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Make the Case for Desktop Computing

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Ubiquitous mobile computing is rapidly gaining adoption and will soon render desktops obsolete, believes the head of IT for Purdue University in Indiana. In an article over at ComputerWorld, Purdue CIO Gerry McCartney said the school is prepping for a desktop-less future:

McCartney doesn’t know what devices will dominate his campus in the years ahead — perhaps tablet computers, netbooks or some unknown device incubating in a lab somewhere. But there is one thing he does know about the future: It’s time to get rid of desktop PCs.

“This idea that I have to go to a PC and sit down and use it is as quaint as having to go to a phone to use a phone,” said McCartney, referring to land-line telephones.

Given that I dumped my last personal desktop in 2001, and returned my last “work-related” desktop at the end of 2007, right before I started at GigaOM, I am solidly in the mobile-only camp. Back in October 2008, I wrote how wireless was driving mobile computing, and laid out what it would mean for vendors such as Intel (s intc) and ARM (s ARMh). A year later, I asked readers if the desktop had already become a dinosaur; some felt it had while others still saw it as a cheap way to manage home networks.

But if kids heading off to college these days are outfitted with tablets and notebooks, then I don’t see them electing to buy a desktop unless they’re issued one on the job — itself a decreasing possibility in an era of desktop virtualization, mobile workers and thin clients. I solicited opinions from the GigaOM team, and was surprised at how many are hanging onto the desktop as a media server, for ergonomic reasons, or because they wanted to the screen real estate and processing capability for video editing. So readers, what about y’all? Do you have a desktop? Will you buy one? What is the role of a desktop in a mobile computing world?

Image courtesy of Flickr user William Hook

34 Responses to “Make the Case for Desktop Computing”

  1. I would buy a Desktop PC because:
    1) They are cheaper than their comparable mobile counterparts.
    2) I can squeeze a lot of processing power from them.
    3) I own a netbook which I carry around for my basic work.
    4) Have lots of USB ports for lots of external hardware
    5) Are highly customizable
    6) They can be hidden under the table, with only a nice Flat screen monitor and wireless keyboard and mouse on the table.
    7) You can dump your small screen for a bigger one easily.

  2. I have been laptop only since 1999. After using and purchasing an iPad, it became redundant to have a tablet, smartphone, and laptop. Unless I travel a lot, I cannot see the benefits of this. So, I sold my laptop and purchased a 27″ quad core iMac. Great combo. iPad, iMac, smartphone.

    I think the future will be intelligent always connected mobile devices like the iPad and iPhone – and giant display based systems at work/home (like Minority Report). We are getting closer.

    So, now I own my first desktop in a decade thanks to the iPad. The irony is that I found it necessary due to a new mobile device :)

  3. iPhone/iPad mobile device.

    Desktop with quad monitor setup for work.

    Desktop for home with a huge screen because I don’t like sitting on a couch or in a living room and don’t watch TV and if I really wanted to I could pull out one of my mobile devices.

    I have seen it time and time and time again, people’s heads short circuit to laptops that they end up using as desktops when they can get the 2x of everything(Large Monitor being the biggest plus) by opting for desktops.

  4. It’s about lifestyle. “What is the role of a desktop in a mobile computing world?” assumes that you’re living a mobile lifestyle. If that’s the case, as it appears to be with you, then (for you and those like you) the desktop is dead and the only question is which mobile device or combination of devices covers your computing/communication/media needs.

    On the other hand, if you’re a homebody or are working for several hours a day, several days a week at a single location, the desktop still has some compelling advantages. Ergonomics, plopping your smart phone/tablet/net book/note book on the nearest flat surface and pulling up whatever chair is handy can’t begin to match a work area dedicated to your work and set up by you for you and your work habits. Faster and more reliable connection to the internet. The surface area available for display(s) and the user interface device(s) measured in square feet rather than square inches. No size, weight or battery life limits. More computing power and storage if you’re willing to spend the money and more storage/computing power for the money in any case.

  5. Roger Weeks

    Games, video editing, photo editing are three things that at least need an external monitor if you’re giving up on desktops entirely. But the difference in processing between an i5 and 8-core Nehalem is significant in any of those applications.

  6. Walter Wright

    Reading what I have written, and other comments here, I feel more and more like Andy Rooney. Change is coming so fast that tomorrow’s mobile platforms will BE the new desk tops, because they will be able to do it all with something the size of an iPhone with holographic projection. Even the sexy new iPad will soon resemble a frumpy Lisa.

  7. onecallednick

    I have a problem with laptops as an evironmentalist. Frankly, there’s no upgrade potential for a laptop. A desktop computer can be upgraded piece by piece,be it motherboard, GPU, CPU, RAM, HDD. You just can’t do that on a laptop, and it’s even worse with netbooks. Really this is a turn towards disposable computing. Don’t get me wrong, I had a netbook, and a smartphone, as my two main computers for a good while, but I think desktops are a more responsible choice for the long term. Futureproofing is another thing. The desktop we outfitted in 2006 is still hanging with the big dogs, playing world of warcraft and HD Flash video. Do you really want to drop a grand or more on a new macbook every other year?

    Another thing I like about my desktop is its spacious screen and the fact that I have proper posture and don’t feel like I’m turning into a hunchback. Laptops, or worse, netbooks and tablets, are going to keep chiropractors in business for a long time.

  8. I suggested a mobile version of OS X when the new OS launched after the Purchase of NeXT. My perspectives wasn’t desktop versus mobile, but the collaboration between the OS versions. This is the implication of cloud computing — applications that are portable.

    The device simply matters less than the display. As a designer, I need a display more than I require additional horsepower. I should be able to purchase it if video editing is required. But, OSes that work together are a ways off. Intel could be fighting ARM now, or they could make processors that collaborate and own the cloud. HP could fight Apple on the device or in the ether. But, even talking about devices reduces their significance to gadgets. That is fine for Engadget, but not for people who have to build the future.

  9. who knew mobile pc’s would be the deathbed for desktops? we are at an apex of innovation for the phonePC. soon one phonepc touchscreen over another wont make a difference. they will all be the same “hollow touch screen boxes” we program with the apps we want. PC operating system wars are over and will soon be over for the mobile phone. alot of people that want a job behind a desktop better learn another profession because a keyboard might not be around in 5 years. the final frontier for mobile and desktop innovation is upon us.

  10. Hortron

    If you think of it in broadly defined roles of content creator and consumer then more often than not the audio-visual creators will purchase desktops. Also, some people like to seclude themselves to better focus. Designing a “space” to work, where the desktop is a permanent fixture probably aids in their creativity.

    I have a desktop and a laptop. If I had a more appropriate room in my house for the desktop, I’d probably use it more. But my laptop with 14″ screen is fine for everything I do.

    Most of we computer workers finally have the ability to do everything away from our “legacy” desks. Personally, I’ve never been the type to camp out at a coffee shop and use their couch as my office. I’m terribly distracted, and I’m likely to pace every few minutes and talk to myself as I work. Not ideal for public spaces.

  11. ITS TRUE kids heading off to college these days are outfitted with tablets and notebooks, then I don’t see them electing to buy a desktop unless they’re issued one on the job — itself a

  12. Desktops are now engineering workstations. I do software engineering and have them, dual 24″ monitors, etc.

    I post this while commuting on a train with an iPad. When I get home, I might need to do a bit of coding and will use the desktop. Otherwise I am on the tablet surfing and communicating.

    If your job is to communicate or coordinate or manage or whatever your need for an engineering workstation just might go away with the mobile revolution.

  13. hdrkid

    I bought a desktop (quad core)last year at Office Depot for $300 and a laptop (dual core) for $1000. The desktop is superfast for video editing. The laptop is so slow it is like watching paint dry and I rarely use it now.

  14. A lot of good comments here. I’m 21 and for the laptop and mobile movement. I agree there are good places for a desktop, at work, and for gaming as well. But when I read this, I immediately thought of my parents, in their 50s and 60s. They have a desktop in what is called the “computer room”. Then, I thought of baby boomers. Supposedly the largest growing generation in the years to come. They will have a lot of purchasing power. How is all the mobility with tablets, netbooks, laptops, and smartphones going to effect them? Will they stick to the desktop or get into the mobile mix? I’m not sure, maybe a little of both.

    • Marco A.

      My aunt in her mid-80s just got a laptop last year and loves it. She can use it from the couch or dining table. Everyone else in the family below the age of 60 already had one, including all the kids down to age 10. The holdouts are limited mostly by a very long upgrade cycle. For people who’d be looking at desktops in the $300 price range, adding an extra $200 for mobility is a reasonably-priced feature even if you rarely take the computer outside your own house. The iPad would be perfect for the oldest relatives, if it cost half as much.

  15. Walter Wright

    I recently bought a new apple imac with the 27 inch screen. Man–the real estate!
    Normally I use the desktop for serious work, that for me is financial record-keeping. But now with this huge screen I can read digital forms of magazines and newspapers and actually see the illustrations and read even the fine print.
    I love my desktop, because it is where I work. And the wireless keyboard that came with the iMac is one of the best keyboards I have ever worked on–and as a retired journalist I have worked on a lot. The keyboard in combination with the wireless mouse, plus the shallow depth of the iMac itself, make my actual desktop what it needs to be, a place where I can lay out materials, records, papers, and use them with the computer.
    So no, I will not be giving up my desktop anytime soon.
    But I can hardly wait to get my iPad so I can be mobile around the house, around town, around the country and around the world.

  16. And Bill Gates and Co. will argue that the PC is here to stay for ever(“I am a PC”), while quietly preparing for its end in a few years.

    As I recall, that’s exactly what Bill Gates did earlier: in the mid-90’s at Geneva in his key note, using is God-like status, he more or less condemned the emerging netscape (mosaic) revolution as an aberration that would take long time to take off, while he had already put together plans for IE that very quarter, with separate tiger teams 3 times bigger than the total employees of Andreessen’s mosiac .

    BTW “I am a PC” is such a silly desparate campaign, trying to ‘subconsciously endear’ the PC as something more than a mere tool/possession — the message changing from “I use a PC” to “I AM a PC” is a just another pathetic way to admit something everyone knows is coming — the PC is in its twilight.

    • The I Am a PC is a anti Mac ad, nothing to do with a desktop.

      I thought it was a smart response, as far as a PC being in its twilight… I will believe it when they make a more light weight, affordable high powered laptop

  17. George B

    Reality check: Presbyopia is a health condition where the eye exhibits a progressively diminished ability to focus on near objects with age. I’m in my 40s and I use a large display specifically to deal with difficulty focusing on fine details up close. In addition, laptop keyboards are less than ergonomic and don’t get me started on how much I hate laptop touch pads. For work I have use a Lenovo T61p laptop in a docking station so I can use it as a desktop computer. I could see using a smaller netbook size computer with a docking station, but at some age everyone starts to need a larger display and more ergonomic user interface to remain productive.

  18. I’m certain that my next computer will be a 27in iMac or a Mac Pro because editing video and audio on a notebook while possible, is not fun nor efficient.

    I have a Macbook Pro and Windows 7 desktop machine. I tend to like the desktop because of the larger screen (22″ versus 15″) and the full size keyboard. I also like having larger hard drives, DVD burners, 7 different card readers, 8 usb ports, etc..

    I recently cut the cable for media so now all television viewing comes through the internet and watching on the desktop is easier than the MacGyver like configurations I have to go through to get Hulu on my TV.

  19. As a self-proclaimed gadget aficionado, I love mobile, but those devices are still an extension of homebase (or “workbase”). I totally understand the argument, but no matter how adept we become to mobile devices, they will never allow the same productivity as a desktop solution.

    At work, I spend hours each day running multiple screens to allow several spreadsheets, DB’s, and browsers open, all while building a sales presentation. Is a laptop+docking station really more compact, ergonomic, Horsepower? All my work related stuff is sitting in the cloud anyways… so I can always use those “mobile extensions” for last minute revisions.

    At home: Audio production, photo editing, and media center — different people have different hobbies… but if CPU/GPU/MEM intense applications are underway, what form factor offers the best support?

  20. Well, if you’re just talking about the idea that all the files, applications, and settings that we’re used to consuming and manipulating on our home desktop computers SHOULD be consumable and manipulatable from anywhere on any device – of course that is true. I don’t think anyone would argue (excepting for certain cases of security) that they would turn down the cloud for their one and only trusty desktop PC. However, no one will give up said PC until portable devices are capable of the same functionality in terms of processing power and freedom of manipulation. Right now, iPad is great for playing and communicating, but it’s not exactly what you would turn to for anything creative (video editing, photoshop, audio, making Flash sites). If we get some more power and some more flexibility up in these portable devices – who could say no? Who would want to?

    oh wait – how many dollars a month did you say that cloud storage and constant 4G internet connectivity was going to cost?

  21. David

    I’m actually looking at going back to a desktop. Laptops lack the options for power, screen real estate, speed that I’ve come to expect when trying to get things done.

  22. A laptop is superfluous in a tablet world, except for niche purposes. But a desktop, with a giant screen and powerful CPU, can allow for uses a laptop can’t.

    Plus, a desktop is much easier to back up, can have all sorts of peripherals and doodads attached to it, and is better suited as a home media server. (I use an iMac as a home media server, in conjunction with a couple of network stores.)

    In fact, I’d wager if you do anything with home networking, you’ll find you need a server or desktop PC of some kind–or a laptop you keep running 24/7.

    • Anthony

      “a tablet world”…we are not in that world. Tablets are the niche product for the foreseeable future. Laptops will outsell the iPad by 100x this year.

      Low-end desktops are slower than high-end laptops, and a fast desktop will only be about twice as fast as a high-end laptop. Most decent portables are perfectly capable of driving a 30″ LCD monitor. Unless you’re talking about a beast with 4 high-end nVidia cards driving a video wall or visual computing workstation, for most purposes a good laptop is more than fast enough for most people.

      • Marco A.

        A NAS drive is basically a small Linux desktop with no monitor attached. In the home, it could easily be merged into the wireless router or media center.

        Probably the people talking about using a desktop for multimedia are creating/editing content, not consuming it, and need the speed of a local hard drive (if not SSD). Editing HD video stored remotely over a wireless network isn’t practical.

  23. My computer that I use for everything from photos to finance is a desktop. It has 4 display windows– benefit of Spaces, 4 internal hard drives and several external hard drives, 12 GB of RAM, ~5,000 tunes, movies. I also have a notebook (1 display/1 hard drive/<2 GB RAM), but that’s not for editing photos. I cannot see that I would want to give up my desktop. It also is much more reliable since it is stationary. My daughter is done with college and is saving her money to buy her own desktop computer for all her photographic and graphic arts work.

    From the looks of that desk surface in the photo, someone either throws away everything or he doesn’t work there much.

    Sure, one can believe it is cool to have the latest phone and notebook / netbook. But that’s not always the more practical path, and it is not more efficient except superficially.

  24. No, I don’t have a desktop and most likely won’t. My first computer was a notebook (Mac) then I moved to a Win95 desktop, onto a XP laptop, and now a Win7 laptop. For me the laptop does everything I need and generally has plenty of power; however, I can certainly understand the argument for the desktop if you need the full on power for video or heavy gaming and/or a big screen. The screen is the only thing I miss with a laptop but I can easily add one if I like.

    With that said, more net-tops (I think that’s right) are coming out that are geared toward multi-media and handle HD better, and with the new GPU/GPGPU, Tegra, and the things ARM chips are doing in HD I think it’s only a matter of time where there isn’t much difference between the portable and desktop devices as far as “needed” power goes in general but for the most extreme cases. On top of that there are some seriously powerful laptops out there if you want to pay the $$$$ for them.

    Personally, I just like being able to take my laptop with me if I need to, but in general it is a desktop replacement.

  25. Kevin Krewell

    Personally, I still have a couple of desktops at home. One is my Gaming PC and the other is my small-form-factor HTPC connected to the HDTV. The best gaming PCs will still be desktops.

    The advantages of desktops are: upgradeable, spacious, can be home built, can handle higher powered GPUs and CPUs, and can hold multiple hard drives (RAID).