When was the last time you built a tower PC?

Sure, you may have set up laptops or tablets or server platters. But how long ago was it that you last bought a tower case? When was the last time you set up a free-standing PC?
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor
When was the last time you built a tower PC?

From left to right: CD ripper, cassette ripper, media tank, vestigial Vista PC

I've been doing a little spring cleaning here at Camp David, and I took a look at the wall of tower PCs in my closet. Other than the big backup machine, which I power on every month or so to backup our primary backup server, those machines haven't been powered on for years. And that got me thinking: how long is it since I built a tower PC?

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For me, it was three years ago, when I built my last media tank (here's part 1 and part 2). That tank still runs, but now it's serving as second tier storage (after the Drobos). It runs Windows 8.1 with pooled storage, thanks to a very slick piece of Windows software called Drive Bender.

Before that, we built our media ripper, which helped us get all our music from CDs to FLAC and MP3. That was a four DVD drive (because they'd finally gotten as cheap as CD drives) machine that used dBpoweramp to build up our library. My wife and I ripped 16,000 songs from our massive CD library.

That was a lot of work, but because of how streaming services have become so compelling, we rarely ever listen to that library. We prefer the ease of Pandora and Spotify. Can you imagine that just a few years ago we thought a collection of 16,000 songs was huge? We can all now listen to millions upon millions of songs on demand from these streaming services. Makes our CD collection seem quaint.

There are a few ripped CDs from local independent artists and musicians we have as personal friends that just don't exist in Pandora or Spotify, and we do play those (but rarely) with Alexa (we backed up our entire collection to both Amazon Music and Google Music).

As for using desktop or tower machines as daily drivers? We have four Mac minis, three running OS X and one running Windows 8.1. Those are the machines we have tied to big monitors (not counting my iMac, which connects to three external monitors). We also have our favorite laptops, which go everywhere with us, plus a small army of Chromebooks and tablets.

We like having big monitor screen real estate, which provides a huge productivity boost. My wife has a 27-inch monitor as her main screen, and a 24-incher on the side. I have the iMac's 27-inch screen, another 27-inch screen, and two 24-inch monitors. We no longer use towers for our desktop machines, so the towers we still have now live in a closet in the back of the house. To be fair, they work great in that closet as occasional use servers. I ran Gig-E and power into the closet when we moved in here.

In the picture at the beginning of this article, you can see four of our five last remaining towers sitting in that closet. In addition to the CD-based media ripper, there's a cassette ripping box (my wife had a huge collection of mix tapes), and -- get ready for this -- my old Vista machine.

I haven't powered that box up since I moved here more than four years ago, but I haven't had the heart to get rid of it. It had a 10,000 RPM drive (in the days before SSDs made them irrelevant for basic PCs). It was smooth and responsive and ran like a champ. I know it's Vista, but to me, it's like a classic old muscle car -- one that's unsafe and you never run, but still.

So, yes, we still have a few towers here at Camp David. But we no longer have the graveyard of old PCs and cases in the garage. We no longer build new tower PCs. For storage, we're running Drobos (and I'm considering a Synology).

I'm not quite ready -- especially considering my recent experience with CrashPlan -- to scrap my servers for a hybrid cloud in exactly the same way Jason did, but close. I have 32GB of RAM on my main machine, and run VMs on that. But I also run virtual machines in the cloud. To test setting up SSL with one of my open source projects, I fired up a trusty droplet on Digital Ocean. It's not Azure, but it works.

As I looked at my closet tower PCs, I just got to thinking. It's been years since towers were our main go-to machines. I won't rule out ever building another specialized tower; but I'm much more likely to stick an Arduino inside something else than I am to stick everything inside a tower ever again.

What about you? When is the last time you installed a tower PC? For most of you, I'll bet it's been longer than you think. Is this a harbinger of the death of the desktop PC? No, of course not. But we no longer need big boxes to do big work. We are moving servers from on-premises (especially for smaller businesses) into the cloud, and laptops are now often as fast and powerful as we need.

There once was a time when every user sat at his or her desk next to a tower PC or in front of a desktop PC sitting under a monitor. If you saw a scene like that in a movie today, you'd know without a doubt you were watching a period piece. That's just not our world anymore.

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