Today I saw this clip which declares that desktop PCs are ready to be consigned to the dustbin. To some extent, they're absolutely right.
Laptops, tablets and smartphones are the mainstream computing devices right now. If you're in the UK and on a train journey, take a look around. (You'll probably need to drag your eyes away from your own tablet or smartphone first.) From my own experience, I know that my parents now spend most of their home computing time using tablets and don't find this limiting.
Then again, I'm quite the opposite. Last year, I reluctantly bought my first laptop for work, and still haven't been converted to mobile devices.
So, why such distinct differences between the needs of mainstream users and enthusiasts? Here's what my experiences tell me.
First off, even before you purchase a laptop you run into problems if you're particularly interested in the computer you end up with. There are a huge number of different machines out there. However, laptops have limited upgradability: they're designed to fit into a compact form factor, making CPU, graphics or motherboard upgrades impractical or near impossible. So, you're stuck with the fixed out-of-box specification. And scouring the market this way to both find a machine that meets your needs and is within your budget is not fun at all. Going the desktop self-build route however, you can specify every part from the ground up.
Building your own desktop also means you can defer some of your spending rather than having to try and futureproof by buying a top-end laptop. You've got the option of using parts from older PCs as a stopgap, or settling for more inexpensive components that you can upgrade in a year or two.
Laptops not being easily user-servicable means that many repairs that would be relatively simple in a desktop (take out broken part, install new part) may well involve sending your laptop to the manufacturer or repair shop, rather frustratingly.
Laptops come with built-in keyboards and trackpads which I find awkward. I almost always use other input devices with my laptop. Trackpads are just too imprecise and inefficient compared with mice, while laptop keyboards can be more cramped or may be missing the numeric keypad. (My laptop's keyboard isn't actually that terrible, though I'm still not a fan of chiclet keyboards.)
Another issue with laptops is the display. At the cheap end, laptop screens are low resolution and low quality. Even at the high end, you're inherently limited by the size of the device: high resolution displays are great, but if they're on, say, a 13 inch screen, everything's tiny. I much prefer working on larger (> 22 inch) monitors, and I always favour plugging my laptop into an external monitor. Having to work around the limitations of a low resolution screen by constantly scrolling or shuffling windows around is distracting.
Laptops are portable machines which has two consequences. Obviously, they need to be small, which means there's no room for the several fans and large heatsinks that desktop cases can accommodate. They also need to be power efficient since they may well be running from battery power. Both of these factors limit how powerful laptops can be, meaning desktop hardware is the way to go for high-end consumer computing applications.
This also limits them for gaming. For me, this isn't a big concern; I don't have much time for gaming these days and the PC games I have played have been indie titles with modest requirements (my almost seven year old desktop still handles these well). However, there's a large community of PC gamers who won't be satisfied by the compromises in performance they'd have to make on choosing a laptop.
Phones and tablets versus conventional PCs
Since they can run the same software, I've focused on desktops versus laptops as these devices are, in principle at least, interchangeable, and I've not mentioned phones and tablets. Apart from their portability, one driver of the success of phones and tablets is probably that they are much simpler to use and maintain than full-fledged PCs. Simplified touch interfaces and software management, along and a relative lack of malware (particularly on iOS) probably all contribute. Anecdotally, I get asked far fewer questions about tablets or phones than I ever did about Windows.
At the same time, this simplicity is exactly why I find these devices so limiting. Compounding that, phones and tablets are usually even more restricted in storage and computing power than laptops. For uses like video and image editing, audio work, and software development, it's hard to see phones and tablets displacing conventional computers right now; current mobile apps are typically far simpler than these uses demand.
One possibility is that dual boot phones or tablets may eventually displace laptops completely; carry around your phone then plug into a monitor, keyboard and mouse when you want to do more than apps allow. Current events point to this perhaps taking a long time.
Though they're of little interest to mainstream users, I think the reasons I've given here suggest that desktops are far from redundant. Relative to the ubiquity they had a decade ago, they'll occupy a much smaller niche compared to the market dominance they once had, but this is still an important one for computer enthusiasts.