Is the Desktop PC Dead?

A look at how even with falling sales, desktops are still relevant

Home office desk

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For much of the 1990s and 2000s, it wasn't unusual for people to upgrade their computers every two or three years or so. They had to—not only were laptops comparatively rare and bulky in those days, but software requirements advanced so significantly that hardware specs grew in tandem.

The First-Wave Market

desktop computer system
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Because more and more families and businesses bought computers in that time period, and because computers became obsolete faster, annual sales of desktop computers skyrocketed.

But starting in the early 2010s, the trend line changed.

Changing Hardware Needs

When Microsoft released Windows 95 in 1994, it required an Intel 486-class processor, 4 MB of RAM, and 40 MB of disk space, a big step-up from the minimum requirements to run MS-DOS 6.22 or Windows 3.11.

  • Windows ME, released in 2000, recommended a Pentium-class processor of 150 Mhz speed, 32 MB of RAM, and 320 MB of disk space.
  • Windows XP, released in 2001, recommended a Pentium-class processor of 300 Mhz speed, 64 MB of RAM, and 1.5 GB of disk space.
  • Windows Vista, released in 2007, recommended a processor with 1 Ghz, 1 GB of RAM, and 15 GB of disk space.
  • Windows 7, released in 2009, and Windows 8, released in 2012, and Windows 10, released in 2015, all use the same recommended system specs as Windows Vista.

Put differently, for nearly 15 years, four different major iterations of Microsoft Windows required a doubling or more of hardware resources. After 2007, hardware requirements didn't increase. The pressure to upgrade or else vanished.

A similar logic governs Linux-based computers, but not Macs. Apple vertically integrates hardware and software, and older Apple hardware is hard-coded to not support new operating systems after certain developmental milestones.

Changing Form Factors

USA, New Jersey, Jersey City, Man using tablet pc, laptop and smartphone
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The leveling-off of hardware requirements, alone, meant the drive to upgrade lessened. But simultaneously, starting in the early 2010s laptops became powerful enough, portable enough, and cheap enough to meet most people's routine computing needs. Some people therefore gave up desktops in favor of laptops.

In the mid 2010s, newer hardware meant that iPads, Android tablets and the Microsoft Surface line of two-in-one tablet computers offered equal or nearly equal capability to a laptop in a substantially smaller form factor. Some people even ditched laptops for Windows tablets, or even ever-more-powerful smartphones.

The Modern Desktop

Today, the multiplicity of form factors has led to a differentiation of use cases for each type of device. Tablets and smartphones are good for on-the-go connectivity, but they're not effective for complex work. Laptops are good for normal work, but most aren't optimized for games.

Desktop computers bring a handful of unique benefits that, although they don't appeal to everyone, still offer a benefit that suggests that this form factor won't go away anytime soon:

  • They're easily upgradeable, with removable parts.
  • Because they're always plugged in, they support processors that are less power efficient but much more capable than their mobile counterparts.
  • Because portability isn't relevant, they can support larger devices like dedicated video cards and several hard drives.
  • They're easy to classify, making them great for corporate IT departments to manage and track.

So, is the desktop dead? Hardly. It's no longer the only game in the consumer-computing market, but this form factor still has a ton of life behind it.