The Last of the Power Personal Computers?

Bill Loguidice's picture

My, how plans change. I was all but dead set on waiting for Windows 8 to come out and then getting a new kick butt PC, but the more the Windows 8 story has publicly evolved, the more I realize that that's probably not a direction I want to go. This led me to go on a search for a new PC now, one that I've decided may end up lasting me until it no longer makes sense to have the type of PC we traditionally consider "killer." Let me explain why I think this is an inevitability...

First off, right or wrong, it seems obvious to me that Microsoft is acknowledging the reality of the industry moving to tablets and that they know they better get the whole company moving in that direction or else. This of course means making everything as touch friendly as possible, including traditional PCs, and shifting focus off of classic interface paradigms, with the software to match. Microsoft will still focus on all the enterprise stuff that is their bread and butter, but their consumer strategy seems clear--adapt or become marganlized, no better than a Linux (still waiting for that "year of the Linux desktop" by the way...). Interestingly, even enterprises may very well be moving to a type of tablet and thin client strategy--after all, most white collar workers make use of one or two key software programs, with a very small percentage falling into the classification of "power user."

For those keeping score on the other side, Apple's upcoming OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion has key iOS integrations, and that will only continue. Apple knows where its future is too. Notice also how there is no "Mac" anywhere near the OS X branding, and it's been that way for a while, much like the way "Computer" was unceremoniously dumped from the Apple corporate name not too long ago. When consumers speak with their dollars, clearly even large companies can chart a clear about-face in strategy. Some, like Apple, do it masterfully, while others, like Kodak - even though they knew and in fact had a hand in the changeover in their own industry from analog to digital - simply fail. How Microsoft ends up is anyone's guess, but at least their basic strategy seems sound, if not entirely too sluggish.

As for me, with the above in mind, I have a feeling that this new PC purchase will be my last "beast," a system designed to chew on and spit out reams of local processing and data. With Windows 7, that can still be a reality for me. Waiting for Windows 8, I'd almost feel like I'd HAVE to have a touchscreen monitor to make proper use of it, and then I'm not so sure I want to be part of the desktop/Metro will it or won't it installable software versus app transition that will surely frustrate for a time. Maybe in three or four years when the Microsoft Windows 8 app store is mature it won't matter, but perhaps by then I'll be able to stick with a dockable iPad 5 or something. Who knows, but right now I want that possibly last rush of a super PC when having a super PC still actually means something.

I say the above because there is a clearly increasing use of cloud services, featuring not only storage - which is key for data redundancy and easy sharing and collaboration - but also Web-based (Google Docs and Microsoft Office, to name two important ones) and streaming apps (seen most recently in game services like OnLive, which is even streaming the complete Microsoft Office to iPads!). In short, even though our portable devices are getting ever more powerful, even that power is becoming increasingly less important from an end user's perspective. It's almost like we're going back to a more empowered form of timesharing. By no means is this stuff perfect at present or even in most cases quite as good as what you can do locally with a good machine, but it's clearly getting better all the time. You can't stop progress and this is where the industry as a whole has decided it wants to go, driven both by consumer usage and, ultimately, demand.

My present desktop setup consists of a speedy Windows 7-based gaming laptop with a built-in 1080p 17" monitor and a companion 27" 1080p monitor, which I use primarily in an extended desktop configuration. My plan is to return my laptop to its intended use as a laptop and put a beefy box under the desk, placing a matching 27" 1080p monitor next to the existing one. In fact, I won an eBay auction last night for an exact match to my existing monitor (it's a discontinued Viewsonic LCD with a 1ms response time; hyperbole or not, I like the monitor and it's cheaper getting a second match than buying two new 27" monitors).

Since I'm primarily iOS with my mobile devices (iPhone and iPad, with secondary webOS and ICS tablets), I thought I would consider a Mac Pro, particularly considering the direction OS X is going--it's hard to argue with tight integration, and I like the idea of wirelessly sending my screen to an Apple TV device with the update. I could also do Boot Camp or run something like Parallels for the legacy Windows stuff I still want to deal with (and remember, I still have that great Windows 7 gaming laptop). Unfortunately, the STARTING price of a Mac Pro is $2499, and that's not even a configuration I'd be happy with, so by the time I configured it the way that I wanted, I'd be north of $3000. Forget that. Obviously an iMac is out because I want to use those two monitors, plus I want something I can swap some parts out if I'm so moved (it wouldn't be a very good power PC if I couldn't). I've been down the all-in-one route before and I haven't been happy, so never again if I can avoid it, until, yeah, the scenario that I mentioned above starts to play out and it suddenly doesn't matter much anymore. Certainly I see Christina getting an iMac later in the year, though, and transitioning her off of a Windows PC, so I can at least actively monitor the "other side."

Anyway, I took some joy in the research and settled on four companies that would meet my needs of performance and an approximately $2000 price tag: Maingear, Digital Storm, Alienware, and iBuyPower. My main goals were speedy processor I wouldn't have to upgrade, a Raid 1 or Raid 1+0 configuration for data redundancy (that's how my laptop is configured) that I would only have to touch if a drive in the array failed, preferably 16GB RAM, and a speedy video card that wouldn't necessarily have to be the latest and greatest since that would be the easiest piece to swap out in such a setup (and, quite frankly, if I'm stuck in a 1080p resolution, most video cards can easily handle that--I might want to experiment with spanning both screens occasionally, though). Being gaming PC's, I knew case access wouldn't be a problem, and I knew I wouldn't be overclocking, so I could reasonably expect with all the cooling doo-dads involved that I wouldn't necessarily have to worry too much about noise or overconsumption of power if I configured things right (this is going in our family room, so noise is a consideration).

You can see the results of my research in the attached spreadsheet or the image snapshot I took, shown below (click through and enlarge if you don't want to download the spreadsheet):

Computer Comparison Chart - 02/16/2012

Obviously, all of the niche PC makers offer their own pluses and minuses - some do custom liquid cooling, some do custom wiring, some do safe overclocking, some have extra sound dampening materials, some have nicer case options, etc. - but when it comes right down to it, there's not a large enough gap with these companies to make the value-adds a serious differentiator.

Based on the comparison that I did, it looks like the Alienware setup is pretty hard to beat, right? Again, this is not necessarily taking into account all the niceties these various companies offer or the minor differentiators, but I think taken from a raw power standpoint, the Alienware is the one to get. In fact, I'd say they must have some secret stash of hard drives, because they're the only ones with reasonable prices considering all the well known supply issues. In fact, in that configuration, we're talking FOUR hard drives, which is all but rubbing it in the faces of the competition, which is also probably why they're the only ones offering Raid 1+0, which has a clear performance boost over straight up Raid 1 that the other guys have. Certainly I'd like SSD drives, but getting anywhere near a usable capacity without also needing to rely on a data drive is not really practical, so spinning disks it is.

The catch? I can't purchase it just yet, but I hope some things come to pass that will allow me to snag just such a setup in short order. After all, that second monitor should be reaching me any day now and it will be rather useless sitting in its box...

I'd love to hear your thoughts (and arguments against) on all that I've said, so sound off in the comments below!

AttachmentSize
Systems Comparison.xlsx11.85 KB

Comments

BuckFeris (not verified)
The dumb termina workstation

I have personally felt for some time that smart phones and tablets will soon get to the point where they contain the processing power that will satisfy 98% of the populace. At home and at work will be a cradle that recharges as well as hooks you up to a keyboard and larger monitor. So the computer will be in the pocket, but a 'sit down' experience will be made possible. Desktop machines will be available for sometime as old habits die hard and the occasional person wants to own a no-holds-barred powerhouse for certain tasks. Google and Apple are gunning for this new market with both guns blazing and M$ is simply late and doesn't get it. They are like your bitter drunk uncle that shows up to family get togethers and always does something embarrasing. But he made so much money in the 80's and 90's that he still feels the need to act like an ass.

Bill Loguidice
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About halfway there...

So, after many excruciating hours (I'm not handy), I set up my dual 27" 1080p LCD Viewsonic monitors today with the dual monitor stand:

So why do they still have the bases on them? Unfortunately, even though I got a dual monitor stand that was supposed to meet the need, it couldn't quite handle the weight. On the plus side, these monitors won't be going anywhere and I guess when I get thin LED monitors at some future time, this dual monitor stand will be ready.

While I couldn't swing a 2k+ system like I wanted, I was able to order one just now (with Christina's somewhat unhappy permission) for about half that price: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B005TJKHUK/ref=ox_ya_os_product . While it certainly doesn't hit all my criteria (prefer a non-AMD processor and a Raid 1 or Raid 0+1 setup like in the original spreadsheet), it will still more than do the job, plus free up my gaming laptop to boot. Maybe it will come by next week and my desktop area will be more or less whole...

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clok1966
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Joined: 01/21/2009
Looks like you should be

Looks like you should be happy with that.. I havent kept up on AMD for awhile, but unless something drastic has changed they are only a tick or two behind Intel in most real world stuff, and have excellent prices. I have that same case (with a slighlty differnt front) a little light, but for a case that wont move around its pretty nice. it keeps my Crossfire cards, 6 HD and OC CPU cool if a bit tight. I would suggest you grab a back up fan as mine had 4 of those blue ones and 1 died right away and a second is making noise (I have had mine over a year now). They may have a different brand now so you wont have any issues. Also since the PSU is at bottom and pulls ari there, if you are on carpet i suggest a flat peice of soemthing under it so it has room to pull air into the PSU.

Bill Loguidice
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Joined: 12/31/1969
No, no carpet so I should be

No, no carpet so I should be good. The processor has a CPU mark of 8250 and the video card a GPU mark of 2820, so I think it will be sufficient for a while, plus I should be able to upgrade parts over time, which was my intention (better video card, similar capacity SSD, etc.).

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clok1966
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Joined: 01/21/2009
once again I gotta say I wish

once again I gotta say I wish my desk looked 1/10th that good.. it just looks efficent..

Matt Barton
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Joined: 01/16/2006
Looks great, though I'm not a

Looks great, though I'm not a big fan of a keyboard and mouse on a desktop. Ideally, I'd like to have them mounted on some kind of adjustable platform, but I have to settle for a tray bolted underneath my desk. I find it's excruciatingly painful having to reach up and away from my lap to type and use the mouse.

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Bill Loguidice
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The keyboard and mouse
Matt Barton wrote:

Looks great, though I'm not a big fan of a keyboard and mouse on a desktop. Ideally, I'd like to have them mounted on some kind of adjustable platform, but I have to settle for a tray bolted underneath my desk. I find it's excruciatingly painful having to reach up and away from my lap to type and use the mouse.

It's actually a good angle for me, plus I haven't had a lower tray in many, many years at home or at work, so I guess I'm used to it. On the plus side, it's also very, very stable. On the downside, you lose desk space.

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clok1966
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I must admit the doom and

I must admit the doom and gloom for PC's was lookinga bit stronger a few years ago, but gaming has actually picked up int he last few years despit the "it cost 2 bilion to make, so we cant make our money back fromt he PC' guys. Much of the demise statments where from companies like EA who have all but moved from PC to console. And the fact the big players have sorta become out of touch with the games people want (id). Gaming drives hardware, the business side is still going strong.. now that APPLE uses the same components all Win boxes do.. but.. now I do see a major problem Sna Fran Game confrenc is next week and the romours are STEAM is going to release a PC /hybred:
"We're told that the basic specs of the Steam Box include a Core i7 CPU, 8GB of RAM, and an NVIDIA GPU. The devices will be able to run any standard PC titles, and will also allow for rival gaming services (like EA's Origin) to be loaded up." They note a couple of possibilities that may make this more distinctive than a hardware specification, speculating about this may include a proprietary controller, a biometric feedback device, and could take better advantage of Steam's "big picture mode"

The set top PC has been hammered to death with no success, so why now? As i have said many times, timing is almost more important then the tech. STEAM has a UGE following, a built in user base.. and if you read forums.. us die hard pac users are the minority, most complaine about game pad support etc.. Video card drivers.. CONSOLE USERS... VALVE could bridge this gap.. all the sudden teh BIGGEST GAME SELLECTION is availible in your living room. And talk is it will be at abotu the same silly price the consoles release at.. $4-500.. so price wont be much differnece... built in user base, gamepad support (and sounds like some motion control or feedback also)..

I for one dont see this as good and feel its the first mistep VALVE will make.. further consoleizing the PC game market is going to drive us old guys out.. In the big pircture it probebly pretty wise as us "old guys" are the minority.. better to pull the current console generation to PC gaming then to work on us old guard who are smaller and smaller numbers every day. I could see this as a real breakthoruhg.. MOD SUPPORT, now more 'sony/MS/Nintendo" just one platform for one priece that plays most games.. sure the console specific stuff will still be that, but there is no denying teh PC is the best overall platform.. and if the user base is there the GAME makers will follow. At lunch it will have 1000's of games all at price points that beat the crap out of cosnole prices.

only time will tell, may be to soon for anther attempt at a setbox PC.. but if done right, i can see this one succeding where the others have failed..

Matt Barton
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That Steam PC sounds

That Steam PC sounds interesting to me. I know I'd be very torn between buying something like that over the next-gen Xbox if they were at comparable price points. I just hope they don't get carried away with the DRM and make it unusable for ordinary computer stuff.

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clok1966
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who knows
Matt Barton wrote:

That Steam PC sounds interesting to me. I know I'd be very torn between buying something like that over the next-gen Xbox if they were at comparable price points. I just hope they don't get carried away with the DRM and make it unusable for ordinary computer stuff.

I doubt anything to HARSH for DRM ....depending on who you are.. as they said other Download services will be able to use it.. SO ORIGIN.. and if we are really lucky GOG etc... They will be hte keepers of the DRM on there respective products. VALVE has a great tracke record for doing whats best for gamers (even if we dont see it that way sometimes) I personally was 100% against steam with HALF LIFE 2, almost to a point i wasnt going ot play it. Now Steam is easliy my prefred platform for PC gameing. A case where my perception was incorrect and I never gave it chance till i was basicly forced to.

I do imagine there weill be some drawbacks for the standard PC user such as myslef. Yhe big draw will be same thing every set top box has had, all PC abilities.. at a time when most homes have HD tv's so PC txt wont be a drawback. A standard web browser that will surpase any in previous console/set top boxes (if they allow firefox/chrome/etc) it really gets down to waht they allow.. MY guess is ANYTHING downloaded onto it will have to be throuhg some type of STOREFRONT.. STEAM, ORIGIN, GOG.. ETC.. so most anyting would be avilible on it but much like anthing in a app type store, it wil have to go throuhg some tests.. I cant see it being 100% open, virus, malware problems and such.. it has to be regulated.. which will turn alot off (myself included).. as long as they dont go as Far as APPLE, but hang in a littel more nutral area, not regultiong what i can get, but simpley regulation the software for issues, not content I would be statisfied.

far to early to speculate, in many ways I cant see it working, its failes so many time before. And as you point out DRM and such will be its failing if anything. it should easily handle the 5-7 year life cycle, price will matter, as long as its digital HD space wont be a huge concern. TO MANY "IFS" for now, but with VALVE PC hardware and digital where its at right now.. it could be awsome.

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