What will the PC look like in the post-PC era?

What will the PC look like in the post-PC era?

Summary: The shift from PCs to post-PC devices is a lot more than just replacing desktops and notebooks with smartphones and tablets; it's a shift in how we interact with technology. This will have a significant effect on how the PC evolves over the coming years.

TOPICS: PCs, Hardware

PCs are giving way to post-PC devices such as smartphones and tablets. Raw horsepower and terabytes of storage have given way to low power consumption and cloud storage. But PCs aren't dead, so what does this shift into a new era mean for them?

(Credit: Lenovo)

If someone tells you that the PC is dead, they're either giving in to an extreme bout of hyperbole, or they're in possession of a time machine and have come to 2013 from the future.

The PC is, for the foreseeable future, here to stay. It's not going anywhere. What we are seeing is not the death of the PC, but a slow, gradual erosion of its importance. But the mere fact that the PC isn't going away doesn't mean that it--along with the entire PC industry--won't change as a result of a shift in focus away from traditional systems and onto newer devices.

The shift from PCs to post-PC devices is a lot more than just replacing desktops and notebooks with smartphones and tablets; it's a change in how we interact with, and even bond with our devices. One of the most significant differences is that post-PC devices are more intimate, and we are far less likely to share them with others. A PC may have numerous users, but a tablet or smartphone is likely to have only one.

What does this mean for the "post-PC era" PC? How will this device differ from the PC of today?


Raw horsepower is no longer important


Moore's Law predicted that transistor density on dies would double every two years, and this trend has held true since Intel co-founder Gordon Moore made the prediction in a paper in 1965. This has meant that we have seen processor performance double at the same rate. The cumulative effect of this is that processors and graphical processing units (GPUs) are now so powerful that even budget processors are powerful enough to handle all but the most demanding of tasks.

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What exactly is a 'post-PC device' anyway?

What exactly is a 'post-PC device' anyway?

In a few weeks people will be able to buy Windows 8 and Windows RT tablets. Perhaps it's time to step back and look again at just what "post-PC" means...

This means that power and performance has now been sidelined. Rarely do you hear people talk about gigahertz anymore, because outside of gaming and high-end applications such as video editing and high-performance computing, there is little to put pressure on silicon.


Low energy is the new benchmark


The drive for increased performance has been replaced by striving to get better battery life out of devices. Gone are the days where getting a couple of hours from a notebook being acceptable. People now want devices that will last the entire day, and in order to give people what they want the industry has had to squeeze out as much efficiency as possible from hardware.

The post-PC era PCs will, thanks to these advancements in power consumption, be small, cool, and quiet.


Your new hard drive is a cloud


I remember when adding a few megabytes of storage to a system cost mega-bucks. Nowadays, you can add super-fast solid state storage to a PC for about a dollar per gigabyte. But local storage requirements are actually falling as people are pushing more of their data into the cloud.

When most people think of cloud storage, they think of getting access to gigabytes of space at little or no cost, but there's more to cloud storage than just cheap gigabytes. Cloud storage offers a convenient solution to syncing data across multiple devices. The NAS box that you may have had in your home or office has been replaced by space on a remote server that could be on the other side of the globe.


Small is the new big


Forget about larger, hulking desktop systems and knee-straining notebooks. Small and light is the sign of quality. Compact all-in-one desktops and thing-and-light notebooks are now where it's at. On the most part, these devices have been made possible by the shrinking of components, but power efficiency is also a factor. The more wasteful with power a system is, the more fans and cooling it needs to keep it humming alone, and all this hardware takes up considerable space.

A PC from the turn of the millennium might have looked massive, but take the cover off and you quickly noticed how most of that volume was filled with nothing but air--air that was vital in keeping components such as the CPU and GPU from overheating and leaving a smoking crater in the middle of the motherboard.

Modern systems by comparison are tightly packed, with very little in the way of free space inside. This in turn allows them to be significantly smaller and denser.


Simple is the new complex


Take a look at a PC or notebook from the Windows XP era and it will have featured a mass of ports and connectors. The idea was that the back on every PC should be home to a mass of wiring, and that the PC should be a hub that was at the center of a much bigger hardware ecosystem.

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Lenovo CEO: Forget 'post-PC'. We're in the 'PC plus' era

Lenovo CEO: Forget 'post-PC'. We're in the 'PC plus' era

Lenovo's chief executive has said that the industry is not strictly speaking in the "post-PC" world just yet, and that those who are have failed to innovate in the PC space.

Post-PC devices do away with much of this complexity, instead relying on wireless connectivity based around Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.


Upgrades will be a thing of the past


One of the aspects of the PC that lured me into technology initially was the upgradeability of the system. You could go out and buy a cheap system and, over the course of a number of upgrades, end up with a much better system. It was fun, and to this day I still enjoy tinkering with my PCs in order to have custom systems tuned to my individual needs.

But this era is drawing to a close. As PCs are becoming smaller and more compact, many of the components that were previously upgradable--CPU, GPU, RAM, and so on--are being soldered directly to the motherboard. While I can't argue that this method has significant upsides, it is slowly killing off a power user's ability to customize a system.

And this is only going to get worse over the coming years.


Goodbye, PC gaming


The main reason that my desktop systems are PCs and not Macs is the fact that I love gaming on the PC. While I don't spend as many hours a week gaming as I'd like to, when I get the spare time I'd much rather spend it gaming on a PC than a console. Not only is the image quality far better, offering a far more immersive experience, I find the keyboard and mouse far superior to a handheld controller.

But convenience trumps quality, and PC gaming is giving way to the console and casual gaming on smartphones and tablets. Gaming PCs are seen as big, noisy, expensive, and troublesome. It's far easier to fire up Angry Birds on the iPad, or a gory zombie title on a console than it is to try to squeeze a decent frame rate out of a game on a PC.

There are also myriad other reasons why gaming on the PC is falling out of favor--piracy being one of the major ones--but one thing is certain, the era of PC gaming is drawing to a close.


The PC of the post-PC era


So what's the PC of the post-PC era going to look like? Here's my prediction:

  • Small

  • Quiet

  • Power efficient

  • Rely on wireless for connectivity and cloud for storage

  • Not user upgradable

  • Cheap

  • Disposable.

While the PC isn't dead, the PC as we know it doesn't have long left before it is replaced by something that is very different to the PC that we know and love.

Topics: PCs, Hardware

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  • Maybe for

    The PCs you are using to write your articles on will have all these “qualities” you are describing, but a lot of people cannot be using toys to do their job. PCs are here to stay, there is no post-PC era, it is just another marketing cr@p-word, like all the cloud talk. The only difference is that there are many more form factors to choose from and the boundaries are blending depending on user requirements (I am referring to hardware and not the Windows 8 failed unification experiment).

    And no, my files are not going to be hosted in the cloud, ever…

    What you end up describing is a consumer device not a PC. We have them already in countless form factors. Unless of course you are preparing a prolog for the Surface Pro…In that case, I class that as another Frankenstein Microsoft type experiment, not a PC that is going to fail like the RT.

    There is no post-PC era, it is just that people that they never really needed a powerful computer to play/write emails etc do not have to buy one anymore and the do not do so.
    • Agreed

      My next hard drive will NOT be the cloud. 100MB Photoshop files take a while to download and it would be more expensive to go that route, never mind "ownership" vs "lease", or hoping they don't steal my IP now that they have a copy of it on their server.
    • The biggest fault in the article that I see is the

      cloud storage and NO or little local storage. I think that is bogus. I use it to store general documents that are not sensitive and I need to share across devices, but I"m not using it like my main drive. No connectivity no data - period. And unlit I can walk around ANYWHERE and have the same connectivity, performance and reliability I do with a portable drive or local drive, then the cloud is basically a joke and just a sync machine.
    • Re: but a lot of people cannot be using toys to do their job.

      When was the last time you bought a new PC?

      Now do you understand why PC sales are crashing?
      • Last year, and here is the list:

        At home, I built a quad core Xeon with 32GB of mem and 2 SSDs, and also bought a Lenovo Carbon X1 ultrabook. I also built an i5 with 16GB of mem to replace my mother’s computer.

        At work, I got a second workstation, my first one was a Dell dual Xeon 8 Core one with 6GB of memory (still under my desk) the second one is a Lenovo C20 dual Xeon 8 core with hyper-threading 12GB.

        I also got 5x 40 core servers each with 256 GB running in our data centers. For this year I have an ask for another 5 40 core machines running MS SQL.

        Is this enough spending for a year or do you want more to “save the PC industry”? The problem with the PC industry is that there are too many vendors fighting for a shrinking market.

        And the market is shrinking because people who want to play angry birds and post in facebook all day long, realized they don’t need a quad core Xeon to do that so they use phones or tablets. That does not mean the rest of us can use a content consumption oriented device to do our work.

        There are cars and there are motorbikes, both are fun to use and depending on your needs you choose which one to buy.
        • Re: too many vendors fighting for a shrinking market.

          That's agreeing with my point.
          • No it does not

            Shrinking and dying are two different things. Look at Lenovo results…if you get your design right the customers are still there. You cannot write off a multibillion dollar market just because content consumption devices are selling more. Stop being that simple, life is more complex than yes/no answers.
          • Re: Shrinking and dying are two different things.

            The word I used was "crashing".
        • There are also trucks

          People may have cars or motor bikes, but often work requires some kind of truck to do it.

          The dual Xeon 8 cores you have under your desk at work are clearly "trucks".
          • Yes they are

            Unfortunately though, given that they have such little memory and a single 10K HD, I would say that they are very limited trucks. But that is what you get in a company environment, i.e. totally unbalanced systems.

            But also let’s not forget that what you are calling a truck nowadays will be in home PC or playstation tomorrow…Actually given the specs of the new XBOX and PS4 they are going to be under your TV soon (i.e. 8 core machines).
          • You make a good point

            The PC is becoming a truck. Now, I live in Texas, where pick up trucks are as common as cars, but the point is still good.

            Ed Bott pointed out that no one sat on Santa's lap and asked for a PC. It was all iPads and other tablets, and that is the point about the Post-PC era.

            As people move away from the PC, what we find is that the PC is no longer something you desire, it is something you may need, but not desire. If PC manufacturers want to revitalize the PC market, they need to make PCs that people will desire, and I am not sure how they do that.

            Windows 8/RT may be a step in the right direction, as it hits many of the same points as iOS and Android, single focus use, easier to use in touch environments, etc.

            I foresee a future where I have a Windows Phone (already do), a Windows RT tablet, and a Windows 8 PC. Because they all tie in to Windows Live, they share a lot of features that make them very useful as a set. This is all my personal equipment, and not my work equipment, but where I work, we are considering tablets, and I can imagine a future where most of my work is done on a tablet, probably with a larger monitor for when I sit at my desk.

            And, I see it as all Windows, but not right away.
  • PC gaming dead?

    I don't think so. Piracy is a factor to consider, but the gaming PC is far superior to any console available today. Funny thing is, all of the consoles out there have pc industry parts and the current generation consoles are running circa 2006 tech. Some of the best titles out there are pc only.
    General purpose machines may follow the trend that you spoke of, but the market for user upgradeable and custom built high performance rigs is not even close to dying. Some people don't want to just play angry birds, but want something far deeper and you just can't get that on the iPad.
    The titles that are on console and pc can do that, but if you have a decent pc, ALL of the games out there look better on pc than console. Plus there is the control issue, mouse and keyboard is much better for most games.

    Just my $.02
    • I have to agree

      It was just a few years ago that social gaming was going to kill PC gaming. Now it is tablet gaming that will kill PC gaming.

      Unfortunately the touch interface is terrible for most types of games and the limited storage/cpu cripples much of what developers can/could do with a game.

      They are fun distractions that can be picked up or put down at a moments notice.

      However I suspect that the Xbox will intergrate with PCs, tablets and windows phones over the next few years. So that buying one game will work on several platforms (or enable some minigame for mobile platforms). That would really unify the windows ecosystem.
    • Not to mention that

      With the threats of the next-gen Sony and Xbox consoles doing the whole 'one system' per purchase of the game idiocy, that is going to drive a LOT of people back to PC gaming.
      Also is the fact that you can mod games on a PC that you cannot do on a console (god forbid Sony ever allow anything like that), that makes many games that are both on console and PC more valuable in the long run on PC
    • Kickstarter

      Has just funded two huge PC only/first titles in Star Citizen and Elite Dangerous, so the evidence is that when gamers allowed to influence creation there is a desire for PC titles. I find Kickstarter is a good judge of market factors as well as a funding platform. Star Citizen is (I think) the most highly funded project ever and exceeded it's target for funding many times over!
      • Not to mention...

        ...the massive interest in supporting Android-based systems (like Ouya) that will also serve as general use and entertainment PCs. Even though the Kickstarter funding for Star was not the biggest (by a long shot), for its category, it was huge, and does indeed speak to support. It'll be a very long time before PC gaming dies. At that point, the PC itself will have been completely redefined by material and tech advances, anyway.
  • same as today

    There will be PCs as they are today. Perhaps more all-in-ones, and the usual tower PCs. I seems like there is a certain amount of heat/size/weight required with current technology to have a certain amount of computing horsepower. But these PCs will be more and more just for specialized uses in the workplace. The average person will mostly use phone/tablet/glasses(soon).
    • Bullseye

      Certainly more all-in-ones and specialized form factors, but the traditional form factors will persist just because of your reasoning. I hope - really hope - we don't have to look at the same hoary designs and crappy materials, though. Most "gaming" cases these days look like they're made for 11-year-olds and 1979 Firebird owners, neither of which is a growing demographic for this segment.
  • What is a PC, anyway?

    In general terms, it's just a "Personal Computer". But most people will probably assume we're talking about a computing device based on Intel x86 or x64 architecture, running some edition of Microsoft Windows.
  • The car analogy works with post-pc as well.

    Post PC devices are cars. Traditional PCs are trucks. Prior to the iPad, everyone had to buy a truck, even when all they really wanted was a car. Now, people who want cars can buy cars, and people who want or need trucks can buy trucks.

    Successful PC manufacturers will realize this and make their PCs more truck-like.