Friday, February 8, 2013

How the desktop PC can be saved... or at least could have been saved

   I love desktop computers for a number of reasons. They're economical. When upgrading a machine completely, you can keep your monitor, keyboard, and mouse. Minor updates are much easier. AMD recently sent me an new APU to try out. I didn't have an FM1 motherboard to install in on, so I took it over to my dad's and put it in his HTPC. The new A8 gave him quite the performance boost over his older A6. I was impressed. But that's something I couldn't have really done on a laptop or tablet. My current desktop is humming along nicely as it has for the past 4 years. I recently beta tested some software and was impressed by how well a machine that old handled it. It wouldn't have hurt if I had a better video card though. And with a desktop, that's an easy fix. I simply go to, pick one out, and install it in about 10 minutes.

   However, they're not exactly portable. My current desktop is a Shuttle. It's pretty compact.  However, taking it anywhere involves unplugging everything and moving the monitor as well. It's doable, but I would never take it with me to a meeting. This has been a key issue in the decline of the desktop.

A Shuttle compared to a traditional desktop

   And it's clear that the desktop PC is going into the pages of history. Go into a Best Buy and look for desktops. If it's anything like my local store, laptops and tablets and front and center while desktops are shoved into a small aisle. It's rather depressing to me at times. I spend more of my IT time with individual customers helping them pick out a laptop and less time designing and building a desktop for them. The last time I built a machine for a customer was about 3 years ago.

   But does this mean that the desktop has to die? I really don't believe so. I believe it simply needs to change in a few key areas (some are already taking place) and it might be saved. However, it could be too late.

   The main issue is the desktop PC needs to move, literally. The "desk" in desktop has to go away. That's not to say they can reside on desks like they have since the dawn of the home computer. But right now they're getting pushed aside like Woody did when Andy got Buzz in Toy Story. It needs to find a new home. The best place is in the home entertainment center.

   It really is the only place a desktop can go. We already have dozens of devices that are there and they're not exactly portable. Our Blu-ray players, Xboxes, and surround sound systems don't move that often. Modern video cards pretty much all have a DVI or HDMI connection which many of our TVs have as well. So desktops can work pretty well in this application already.

   The problem we're then left with is the mouse and keyboard. In some ways, this issue has already been tackled. An adapter can be purchased for the PC that allows it to work with Xbox 360 wireless controllers. Seeing how many of us already have these in our homes, we just need to get the adapter and we're cooking. Valve has even released a mode for Steam called "Big Picture." It's Steam, but designed for use with controllers. I've tried it out with my Xbox controller and it works quite well. The only drawback is that all the games don't work with the controller so it's slightly frustrating in that regard, but completely understandable that they didn't make all the game makers go back and make it so their games worked with the controller.

   But then typing and other things aren't exactly best done with a controller. It's limited. When it comes to the Xbox, anyone who's tried writing a message to a friend using the controller knows that. But then Microsoft has come out with a nice little program for smartphones and tablets called SmartGlass. As the software has grown, I've become a big fan of SmartGlass. In short, it helps you control your console with your phone or tablet and provides more information than what is presented on screen in certain applications. To get into what all it does would take time, so if you're interested in learning more, I'll let Microsoft help you out.

   The one short coming of SmartGlass is that it's limited to the Xbox. It doesn't work with a Windows 8 machine. And that's a shame. Imagine if, when connected to a PC, SmartGlass would clone your desktop screen on your tablet and then you could control your PC that now resides in your home entertainment center. A on screen keyboard would only appear on the tablet and allow users to type in a way they're already familiar with using. Clicking on the screen on the tablet would be like clicking with a mouse much like using the desktop mode on a Windows 8/RT tablet. Instead of inventing a new controller that would be expensive, why not use a device many of us already have?

   Another controller that could be used is Kinect. Microsoft has already made it so Kinect can work with a Windows machine. The problem is that Kinect isn't exactly practical at our desks. It would be, and is, in our living rooms.

   But what application would this new home and setup provide? The number of us that want to type up Word documents from our couch is probably small. One application I've alluded to already is games. We're already playing games there with the Xbox. Speaking of the Xbox, it has other applications that we would use. We use it to watch movies, listen to music, and now even browse the web. We could do that with our computers from our couch.

   And, in the fact that the Xbox does all that already, lies the issue. Why would we get a PC in our entertainment centers to do all of that when we already have the Xbox? And it's clear Microsoft and others have observed this. When Microsoft released Windows 8, it didn't come with Windows Media Center, a piece of software that had me extremely interested in the HTPC setup. As much as I hate to say it, I highly doubt that the next Xbox will even work as a Media Center Extender which was a big motivation for me getting the 360 when it came out. Windows 8 didn't come with Blu-ray support either. That's something that really bothered me when that bit of news was announced. Getting Media Center on Windows 8 (now at an additional cost) doesn't even add it (another bit of news that ticked me off).

   Observers might also notice that Microsoft doesn't put a whole lot of effort into gaming on PC either. While there's Xbox Live on Windows, it's hardly mainstream. I looked up a number of recently released PC games in the Windows 8 app market and couldn't find any. For big titles, one has to go with Steam. They're just not there in the Marketplace. Even the ever hated Origin from EA seems to have a larger presence than Xbox Live. That's sad. However when it comes to consoles, Microsoft seems to sell more in the US than anyone else on regular basis.

   So it seems it's just too late to save the desktop PC. It will linger. There will be people who demand more power than anyone can shove into a laptop for the same price. Businesses that have a large number of computers will probably keep them around because they're easier and cheaper to repair. There will be people like me who want to have control over every component that goes into their machines. However, in a few years, expect that aisle at Best Buy to disappear. Unlike Andy and Woody, most consumers are just going to leave the desktop in the past.

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