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.