The end of the desktop PC

While sugar-laden milkshakes at McDonald's are convenient, I prefer mine sugar-free. I purchase the milk and shake-mix separately at Trader Joe's. If I run out of milk, I just go and buy more milk. I not only prefer it this way for my milkshakes, but also for my primary gaming system. Last month McDonald's introduced a sugar-free version. I no longer need to go to Trader Joe's.

We're seeing unprecedented technological growth in all areas, but none so much in the processing power of electronic devices we often take for granted. I used to buy a new CPU for my desktop PC on a yearly basis, until recently that is. We've already hit a plateau in processor frequency, as we have been hovering in the 3GHz range for the last few years now.

When was the last time you upgraded your co-processor (CPU), main memory, monitor, or other components of your desktop PC? When was the last time you even bought a desktop PC? Keep that period of time in mind, and then think back to the last time before that, and I almost guarantee the latter period was longer.

GPUs have had a similar effect, as we're seeing more units that combine power between many GPUs than faster single ones, though the GPU is still behind the overall curve. Input device needs were met over a decade ago, and sound over five years ago. GPUs are fast coming up on this curve with the "HD" revolution being one of the few things delaying it.

Game consoles have similar functions as a desktop PC, so they ultimately bend to the same curve. We can use them as a measure of what happens when upgrading a single component isn't feasible. I see a day in the near future where everyone buys their primary system much like they do a game console. And I may not complain about the lack of flexibility, because I simply may not need it.

This ability to upgrade one's desktop PC isn't disappearing overnight. What is changing today is the need for such a system in the first place. Why go through a costly upgrade when games run just as well on a $150 card from two years ago, as they do on a brand new multi-GPU $500 card from last month, which will be in notebooks the following year?

I like the feeling of mixing my own shake with the exact ingredients I want from a store I trust. However, I don't mind going elsewhere if the product is available pre-assembled and likely to satisfy my needs for years to come.

I used to spend well over a grand on computer hardware every year, just to keep pace with the need to run my games. I also upgraded for the fun of it because of new features introduced each generation. I'm either becoming old and not as interested as I used to be about upgrading at every product cycle, or there simply isn't the need.

I look at it another way. In 1994 I struggled to fit Windows 95, just the operating system, on my entire 512MB hard drive. I didn't have any room for anything else except one or two games. Mp3s didn't exist back then, so forget about a music archive, let alone movies. Space was at a premium for everything.

A few years later high speed internet arrives, hard drive storage space explodes, and suddenly there is more storage space available for all the music I could ever hope to listen to. Now we're seeing the same thing happen today for games and videos. I haven't bought another hard drive in over a year solely based on the need for more music space.

All software and media have a base level of hardware requirements to run that media at optimal performance. The most demanding ones being graphics based. Eventually we will develop GPUs capable of rendering photo-realistic images. Where will it evolve after that? Maybe we can finally concentrate on making quality games that take advantage of a consistent and reliable platform.

While we may not be hitting a plateau on graphics needs just yet, as we have a long way to go for photo-realistic graphics that run perfectly on a 1080p display, I am happy with what we have now. In fact, there may come a time when our thirst for better graphics simply stops, just short of that point where photo-realism takes place.

Would we notice?

Notebooks, netbooks, and even your iPhone will all become the dominant computing platform in the next decade. The curve for our need to keep pace is slowing. We may eventually run out of steam in our march toward progress. Like I mentioned above, would performance be the dominant feature that keeps us upgrading, or will it be convenience, quality, and style?

Because desktop PCs provide that ability to easily swap out individual components, we won't see these systems die anytime soon. We will see them as being placed on the back-burner of the computing market. They will remain there as more of a curiosity than a primary PC that you turn on after you've packed away your notebook after returning home from work.

Would you care to spend $2,000 every three years on a new notebook that is entirely mobile, or $1,500 on a new desktop PC that is bulky, laden with wires, and encourages you to upgrade components that cost you over that $500 you saved otherwise? And all assuming the games you want to play tomorrow would run just about as well as today's?

The brief era of computers being a novelty that need special attention is coming to an end.

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