How desktop PCs got their groove back

Technology announced this week at CES breathes new life Into the desktop PC
  • (PC World (US online))
  • — 09 January, 2011 04:44

Is the desktop PC dead? Far from it.

As PCWorld's Desktops editor, I have something of a vested interest in seeing these dinosaurs prosper. Tablets and phones of all shapes and sizes are hogging the limelight, but the desktops unveiled at this year's CES have offered up important evolutions in form and function. Driven by versatility, performance, and (arguably most importantly) value, the humble desktop will be with us for some time -- we probably just won't recognize it.

The Rise of the All-in-One

We've seen the rise of the alll-in-one PC coming for some time now. In 2010 especially, these melds of monitor and machine sought to simplify the desktop experience. "There's only one cord!" became a common refrain on marketing materials. All-in-Ones were a svelte, hassle-free alternative to the burdensome beige and black boxes we've known for so long.

But all-in-ones were more expensive than comparable tower desktops, and generally rather sluggish. That's changed. Intel's 2nd Generation Core processors have demonstrably lower power requirements, while offering substantial performance gains -- for the same price. That means smaller, thinner chassis -- or models that are the same size as today's all-in-ones, packed with discrete graphics cards and all sorts of neat extras. And while AMD's Fusion platform will be making its way into notebooks first, we've already seen all-in-ones like Lenovo's C205 offering up Fusion in an inexpensive chassis.

Multi-touch all-in-ones are also becoming the norm, and they've come a long way. Operating systems have long existed as mouse-driven applications, but the influx of smartphones and tablets has changed all that. We've become increasingly accustomed to navigating devices by touch: ATMs, navigation systems, cell phones -- chances are, you've used a touchscreen at least once today.

But the Windows 7 interface is simply not built for touch. PC makers have been scrambling to address that, baking in their own finger-friendly UIs -- HP's Touchsmart and Acer's Touch Portal overlays are two of the more prominent examples, but vendors like MSI and Lenovo have their own ways of addressing the general awkwardness of navigating file-systems with your hands.

The Right Tool For The Job

Desktops excel at versatility. And if you're paying attention, you'll notice that desktop manufacturers have realized which battles are lost, and are instead playing to their strengths.

There's no longer any reason to be stuck at a desk if you'd like to browse the Internet -- your tablet or netbook will work just as well on the couch. And while I won't dare broach the subject of PC gaming, top-tier gaming PCs are generally viewed as expensive luxury items, and that's not likely to change.

Instead, we're seeing PCs equipped with Nvidia's 3D Vision technology, and sporting Blu-ray players. Sending a child off to college? They'd probably appreciate a 42-inch HDTV. But why not save a few bucks, and send them off with an all-in-one equipped with a TV tuner and HDMI inputs? They'll get a movie-streaming, console ready, high definition media center. And when you come to visit, they can still pretend they use it to crank out term papers.

And for the video mavens: what could possibly pair better with your new camcorder or cell phone's HD content than a quad-core Sandy Bridge processor with Intel's Quick Sync encoding technology, for under US$800?

You might not be able to carry your desktop around, but with Tegra 2-equipped tablets boasting such impressive performance, chances are it's your laptop that's starting to look a little bulky.

What's Next?

Desktops aren't dead. In fact, I wouldn't even say they're threatened, for much the same reason that gas-guzzling pickup trucks and breakneck-pace motorcycles exist in a world of fuel-sipping sedans.

Whether it's gaming, number-crunching, or content-creation and consumption, desktops are poised to remain at the forefront of innovation, if only for the fact that the latest, most powerful hardware generally needs to draw power and expel heat -- and lots of it.

And there's always personal preference. I like to stay hands-on with my hardware, so I'll always prefer a machine I can open up and tinker with. But that didn't stop me from picking up Apple's iPad on launch day, or from ogling every smartphone and wunder-tablet announced at CES.

But the world of desktops is changing, and ARM and the system on chip (SoC) architecture appears to be the future. Microsoft is on board, having recently announced that Windows will be jumping on the SoC bandwagon. And with Nvidia's "Project Denver" out in the open, it's becoming increasingly clear that the desktop world's major players are moving in that direction too.

I can't pretend to know what the future of computing holds, but as long as we need ample raw power, or a versatile tool we can upgrade to fit the latest trends, the desktop -- or something like it -- will remain alive and well.

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Nate Ralph

PC World (US online)
Topics: CES, desktops, desktop pcs, hardware systems, Consumer Electronics Show (CES), intel, CES 2011
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