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.


I'm never going back to a "gaming laptop". The burn from the high cost of entry, rapid obsolescence and outrageous repair prices still hurts. But portability was never a big selling point for me, even when I was traveling all the time. I really don't need to play the latest AAA title when I'm out in the world. I'm much more likely to reach for my MP3 player or a book in those instances, in fact.

If I move away from desktops, it won't be because I need to bring a computer with me wherever I go (I don't), it will be because the circumstances of my life will have changed enough that isolating myself at my desk for a few hours will become less of an option. This is where the living room console comes in.

If I ever have to go with just one computer, i'll go with a laptop. Right now though I'm much happier with my desktop + iPad setup. And my desktop is almost 5 years old. OK, so it's a then-top-of-the-line Mac Pro that's had major upgrades done to it's video card and RAM recently, so it's aged better than the average machine, but for the price I paid then I could easily have built several gaming machines. (I was building a video editing rig. The fact that it still plays games too is a bonus.)

edit: stupid accidental double tap

My current laptop is going on upwards of 5 years now. It is basically my wife's facebook browser. Sure, I can still load up retro games and have played through quite a few indie gems on it, but my gaming is done on my desktop I just built. I will always have a desktop or 3 floating around my place, due to the power/cost ratio, and the fact that I like to tinker with them. I however won't be getting another laptop. When the time is right, and the cash is available, I will get a tablet. Give me the web browsing of my laptop without the heat issues and i'm sold. I just wish I could have gotten a touch pad for $100 when they were available.

I love my gaming laptop. As a road warrior it's almost essential for me to have a quality gaming PC on the go. Nothing beats being able to game well in my hotel on the road. I carry a 360 controller in my bag as well and occasionally even get a room where the hotel hasn't disabled the HDMI inputs on the LCD TV in the room (so I have a 6' HDMI cable as well)

At home I have my monster Alienware M18x with dual 2GB ATI 6990M's which can play every game at 1080P max details on my 55" HDTV. And yes DX:HR is glorious played that way...oh and throw in 5.1 surround sound as well.

It doesn't make sense to have a gaming laptop and then have a bad PC, or even just to have a gaming laptop because of cost and vulnerability. It's also kind of crappy having to go back to 14 inch screens when I've been gaming on a fantastic bunch of LEDs for a while now. I can't go back to the little LCDs.

Laptops are great for portability - you use it for taking work with you, and for viewing the occasional film or so, or for the time-waster game for half an hour or so. A low-power machine will do that - a netbook or a tablet will suffice. In fact, it's probably better to get a low-end laptop for the job as it won't make you weep when you break it, and the parts are probably both more power-efficient, and hardier (gotta check on per-product basis).

I use my desktop for mass central data storage, which I will always need, for zapping media to any device I can hook up to the home network, for quality gaming, and for especially power-hungry applications.

Given that an iPad always need an iTunes to work, it will only emphasize the role of the desktop as a central household appliance, rather than decrease it. A laptop is much less useful when you're already lugging a tablet PC around all the time.

great article! Rather than my last I recently ordered my first gaming PC desktop from iBuyPower and am impatiently waiting for it to be delivered. The PC gaming market is all shiny and new since I've pretty much always been a console person. It's been, oh, maybe five years since there has been a desktop in the house and even longer since there has been a Windows machine. I'd never give up having my MBP for day-to-day usage but I'm very excited about the capabilities of the new rig.

I find that as I get older and my eyes continue their long slide into near blindness from tens of thousands of PC gaming hours that I NEED that keyboard and the 32" TV\monitor.

Perhaps I am old but I just cant see using a laptop or ipad to game. I cant see the darn thing and its dinky.

I've never owned a console in my life. N64 at a friend's house and some Halo stype stuff here and there is all I've done with it.

I own a desktop where I do all my serious gaming, and a laptop where I can do work or play SNES roms and "good old games" if I'm bored on the go. If you buy all the parts and put it together yourself you can get a competitive desktop for 1000 or less that will last you several years. I built a $850ish desktop two years ago and I am only now starting to have to turn to big titles down from high graphics.

Console only titles haven't been compelling enough for me to consider buying a whole new system. There are some great games out there I'll never get to play, but between League of Legends and other multiplayer mainstays I barely have enough time to finish all the great PC games.

I agree with oilypenguin and the rest. The desktop will bear the burden of gaming and entertainment storage with more and more of that moving to the cloud with tablets and TVs being the screen of the central home desktop. I think laptops will disappear before any desktop does.

Also, I recently upgraded my home desktop that was about 6 years old. I was being stubborn and refused to upgrade because it still could play plenty of current games and run netflix just fine. It's one of those things that you won't notice until you change. The difference from the old to the new was staggering; I had no idea how big of a difference a new PC would make to, well, everything that I used the computer to do. I find myself gaming more now too, maybe it's because I can turn the graphics options up now instead of all the way down...

I am with CheezePavilion (mmmmm...64 slices of American Cheese...)

I have a desktop from 2008. Core 2, GeForce 460, 6GB RAM, dual monitors, etc....and I can still game on it to a pretty decent extent. It is feeling its age but it handles things. Other apps run great on it - especially since my most recent move from Vista to Win7.

But, as an IT Professiona type guy, I also need a laptop for day to day work. I have opted for a mid-range "desktop replacement" type...Core i7, GeForce 540, 8GB Ram, Blu-Ray...and, I must say, it handles most games I had thrown at it just fine. It cannot crush the most recent titles at full graphics fidelity, but it works well for most things. And it cost $1000 on sale. My desktop cost $1400 all those years ago but an equivalent system could probably be had for $400 or $500 these days.

Tweak it as you like...spend $1,000 on a nice desktop and $500 on a decent laptop (Core i3 or better systems can be had for that money) - or vice versa - and you can have it both ways. Or go all in for one killer system at $1500 (see Asus recent ROG 17" laptops, for example) matter what, it is possible to get great gaming in for much less money than it used to cost.

And I would like to add that any decent laptop will throw out to dual monitors these days. They have become as powerful, in may respects, as desktops.....and you can treat them as such. To me, laptops are becoming the new desktops and tablets are becoming the new laptops. And, thank god, people in their 40s (like me) are the new "people in their 30s".


Enjoy all. Happy gaming...even if it is on your Amiga 500 (I miss those).