Oct 29 2012

An Expandable PC

Recently, there’s been this idea that we’re in a “post-PC” era. That the PC is no longer relevant, it’s all mobile now. I’d argue that the most “PC” PC I’ve ever had is my phone: it’s a computer I have on my person at all times. And while I agree that our PCs are now these hand-held devices, I’ve always loved having my monster desktop ready to crunch all computing challenges I could throw at it.

As computers have gotten smaller, we’ve also seen that desktop computer performance doesn’t need to improve any more. When friends ask me what to look in for a laptop, I tell them the processor and such don’t matter; look for battery life, weight, and quality of input devices (keyboard and trackpad). We just don’t need more power to answer our email, click on Like buttons, watch cat videos, and fill out spreadsheets. The power on hand-held devices, however, is starting to reach that threshold where it’s adequate to do everything as well.

So when I see other people mention the same ideas bouncing around in my head, I’m sure we have to be getting close:

Jeff Atwood:

Our phones are now so damn fast and capable as personal computers that I’m starting to wonder why I don’t just use the thing I always have in my pocket as my “laptop”, plugging it into a keyboard and display as necessary.

David Pierce:

I can drop my Series 7 tablet into a dock, add a Bluetooth mouse and keyboard, and connect a monitor — poof, I’ve got a full-fledged dual-monitor setup going. When I want to go somewhere, I just pick the device up out of the dock, and walk out the door tablet in hand.

This is exactly what I want. I love my smartphone, because it’s always with me. And I love my desktop because it’s so much easier to type on a full keyboard, have decent speakers, and use multiple big monitors. I don’t necessarily need the giant Tower part in the middle1. What if my phone or my tablet was the computer at my desktop, with all the useful peripherals plugged into it?

Microsoft’s Surface and Windows 8 feel like a prime candidate for this experiment. It’s still got Windows, so I can still do my usual work of testing in browsers, writing code, playing with git, and the like. There would be no obstacles to productivity even, since I’ll be using my laptop and monitors. And then, when I’m done, and want to go into the living room, or hang out in Starbucks to get my people dose for the week, I can just pick it up and go.

I realize that many people have been doing that with laptops for years, but I have never been impressed by it. I certainly don’t bring my laptop to the couch to casually use between commercials. And it’s extra space that is needed means I need more space (and a power cord) when I leave the house. Plus it weighs at least double, more like quadruple what a tablet weighs.

The Surface is now out, and while it remains to be seen if it is the right fit for this expandable PC, it certainly looks like the closest product yet. We’re not too far away from a time when tablets replace everything.

  1. I do, actually, since I compile code, and run massive test suites, and I don’t want those going any slower than they do. Plus, gaming. 

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