Whither the PC?

Published in IEEE Spectrum Magazine, Nov 2014

Sales of personal computers are dropping, and people are increasingly turning to smartphones and tablets.  These portable devices have the obvious advantage of being with you wherever you go, but also are empowered with a multitude of sensors -- such as cameras, GPS, and accelerometers -- that make no sense on a stationary PC.

Still, when tethered to a home or office, I feel more comfortable interfacing with a physical keyboard, large display, powerful processor, and lots of memory.  So, bucking the trend, I recently invested in a new PC.  My existing PC was four and half years old and was a packaged system from a large electronics retailer.  I assembled the new PC myself from premium components -- processor, motherboard, memory, power supply, case, etc.  After I got the new PC going I studied the old and new systems and thought about the comparison and what it tells me about the future of the PC.

My first thought is one of admiration for the design engineers who make heroic efforts to keep up with Moore's Law.  There would have been three Moore's Law doublings between the times of the two systems, for a potential gain in performance of a factor of 8.  But as we know, clock speeds have not increased commensurately.  In this instance the older processor clocks at 2.93 GHz and the new one at 3.5 GHz.  That leaves a lot of ground to be made up through architectural improvements.  The new processor has four cores, versus two cores in the older one.  The new processor uses 22 nm lithography, versus 32 in the older, but nonetheless has a considerably larger die size and has about 1.4 billion transistors versus a mere 393 million in the older.  In addition to processor improvements, significant improvement in access speeds have been afforded by new standards in USB 3 and SATA 3.

Depending on which benchmark programs I run, the improvement in performance varies from factors about 2 to 6.  However, this brings me to my second thought -- that unless I'm running benchmark programs, I don't notice any difference in performances of the two systems.  Most everything that I do is either fast enough that I don't notice a difference or is constrained by some other bottleneck, like Internet connectivity.  Of course, if I were a heavy user of games, the difference might be evident, but would depend mostly on the graphics card used.

When I examine the two systems visually, I'm struck by another thought.  Inside the case the older, packaged, system looks cheap.  The power supply is minimal, the connecting cables hang loose, and the motherboard looks flimsy and is populated with no-name components.  Nonetheless, this system has worked perfectly for almost five years, and was bought at a bargain.  Perhaps there are certain virtues in cheap electronics in a throw-away era.  Maybe I didn't really need all those premium components in the new system after all.

My final thought is one of nostalgia and regret.  I think of my PC as a machine, and those other devices as gadgets.  Moreover, the PC is the last vestige of visible, accessible electronics in the home.  Those other gadgets don't even have any insides.  But, alas, with diminishing incentives to replace older PCs and the increasing power and ubiquity of smartphones and tablets, it's hard to imagine a bright future for the machine that, starting with the Altair in 1975,  so changed the world.