Is the desktop computer going the way of the dodo bird?

As new computing products become available, many pundits have been predicting that people will abandon their old desktops entirely. See more computer pictures.
Ross Anania/Photodisc/Getty Images

The personal computer is perhaps the most significant technological advancement hatched from the human mind over the past 30 years. It has spawned a world driven by technology. But innovation can be fickle, and in recent years, the desktop computer seems to be losing some of its steam. Advances in technology have made it possible to create smaller and lighter computers. No longer underpowered and heavy, notebooks are now commonplace, and tablets, netbooks and even smartphones are able to do tasks that used to require larger machines.

Like just about everything, there are two sides to the story. Some data suggests the desktop PC is still necessary and it isn't easily replaced. Other data support the notion that desktops are becoming increasingly obsolete. So what's the deal? This article intends to give an adequate look at both sides of the spectrum.

To understand this argument, a quick lesson from economics 101 about opportunity costs may be handy. In essence, everything has a cost. Even reading this article costs you something. You could have been reading an article on another site or even finding a new way to make more money. If you think about the differences between desktops and notebooks along those lines, you'll develop a better understanding of each side and ultimately make the decision that suits you best. So let's get right down to it and see where both sides stand. We'll start the arguments by the naysayers in the next section.

Desktops on the Way Out

Laptop computers and WiFi connections make it possible to work in all kinds of environments -- including your own couch.
Laptop computers and WiFi connections make it possible to work in all kinds of environments -- including your own couch.
© iStockphoto.com/JohnnyLye

As necessary as computers are to productivity in the workplace and even at home, it's becoming harder to get ahead in the world without using one. You could even say we've become dependent on them. For a long time, desktop machines were the preferred choice. But now that Wi-Fi is easy to find and often free, mobile connectivity is easier and more common than ever -- especially with the recent social networking boom.

Notebook computers found their niche with traveling business professionals in the late '80s and early '90s but were much too expensive for most people to afford. They had other faults, too; notebooks traditionally had limited storage and computing power. But computer manufacturers have been able to close the processing power gap between desktops and laptops. In fact, the cost of manufacturing LCD screens, still one of the most expensive parts of notebook computers, have been falling, too.

Desktops still hold an edge when it comes to computing power, and they can be hooked up to large monitors, too. But docking stations give notebook users the ability to use larger, crisper displays when at home or in the office and the costs of external storage devices has come down, making the idea of carrying a portable computer more attractive.

Recently, even notebook sales have given way to something totally new. Netbooks are small notebook computers with lower-power processors and a scaled-down feature set. Despite their apparent shortcomings, netbooks seem to be popping up everywhere. In 2009, 13.5 million netbooks were sold throughout the world [source: Canalys]. It may have something to do with affordability -- for less than $300, you can get you hands on one of these mini notebooks [source: Dell].

In general, netbooks don't have an optical drive, so you won't be able to use CD-ROMs or DVD-ROMs. But with seemingly ubiquitous broadband access, you can accomplish many of the same tasks online. Netbooks are so tied in with Internet access that telecommunication companies such as AT&T and Verizon have taken to selling them packaged with wireless Internet service.

That's one side of the story. Now let's look at why desktops aren't so easy to replace in the next section.

Desktops Are Here to Stay

For a long time, the relatively high costs of notebook computers made owning one more of a luxury than a reality. Over time though, the technology has become less expensive and notebooks are more affordable than ever.

But even though the price of notebook computers has come down due to technological advances over the past 10 years, they still aren't as cheap as desktops. Especially when you consider what you learned about in the beginning of the article when we talked about opportunity costs.

We decided to configure a desktop and notebook with similar specifications to see which came out cheaper. The specifications of the two systems weren't exact. The manufacturer didn't offer two systems that could be compared exactly. Upgrading the desktop computer's configuration would have included a hard drive the same size as the one in the notebook and added another gigabyte of memory -- but it also would have boosted the processor speed to 2.93GHz (for an additional $59). The two systems each have their strengths and weaknesses, but the desktop still comes out costing less.

Desktops offer more configuration options and are almost always easier to upgrade. For instance, a video editor or graphic designer may need a lot of storage space to save large video and image files. He or she could use a tower-style desktop computer with multiple internal hard disks to store the files. A notebook has one internal hard drive, at most. Cloud storage makes it possible to access a theoretically infinite amount of storage space, though this method poses security risks.

So you've read both sides of the spectrum. What about threats to both the desktop and even notebooks? The final section highlights a couple of upstart technologies looking for their share of the computing market. Turn the page to see how the balance of power may be shifting.

Other Threats to Desktop Computers

The Sony Vaio VAIO Lifestyle PC VG-P50-series computer, seen here at the 2009 Consumer Electronics Show, is a full-function PC with an 8-inch screen.
The Sony Vaio VAIO Lifestyle PC VG-P50-series computer, seen here at the 2009 Consumer Electronics Show, is a full-function PC with an 8-inch screen.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images.

Though it may seem strange to compare them to desktop computers, or even laptops, smartphones are gaining popularity as mobile computing devices. At first, they were viewed as the ultimate gadgets. Recently, though, higher-powered processors and a robust network of developers creating applications for the devices has made smartphones explode in popularity.

Keyboard and screen sizes are considerably smaller than you'd see on laptop or netbook computers. Storage space is also less for smartphones than for computers. But smartphones are becoming more like computers when it comes to working online. A recent survey of small businesses, conducted by virtual file server company Egnyte, revealed some interesting trends in smartphone usage. It found that 25 percent of respondents prefer conducting business on their smartphones rather than their PCs [source: McCracken]. Even more telling, close to three-quarters of those surveyed felt accessing data through a file server would increase productivity. This trend clearly reveals the popularity of the smartphone and shows just how far the technology has come.

Cloud computing is something that also has the potential to shake up the PC market. The theory behind cloud computing is that the Internet would, in essence, replace your computer's hard drive. In other words, all you would need is a small computer with just the basics. A display and keyboard would be necessary but you wouldn't need much else. This would cut down on the cost of portable computers even more. A desktop cloud computer would also be an option. Again, it could be made inexpensively.

Apple's MacBook Air seems to have been made for cloud computing. The Air has no optical drive or traditional serial ports you typically see on notebooks. It's slim, sleek and meant to be carried around as if it were part of your everyday ensemble. It's expensive, though ($1,499), which goes against the trend of cheaper cloud computing devices.

Perhaps the best way to look at this quandary is that each type of computer serves its purpose. Each has its upside. Each has its limitations. It depends ultimately on the user. For example, a graphic artist who works in a studio, a computer with a fast processor and tons of memory connected to a large, bright display is preferable. When you go computer shopping and compare machines that meet those needs, a desktop will come out less expensive every time. However, if you're looking for a computer to handle basic productivity tasks and you're on the road quite often, maybe a netbook is in your future. It all comes down to choosing the best machine to satisfy your wants and needs.

To learn more about these computing concepts and to read related technology articles, don't forget to take a look at the links on the next page.

Related Articles

More Great Links

Sources

  • Atlanta Journal Constitution. "Cobb County school board approves Apple Mac plan; could eventually distribute 63,000 iBooks." April 29, 2005. (Nov. 4, 2009) http://macdailynews.com/index.php/weblog/comments/5625/
  • Canalys. "EMEA consumer PC industry proves surprisingly healthy." Oct. 21, 2009. (Nov. 6, 2009) http://www.canalys.com/pr/2009/r2009101.htm
  • Canalys. "Netbooks reshape the PC industry." Sept. 10, 2009. (Nov. 6, 2009) http://www.canalys.com/pr/2009/r2009091.htm
  • Dell. "Dell Inspiron Mini 10 Laptop." (Nov. 6, 2009) http://www.dell.com/us/en/business/notebooks/laptop-inspiron-10/pd.aspx?refid=laptop-inspiron-10&s=bsd&cs=04
  • Dell. "Vostro 220s Slim Tower." (Nov. 6, 2009) http://www.dell.com/us/en/business/desktops/desktop-vostro-220st/pd.aspx?refid=desktop-vostro-220st&s=bsd&cs=04&~ck=mn
  • Dell. "Dell Vostro 1520 Laptop." (Nov. 6, 2009) http://www.dell.com/us/en/business/desktops/desktop-vostro-220st/pd.aspx?refid=desktop-vostro-220st&s=bsd&cs=04&~ck=mn
  • Fletcher, Owen. "Lenovo, HP lead way into rural China PC market." PC World. Nov. 2, 2009. (Nov. 6, 2009) http://www.pcworld.com/businesscenter/article/181257/lenovo_hp_lead_way_into_rural_china_pc_market.html
  • Gartner. "Gartner says 16 percent of workloads are running in virtual machines today." Oct. 21, 2009. (Nov. 6, 2009) http://www.gartner.com/it/page.jsp?id=1211813
  • Gartner. "Gartner says PC vendors eyeing booming smartphone market." Oct. 27, 2009. (Nov. 6, 2009) http://www.gartner.com/it/page.jsp?id=1215932
  • Gartner. "Gartner says worldwide PC shipments on pace to decline 2 percent in 2009." Sept. 23, 2009. (Nov. 6, 2009) http://www.gartner.com/it/page.jsp?id=1186513
  • Grumman, Gale. "Rotten Apple: Apple's 12 Biggest Failures." InfoWorld. http://www.infoworld.com/d/mac/rotten-apple-apples-12-biggest-failures-231&current=5&last=4#slideshowTop
  • Knorr, Eric; Gruman, Galen. "What Cloud Computing really means." InfoWorld. April 7, 2008. (Nov. 4, 2009) http://www.infoworld.com/d/cloud-computing/what-cloud-computing-really-means-031
  • McCracken, Harry. "PC vs. Phone: Which matters most?" PC World. Nov. 3, 2009. (Nov. 6, 2009) http://www.pcworld.com/article/181305/pc_vs_phone_which_matters_most.html