaming machine on the go. If the time comes when I do, like if and when I move back east, then I will still have the desktop, but I will add a gaming laptop to the mix.

My biggest problem with gaming laptops is that I prefer AMD hardware, and finding a good gaming laptop with an AMD CPU and GPU in one package is hard to do. That seems to be changing with AMD's APUs but they aren't there yet.

I am a desktop gamer and will probably always be one. Nothing beats sitting in a comfortable chair and staring at two or three 24-inch monitors perched just a foot or two from your beady eyes. I don't think I am alone. Tables, chairs and desks have been around for thousands of years and there is a reason for this. The desktop is ideally suited for this environment and will be around for a long time to come.

I kinda felt the same way, which is why when my desktop of seven years finally gave up the ghost, I flirted with the idea of a cheap desktop or even a laptop.

Then I thought "if this is going to be my last desktop, I want it to be at least mid-range and capable of being upgraded for a long time."

If this is the end of the line, might as well go out with a bang, right?

I type this on a desktop computer that is so new I still haven't gotten around to installing all of the bits yet. I have a laptop that has served me faithfully over the last few years for school stuff, but there is simply no substitute for the sheer power of a desktop. I'm fortunate enough to have been able to drop a reasonable wad of cash into my new desktop, and I get tell you that it frankly embarrasses my 360 Slim sitting in the living room. Hell, DXHR at maximum resolution with every single bell and whistle turned up to maximum barely pops my CPU above 20% capacity, and the only downer is that the console-blight in terms of graphical fidelity is really obvious on a machine that can do so much more.

There's certainly something to be said for couch-gaming, but I think it's poorly understood by most folks just how awesome of an experience it is to sit in front of multiple high-definition displays on a machine that can do everything from simply web-surfing to real-time visual renderings of astounding fidelity.

Ultimately, I think that desktops will become more of a niche item for the enthusiast market, but I don't see them going away anytime soon. Europe is the PC's bastion against Asia's consoles, with the USA as a battleground between them.

I switched to laptops exclusively a while back when I realized that I would just keep using a desktop for so long that by the time I was thinking of upgrading something, I would want to replace everything (aside from mouse/keyboard maybe).

I still don't have a real laptop system. My netbook proved to be more annoyance than it was worth when the (ralink) Wireless chipset wasn't properly supported in Linux and Windows 2000, and I didn't want to buy a $200 OS for a $300 computer. My wife has gone through 3 laptops in 4 years because they're too easily damaged. Their fans wear out too quickly, the Hard drives die easily, and the screens can't withstand toddlers. After the 3rd laptop, I gave her my secondary desktop and it's been working since then.

Laptop hardware just seems to be of exceedingly poor quality since IBM sold thinkpad to Lenovo. Granted, between home and work we've only dealt with Acer, Asus, HP, Compaq, Fujitsu, Lenovo, and Sony for standard laptops. Are there any brands that aren't poorly supported, cheap junk? I suppose the $3000 Toshiba and Panasonic ruggedized units we have at work are quality, but very short in the video resolution, cost, and performance department.

It just still doesn't seem like a good investment just to have something I can drag places (I would rather take my PSP), and watch in bed (I can dump videos to my PSP, stream DVD/BR's to the PSP, or watch youtube on my phone...) A laptop is just unwieldy compared to the alternatives for all portable tasks, and only the second best when it comes to work. I imagine I'll have either a desktop, or a thin client for the foreseeable future.

I think I would side more with the idea that this current laptop will be my last, rather than my desktop. I can definitely see myself replacing this rig in three to four years time with a new one to continue gaming with, while I can't see myself replacing my current laptop (admittedly 8 years old and used on a daily basis by my wife) with anything other than a tablet.

If money is no object and you have two distinct needs (PC-functional portability and high-end gaming) from the three competing form factors, I can't see any reason to take the middle of the road.

I knew you'd come crawling back. Allow me to luxuriate in my pool of smug self-satisfaction for a moment.

Haakon7 wrote:
If money is no object

That's a pretty big "if" there...

I feel the same way. Almost all my gaming (what's left of it) is concentrated on the consoles. The games I do play on the PC are made by such low-tech conscious developers like Blizzard an Valve. My current laptop's performance exceed that of my desktop in nearly all respect. Having just one computer is the cleaner, easier solution. I wonder if I'm just holding onto the desktop for sentimental values.

It's amazing to me how this is exactly, precisely, unequivocally the opposite opinion from what I expressed on this very front page in my first article here a few months back. God I love this site.

I just built my first PC in 5 years after my Alienware fried to a crisp of its own accord. I will never game on a laptop again. It's just too damned expensive. If anything, I might supplement (more than I do now with Steam) with a cloud solution like OnLive. But the BYO tower is here to stay in my house. $400 for my build vs. $2k plus for a competant notebook? It's just not reasonable.

I've tried laptop gaming and have always been dissatisfied. We now have a laptop that's about as far from what could be gamer as you can get. 13" MacBook Pro. We do about everything on the laptop, except game. We save that for the home built PC tower built here for about 700 dollars. It's approaching three years old, and I am pretty sure that it needs to be replaced. I've been contemplating what to do, since I don't get to game quite like I used to. We do have a Wii and an Xbox 360 as well.

Part of me wants to replace the aging Core 2 Duo/GTX 260 machine with a brand spanking new Core i5/i7, Ti560 based machine before the slate of fall games arrives. I'll keep getting a new desktop as long as developers keep supplying content.

Because it was mentioned in the article, I thought that I would post this link to the old 8/16 bit Apple II stuff

http://www.virtualapple.org

By virtue of small apartment living, we can only have one desktop (and really, we don't even have space for that). My wife won that lottery, though she's happy to let me use it from time to time. If we move to a larger space, I'm getting myself a gaming desktop, when I can.

The computing market is just diversifying, and there'll be a role for desktops for many years. It just has too many advantages and is invaluable for certain work. The reason why it seems like the world is moving on is because desktops aren't sexy new products to talk about. (that's also why people are going on about tablets [and before, netbooks]) For me, I'll never give up a desktop just for portability. I'll just buy a cheap laptop to compliment it.

I don't know about you guys, but I hate doing any work on a laptop. I'd have to plug in a mouse just to get to tolerability. Desktops, with the right peripherals, are just ideal.

I don't think your next desktop will be your last.

One of the big problems with laptops is all the heat they generate. Heat dissipation per processing unit doesn't seem to be dropping all that fast, and not as fast as processing units are going up.

We could be moving to a future where laptops basically run web browsers and any heavier task gets done by those heavy, clunky boxes with lots of fans. The big change will probably be that the box will get untethered from the screens and inputs. We could see one or two large boxes sitting in the basement running a whole household of screens.

That said, I totally don't understand the love for gaming laptops. The screens and keyboards are so unsatisfying.

I think what you're going to see is that we'll be upgrading our desktops a lot less often. The last time I upgraded my desktop fully was about 4 years ago.. The only reason I updated it again was that motherboard just died in the old one. I'm very happy with my upgrade, a pair of ssds, a core i5 2500k, Z68 mobo and 8 gigs of ram.. all for under $700 CAD.. It's crazy fast with the sdds in a RAID0 and come october I'm going to get a new video card for BF3.. I can't really see myself not continuing to purchase a new desktop every 3 to 4 years..

I find myself not putting as much effort into building a machine like when I was first able to buy my own parts. I own a netbook (to watch movies in my rack on the carrier), a laptop (for more serious gaming on the go) and a custom built high end gaming rig that stands taller than my belly button.

After I got all the parts into the desktop and got it running I havn't done much else. I didn't hook up the waterblocks for watercooling, turned off the water pump, put everything on normal non-overclocked settings, and I definatly didn't do anything with the phase-change cooler. It just isn't worth the effort anymore. I honestly think my next box will be a basic mid-small range tower with basic, quite fans to run a good-enough parts list that will run my games and other entertainment for the next few years.

I do sorta feel guilty about not hooking up the watercooling though.

I agree with what several others stated: the purpose of these two classes of machines (portable vs. desktop) is very different, and I think this will further be defined by current new developments, i.e. tablets.

For me personally the laptop is nice for some gaming on the go, but that is more like playing Frozen Synapse or Puzzle Quest. The real "magic moments" still happen in front of my TV in my couch, or in my comfy chair in front of my desktop.

Looking at the other side of the fence: Anyone ever wondered, why even after all these years that laptops have been available, the industry has yet to come up with a standard for extension slots in this product category? For me the answer is quite obvious: they don't want to. They rather have us buy a new product every 2-3 years, because their product either broke or is not upgradable. And the consumer has accepted this. It's too good for their businesses for them to change that.

I would suggest that it's possible that the laptop is on the way out. For active gamers like most of the folks here, the games are played on consoles or desktops. Laptops just don't offer the bang-for-your-buck that desktops do and, as has been said many times in the thread, are expensive or impossible to fix if one of the components goes bad (I have numerous friends who use laptops who have problems with their monitors sour their laptop experiences). I could see a lot of folks here going the desktop/tablet route.

juv3nal wrote:
Haakon7 wrote:
If money is no object

That's a pretty big "if" there...

Actually, I don't know that it needs to be an if. Right now, I think that you can definitely get the best of both worlds; a solid gaming desktop for home, and a good laptop for portable productivity. It won't game hardly at all in the sense that the desktop will, but you can *easily* squeeze both of those things into ~$1500. I'd hardly call that anything close to 'money is no object' territory.

Personally, I, like Plavonica, am forced into a laptop from time to time. Not as extreme space-wise, but a desktop is certainly not a viable thing to have on a deployment. I've spent the last 9 months gaming on my laptop, and it makes me truly pine for my desktop with its' expanse of 20" monitors to the 15" I'm stuck with, dedicated, solid video(damn AMD and their horrid naming conventions) to the integrated video I have in this thing(stupidass AMD).

With that said, my current machine back home is approaching 3 years old now, and will be about that old when I replace it. I paid ~$1100 for the parts currently involved in the computer, and will be spending that much if not a little more when I get back from this haul in the sandbox. Will it be my last desktop? I doubt it. It'll probably be a long, long while before I replace it though, given that I'm buying closer to the beginning of the current tech cycle than I usually do, not to mention buying closer to the top end than I usually do.

Cynicide wrote:
So I'm a huge nerd who owned a similar Apple and wanted to find out just how far we've come.

A direct MHz comparison of the two processors places a low end Core-i7 10,400 times faster than an Apple II. This is a bad comparison though considering differing architectures and the amount of processing we've offloaded to the video card.

From a quick look at the specs, the 6502 only had one (integer) execution unit and many instructions took more than one cycle to execute. A single i7 core can issue 4 instructions per cycle.

I'd guess that makes the performance difference probably more like 100,000 times faster?

I actually came to a very different conclusion.

My current laptop is my last, replaced with a tablet. I will continue to upgrade and replace parts in my desktop since that's where I do my primary gaming and keep all my media and do the work that needs done at home.

I can stream that media from there to almost any room in the house and now, through applications from google or amazon, even get a lot of that stuff out over the internet to my phone or tablet. It's crazy. I have a workstation/gaming platform/media server. I can't get a laptop to do all that and still be affordable and able to be fixed without breaking the bank.

And really, what was I using my laptop for? Games? It's pretty old, very few things run on there. Music? That's already all over the house. Netflix? Tablet can do it. Browsing? Tablet can do it. And with the slow replacement of upgrades to your desktop you find yourself eventually sitting on a second computer. Spend $100 on a case and PSU and bingo, you've got a second PC for the family.

oilypenguin wrote:
My current laptop is my last, replaced with a tablet. I will continue to upgrade and replace parts in my desktop since that's where I do my primary gaming and keep all my media and do the work that needs done at home.

This. I think laptops will eventually fade as tablets become a more viable alternative. With the increasing options in terms of cloud storage and wireless access, coupled with the move to SSDs, I'm thinking with the right interface there's little a laptop could do that couldn't more elegantly be handled by a tablet.

Add me to the sizeable group of GWJers who game on their desktop and purchased a tablet for portability-related activities. In fact, I just started picking up parts for my next desktop, as my current is also a now-antiquated 2008 machine - though even it still runs great.

Ultimately, while I see desktops as more niche, I do hope they stay affordable enough. There's no way I'll game on a laptop, and I've tried and turned away from consoles. Desktop-PC gaming is where it's at. I'd hate for that to not be an option anytime soon.

AnimeJ wrote:

Actually, I don't know that it needs to be an if. Right now, I think that you can definitely get the best of both worlds; a solid gaming desktop for home, and a good laptop for portable productivity. It won't game hardly at all in the sense that the desktop will, but you can *easily* squeeze both of those things into ~$1500.

Makes me think a laptop isn't a bad addition for gaming at all considering the amount of GoG offerings some of us play.