The PC is back. And it's interesting again

The breadth and longevity of Windows - and of PCs in general - deserves more recognition.

Seeing Intel celebrate the variety and power of PCs right after chip veteran Pat Gelsinger came back as CEO gave me some fun flashbacks to Intel Developer Forum events of old, where the company used to showcase creative new laptop form factors that flipped, slid and unfolded in different ways.

They had names like Florence (a laptop with a keyboard that cranked back to turn it into a tablet) and Newport (with a small second screen on the lid to show you how many emails were waiting). We still have a couple of the cardboard mockups in the office.

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The last twelve months have been a reminder that a phone or a tablet isn't always what we want and need. Both the increase in PC sales over the past year and the continuing shortage of graphics cards suggest that people want the option to pick the best hardware for different tasks.

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Certainly, the supply problems with graphics cards are caused both by cryptocurrency miners snapping up the cards that are available, and by a general shortfall in silicon wafers and foundry capacity that has also affected car manufacturers who hadn't pre-ordered chips and even mobile phone makers. But the fact that PC users are still shopping for new graphics cards is a sign of continuing interest.

Even with supply issues, PC shipments grew by 12.9% in 2020 according to IDC, who is forecasting even bigger sales for 2021: up 18.2% to 357.4 million devices. Canalys counts devices slightly differently, including tablets and Chromebooks as well as desktops and notebooks; their prediction of 8% growth in 2021, mostly in the first half of the year, suggests a total of 496.8 million devices selling in 2021, and 50.9 million in 2022.

Some of that is getting laptops to students, some of that is retail stores ordering PCs because their stocks are still low, and the backlog from people trying to buy a new PC now might continue into 2022 according to IDC. But people will continue to need to work remotely at least part of the time and they want to have a better PC at home for work, leisure or education. 

We bought more PC monitors in 2020 as well: in Q4 alone 39.2 million screens shipped, up 16.9% from the previous year to a level of sales last seen in Q4 2011. Some of that may be stockpiling before component prices go up, but a lot of it is people wanting a screen to use with a desktop or laptop PC, and again, the growth is happening even though there's been so much demand that there are unfilled backorders – so the growth in interest is even higher. For the full year, sales went up 8.3%; that's the strongest growth from year to year since researcher IDC started tracking monitor sales in 2008.

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IDC expects people to carry on buying more screens than in the last few years, to use with laptops; which means people are using laptops enough to want to have a bigger screen. Microsoft says the amount of time people are using Windows has gone up; in May 2020, we were all spending four trillion minutes a month using Windows 10, 75% more than in May 2019. 

Predictions of the death of the PC have often assumed that current PCs were good enough and that people who wanted a PC to use would keep an old device around for when they needed it. Our pandemic PC buying patterns suggest that's not the case, and there are still new technologies arriving that will make it worth buying new devices, whether that's a better graphics card, processors that cram in more features or security improvements like Microsoft's Pluton security processor.

Getting AMD, Intel and Qualcomm to make space on an already-crowded processor die was a validation of Microsoft's design, but it was also a sign of further possibilities. "You can imagine getting four of the biggest technology companies on the planet to move in the same direction is never easy," Microsoft partner director of enterprise and OS security David Weston told us at the time.

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It also suggests the PC market is still exciting enough for them to get involved in: "Starting with secured core and now with Pluton, we've created what you could call a consortium of stakeholders who have invested in the PC ecosystem. We can definitely do what other ecosystems do and more, while still having separate companies, by operating together under a singular focus which is increasing customer security."

In other words, the PC isn't just useful – it's interesting.

In fact, PCs are so interesting, they're the technology purchase for which UK shoppers spend the longest time reading reviews before making a decision (107 minutes on average). That's longer than TVs (73 minutes), smart home devices (61 minutes), smart watches (43 minutes), booking a hotel room (68 minutes), buying new makeup (45 minutes) or picking a takeaway (50 minutes). The only thing they spend longer researching is buying a car (152 minutes). 

Sure, the car will cost a lot more: but these days the PC might be what gets you to work.