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

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.
Written by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, Senior Contributing Editor

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.

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.

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.

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