Editorial

Editorial: The big desktop PC will never die!

I remember the very first PC I ever bought. It was a Gateway tower case desktop PC that I bought in 1996, with a Pentium processor. I was so excited to play games like Descent and it was ready when id Software finally released Quake later that year. I also remember that Gateway being big and heavy but I didn't care; to me, this machine was the equivalent of getting a Camaro.

The PC in the picture above is not my Gateway PC from 1996 but it's the closest image I could find on the Internet

It was also the PC that I opened up to install more memory, a new hard drive and most importantly my Voodoo add-on graphics card so I could play QuakeGL. I remembered thinking that this would change how PC games would look forever and I was right. Soon, all PC games were ditching low res sprite based artwork and replacing them with high res hardware accelerated graphics.

Just a few years ago, the general notion was that PC cases that were small were also considered to be restricted in terms of the kinds of hardware they could support. If you wanted a real high end PC for the best game graphics, or if you wanted to have a powerful rig for applications such as photo editing or 3D art creation, you needed that big desktop PC rig that could support things like dual graphics cards, a dedicated sound card and more.

Now it's 2013, and much has changed in the PC industry. These days, the prevailing notion is to think small, even for gaming PC rigs. We reviewed Falcon Northwest's tiny Tiki desktop PC several months ago and its performance matched or even surpassed that of many so called big gaming PCs. More recently, a company called Xi3 announced that it was going to make a small gaming PC that's designed to run the Big Picture mode for games sold on Valve's Steam service. As you can see from the image above, it's supposed to be held in the palm of your hand.

The era where huge tower desktop PCs were a fixture in every home got closer to their end in January when Intel announced that it will phase out their desktop motherboard business within a few years. While other PC hardware makers still plan to make motherboards, the fact that Intel is getting out of this industry is a big clue that the large desktop PC will become rarer and rarer.

Some people might compare large desktop PCs to old CRT monitors. They were also big and heavy and we have mostly replaced them with thin and light LCD screens. But let's face it; the monitors today are far and away better than those CRT screens they replaced.

I say to all of you who might be mourning the loss of the familiar tower case PC to take heart. While many of you reading this article might be worried that the big desktop will go the way of the black and white TV or the CRT monitor, the truth is that the big tower PC will never die and indeed might even thrive in a new state.

While we will indeed see powerful PCs that will be made in smaller cases, there will always be limits to what you can cram into small enclosures. Hardcore PC gamers and hardware geeks will always want to get a PC that they can max out in terms of graphics cards, processors, memory, storage space and more. The only way that's possible is to get a case that can comfortably hold all that hardware.

There's also the fact that high end hardware always comes for large PC systems. NVIDIA and AMD's latest and most powerful graphics cards absolutely need the big tower case. PC hardware makers actually depend on the gaming PC and hardware enthusiasts buying their products to put in their huge desktop cases. That's not going to change anytime soon.

The final factor in favor of the big desktop PC is the mod scene. There's a portion of the gaming and hardware fan community that loves to make their own PC cases and then overclock their hardware to generate as much performance as possible. It's a little like going to a custom car show and seeing the cars that have been modified with new engines and other changes.

I've attended a number of QuakeCon events in Dallas, Texas over the years and by far the most fun aspect of going to the show is heading inside the BYOC area to see what kind of PC case mods have been brought in by the talented designers. There's nothing quite like seeing a PC that's been made to look like Optimus Prime, or even one that's been put inside a cooking grill. That aspect of the PC hardware industry will always be around. In fact, with the growing success of hardcore free-to-play PC games that are now being used in tournaments, we could see a rise in this kind of activity.

So while your friends may be happy in the future with some tiny PC hooked up to a big screen TV and playing on Steam's Big Picture mode, I know what I prefer to do for my own PC gaming. Yes, it's big and yes, it's heavy but I will always want a big desktop PC with my SLI, a ton of RAM and lots of hard drive space.

Images via Neowin, Alienware/Dell, Xi3 and Fischer Computer Services

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It's not the size of the case that counts. I have a number of PCs at home and at work that have multiple monitors - one that I use for 3D graphics development that has 3 27" monitors. These are now fantastically cheap by comparison. For example, I recently bough an HP with 1GB graphics and 2 X 23" monitors, 2TB HDD etc. for roughly the same price as an iPhone.

It's not really a desktop. The case itself sits beside the desk and is hardly ever touched. But it's the only way I can manage the huge number of connectors needed.

Yay! Long live the liquid tank tower I saw in these forums a while back
While we're talking, anyone know where to get one of them?

So Intel decides to stop competing with many of its customers in mainboard production..

Instead focusing solely on the chipsets to sell to other mainboard MFRs.

...and this prompts John and the rest of the world to decide that Intel (or anyone else) thinks Desktops are going away?


Variations of 'desktop' class PC will exist for as long as 'Servers' and faster computing demands more space than a phone. Even as we move to the world were PCs become invisible (as Gates talked about over 20 years ago), there will continue to be mainboard production for 'behind the wall' technologies.

This article would be funny except it appears to BE CONFUSING PEOPLE, which is the OPPOSITE of providing information. Good job.

In the last 15 years I've built dozens of PCs - for me and for other people - and never once bought an Intel branded motherboard, so I'm not seeing this as much of a loss

noleafclover said,
In the last 15 years I've built dozens of PCs - for me and for other people - and never once bought an Intel branded motherboard, so I'm not seeing this as much of a loss

Isn't Intel the main player?

Kenny Kanashimi Chu said,

Isn't Intel the main player?

No...

Not even close, which is why this article is insane, as it has no relevance to the popularity or sales of Desktop/Server class PCs.

Especially considering that even Intel in announcing the ramping down of their mainboard production, do not suggest in any way that desktop/server class PCs are going anywhere. This is more about tightening what they do well, and to stop competing with their own customers that are the other Mainboard MFRs.

desktops aren't going anywhere, it's just that the future of computing is going to be highly mobile and connected, that's all.

FalseAgent said,
desktops aren't going anywhere, it's just that the future of computing is going to be highly mobile and connected, that's all.
Now that 8 core AMD crap could run not only on consoles, but PC as well. Nvidia has always up to date with their stuff. But if you look at the desktop side, you can mod.

Kenny Kanashimi Chu said,
Now that 8 core AMD crap could run not only on consoles, but PC as well. Nvidia has always up to date with their stuff. But if you look at the desktop side, you can mod.

I personally think that the value in modding has dipped alot. It's still there, but the value in swapping out certain parts in my tower just doesn't appeal to me as much as getting a sexy 27" AIO

does anyone really think graphics intensive work will happen on tablet computers anytime soon? the classic PC is certainly in for a market correction but it won't go away. how it will look five years from now i cannot say but there will always be a need to be able to upgrade without buying a whole new computer. sure, the industry would just love that but consumers won't - and probably can't afford that whole new laptop/all in one when they just want a new graphics card or more RAM.

valerius said,
does anyone really think graphics intensive work will happen on tablet computers anytime soon? the classic PC is certainly in for a market correction but it won't go away. how it will look five years from now i cannot say but there will always be a need to be able to upgrade without buying a whole new computer. sure, the industry would just love that but consumers won't - and probably can't afford that whole new laptop/all in one when they just want a new graphics card or more RAM.

The Intel 4000HD is not nearly as horrible as previous integrated GPUs, with actual performance that is sometimes faster than discrete GPU designed computers.

As for 'gaming' or 'CAD/3D' level graphics, there are several AMD class tablets using the mid-range AMD APUs with their faster GPU technologies.

Credible GPUs are the hardest thing to shove into a tablet or ultrabook due to the heat and power consumption that the current generations demand. I personally would pay attention to non-ARM technologies from NVIdia in the coming next year and more high end GPU offers from AMD in their APUs and newer SoC designs.

In developing countries people look at the desktop PC as an investment. They do not want to spend $190 for replacing battery every year and half on their laptop.

People who stay devoted to something as meaningless as a form factor are people who have a poor awareness of the history of computing.

I rather think it has to do with the notion that desktop=performance. If I had the option of using something smaller which still gave me the same level of CPU/GPU performance and flexibility I wouldn't care less.

Both correct. However, I believe I can still do infinitely more productive work on my old Celeron than now ten years later on a dual core phone even if the latter is connected to a big screen and a keyboard.

It's ten years, ffs! By now I expected to fly in space and have a Spy Kids hologram watch, not to wait three good seconds for the call to even start and then suffer a reboot in the middle before anything of actual importance has been said, for example.

Given the same price desktops are quality products. A real workhorse that will run pretty much everything you need for at least five years ahead while any mobile device in five years will be but a deadweight.

The era where huge tower desktop PCs were a fixture in every home got closer to their end in January when Intel announced that it will phase out their desktop motherboard business within a few years. While other PC hardware makers still plan to make motherboards, the fact that Intel is getting out of this industry is a big clue that the large desktop PC will become rarer and rarer.

You attached too much meaning to this. Intel's boards always had fewer features and were more expensive than those of other manufactures. Uglier too if that is your thing. They're just cutting their loses.

As for the desktop, I wouldn't say never, but it will be a LOOOOONG time before it's obsolete.

Tower desktop PCs only have a couple years left in the mainstream market, just look at market share in the last 5 years...

Mainstream possibly, but not if you're a serious PC gamer. But if they manage to get the same performance, cooling and price in a smaller form factor I'm not going to say no.

a0me said,
Tower desktop PCs only have a couple years left in the mainstream market, just look at market share in the last 5 years...

Who is talking about 'towers'? There are various form factors that provide the space and heat exchange for desktop class processing.

Even as the consumers move more to mobile devices and computers, there will always be a segment of the population that will demand the 'best' in performance, even if it is gamers or server racks.

PCs will disappear into smaller designs and become less visible, but it will be 10-20 years before the 'desktop' PC truly disappears. And for that to happen, mobile low heat/power consumption processing power will have to FULLY catch up to what is THEN possible in a larger space.

thenetavenger said,
Who is talking about 'towers'?

Er... you mean, apart from this article, "The big desktop PC will never die"?

Tablets and mobile devices are great, when you need something quick and mobile. When you want to take control of your digital world then they are useless. I will always have a desktop PC, its serviceable, upgradeable and has so many choices for detailed input.

I still find it hard to understand the direction MS took with Windows 8, the OS has some great new desktop features and its stable as heck but instead they are pushing the touch side of it and apps like its the only thing there is.

I personally think MS need some good competition in the desktop market, when they have no competition they seem to get bored and chase what they dont have, and thats why we are now seeing articles about the top apps being things that have been on my phone for years.

Our fingers are lousy when it comes to input on their own, as fun as MS may be making it look, we are all sitting here with big screen monitors that have got loads of wasted space.

Desktops dont need to remain huge, they should get smaller as tech gets better, but they shouldnt end up being throw away items that are sealed units.

"Desktops dont need to remain huge, they should get smaller as tech gets better, but they shouldnt end up being throw away items that are sealed units."

That's what happens - many people, and pretty much all companies out there treat desktops as disposable hardware with a finite lifetime. At a time when when my MacBook Air is more powerful than my office PC it's only a question of time before the price difference becomes irrelevant. Many of my colleagues already are laptop/dock/monitor users - I think it's only a matter of time before we start seeing boxes the size of a PS3 or smaller sold as ultratops and that being the norm.

Edited by Breach, Feb 2 2013, 12:00pm :

Though the days of the desktop are numbered in the typical home/office environment I agree that enterprise buyers, gamers, geeks, people involved in 3D and video rendering etc, will continue paying for large enclosures to hold their performance components. The problem is of course that will become more and more a niche market which is not good as it would result in lower competition, less investment and somewhat less innovation.

Not too certain about that. In time to come, I can see each home or group of homes connected to a localized server that can control a plethora of operations in the household. This in turn would be connected to the 'cloud'. I think there will always be a place for the large form factor which in turn will complement the tablets, smartphones, and other devices. Computing power for a number of application is not going away, and for the mid time furture the little form factors just cannot accomplish those large tasks.

I imagine by the time mobile GPUs can match their desktop counterparts, the days of the tower case are numbered. At least for me the only reason I don't have something like an all-in-one iMac is that the mobile GPUs aren't that great. I haven't needed tons of hard drives or 5.25" drives for years or a boatload of PCI-E slots. Rather fast CPUs can already be fitted in a small all-in-one or laptop enclosure.

Fitting in a desktop GPU is often the most limiting thing in a case. I'd really like to see more solutions where it can be fitted parallel to the motherboard rather than sticking out of it.

TheLegendOfMart said,
They will never be able to match the desktop counterparts, power, size, heat are all bad for thin mobile devices.

Sure, smaller will never be able to match larger versions, which is why we all still use 8" HDD platters.

MFH said,
A 8" HDD with todays technology could store way more data than current 3.5" drives...

And there's zero demand for them.

Capacity is just one metric. Components are valued for many, many metrics. 3.5" HDDs were the only direction with any real potential for advancing computing.

Meanwhile, people like LegendOfMart suffer total system meltdown when two things being compared aren't exactly the same, regardless of how relevant they are to the technological aspect of the issue. People like him are just one of the many who are either completely unaware of the past 40 years of progress in computer hardware, or simply fail to understand it.

Joshie said,

And there's zero demand for them.

Capacity is just one metric. Components are valued for many, many metrics. 3.5" HDDs were the only direction with any real potential for advancing computing.

Meanwhile, people like LegendOfMart suffer total system meltdown when two things being compared aren't exactly the same, regardless of how relevant they are to the technological aspect of the issue. People like him are just one of the many who are either completely unaware of the past 40 years of progress in computer hardware, or simply fail to understand it.


All I said was mobile gpus will never be on par with desktop cpus, until they can get power requirements, size and heat generation down to negligible amounts.

the remaining contender for x86-64 CPUs maker are: Intel, AMD & Via
this is not enough, the world needs more compatible CPUs makers.

but i also would like to see more variety of 'desktop computer',
ARM based desktop PC,
x86-64 based desktop PC,
?? based desktop PC

you know, like how it was with C64, Amgias, Apple, Sinclair, XT/AT ....

Torolol said,
the remaining contender for x86-64 CPUs maker are: Intel, AMD & Via
this is not enough, the world needs more compatible CPUs makers.

but i also would like to see more variety of 'desktop computer',
ARM based desktop PC,
x86-64 based desktop PC,
?? based desktop PC

you know, like how it was with C64, Amgias, Apple, Sinclair, XT/AT ....


You don't remember the pains of incompatible PC architectures do you?

MFH said,

You don't remember the pains of incompatible PC architectures do you?

nope, but i still remember the joy having variety of PCs.

such joy is almost like having variety of game console/handheld.

Well I remember those days: software being unavailable or simply incompatible. unportable binary formats,...

Fragmentation IMHO is the last thing the desktop market needs...

Almost all new computers have Micro ATX cases nowadays which is a big improvement over ATX. I'd like to see all new motherboards except for gaming mobos to be Mini ITX and for cheap Mini ITX cases to be available with high quality good brand psu's. Unfortunately Most Mini ITX cases cost double the price of Micro ATX and there aren't any good brand psu's for them yet.

More components are being integrated into the apu so small motherboards are becoming easier to do well without sacrificing quality or connectivity. Intel's 2014 broadwell is pretty much a SoC and that to me is a great thing. This is especially helpful in laptops as there is limited space for motherboards.

I hope intel and amd integrate 802.11ac and Bluetooth 4.0 soon into their chips.

The move from ATX to Micro ATX cases with ATX PSU may happen......but thats about it.

Most people have Mid ATX cases to fit ATX Motherboards so will get a new ATX Motherboard unless they want a new case.

I dont mind buying AMD even though I am given choice to buy a pricey branded All in All or build my own system with AMD only hardware.

Only thing is that, if Intel opts out from this segment, AMD processor wont surely be as dead cheap as now days.

Choto Cheeta said,
I dont mind buying AMD even though I am given choice to buy a pricey branded All in All or build my own system with AMD only hardware.

Only thing is that, if Intel opts out from this segment, AMD processor wont surely be as dead cheap as now days.

As far as i`m aware it`s only the motherboard side of things that Intel© are pulling out of. They will still produce chips to go in our Gigabyte, MSI, Asus or whoevers motherboard. Maybe the profit margins on motherboard production weren`t good enough for them so they decided to focus elsewhere.

Riggers said,

As far as i`m aware it`s only the motherboard side of things that Intel© are pulling out of. They will still produce chips to go in our Gigabyte, MSI, Asus or whoevers motherboard. Maybe the profit margins on motherboard production weren`t good enough for them so they decided to focus elsewhere.

It is bit confusing for me also.

I read Intel plans SOC where processor is suppose to be integrated part of the system main board, where as Intel on another side says they want to pull out of main board making.

If no motherboard from Intel coming in, then how will they run their SOC concept ??

I would not want to see the CPU integrated into the mother board. This would severely limit upgrades to better processors.

sdgreen said,
I would not want to see the CPU integrated into the mother board. This would severely limit upgrades to better processors.

Present Intel strategy of changing their processor socket with every new platform actually does the same thing.

Look at AMD with AM3 socket. Older mobo still can upgrade to a leading processor.

Tis true on the intel part. I do AMD which has a good advantage with maintaining their AM3x sockets. Not too impressed with the AMD A socket though.