Is the desktop PC a dying breed?

While the world becomes wireless, there is one dominant part of our technological world that doesn't seem to have changed that much in the past couple of decades, and that's the humble desktop.

Despite advances in cooling, performance, style and usage habits, there are still many of us who go to work and come home to play on a desktop machine. Monitor, keyboard, mouse and the system itself, enclosed in a case as big as most people's screens, with whirring fans and blinking lights.

For some it might seem impressive that this stalwart workhorse of PC usage is still in operation today, but it's interesting that it's survived as long as it has. When you can get gaming laptops that can play the latest games, phones for checking email and social networking on the go, ebook readers for books, all of which offer something a desktop doesn't: portability; it's a wonder we haven’t all moved on. With all these other devices taking over many of the tasks that you would go and use the family PC for just a few years ago, is the desktop set to die out in the coming years, or will we still be rocking a mid-tower chassis with a giant air cooler a decade from now?

Well for the past few years, bloggers, writers, even industry heads have been proclaiming that the desktop is currently in its death throws, the same way that many have been heralding the death of PC gaming, but is that really the case? Perhaps not. Even as these predictions of demise were cooling, the industry already seemed to be having a resurgence. Case in point, 2010 saw massive growth in the PC gaming industry.

Now it could be argued that many of these PC gamers are laptop users and I wouldn't doubt it, but I'd wager that a large proportion still use a desktop.

Not only can you get better hardware by sacrificing the portability of a laptop, but you also get it cheaper as well; especially if you built it yourself. While the majority of internet browsers, Farmville players and business men don't go routing around inside their system and don't want to, the enthusiast crowd is not a minute one. This is certainly one crop of desktop fans that I can't see trading in their tower for something more portable any time soon. If anything, these technology enthusiasts are likely to have many of these devices, utilising them individually for what they're good at.

Tablets, notebooks and phones for what they're good for and a desktop for extreme benchmarks, tweaking, and most likely gaming. Upgrades are also 99 per cent easier. Sure you can replace the HDD in your laptop with an SSD, but you can't switch out the CPU easily enough. You can't add a new graphics card, to give your system another year of life. Laptops, netbooks and other devices are not evolving systems in the way a desktop is. They can't change with what you want to do, they're relatively stuck in the configuration they were sold in.

So is that the case perhaps? Is the desktop going to be relegated to the bedrooms and workshops of the humble overclocker? I don't think they're the only ones who'll hang on to it. As mentioned earlier, gamers are another group that will stay for a while longer and there's a few reasons why.

  • The Control scheme: While I'm sure most hardcore gamers have an Xbox for the odd racing title or beat em up and laptops or tablets for other things, there is still nothing that can beat the precision and speed of a mouse and keyboard setup. Don't believe me? How about the fact that Microsoft canned a project that would allow PC gamers and Xbox users to face off against one another: purely because the mouse and keyboard gamers destroyed their console counterparts. Even pitting average PC gamers against professional console players did nothing. Perhaps they didn't have their aim assist on? Something that seems to be rife in console shooters. For certain genres, the mouse and keyboard is still the absolutely dominant control scheme and without a brand new way of interaction, that's not going to change any-time soon. Don't even pretend a touch screen is good for anything but turn based or puzzlers.

Absolute performance: Be it screen size, CPU clock speed, graphical power, you cannot get the highest of the high end performance in a gaming laptop. Sure you can in some cases get one or the other with something like the Eon-17 but the display is still only 17-inch and I think we've all been gaming on at least 19inchers for what, 6-7 years now? Please note as well that something like this barely qualifies as a laptop as it only has one hour of battery life and a weight in the region of several kilograms.

Static add ons and surroundings: As the above section stated, while laptop gaming is growing and growing, there's just something much more satisfying about gaming on a giant screen. Sure you can plug your notebook into your TV, but is your lounge really setup for PC gaming? What about your sound system, is that ready for notebook compatibility? A desktop is in a designated PC usage area. It's a place in your home designed for usage with this machine. It's not where you watch TV or eat or hang out with friends, this is where you work and play on a machine designed for that. Everything is setup ready to go. No hassle. You're not plugging in leads or making sure the power cable is in so you don't run out of battery. Sit down, power on, game.

So it's nerds right? We can boil down the desktop users over the next few years, till we've distilled a small nugget of gamers and enthusiasts who still want to hang on to their giant, boxey piece of technology. Well to some extent yes, but I think there's one other group that needs these full size systems too. Developers.

That's right. Every laptop has wifi, ethernet ports, onboard sound controllers and more. All that technology fits neatly inside your portable device, but it wouldn't have done in years gone by. Why not? Because they were all PC add-in cards. The standard desktop is a proving ground of new technology. It's the first place a developer of a new form factor can trial something that's a little bulky or that needs bleeding edge speed. USB 3.0 has been around for ages, but laptop adoption was slower than expected because when debuted, it performed poorly thanks to the slower HDDs often found in notebook systems.

The other really important issue is that mobile technology still isn't really there yet. The portability is well figured out, but battery life is still lacking if you want to do anything complicated. Some netbooks are encroaching on ten hours which is admirable, but you're once again sacrificing screen size, gaming ability, sheer processing power and more.

Perhaps that's the thing with PC use as a whole, things are just becoming more segmented. And I mean that in every part of the spectrum: desktops, notebooks, ultrabooks, laptops and phones. They're all excellent devices, with the latter four handling specific tasks based around mobility. You're on the go and you can game with some of them, go online with all of them, social network on all of them, watch HD movies on some. But you have to take into account battery life, travel weight, cost, the fact that you can't upgrade them easily when a year from now the hardware is out of date.

Notice that the first item on that list could do all those things, without any of the drawbacks? The Ultrabooks are also looking to change things up a little bit, offering some of the high end performance of a desktop with the potability of a lightweight notebook; but we're still only talking 5 hours battery life and you're still not going to be able to game much on them thanks to their integrated graphics. That will get better over time, but it'll be interesting to see how Intel pack more GPU power into them without upping the weight or lowering battery life.

I'm not saying that the desktop is still the be all and end all that it was, but it's certainly still holding its own in the quickly mobilising PC market and it comes without many of the downsides that its smaller compatriots do.

In reality, it seems likely that the desktop's usage will diminish over time and that like the hipsers that dominate the fashionable smartphone aspect of computing, a specific crowd will remain loyal to their tower. Perhaps things will all change when Moore's Law finally runs to completion and we all move over to something entirely different. For now at least, I'll be finishing up this article on my desktop, with my favourite keyboard and dual screens and head home to my gaming system, another dual screen overlocked setup with my favourite mouse, in my game room.