Friday, April 12, 2013

The PC is not dead

The PC is not dead, and the obits we've been reading are laughable.

Despite my poverty, I have access to an iPad. Times being what they are, some people would rather pay me with kit than with money. I'm also getting a nice HD camcorder soon.

Do I use the tablet? Rarely.

That device is superb for reading books and playing games that involve catapulting birds. But the browsing experience stinks -- jeez, do the web pages have to reload every single time I go back to a tab? The touchscreen makes it incredibly easy to activate some unintended button or field on the webpage, causing a long delay while you try to get back to where you were.

And typing is im-freaking-possible. If you can't use the machine for so simple a task as writing, you can't use it for computing.

At the moment, I am at my desktop, doing several things at once -- writing a blog post, researching said post, listening to some music (Kurt Atterberg is the greatest composer you never heard of) -- and pretty soon, I may fire up Photoshop to put together an illustration.

Some folks will tell you that these activities constitute "power computing." No. It's just...computing. And you can't do them on any tablet, not all at once. You need an old-fashioned desktop system.

Why, then, have PC sales slacked off? Will Oremus, writing in Slate, offers the explanation that makes the most sense to me: Computers have gotten too good. Why upgrade when you already have what you need?
In the past, you had to replace your computer every few years or else it would become hopelessly bogged down trying to deal with the latest desktop applications, operating systems, and Internet technologies. But thanks to Moore’s Law, your average PC’s processing power now exceeds most people’s daily needs by a healthy margin. Meanwhile, the rise of the cloud has reduced the need for extra memory.
Take my situation. I haven't upgraded my 'puter since -- what was it? 2009, methinks. Sure, I've heard the siren call drawing all gadget buffs to the more powerful modern systems. I'm feeling the itch, but I lack the scratch.

So one makes do with what one has. What one has is a system that used to be fairly impressive: A fast dual-core CPU, a nice Gigabyte mobo, and 8GBs of DDR2 RAM.

Of course, the tech heads who write for Tom's Hardware will try to convince you that you need an i7 3770 CPU with 32 gigs of RAM just to open up Notepad. But the truth is that the tower buzzing next to my left foot will probably suffice for years to come, at least in the realm of 2D graphics, which is my main "power" use. Photoshop still zooms along just fine even when several gargantuan files are open, and even when there's a YouTube lecture running on the second monitor.

The machine even suffices for video creation, although elaborate motion graphics really do warrant the above-described i7 dream system. I've been editing a rather elaborate HD video on this machine, and many sequences require color correction, glitzy effects, tricky transitions, and up to eight layers of video. True, this production is in "poor man's HD" -- 720p -- and playback sometimes stutters. But the job can be done.

Decades ago, I noticed that there was no destination my brother could reach in his new Corvette that I could not reach in my ugly, aged VW bug.

We have entered a world in which consumer electronics boast specs that, not long ago, were considered "pros only" territory. And the consumer doesn't really feel much need to go pro.

Take, for example, that camcorder headin' toward yours truly. (Naturally, I've researched the hell out of this thing.) The Canon HF M50 is a consumer model, yet it has the same sensor used in some of that company's professional machines. The main differences between the pro camcorders and the M50 are these: 1. The pro camera will probably have interchangeable lenses while I must make do with Canon's built-in lenses (which everyone says are terrific) 2. The consumer camcorder makes you go through an annoying touch screen to get to the manual controls, while a pro camera will place more of those controls on the body, in the form of buttons and doohickeys. 3. The M50 cannot deliver something called 4:2:2 color, which is too complex a matter to explain here, and which is not really that important. (Yet even a consumer camera can output 4:2:2 color via one of those cheap new external recorders, which I probably never will buy even though they're cheap.)

Pro or no-pro, the final image is 1920x1080, which would look just fine projected at the local bijou. At least one theatrically released action movie was shot with a camcorder worse than my forthcoming prized possession. The footage looks good. I saw that same camera sell on ebay for about $150 bucks.

So camcorders are better than ever -- yet these wonder machines are, I'm told, having a rough sales year, just like the PC. Why? Because most consumers don't need to buy a device which -- if wisely used -- can create an image that more-or-less passes for Hollywood.

Your iPhone has a video camera. If all you want is a few shots of your kid's birthday party, you don't require another piece of equipment.

Similarly, the makers of desktop computers and laptops must learn that today's machines have become really, really good -- better than most people need. They do not require replacement every few years. Maybe once a decade. When you buy a high-quality raincoat, paintbrush, coffee table or carpet, you're investing in something built to last. So too, now, with computers.

Here's another reason PC sales have slowed: Windows 8 blows like a tornado and sucks like a black hole.
I read the same, or a similar, article this morning and thought about writing a post on it too. You've said it all better than I am ever likely to.

It's "horses for courses", as they say in the racing world. No way I could type even the simplest blog post on anything but a proper keyboard. If I didn't want to blog or play with basic photo-editing software, maybe then I'd find a hand-held device would be enough. We use a laptop when travelling, don't possess any other gadgets, just 2 desktop PCs and a basic cellphone between us for emergencies. Old fashioned, we are!

I don't see PCs disappearing for at least another decade, maybe not even then for commercial use.
The only snag, these days, is keeping up with operating systems. Didn't fancy Vista. Windows XP will not be supported after this year; already there's conflict with some browsers and websites. Rather than buy Win 7 (which I'm told is the last OS designed for desktops), and mess around putting it put on my almost 5 year old Dell, I searched for a new desktop with Win 7 installed- not many around now, they're all pushing Win8. Bought one several weeks ago in case they are snapped up -but it's still in its box. That one should see me out, 'til I shuffle off. ;-)
Twi, W7 is THE way to go right now. Still the greatest operating system ever created.

If you purchased a computer with W8 pre-installed, I would have (on this ONE occasion) considered you morally justified in deciding to wipe the drive and replace the OS with a not-quite-legal version of W7. After all, you paid Microsoft some $$ when you bought the system, right? Might as well have a product that works.
Gaming consoles are still the X-Box 360, the PS-3 and the Wii. Consumers seem quite pleased with their performance. That should tell you something because gamers were always hard core about graphics.

The only hardware upgrade I'm looking at for my AMD box is a solid state drive to speed up load times.

A lot of business software still in use was written for Windows XP, office people are running on W7 machines in emulation mode. I hear it sucks.
No - I did dig around until I found a Win 7 desktop - will open the box and investigate the new OS soon.
Have to be in the an annoying creature of habit, slow to wish for change (except in US politics!) :-)
On the camcorder question, have you considered getting a digital SLR and using for video? It's all the rage these days, esp for documentary stuff. There are Canon and Nikon models you can find on special for 500-600
michael, I've researched the DSLR thing. It's intriguing. But when exchanging labor for kit, I take what's on offer. And 500-600 bucks means rather more to Mr. Poverty (a.k.a., moi) than it does to some other people.
When the iPad came out, it just seemed to me like a solution in search of a problem. I can see where it could be useful in some domains (Riverdaughter swore by hers as an electronic lab notebook), and it seems to work passably well as a portable movie viewer (although it's rather hard to stabilize on an airplane).

Dr. Mrs. Propertius, fangirl of all things Apple, briefly looked at an iPad as a portable computing device for use while commuting to classes for PhD #2 (she's also a fangirl of mass transit), but found it inadequate to the task (even with an added keyboard): IOS Pages can't do footnotes, bibliographies, or tables of contents (it's pretty much designed just to write short letters). A MacBook Air was faster, more powerful, and (quite surprisingly) cheaper, lighter, and more portable (by the time you priced out all the doodads that would have been necessary to make it even marginally usable).

My boss has an iPad. It lives in a hinged aluminum case with a built-in Bluetooth keyboard. He has essentially converted it into a not-very-well-constructed, underpowered laptop.

As for me: well my laptop *is* a very powerful i7 configuration - but the it's running multiple virtual Linux virtual (where the real work gets done) - one of which is currently emulating a 1500 node supercomputing cluster (albeit much slower than the real thing).
Prop: That last paragraph -- you were TRYING to get me hot, weren't you?
Looking at the spaghetti mess inside my latest box, I'm thinking of getting the wire cutters and doing a little pruning. Wonder if I should turn it off first.

Something somebody should try, use a Windows 7 upgrade disc on a Windows 8 computer and see what happens. I had Win 7 beta running on an old Athlon Thunderbird mother board with 1 gig of ram, it worked.
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