Is the Desktop PC Dead?

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

Home office desk

 Emilija Manevska / Getty Images

It has been clear for some time now that in the mind of consumers, desktop computers just are not popular. The ability to take a computer with you on trips, to and from work or school or just taking up less space in a household have made laptop sales larger than desktops for some time. With the rise in tablets the past couple of years, now there is even talk about falling laptop sales as well. So what exactly are the reasons that desktop computer sales, in particular, have fallen so dramatically?

Most people will likely point to the portability of laptops as being the primary reason that desktop sales are falling but we would argue that it is the price and performance gaps that are the prime culprits. Over the past couple of years, in particular, the efficiency of processors combined with multiple core designs mean that even low-cost desktop and laptops will often meet the needs of the average consumer. Does one really need four processing cores and super-high clock speeds in order to browse the web, read email, watch a movie or type up some documents? Desktops traditionally have more performance than laptops do, but when a low-cost laptop even with its lower performance than a desktop can do what you want it, there is less reason to get a desktop.

Pricing is also a big consideration now. It was often the case that laptop computers were much more expensive than a desktop computer. While this tends to be true at the higher end of the performance segment, at the lower segments, one can find a laptop computer that costs as little as a desktop system and maybe even less and still have the ability to do the average tasks of a consumer. Just look at some of the items from our best low-cost laptop and best low-cost desktops lists that we maintain. In both cases, systems tend to fall around $500. In terms of the desktop, you will still need to purchase a display which will add about another $100 to the cost of the system. If both can meet the needs of the average consumer, many will elect for portability over the extra performance they likely won't use.

While desktop sales may be down, they are not going to disappear from the market anytime to be replaced entirely by laptops or tablets. Instead, they have a changing role in the home environment by becoming specialized systems. In some cases, buying a desktop can be a great decision because they offer performance and features that no portable computer is able to match. Some of these roles include:

Home Servers

Laptops and tablets are great for being mobile but their limited size makes them so they have less storage space for the data that we consume. Movies, in particular, can take up a huge amount of space. A tablet typically will only have between 16GB and 32GB to store everything it needs and with high definition screens, this can be just a handful of high-quality movies. Desktops still rely on traditional hard drives that offer a huge amount of storage space. The typical desktop now comes with a one terabyte drive and it is possible to even have four terabytes in a single drive. Add to this the ability of a desktop to have multiple drives in it and it can be a huge repository for storing applications and there is more than enough space to hold data that would be used by other laptops and tablets in the household.

Gaming Systems

PC gaming is very different from that of the console gaming world. Here performance makes a huge difference. Most PC games can reach resolutions that consoles can't even dream of let alone the detail they can present. Laptop computers are becoming much more capable but the cost and size of them make gaming models much less portable than one might think. Besides, a laptop computer has very little that can be upgraded on it including the graphics system which on a desktop is quite easy. Because of all of this, desktops are still the best option for those looking to play PC games over their mobile counterparts.

Media Centers

With the rise of streaming media services and digital video, the ability to store one's entire media library on a computer system that can be hooked up to a home theater system is a very compelling option. There are lots of consumer devices out there that can access many of the streaming services but the flexibility of the desktop system with a full operating system means that it can quickly adapt to new services and features without replacing entire components. In addition, it can be matched up with being a gaming system for a large screen high definition gaming experience as well. The best part is, media centers don't require much performance so they can often be used with older computers adapted for the task.

Video Editing

Digital video editing is one of the most demanding tasks out there in the computer world. With the rise of high-definition video recording and the ease with which digital effects can be added, more and more people now have access to tools that once required large dedicated machines. As these are very intensive computing tasks, high-performance processors, large memory and storage are all key elements in reducing the amount of time that decoding, encoding, and rendering take. While high-end laptops can get these jobs done, desktops still can do them much faster which is great for those that don't want to waste time.

These are four examples of areas that desktop computers still hold an advantage over laptops. Over time, these distinctions are likely to erode more but the price and performance gap will still exist such that desktops still hold an advantage. Improved engineering is also helping the systems continue to stay relevant without being the monster sized systems that they once were. More and more small form factor systems are being developed as a way to keep the high performance but make the systems less obtrusive so that they can easily sit on a desk behind a screen or in a home theater cabinet.

In fact, one segment of desktop computers is actually seeing a growing number of sales. All-in-one computers take the idea of small form factor computers and integrating them into the monitors themselves. This makes the ability to put a computer system in a kitchen, office, bedroom or living room much less intrusive to its surroundings. Some of them may use the same basic parts as a laptop but the majority of them still rely on specialized desktop parts to provide higher performance than laptop equivalents. And with the rise of touch-based computing from Windows 10, all-in-ones are garnering a greater level of attention from both the industry and consumers.