PCs in decline? Not for enthusiasts


— 5:19 PM on January 26, 2012

Have you read the tea leaves? The PC is an endangered species, doomed to obscurity at the hands of tablets, smartphones, or whatever new computing device happens to be the flavor of moment. That's the future being foretold by all too many so-called analysts. If you walked the halls of CES a couple of weeks ago, you might be inclined to agree. Smartphones and tablets were on everyone's lips.

Then again, they don't call it the Consumer Electronics Show for nothing. The PC has never been the primary attraction there.

Just being at a convention like CES is enough to see that the PC's mindshare isn't what it used to be. The overall computing market is growing, and desktop PC sales appear to be steady and perhaps even growing, depending on the source one consults. Still, the PC's slice of the overall pie is diminishing, as smartphones and tablets claim more share. Smartphones have become ubiquitious, with everyone seemingly itching to trade up to the latest model. Tablets are the hot new thing, and they're quickly wooing consumers away from notebooks. Notebooks had it coming, though; they've been stealing attention from traditional desktops for years.

If the the PC's spot in the techno-limelight is diminishing, desktops have it particularly rough. So, what of our enthusiast community, an admittedly small niche within the desktop population?

In a lot of ways, we're better off than ever.

The more time I spend with my smartphone, tablet, and notebook, the more I appreciate the good living we enjoy on the desktop. Our systems are highly configurable, infinitely flexible, plenty powerful, and easily upgradeable. Rolling your own desktop might cost a bit more than the latest techno gadget, but that's money well spent if you're going to take advantage of the platform's unique characteristics.

 

Building your own system is much easier these days, making the DIY route more accessible than ever. Modern cases offer spacious internals loaded with tool-free amenities and enough cable routing options to allow even novices to put together tidy systems. You might not agree with the aesthetic sensibilities of every enclosure on the market, but there's something for all tastes—and, finally, several really good options for smaller form factors like Mini-ITX.

If building a PC from scratch is the first step toward becoming a bona fide enthusiast, then overclocking is stage two. You're in luck, because pushing clock speeds has gone from being a black art reserved for experts to something that can be accomplished quite literally with the push of a button. MSI's latest motherboards feature an OC Genie button that overclocks the CPU automatically. Other motherboard makers offer similar functionality in their firmware or Windows software, bringing overclocking to audiences that might have been too intimidated to experiment with manual adjustments.

Old-school overclocking is still the best way to squeeze the most out of your CPU, and it, too, has benefited from years of steady refinement. The UEFIs and tweaking apps we have today are light years ahead of what was available just a few years ago. Having OC-friendly CPUs helps, too. AMD and Intel both offer several models with fully unlocked upper multipliers, the holy grail of hassle-free overclocking.

Seasoned PC enthusiasts have long been familiar with Black Edition and K-series CPUs, and it seems mainstream users are starting to catch on. A friend of mine just ditched his two-year-old Dell for an NCIX-built PC with a Core i7-2600K. I wouldn't classify him as an enthusiast, and he's never overclocked, but he looked at the incremental price difference and figured he might as well have the option of turning up the multiplier. Apparently, he's not the only one. While meeting with Intel during CES, we were told the company was surprised by the strong sales of its K-series CPUs and high-end Sandy Bridge chipsets. Intel wouldn't discuss actual numbers, but it recently started selling "protection plans" for overclocked CPUs. Never has the chip giant been this accommodating of those who defy its prescribed clock speeds.

While not quite as impressive as the old Celeron 300A, Sandy still has ample overclocking headroom. I've had my 2600K running at 4.7GHz with aftermarket air cooling—nearly 1GHz faster than the chip's Turbo peak. Exotic coolers are another hallmark of enthusiast PCs, and the rise of all-in-one liquid cooling solutions has added to a landscape already teeming with traditional heatsinks in all shapes and sizes. Some of the factory-assembled liquid units available today are good enough that I'd recommend them to a newbie who has never swapped out his CPU's stock heatsink.

Performance was the prime motivator for PC enthusiasts in the early days. With plenty of horsepower now at our disposal, we've devoted more attention to lowering power consumption and noise levels. Improving power management schemes continue to reduce the amount of heat that must be dissipated during idle periods. Fan control intelligence grows ever smarter, and contemporary fans are much quieter than the piercing turbines of my youth. Some enclosures use rubber to dampen vibrations and foam to absorb sound waves, resulting in a new breed of stealthy systems that operate in near silence.

The fact that budget components are just as enthusiast-friendly as their high-end brethren is especially gratifying. Trickle down is a wonderful thing. In a sense, so is the consolization of the gaming industry. As much as I'd like to see developers focus on exploiting the power of cutting-edge PCs, having them target anemic console hardware means that the $600 Econobox in our system guide can handle the latest games with the eye candy cranked at decent resolutions.

If you have the budget to spend more, higher-end graphics cards are capable of driving massive displays, multi-monitor arrays, and stereo 3D configs that make consoles look like child's play. The PC world is brimming with more affordable luxuries, too, like springy mechanical keyboards, insanely accurate mice, and pitch-perfect sound cards. SSDs are probably the ultimate in attainable enthusiast accessories right now. Wicked-fast system drives can be had for less than the cost of a mid-range graphics card, and with the recent spat of BSOD bugs and botched firmware releases, you can feel like you're living dangerously on the bleeding edge of technology.

Desktop PCs continue to offer the most personalized, powerful, and ultimately premium computing experience around. Even curious noobs should have no problem putting together a slick system, providing a path for the enthusiast community to grow within the desktop ranks. As a pragmatist who favors the best tool for the job, I won't lament having to share the computing market with PC alternatives. Grandmothers and other users who do little more than surf the web, write emails, and pretend to be friends on Facebook may ultimately be better served by oversimplified devices they can take everywhere. At the very least, the migration of these casual users to more restrictive platforms will decrease the number of tech support calls PC enthusiasts have to field from friends and family. That alone would have me cheering the dire outlook for the desktop PC, if only I believed in it.

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