Upgrade Your PC -- Or Not

As PCs evolve toward simpler designs rather than increased processing power, users' reasons for upgrading likewise become style choices

My in-laws were in town over the long weekend for Thanksgiving. My wife's father is into technology, but he's resigned to being a bit behind the curve -- which entails, among other things, being on the tail end of my family's technology hand-me-down list. For example, with the new Amazon Kindle eBook readers out, I've moved on to the latest device, and my wife has moved on to my previous Kindle, which includes the 3G wireless technology her Kindle lacked. So her old Kindle moved along to her father.

As he compared the various Kindles and I silently ruminated over my embarrassing riches of "stuff," talk turned to Black Friday and the even more embarrassing piles of PCs and other devices in my home office. Would I be getting a new PC, he wondered? Would I brave the lines to snag a deal on a just-about-to-be-replaced laptop or tablet?

I wouldn't, although I've occasionally headed out early on the morning after Thanksgiving simply to enjoy the insanity of Black Friday, like someone who spectates, but doesn't participate in, the running of the bulls in Pamplona. (And admit it, the parallels here are apt.) Frankly, I don't need anything tech-related. I never do -- not really.

But my father-in-law is thinking about upgrading his PC. Like most people, I also think about this a lot, whether I need to or not. My father-in-law remarked that his computing requirements are small, pointing in the direction of my overflowing office full of machinery. The implication being, of course, that we're on different ends of the power user scale, and thus our PC needs are clearly different.

Which got me thinking. And honestly, I'm not so sure he's right. PCs have evolved to the point where even a basic, no-frills PC would serve almost any user's needs, mine included. There are rare exceptions, of course -- for example, I have coworkers who travel with ginormous laptops outfitted with 8GB or more of RAM and two hard drives, specifically for hosting multiple virtual environments. And of course there are always the gaming rigs. But for most people, at home or work, a basic PC would be just fine.

And what's a basic PC these days? Honestly, it's not too shabby. Dell sells a basic desktop box to consumers that starts at $299 and includes a 64-bit version of Windows 7 Home Premium, a 2.7GHz AMD CPU, 2GB of RAM, a 500GB hard drive, and the free Microsoft Office 2010 Starter, which includes limited but still workable versions of Word and Excel. Combine that with your previous display and some free web apps such as Gmail, Google Calendar, Office Web Apps, and so on, and you're good to go.

Or check out Dell's workhorse corporate laptops, which are modern versions of the basic, creaky box Penton gives its employees: A 14-inch version with a second-generation Intel Core i3 processor, 2GB of RAM, a 250GB hard drive, and a 6-cell battery starts at almost exactly $500, although that's before volume discounts and doesn't include additional software, services, and warranty. It includes the same basic software.

I could work efficiently on either of those machines, although I've certainly spent a lot of time justifying more capable and more expensive purchases. More than I'd care to admit, actually, but at least I usually buy PCs. One can only imagine the hand wringing that occurs before a typical Mac purchase, given the premium pricing of those machines. ("I can't use a PC," they must tell themselves, riffing on a recent and hilarious Samsung smartphone commercial. "I'm creative." Sure you are.)

We expect businesses to eke as much out of their hardware and software investments as possible. But now individuals can do so as well. And not just because they want to and need to, but because there's almost no good reason to upgrade, at least using traditional rationales.

It wasn't always this way. In the past, Microsoft's software was so poorly written that reviewers would charitably describe it as being "ahead" of the hardware of the day. The hidden meaning there was that this slow software would someday run just fine, once the hardware caught up, as it usually did a year or two later. Today, PC hardware is far more commoditized, and in day-to-day use, I can't tell the difference between a 2009-era Core 2 Duo-based ThinkPad and a 2011-era model that comes with a second-generation Core i5 processor. I'm not sure there is a difference, from a performance standpoint.

So why upgrade?

The emerging trend is to make PCs less like PCs and more like devices. They'll come in fun, multi-touch form factors, like the iPad copying slates that we'll be swimming in a year from now, and a new category of laptops called Ultrabooks. We'll focus less on specs, because specs will matter less -- as they already do --and more on utility. Battery life will be king for mobile devices of all kinds, not processing power.

These devices might ultimately do less than the beefy computers of today. And that, too, is by design. Even Windows is actually moving backward in some ways. Released two years ago, Windows 7 has the same hardware requirements as Windows Vista, which shipped back in 2006. And Windows 8, due in 2012, actually has lower hardware requirements. In fact, Microsoft has quietly detuned the Aero UI in Windows 8 to be less sophisticated than that in Windows 7. On purpose.

Of course, there's more to sophistication than graphical fidelity. And as Apple's legion of fans will tell you, usually without prompting, good design is as much about what you leave out as what you put in. And when I think about these low-end PCs of today, about the software and, more frequently, the online services their users will turn to day after day, I start to see that the PC world is trending very much away from complexity and power and toward simplicity.

I'm OK with this change, of course. But it's going to make it a lot harder to move used hardware through the family as we've done so much in the past. And at some point, my father-in-law is going to want a beautiful slate PC and not that boxy, heavy laptop he currently lugs around, let alone my own boxy, heavy PC hand-me-downs. Who can blame him?
TAGS: Windows 8
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