Monday, July 17, 2017

Week of 07/17/2017

In Defense of Desktops
I’m here to speak up about a tireless old friend who has been a part of my life for over forty years now.  In fact, it has been a part of many of our lives for over a generation now.
I’m talking about the desktop computer.
I remember the day when Apple’s personal computer went by the name of “Lisa”.  When the Macintosh was the original all-in-one system and had no color to it.  When you could buy a “tower” or a “mini-tower” for around $2000, and data was stored on these weird square things called “floppy discs”.  When there were numerous variations of an operating system called “DOS”.  When social media was called “Prodigy” or “CompuServe” or even that new-fangled service called “America OnLine”.
Looking back, we’d see these things and say that they sucked.  But back then, this was seen as “the future”.  I should know, because I lived it.  This was my world.
A few years back, I had bought not one, but two HP desktop mini-towers from the nearby Best Buy store for about $435 each.  Each have 8 gigabytes of RAM and a 2-terabyte hard drive along with an AMD processor and graphics.  They were a great deal at the time and they’re still in service today.
Now, in the past, computer systems would continually grow and expand.  Hard drives would get larger, RAM space would get bigger, processors would get faster, and prices would get lower.  It was the manufacturing version of Moore’s Law.  In theory, what cost me $435 two years ago should cost $335 today, and paying $435 today should get me something with more RAM, a larger hard drive, and better processor and graphics that my current two-year old system.
And yet... I’ve noticed in my recent trip to that same Best Buy store that computer prices for desktops have somewhat stagnated, and what they offer have actually gone downhill. 
I could not find my “great deal” computer on those same shelves today.  Where once there were rows after rows of desktop computers, there were only a handful of “all-purpose” desktops, and none of them could match the RAM or hard drive capacity of my two-year-old system, and yet they cost slightly more.  The shelves that used to showcase a variety of desktop computers are now filled with “all-in-one” desktops, laptops, netbooks, and a few super-expensive “gaming” desktops.  Even the gaming computers, with the obscenely-overpriced processor and the 16GB of RAM and the equally obscenely-overpriced graphics card that pushed the dollar value over the $1000 mark only had a 1-terabyte hard drive. 
It seems that Moore’s Law is no longer applicable at least when it comes to desktops.
What the hell, computer makers?  Desktops used to be the mainstay of personal computers, and now you’re treating them like relics of a bygone era.
Keep in mind, of course, that we’re talking about the non-Apple computers.  The almighty Apple has always lived in its own little world, with their cultist iSheep that will wait in long lines to buy anything with an Apple logo on it that will be more expensive than it needs to be.  No, screw Apple.  We’re talking about HP and Dell and Levono and Asus and Acer and all the other names that used to fight over which mini-tower desktop would prevail in the stores.  These are the ones that seem to be giving up on the general mini-tower desktop system.
I get that the world is moving towards laptops and all things Internet.  Tablets are all the rage, as well as smartphones and smartwatches and smart TVs to do all the work for dumb people.  Microsoft is tripping over themselves with the idea of portability so much so that they’re making stupid mistakes that are worthy of their own article.
I know what “the dream” is for many of these tech companies.  “The dream” is to have a cheaply-made-but-expensive-to-buy system that will have everything accessible through the Internet.  All the files, all the music, all the videos, all the photos, and even all the operating programs would be available through the Internet, so all you would need is a simple device that would access them flawlessly.  It’s a nice dream.  It’s not my dream, of course, but it still is a dream for someone looking to make money.
However, the Internet is not perfect, nor is it available all the time.  Providers can fail.  Some utilities worker can cut a fiberoptic cable half-a-continent away, and you’re offline until they decide to fix it.  You can pay for a service today and tomorrow have it be out of business and all of your stuff is suddenly gone.  Or some greedy corporate exec will decide that your free or relatively inexpensive online service is “no longer fiscally viable” and opt to stick you with obscenely-high subscription packages.  (Pay attention, Photobucket!)  Malware and ransomware attacks have been on the rise lately, so imagine all of your work suddenly locked up in some encrypted nightmare and the host company decides to not pay the ransom, or there is no ransom and the data is digitally destroyed.  Let’s not forget the hackers and all the data they collect and sell from things in “the cloud”.  Remember “The Fappening”?
Let’s also not forget that we have the United States Department of Justice firmly believing that anything... *any-thing*... that is out on “the cloud” is theirs for the taking, no warrant needed.  So all of those documents that you put “on the cloud”, all of the videos and photos and songs that are out on virtual servers, they’re all fair game for prosecutors to grab without any due process or constitutional safeguards.
To quote the very President who is in the White House because of the Internet... “it’s a mess.”
This is where the netbook fails.  The netbook is not a laptop.  It may look like one, but it’s nothing like a laptop.  A netbook has just enough storage space for the operating program so you can access the Internet.   It’s an Internet-only device and it is only as good as your connection to the Internet.  If your connection fails, or if you’re in a dead zone with no WiFi, then the netbook becomes an expensive paperweight.  This is something that Microsoft fails to recognize with their Surface tablets. Nice looking systems.  Expensive as hell.  But if you don’t have a connection, then they are an expensive form of useless.
And that’s the truly dangerous part of this subject... computer makers and retailers are blurring the line between a netbook and an actual laptop computer.  If all you’re looking at is the price, and that seems to be all the retailers want you to see, then you could be buying a netbook instead of a laptop and not know it.
Oh, but that’s okay, right?  If it has a USB connection, you could always plug in an external hard drive if you need the extra storage space.  And you can add an external Blu-Ray player if you can’t do the digital download.  And you can put in a mouse if you don’t like the touchpad.  And you may need a USB hub to accommodate all of those USB devices.  But then it’s not portable now, is it?
Or... you can buy an actual laptop computer, which you could operate without the Internet and has most of those things.  Or you can buy a desktop which has all of those things built-in.
But what about those all-in-one systems?  Those look nice, don’t they?  Not as many cables to worry about.  No space to set aside for a minitower and speakers.  Just a monitor and mouse and a keyboard.  Yes, they look nice.  Everything you need is right there in front of you, all compacted in one device just like the original Macintosh systems... but minus the plastic iFruit colors.  This is perfect for businesses or libraries or a classroom where space would be a premium.
There’s just one problem: if something in there fails, then the whole thing fails.  If the monitor goes bad, or the hard drive is bad, or if the RAM goes bad, or if the integrated graphics card fails, then the whole thing is now an expensive form of useless.
At least with a minitower desktop, that kind of problem would be an easier fix.  If the monitor goes bad, then you buy a new one.  If the hard drive goes bad, then you can replace it with a new one.  If the graphics card fails, then you can have a new one installed.  You can even upgrade your components without having to buy a whole new system.
And *there* is the catch, my friends.  If the laptop goes bad, or a netbook goes bad, or an all-in-one system goes bad, then you have to buy a whole new device; not just one component.  You can’t just “fix” it.  Anyone who is in tech support will tell you that it will cost you more to fix one of these things than to get a whole new device.  And none of them are cheap.
So it’s reasonable to presume that the gradual winnowing out of your all-purpose minitower desktop has nothing to do with trying to copy the iCult of Apple and everything to do with getting the maximum amount of money from the masses that can’t afford to be part of the iCult of Apple.  It’s a dream more of greed than of technological progress.
Let’s get brutally honest here… computer makers are selling people short if they think they can nudge out the desktop computer.  We still need them!  And we need them to be just as competitive as your latest notebook or netbook or all-in-one system.
Every family that has a home network system through their Internet provider needs at least one desktop to serve as a base station.  If the WiFi goes down, you still need something that is physically connected to the router to see where the problem is.  Is it the router?  Is it the modem?  You won’t know if all you have are a home full of netbooks and tablets and not one device with an ethernet jack to it.
The Internet is not that reliable… at least not right now… so you still need someplace to store your photos and songs and videos and documents that you can access readily and are not just stored on some server in Helsinki that was just compromised by a ransomware program, or put under an expensive paywall by some greedy corporate exec who thinks that you’re not a “viable model” to service.  The cloud storage model is a good model for backup in a pinch, but it should not be your first and only backup!
And because photos and videos are getting larger and more detailed, that requires far more storage space.  And that’s why I’m upset that the computer makers have stopped making desktops with hard drives larger than 1 terabyte.  The technology is there today – as of this column’s posting date – to put a 10-terabyte drive into a computer.  My question is, why aren’t computer makers doing it?  Two terabytes should be the bare minimum right now for the cheapest desktop they make, and they shouldn’t even insult people with a 1TB drive for a gaming system!  If I’m paying over a $1000 for a gaming system I better be paying for more than just a bunch of overpriced brand names!  Yes, I’m talking about you, Intel and Nvidia!
The trend of late has been to provide computers with a 1TB drive and then throw in a solid-state drive as a backup to that.  Again, this is more of a greed decision instead of a tech one.  Solid-state drives are essentially large RAM chips, which make them expensive as hell.  They’re great for a backup of your operating system and a few key programs, but it doesn’t replace the need for additional space for everything else you value, like your photos and videos and music.  I would rather pay for a computer with a 4TB hard drive than one with a 1TB drive and a 500GB SSD.  The former is a far better value.
Computer makers should be looking at the automotive industry to see how to handle changes in tastes and trends.  Yes, in the 1990’s, auto makers, along with the federal government, launched a slick campaign to get people to buy those ugly oversized gas-chugging Sport Utility Vehicles.  But they didn’t stop making minivans just because they wanted people to buy the SUVs; nor did they stop improving the minivan just because the urban assault vehicle was the latest-greatest overpriced “gimme” toy on the market.  They continued to improve the minivan and add as many of the newest features as they could.  Because the automakers knew that there still be a need for the minivan, even if the SUV was bringing them the big money.
This is where the computer makers like Dell and HP and Lenovo and Asus and Acer should be thinking.  Yes, the trend is portability and all things Internet.  Make things smaller and accessible online.  The netbook and Microsoft’s Surface and laptops and the all-in-one systems are the SUVs of computers.  But the desktops are still the minivan workhorse, and these should not be neglected in the corporate obsession for profit at all costs.

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