Is the Desktop PC about to disappear?

Do PC’s still have a place in a world of laptops and tablets?

Over the last few years, a lot of people have replaced PCs (consisting of system unit, monitor, keyboard, and mouse) with laptops. The reasons aren’t hard to find:

  • Laptops are much neater and take up less room than PCs.
  • The price differential has disappeared.
  • Laptops are more versatile. Would you rather watch a film on a PC at your desk or on a laptop wherever you wish to place it?
  • We don’t often need to open up computers any more to add the latest gizmo.

A lot of my computer support clients ask whether the desktop PC is disappearing. They would probably be surprised to learn that, although PC sales have been falling in recent years, the figures may have bottomed out. Worldwide shipments of PCs in the second quarter of 2014 were actually 0.1% up on the the same period last year (source: Gartner).

One theory to explain this mini-revival is that a lot of people have probably replaced desktop computers running Windows XP during the second quarter of this year (as Microsoft stopped support for XP in April). I suspect that a high proportion of such replacements will have been in the business sector. I’m certainly surprised at the number of home users that I encounter who are sticking with XP machines (at least for the time being). It’s true that I haven’t yet heard of any “killer malware” that is frightening people out of using their XP machines. Nevertheless, it could happen any day and that would probably boost Windows 8 desktop sales for another few months.

Another theory that reconciles falling PC sales (over the last couple of years) with optimism about their future is that, generally speaking, we are replacing PCs less often than we used to simply because they are now good enough to run whatever is thrown at them for longer. As computers get older we notice them slowing down. Many people can’t help anthropomorphising about this: they think that computers “slow down in their old age” just as we do.

Sony All-In-One
Sony All-in-One. Less visible hardware, more visible screen.

That’s not the case. It is true that Windows computers do tend to accrete a load of rubbish over time that doesn’t help performance (eg temporary internet files, any number of different fonts, redundant programs), but a bit of housekeeping can help in this respect (I recommend CCleaner but avoid registry cleaners unless there’s a known problem). The main thing that makes a computer seem slower over time has been that software gets ever more bloated. We are forever installing newer versions of browsers and other programs that are written with modern hardware capabilities in mind. Therefore, as time goes on, your hardware starts to struggle a bit with newer programs. However, Windows 7 and Windows 8 have bucked that trend by being designed to run on hardware that would run Vista. So, there’s reason to think that we need to replace computers less often because they are not being outpaced by software demands in the same way as they used to be. We’re still buying PCs – just not as often. Have a look at this link for more on this.

Another thing that may be helping desktops sales (and laptop sales as well) is that people don’t seem to be upgrading their tablets. It seems as if developments and improvements to tablets are just not sufficient to make users think they are missing something. That being the case, funds are probably more likely to be available to replace the ageing workhorse PC in the office or home. If you’d like some overkill on figures about Tablets, have a look at this link.

HP Hybrid Laptop
Devices like this HP Hybrid are blurring the distinctions. Is it a laptop? Is it a tablet?

It is true that tablets may have taken a big chunk of users’ budgets in the last couple of years, but that doesn’t mean that tablets are displacing PCs. Despite improvements in tablet software (eg Word, Excel, and Powerpoint are now available on the iPad and other tablets – see this recent blog on Office 365), it seems that most people prefer to use their tablets and smartphones for data CONSUMPTION – eg watching films, checking Facebook and Twitter, listening to music, viewing photos and so on. However, when it comes to data PRODUCTION (eg report writing, PowerPoint creation, database work, photo editing) most people head back to their laptops and desktops.

OK, so tablets haven’t knocked desktop PCs out of the game, but why haven’t laptops finished the job off?

I’m not really sure. In an office situation, I can see that a desktop PC still has certain advantages:

  • There are usually more ports (eg USB ports) than on a laptop.
  • A desktop PC can actually take up less desk space as the monitor can be permanently fixed above the desk, the system unit placed beneath the desk, and a wireless keyboard can easily be moved aside if you need all your deskspace.
  • Despite the need to get inside a computer’s case being less obvious than it used to be, a desktop PC is still more versatile in this respect.

So, there may be clear reasons why desktop PCs are holding on against laptops in an office situation, but I’m not really sure that those reasons aren’t outweighted by the flexibility of laptops in the home.

It’s clear, though, that there are plenty of reasons why “laptops/desktops” considered together should be holding their own against tablets. When my computer support clients ask me whether they should replace ageing desktops with another desktop or with a laptop, there’s no “one size fits all” answer. In giving computer advice on this, I usually stress the flexibility of the laptop over the PC. I also point out that my own experience and that of others is that tablets are probably not versatile enough to replace their bigger siblings but the choice between laptop and desktop is much less clearcut.

In conclusion, I would say that – as far as functionality is concerned – a laptop is probably as good as a desktop PC and also the “all-in-ones” that are becoming increasingly popular (possibly because they take up less space than a desktop but offer the screen size of a desktop). Don’t worry that desktops are disappearing and that you may be the last person ever to buy one! There’s no real sign that that’s going to happen any time soon. Buy whatever you prefer: the basic functionality and power is comparable between all three formats. And by all means have a tablet: they have lots of uses but they are not replacing “proper” computers.