Rethinking the PC

At the beginning of every year, I take stock and reassess things. This evaluation ranges from the personal -- my ongoing self-promise to lose weight and exercise more -- to the technological, and in the latter category, I thoroughly examine my computing hardware, software, and services setups with an eye toward changing things where possible to be more efficient and not simply continuing to do things the same way out of some misguided sense of tradition.

This year, I’ve done horribly, at least on the technological side. Virtually none of what I intended to change this year has come to pass. An expected move from Microsoft Word to Evernote and then OneNote as my main writing tool has met with an ignominious end, although I’ve achieved a half goal of sorts by using Word against a SkyDrive-based data store. I declared that I had purchased my last point-and-shoot camera, expecting that some future smartphone would finally include a decent enough camera, only to have that camera up and die, forcing a new purchase. And while I had milked my aging Core 2 Quad-based desktop far past a reasonable time period -- heck, three entire Intel processor generations have occurred since that machine was current -- I figured I’d simply move to a docked laptop configuration of some kind -- I ended up buying yet another behemoth tower PC recently.

So much for aiming for the future.

To be fair, my workload isn't typical, and it’s certainly not representative of an average knowledge worker or consumer. I don’t play games on a PC at all, but I do use a lot of virtual machines (VMs), both for testing and development purposes -- and being able to utilize Hyper-V in Windows 8 on my main desktop and then move VMs as needed to a Windows Server-based box was certainly part of the rationalization for this purchase.

Still, my inability to move beyond the comfortable, easily expandable tower computer is somewhat troubling. I make a point of replacing my laptop once a year to keep up with current trends -- again, something that's specific to my work needs and not representative of normal behavior -- and have been anticipating a future generation of Windows 8-based portable devices. Given this, I should have waited.

In fact, while I understand that few businesses, IT pros, and power users are actively considering moving to Windows 8 anytime soon -- indeed, the reaction I’ve seen from these audiences to Windows 8 has been universally negative -- the hardware that will accompany this release will be quite interesting. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that this year will see a complete revamping of the PC, for both desktop and portable machines.

Some of this is already happening, thanks to the ongoing release of Intel’s third-generation Core processors, codenamed Ivy Bridge, which became available first in desktop form -- thus my previously mentioned purchase -- and are now starting to appear in portable machines as well. Ivy Bridge chipsets utilize a new 22nm manufacturing process that results in dramatic power management gains over the previous-generation, 32nm, chipsets while offering slightly better performance as well. So even in PCs based on a previous design, the benefits are immediate.

Where things get interesting, of course, is in the new designs. And even though Windows 8 is still months away from fruition, PC makers are already shipping some innovative new designs that are worth considering.

On the desktop PC side, there are two very interesting trends that I think speak to the future of this market -- which, while diminished in the face of a strong preference for mobile computers, will no doubt continue for certain uses and customer types. The first has been around since Apple shipped its first flat-screen iMac: all-in-one PCs, which now every major PC maker has embraced and even given their own spin.

All-in-ones are fairly well understood and seem to deliver real value, but I’m also interested in the second desktop trend, which is for compact computers. A few years back, these wafer-thin PCs were typically served by inadequate, netbook-type components, but today there are various models that use modern, Ivy Bridge hardware. The most impressive, perhaps, is the recently announced Lenovo ThinkCentre M92p “tiny” PC, which looks more like an external optical drive than the powerful PC it really is and is reasonably priced (well under $1,000).

Things are, of course, more interesting in the mobile space. We’re currently seeing a boom in what I think of as the second generation of Ultrabooks, as well as a confusing lineup of sort-of-Ultrabooks (such as HP’s Sleekbooks) that don’t quite qualify to use Intel’s Ultrabook name. (Some utilize AMD chips, for example.) These machines are impressive, and even on the first-generation Ultrabook I’m currently using -- an ASUS Zenbook UX31 -- the balance of power and portability is impressive. This is a 13-inch machine with an amazing 1600 x 900 resolution screen that weighs just 3 pounds and boots pre-release versions of Windows 8 in single-digit seconds.

Ultrabooks, however, are going to get even better, thanks to Ivy Bridge chipsets, backlit keyboards, and more form factor and design choices from a variety of PC makers. While the original generation of Ultrabooks was clearly, um, inspired by the MacBook Air -- the UX31 I’m using is a veritable rip-off, design-wise: PC makers have gotten the memo and many are applying their own design language to the devices.

Ultrabooks, however, are just the start. Windows 8 will usher in a new era of tablet devices, or what we used to call Tablet PCs, and these will range from slate-type devices (tablets) with screens of 7 inches and up (with the sweet spot no doubt being in the 10-inch range) to hybrid-type devices, including convertible laptops, that blur the line between Ultrabooks and tablets.

I’m particularly interested in the notion of carting around a slate-type tablet that is in fact a real Intel-type PC, and using it on the go as I now use an iPad, for touch-based reading, media consumption, and light email and web browsing. But tethered on a desk to a large screen, keyboard, and mouse, this type of machine becomes, in effect, a full-powered desktop computer. And that means I have one less device to carry around with me, assuming of course that the battery life is adequate.

These devices will, I think, make today’s traditional laptops look like the dinosaurs they are. And we’re going to wonder how we ever lived without them. Naturally, these machines will work best with Windows 8, given that system’s innate multi-touch capabilities and superior power management. I wonder if that will be enough for today’s holdouts to give Windows 8 a second chance.

Whatever happens, I can tell you this: I’m never buying another desktop PC again. Seriously.
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