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Alive and Booting: 8 Reasons The PC Still Matters

Many, including Apple's Tim Cook and Steve Jobs before him, believe that we're entering a "Post-PC era" where smartphones, tablets and cloud-powered thin clients like Google's Chromebooks will eliminate traditional computers. Sales numbers seem to back the desktop-deniers as the most recent Gartner report shows Q2 PC shipments 0.1 percent lower than they were at the same time last year. So this week, when Microsoft COO Kevin Turner said that we're actually in a "PC Plus" era, he raised a few eyebrows. 

But if you think the PC is going anywhere, I have three words for you: tough touch screens! Turner's right. For most of us, PCs will remain the bright star at the center of our digital solar system for a number of reasons.

1. The Cloud is Not Enough

As William Wallace once said, "they may take our Start menus, but they'll never take our freedom!" When Apple and IBM launched the first real consumer and business PCs in the late 1970s and early 1980s, they ushered in a new era of electronic empowerment. If you wanted to use a real computer (not a hobbyist kit) before 1977, you needed access to a system the size of the Batcave, complete with switches, blinking lights and lots of reel-to-reel tapes.

The PC allowed home users and small businesses who could never afford a mainframe to perform key tasks like word processing, crunching numbers and even gaming, without being tethered to a larger system. Now, because of the ubiquity of the Internet and broadband services, many expect us to turn back the clock to 1976 and rely on other people's servers to do all the heavy lifting. No way.

Cloud computing will be a key part of the future, but it can't replace the need for strong local hardware and software. When you want to edit photos or videos, you don't want to wait for them to upload first. When you need your most precious data, you need it now, right in local storage. And if your Internet connection goes down, your ability to perform key tasks shouldn't go with it.

Even mobile device makers are starting to realize the limitations of cloud computing. Most new Android devices run on dual or even quad-core CPUs and, in its latest OS, Google made its voice recognition available offline. 

2. Diversity of Form Factors

Like the Wonder Twins, the PC is constantly changing shapes. While horizontal desktop cases were all the rage in the 1980s, today they are sitting in the closet under a pile of CRT monitors. Whether you want a tiny stationary computer the size of your hand, a giant tower, an all-in-one, a notebook or the IdeaPad Yoga that folds into a tent shape, you can get a PC that runs the same software and OS.

With Windows 8, launching this fall, we will see even more PCs taking the form of a slate, but running the same OS at the same level of power and productivity as clamshell or desktop forms. Meanwhile, in the Apple ecosystem, if you want a tablet, you must use iOS, not OS X. You may be able to an Android desktop or notebook if you look hard enough, but products like the off-brand 7-inch Android 2.2 netbook are few and far between.

3. PCs Are Best at Multitasking

Mobile operating systems are terrible at multitasking. iOS and Windows Phone won't even let you run some apps in the background and, even on Android, you have to hit a number of keys (home or recent apps) to switch between open tasks. But so-called desktop operating systems like Windows and Mac OS are designed to help you look at different pieces of information at the same time. 

Writing an email to the boss and need to look up some numbers in a spreadsheet to send him? No problem. You can put the Excel and Outlook windows right next to each other or switch seamlessly between them by clicking on a taskbar or dock icon. You can even watch a video in another window while monitoring a video transcode in a fourth and conducting an IM chat in a fifth.  Try that on your iPad!

Even with Windows 8's tile-based Metro interface, you can dock two apps next to each other for improved task switching. Microsoft also seems to realize that Metro just won't cut it for serious multitaskers as it automatically puts the desktop on any second or third screens you attach.

4. Keyboard and Mouse Beat Finger and Screen

Sure, it's fun to swipe through photo galleries with a finger or pinch the screen to zoom in and out on a web page, but when playtime is over, you need a real physical keyboard and a pointing device to get work done.

Looking for work? Try typing your resume on your tablet's virtual keyboard and see if you get the job after autocomplete changes your master's degree into a mistress degree.

Working on a term paper? How fast can you hunt and peck through 3,500 words while looking down at the virtual buttons, rather than at the text itself? Yes, you can get external keyboards for most slates, but they just don't measure up to the serious typing experience you get with a desktop or notebook keyboard.

If you need to crop a picture, you can use your fingers to draw a box around the area you want to include, but the minute you start working with layers, masks and filters, you need to whip out the mouse or touchpad. 

And do you really want to edit your doctoral dissertation on a 10-inch screen? By the time you attach a screen, keyboard and mouse to your tablet, it takes up more room than the average notebook and becomes less portable.

5. Upgradability

Wish your tablet were faster? Throw it in the garbage and buy a new one, because there's nothing you can do about it. However, if you want to upgrade your PC, chances are very good you'll be able to dramatically improve it through upgrades. 

If you have a notebook, you can almost always get in to change the storage drive and RAM, breathing new life into an older system. On a desktop PC, you can change everything from the storage drive right down to the motherboard and power supply. Imagine a business with 50 aging computers that switches them to SSD in order to delay replacing them for another two years. That's huge.

In the ultimate upgrade, you can even build a new PC entirely from parts, something I do for myself every year. You'll pry the screwdriver from my cold, dead, static-wrist-strapped hands.

6. Hardware Compatibility 

If you want to hook your iPad or Android tablet up to a printer, you'll find a number of wireless units you can connect to. But what happens when your office still has a LaserJet 5P from the first Clinton administration? And what if you need to connect to a scanner, point-of-sale system, or ancient serial-port device? With a current PC you can connect to even some of the oldest and most obscure devices through the miracle of adapters and drivers.

7. Developers Use Them

After a PC-pocalypse wipes desktop operating systems from the land, where will all the apps come from? Try developing an app on your tablet. I double Davlik dare you. 

All of the development kits for Android, iOS, Windows Phone and even BlackBerry OS run on the desktop, not phones or tablets. To program for iOS, you must have a Mac, but a Windows PC is the best place to program for all the other major mobile platforms. Besides, even if you could program directly on your tablet, would you really want to page through a thousand lines of code on a 10-inch screen?

8. Sales Figures Don't Tell the Story

This week, everyone's groaning about the Gartner report, which shows a microscopic drop of just 0.1 percent in PC sales from Q2 of 2011. But, when you look beyond the headlines, you realize that PCs are still more popular than tablets.

First of all, the tiny drop in sales would really be growth if not for a few challenges that were unique to this spring's market. Because Intel delayed the release of its new Ivy Bridge platform until late in the spring, most new notebooks and desktops were delayed as well. There were also a number of users waiting for Windows 8.

Second, when you get past the percentages, you see that the PC vendors still sold a whopping 87.5 million units worldwide last quarter. That's not exactly the mark of a dying technology

Finally, you have to realize that new PCs' biggest competition comes not from tablets but from older PCs. If you have a three-year-old Core 2 Duo system running Windows 7 and it still runs all your software competently, you probably don't feel compelled to run out and buy that new Core i5.

However, if you don't have a tablet yet, there's a much bigger incentive for you to go out and buy a new gadget you don't have yet than make an incremental upgrade to something you already own.

The official Geeks Geek, as his weekly column is titled, Avram Piltch has guided the editorial and production of since 2007. With his technical knowledge and passion for testing, Avram programmed several of LAPTOP's real-world benchmarks, including the LAPTOP Battery Test. He holds a master’s degree in English from NYU.