Praise for the Personal Desktop Computer3 min read

On my personal homepage, I maintain a timeline of personal computers I’ve owned or closely maintained. The ones I’ve been using as my personal workhorses are the ones in green:

Looking back, I have to say I’m pretty appreciative of desktop computers, which represent the upper half of the timeline. They earn a lot of respect for their reliability, flexibility and longevity. The fact of the matter is, if you look at the past ten years, I’ve had only two primary desktop workstations: Khloé and Kusanagi (and I don’t foresee having to replace Kusanagi anytime soon).

Longevity of laptops? Not so much. Between 2004 and 2014, I’ve had nine different machines as my primary laptops. Not what I’d call reliable or eco-friendly, although a majority of those were second-hand (the ones that were bought “brand new” lasted longer). I’ve done my fair amount of repairs myself, but the general rule of thumb with laptops is that whenever a component fails or something irritates you enough… you change the laptop. On a desktop? You just upgrade individual components and keep on running. Want more powerful graphics? Get a new GPU. Want a hi-DPI display? Get a hi-DPI monitor. Want a pony? Install Django.

Phones and tablets? Hah! They are a lot worse than laptops in terms of flexibility and longevity: they are “form over function” in a way never seen before, with locked-down ecosystems and an OS that typically goes unsupported after a year or two, meant to be thrown away whenever some new shiny thing comes out at CES.

As we know, the desktop segment isn’t growing like it used to. Part of that is because people are happy to shell out money for mobile gadgets that uphold the promise of a simplified (or complementary) computing experience. The other reason is, well… existing desktop computers keep running. They’re “good enough”. Why buy a new PC when the one you’re using is running just as well as it did years ago, if not better? “Better” you say? Well yes, there’s a trick to that: staying off the hardware upgrade treadmill is much easier when you’re running a fantastic free OS instead of Windows or Mac OS. I benefit from the side-effects of the crazy hardware requirements of other OSes by having insanely powerful hardware at my disposal at very cheap prices.

Anecdote: last summer, I assembled a “killing machine” for my aunt to run Fedora for 280 canadian dollars (~330 with all the taxes etc.). It has just enough RAM to not have to care about it, a dual-core processor that does mostly nothing 99% of the time, a solid-state drive that makes the thing boot in four seconds (but it never has to boot anyway; suspend/resume are your friends), and a quality power supply (I build things to last). Think about it. A lightning-fast powerhouse with only high-quality trustworthy components, for 300 bucks. And I expect that computer to keep working for ten years. Try doing all that with a retail Win/Mac machine.

We’re seeing phones and tablets eat laptops alive in terms of “new sales”, and yet, in this day and age, desktop computers still serve as respectable, justifiable workhorses. That’s why creativity and productivity tools should be, as Eitan Isaacson once said about the GNOME desktop ecosystem, our “bread and butter”.


4 responses to “Praise for the Personal Desktop Computer3 min read

  1. Yeah, I think you’re exactly right. I’ve had my current desktop for nearly five years now, I put an SSD in it quite a while ago, and I don’t have the slightest urge to tinker with it in any other way. It’s still more than fast enough for anything I need it to do, and perfectly reliable, so why would I change it?
    Like you say, I think the current state of the PC market is as much about everyone who wants a PC already having a perfectly good PC as it’s about anything.

    1. Since 2011 and until recently, I thought that desktop is dead for me, and used only laptops. Half a year ago, I changed my opinion. The deciding factor was that a powerful laptop is noisy, and thus is a bad signal source for a home cinema. So I went for a completely fanless desktop PC (based on the Streacom FC8 Evo case, Gigabyte H87N-WIFI motherboard, Intel Core i7 4770S CPU, 16 GB of RAM, and a 512 GB SSD from OCZ). To be fair, such silent desktops were not an option at all several years ago, so there is definitely a measurable progress.
      End result: the fanless desktop PC is used for games and media, the Sony laptop is still used for work.

  2. Peter Avatar

    I love my iPad. It will not replace my Desktop PC as a knife doesn’t replace a saw. My iPad nearly 3 years ago is supported with the latest OS version and battery is nearly the same like on day one. It’s always on, it’s more portable, I have all the documents (a lot of technical PDF) with me.