In Praise of Old-fashioned PCs

.Photo of IBM PC (Wikipedia)

I’m a big fan of tablets, especially the iPad. Altrhough I find myself spending more and more time with a tablet and less and less with a traditional computer, I can’t imagine getting by without a Windows PC or a Mac. And that is why, though the market for traditional computers will shrink, they aren’t going away.

The tablet is the only computer a lot of people will ever need. If the iPad or an Android tablet isn’t quite up to the job, the new, more PC-like Microsoft Surface might well be (See Patrick Moorhead’s post on Surface’s advantages.) But a lot of people falls well short of all people.

When he introduced the iPad in2010, Steve Jobs famously observed that that PC was like a truck and the iPad was a car, and most people don’t need trucks. He was right, but seriously underestimated the importance of trucks. Nearly half of all vehicles sold in the United States are light trucks. Even if you eliminate the more car-like crossover SUVs (maybe those are the Surfaces), trucks still account for about a quarter of the sales.

I’m writing this on a Windows desktop PC (for a change; I usually work at my iMac  when I’m at home.) Because I can. I’ve done WordPress posts entirely on the iPad (with a Zagg keyboard) and while it is quite possible, it isn’t much fun. I regularly work with multiple windows open and often cut and paste material from one app to another. You cannot easily do that on a tablet.

There are three activities that keep me on the traditional PC. I do a lot of technical writing and editing, which generally involves large (100-pages plus), highly formatted Word documents. There is no alternative to Word, and often Excel and PowerPoint for collateral material. A lot of tech pundits who keep predicting the imminent demise of PCs and heavyweight Microsoft Office applications underestimate how deeply these are ingrained into enterprise workflows.At the recent Apple product announcement, the thing I found myself lusting for was not the featured iPad mini but the new 27-in. iMac with a Fusion drive.

I also do some video editing. Not a large amount but enough to know that I want the fastest, most capable system I can lay my hands on. Even simple editing is taxing on a system and transcoding and rendering video can get really time consuming. Also the process of capturing an hour of live video and editing it down to a five- or ten-minute cut can generate many gigabytes of files.

Finally, there’s photo editing. I love the hands-on aspect of photo editing on a tablet and iPhoto for iOS is a fun tool. But for serious work, whether it is preparing graphics for Tech.pinions posts or processing my own photos, I turn to Photoshop.

While we are talking about threes, there are three things that PCs have and tablets lack. First is processing power. Today’s tablets have plenty of power for the tasks they are intended to do, including rendering HD video. But to achieve 10 hours of battery life in a very thin, light tablet, thingsa have to go, and one of those things is raw computational power. There’s no way an ARM chip or even an Intel Clover Trail Atom is going to match the performance of an Intel Core i5 or i7 with Intel’s latest integrated graphics, let alone with a discrete graphics system.

Second is a big display. Some tasks, especially those involving multiple windows, want all the display real estate you can throw at them. I generally work with 27-in. displays and am thinking of going to dual monitors if I can figure out how to make them fit. A tablet limits you to one smallish window (one and a half, sort of, on the Surface.)

Finally there’s storage. I haven’t taken an inventory lately of how much storage I have connected to my local area network, but it’s more than five terabytes, with a terabyte of local storage on my two main desktops. A tablet offers 64 GB, max. Yes, there is all but unlimited storage in the cloud, and I keep a lot of stuff in the cloud. But I want local copies of my important content, and that includes lots of music and photos, as well as thousands of documents.

For all these reasons, my PCs aren’t going to disappear. And neither, I suspect, are an awful lot of others. (On the other hand, I do find that I am using my Mac and Windows laptops less and less, as tablets take over the mobile chores.) Many business users are going to continue to need full-bore PCs as well, although there too we may see fewer laptops and a return to desktops.

At the recent Apple product announcement, the thing I found myself lusting for was not the featured iPad mini but the new 27-in. iMac with a Fusion drive. I love the super-portability of the tablet, but I still need the heavy iron too.

Does Apple Love PCs More Than Microsoft?

Does Apple, the post-PC company, have more faith in the future of PCs, than Microsoft?

Photo of Mac Book Pro
Mac Book Pro 15 with Retina Display

The idea may seem a stretch, seeing how Apple’s business is now dominated by iPhones and iPads, but it may well be true. Microsoft very much depends on the PC for its future, but it doesn’t seem to be serving its PC users well

Much of the analysis of Apple’s Worldwide  Developer Conference announcements has focused on the impact on Google. Dumping Google Maps from the iPhone and enhancing Siri search definitely pose some challenges for the search giant. But the larger near term impact may well be on Microsoft, as it struggles to hang onto its PC business while gaining traction in the elusive phone and tablet markets. Microsoft was having a hard enough time catching up with where Apple has been, but Apple, of course, is not standing still.

It’s significant that the new features of iOS 6.0 and OS X Mountain Lion, while impressive, are not earth-shaking. In the past five years, Apple has built a comprehensive infrastructure that ties all of its products together. This effort, while still evolving, has achieved considerable maturity, which is why we should expect that changes will be incremental. The lack of new features that knock your socks off may disappoint ardent fans and the markets, but it’s really a sign of how far Apple has come.

Keeping things separate. Microsoft maintains its dominance of the enterprise back office, but is struggling everywhere else against an upstart it though it had vanquished nearly 20 years ago. In the consumer space, it is betting pretty much everything on on Windows 8, I’ve made no secret of my belief that Microsoft’s decision to go with a common software platform for traditional PCs and tablets is a mistake. As Ryan Block of GDGT tweeted, there are a lot of former PC tasks now routinely handled by tablets, but “for the tasks that remain, computers are as important than ever. The user base isn’t contracting so much as the use cases are clarifying.”

Apple raised the stakes at WWDC as it revealed the refined features of Mountain Lion and iOS 6.0. Where Microsoft is merging the desktop with the tablet, Apple is continuing to converge the two. The difference is critical and, I believe, all in Apple’s favor. Apple is adding iOS-like features to OS X when they make sense. So Mountain Lion gets reminders, notifications, and messages. But it retains its distinctive look and feel and an environment that is optimized for the sorts of complicated tasks for which users will continue to rely on traditional PC hardware. In particular, the multi-windowed Mac desktop is retained along with the traditional icons, menus, and pointers. And while Apple has made it possible to manipulate the user interface through touchpad gestures, it shows no inclination to move to touch screens on either iMacs or MacBooks.

Microsoft, by contrast, is forcing Windows 8 users to deal with a Metro UI that seems to be optimized for tablets and touch screens. Metro apps are designed to run full screen, with some very limited screen sharing possible on larger displays. Metro actually looks like a very nice tablet UI, superior in some ways to both iOS and Android. But it find the Consumer Preview painful on a laptop. Even if you spend most of your time working in traditional Desktop apps, which continue to work in multiple windows as always, you are forced to put up with a jarring switch to Metro for some critical tasks. Metro apps feel like they waste an awful lot of space on a 13″ laptop and  are truly ridiculous on a 27″ desktop display. (Microsoft’s developers used to be criticized, only half in jest, for thinking that everyone worked, like them, with dual 30″ monitors. Now they seem to think that everyone works on a 10″ tablet.) I suspect that most serious PC users are going to want to stick with Windows 7 for as long as they can; it will be interesting to see if Microsoft will allow a downgrade option on new consumer systems.

Microsoft has made some progress integrating Windows, Windows Phone, and Xbox and Windows 8 will push the process along. But again, Microsoft has not yet caught up to Apple even as the competition takes the next leap ahead. iCloud still has a ways to go and iTunes is a hairball, but you can  wake me when Windows matches the magic of PhotoStream.

Then there’s hardware. Spurred mainly by Intel, Microsoft’s OEM hardware partners are finally beginning to catch up with the notebook revolution set off by the Mac Book Air. But Apple, of course, is not going to sit still. The 15″ Retina Display MacBook Pro (a product that desperately needs a better name) is not likely to be a huge seller. Its starting price of $2,199 is two to three times that of a typical Windows notebook and it tops out at a staggering $3,700. But it sets a new standard an definitely shows the direction laptops will be taking.

In a typical Apple move, it dispenses with an optical drive, long thought to be an essential in a 15″ professional notebook. It is a third of an inch thinner an 1.3 pounds lighter than Hewlett-Packard’s Envy 15. Its most important feature is a 2,880×1,800 pixel display; Windows competitors top out at 1,920×1,080, less than half the pixel density. And make no mistake about it: Apple will be pushing Retina displays throughout the MacBook line. They are expensive, but they justify charging prices that generate fat margins and let Apple capture a vastly disproportionate share of PC profits. And, have been proven with the new iPad, they produce a far superior user experience simply by making everything more legible. In the year or so since Intel introduced the Ultrabook concept, Windows machines are arguably losing ground to the company that supposedly wants to kill the PC.

Microsoft was caught seriously off-guard by the iPad and was right to shift massive resources into tablets when it became clear that the post-PC phenomenon was real. But PCs remain a very important part of the ecosystem, and right now, it’s not clear that Microsoft cares as much about them as Apple does.

Afterthought:  If this report from VR-zone is correct and Microsoft plans to charge manufacturers $85 or so for each copy of the tablet version of Windows, it is going to be almost impossible for these devices to come to market at a competitive price. I hope it is wrong, because if true–and Microsoft has not responded to the report–it will leave Microsoft with an OS optimized for tablets no one will want


The iPad May Kill Laptops and Save the Desktop

Photo of IBM PCThe iPad–and other tablets if we ever get some good ones–poses an existential threat to the laptop. But it might provide a new lease on life for the much-ignored desktop PC. My colleague Ben Bajarin touched on this theme in his a post Notebooks Are the Past, Tablets Are the Future. I want to take a look at it in more depth.

I’m starting from the increasingly uncontroversial premise that a good tablet is all the computer most people need. The biggest weakness of tablets, the lack of local storage, is being solved in the cloud. For the times that you want to write more than is comfortable with the on-screen keyboard, a lightweight Bluetooth keyboard does the trick.

For some of us, though, a full-featured PC remains very much a part of our everyday toolkit. I frequently work on complex documents with a large number of windows open at one time. I do a fair amount of research. I edit video and work on databases. These are tasks that range from inconvenient to impossible on my iPad. So I have a Windows 7 desktop, which I use primarily for accounting and as a sort of poor man’s file server, and a 27″ iMac, which is my desktop workhorse.

What I am finding however, is that is use my laptops less and less. I spent this past weekend at a family event in North Carolina. I took both an iPad and a 13″ MacBook Air and the MacBook never came out of my bag. Everything I wanted could be done more conveniently on the iPad. Even on business trips, I’m finding the laptop doesn’t get used unless I really need it.

My first notebook was a Hewlett-Packard OmniBook 600c in the mid-1990s and since then I have used everything from tiny netbooks to a dual-screen ThinkPad (barely) mobile workstation. And the truth is that every notebook has felt like a compromise. The displays were never big enough, even on units too heavy to carry comfortably. Except on the ThinkPads that I favored for years and the more recent MacBooks, pointing devices ranged from barely adequate to awful.

Ergonomic nightmares. The ergonomics are just plain bad because a keyboard permanently attached to the display meant that the positioning of the keyboard or the display or most likely both was less than optimal. (This is why I prefer my separate ZAGGkeys Flex keyboard  to more integrated units.) The push to include touch screens on Windows 8 laptops is going to make bad ergonomics worse. I tried many Windows Tablet PCs over the years and the awfulness of using touch in laptop mode was not due entirely to Microsoft’s dreadful software.

Desktops are actually a much happier solution for heavy-duty computing. Feature for feature, you get more for your money than with laptops. Storage is cheap and all but unlimited, and even with the cloud lots of local storage is a good thing to have. You can buy the keyboard, pointing device,  and displays you prefer and put them where you want relative to the keyboard.

The trend in recent years has been to use a laptop as an all-purpose computer, perhaps connecting it to a bigger display and an external keyboard when it’s at home on your desk. That made a fair amount of sense in a pre-tablet world. Today, however, even most heavy users of computing power will be happy with a tablet when away from their offices (there are exceptions, say, engineers and software developers.) And instead of settling for the compromises of a laptop when in your office, why not go for a no-compromise desktop. And if you really want touch in a desktop, the displays can be designed so they will tilt nearly horizontal for better ergonomics; HP has been using this feature in their TouchSmart all-in-ones. It’s time for a lot of businesses that have replaced desktops with laptops to rethink the policy.

I can’t see myself giving up a laptop just yet. There are still times when I need a full computer while traveling or when I have to work out of an office (someone else’s) and bring my own computer. But these occasions are getting rarer and rarer, and I could be laptop-free sooner than I think. But the desktops will survive and maybe even prosper.

BAPco SYSmark 2012: Dropping the Llano Shoe

No wonder AMD was upset enough over BAPco’s SYSmark 2012 benchmark to drop out of the non-profit benchmarking organization in June with much sturm und drang.

My testing of the AMD Fusion high-end “Llano” processor, the A8-3850 APU, shows an overall rating on SYSmark 2012 of 91. Except for the 3D component of the benchmark, the Intel “Sandy Bridge” Pentium 840 scores higher in individual components — and higher overall — with a score of 98, according to the official SYSmark 2012 web site.

The SYSmark 2012 reference platform scores 100. That puts the high-end Llano desktop performance at 90% of a 2010 Intel “Clarkdale” first-generation Core i3-540, a low-end mainstream processor.

Moreover, the Intel “Sandy Bridge” Core i3-2120 dual-core processor with integrated graphics costs within a dollar of the “Llano” A8-3850 but delivers a 36 point higher score – noticeably snappier performance, in my actual use experience (see chart below).

I also tested AMD’s Phenom II 1100T, a top-end AMD six-core processor with an ATI Radeon HD 4290 graphics card, against an Intel “Sandy Bridge” second generation Core i5-2500 with integrated graphics. The Core i5-2500 is the superior processor on this benchmark; the much-maligned Intel internal graphics barely loses to the ATI 4920 external graphics card in the 3D component, while delivering a 44 point overall advantage. The results are shown below in Chart 1.

Chart 1: Selected BAPco SYSmark 2012 Scores

Processor Overall Office Media Analysis 3D Web Sys Mgt
Intel i5-2500 166 144 162 191 181 168 153
Intel i3-2120 127 123 125 146 125 121 122
AMD Phenom II 1100T 122 109 116 122 183 108 110
Intel Pentium 840 98 100 102 106 87 90 107
AMD A8-3850 91 91 84 96 121 73 88
Intel Pentium G620T 79 81 81 88 70 71 86

Source: Peter S. Kastner andBusiness Applications Performance Corporation

Is SYSmark 2012 Relevant?
SYSmark 2012 is relevant because it allows evaluators to test specific PC configurations against actual, commonly used business applications.

AMD says “AMD will only endorse benchmarks based on real-world computing models and software applications, and which provide useful and relevant information. AMD believes benchmarks should be constructed to provide unbiased results and be transparent to customers making decisions based on those results.” Let’s look at what SYSmark does and how it does it.

Serious readers will study the SYSmark 2012 Overview published at the BAPco web site. This benchmark version is built on 20 years of collaborative experience by BAPco in modeling business work loads into application scenarios and corresponding benchmarks through a 26-phase process that takes years to complete. The last version was SYSmark2007 under Windows Vista. SYSmark is real-world in that it incorporates widely used applications such as Office, AutoCAD, Acrobat, Flash, Photoshop and Internet Explorer under Windows 7 in component scenarios.

SYSmark is widely used around the globe in business and public tenders to select PCs without bias towards vendor and processor manufacturer. SYSmark is the only generally accepted benchmark for general business computers since it uses actual application code in the tests, not synthetic models.

The benchmark is intensive, reflecting workload snapshots of what power users actually do, rather than light-duty office workers. There are six scenario components to SYSmark 2012, each of which counts equally in the final rating:

Office Productivity: The Office Productivity scenario models productivity usage including word processing, spreadsheet data manipulation, email creation/management and web browsing.

Media Creation: The Media Creation scenario models using digital photos and digital video to create, preview, and render a video advertisement for a fictional business.

Web Development: The Web Development scenario models the creation of a website for a fictional company.

Data/Financial Analysis: The Data/Financial Analysis scenario creates financial models to review, evaluate and forecast business expenses. In addition, the performance and viability of financial investments is analyzed using past and projected performance data.

3D Modeling: The 3D Modeling scenario focuses on creating, rendering, and previewing 3D objects and/or environments suitable for use in still imagery. The creation of 3D architectural models/landscapes and rendering of 2D images and video of models are also included.

System Management: The System Management scenario models the creation of data backup sets and the compression, and decompression of various file types. Updates to installed software are also performed.

For each of the six components, BAPco develops a workflow scenario. Only then are applications chosen to do the work. BAPco licenses the actual application source code and assembles it into application fragments together with its workflow measurement framework. The data/financial analysis component, for example, runs a large Microsoft Excel spreadsheet model.

What I don’t like is the “2012” moniker. This SYSmark version is built on business application components as of 2010. By naming it SYSmark 2012, BAPco implies the benchmark is forward looking, when it actually looks back to 2010 application versions. The labeling should be 2010. In spite of the labeling, SYSmark 2012 is unique as a cross-platform benchmark for stressing business desktops using real-world applications in job-related scenarios.

Analysis and Conclusions
The SYSmark 2012 reference-point PC is a Core i3-540 and has a 100 point score. When I used this processor with Windows 7 last year as my “daily-driver PC” for a month, I was underwhelmed by its overall feel. Subjective comment, yes, but my point is that the reference machine is no speed demon.

The new AMD “Llano” A8-3850, a quad-core processor with integrated graphics, is adequate for light-weight office duties as measured by BAPco SYSmark 2012. The top-of-the-line AMD Phenom II 1100T with a discrete graphics card is better suited for mainstream task-specific business computing than the “Llano” processors.

Intel’s low-end dual-core “Sandy Bridge” Pentium 620 and 840 bracket the “Llano” A8-3850 in processor performance, while lagging in graphics-intensive 3D benchmark components.

Intel’s entry-level Core i3-2120 with integrated graphics handily beats the top-of-the-line Phenom II 1100T with a discrete graphics card in all but graphics-intensive 3D benchmarks, making it an attractive price-performer. The high-end Core i5-2500 tops the top-of-the line Phenom II 1100T with a 44 point overall advantage, despite using integrated graphics.

SYSmark’s results do not plow new performance ground. An Internet search will quickly turn up numerous reviews that conclude, using a different set of benchmarks, that the “Llano” line is weak as a processing engine and pretty good at graphics, especially 3D consumer games. Yet consumer games are not typically not high on the business PC evaluation checklist.

Many of the SYSmark 2012 applications use graphics-processor acceleration, when available, including Adobe Photoshop, Flash, Premier Pro CS5, Autodesk 3ds Max and AutoCAD, and Microsoft Excel. SYSmark 2012 convinces me that today’s integrated graphics are plenty good enough for business PCs shy of dedicated workstations. But a strong processor is still necessary for good overall performance.

Business desktops ought to be replaced every three to four years. However, the reality is many businesses keep desktops for five or more years, and many have instituted a “replace it when it breaks” cycle. Productivity studies show that knowledge workers deserve the higher end of today’s performance curve in a new PC so as not to be completely obsolete — and less productive — before the machine is replaced.

No single benchmark should be the sole criteria for selecting a computer, and SYSmark 2012 is no exception. However, I disagree with AMD that SYSmark is no longer worthy of consideration, and by other analysts that SYSmark is dead because AMD walked away from BAPco.

The bottom line for PC evaluators is simple: if you believe that the extensive work by the BAPco consortium across two decades stands up to scientific and peer scrutiny, then the SYSmark results discussed above show AMD at a serious performance disadvantage. If you don’t think SYSmark is a relevant benchmark for business PCs, then neither AMD nor I have a viable substitute.

The next shoe to drop is AMD’s high-end “Bulldozer” processor, expected in the next 60 days.