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.

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.