PhotoFor the first time in five years, sales of personal computers (PCs) did not go up during the holiday season. International Data Corporation (IDC) reports worldwide PC shipments totaled 89.8 million units in the fourth quarter of 2012, down 6.4 percent compared to the same quarter in 2011 and worse than the forecast decline of 4.4 percent.

Maybe it's not surprising. After all, mobile computing is now the rage. Consumers are doing their computing on the go, using a wide variety of tablets and smartphones that didn't exist just a few years ago.

The boxy desktop computer, and even its cousin, the laptop, appear to be unloved in this new environment and maybe even a little old-fashioned. And to make matters worse, consumers continue to report problems with their PCs that their tablets don't seem to have.

Problems

Celita of Keokuk, Iowa, reports a problem with her Dell laptop right out of the box.

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"When I turned it on it said it was doing thousands of updates," Celita wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. "So I let it run. The second day, it was still doing updates, so I called Dell. Dell says it should not be doing it, but let it run."

Despite that, she said the machine never finished updating and never operated properly and that customer service could provide no help.

H.L., of Los Angeles, reports a new Hewlett Packard PC, lightly used for web surfing, lasted less than two years. Cecelia of Brooklyn, N.Y., said her HP's hard drive failed after a year. In many caces frustrations like these prompt consumers to look at computing alternatives.

Does all this spell the end of the PC era? A lot of tech experts don't think so. Jeremy Laird, writing in Tech Radar last July, found the conventional PC proving to be remarkably resilient.

Industry is flatlining

"Sure, the PC is essentially flatlining as an industry," he wrote. "In the western world, refreshing the installed base rather than actual sales growth is where we're at. But that's very different from saying PCs are about to disappear.

From a software standpoint, Microsoft is trying to breathe new life into the PC with Windows 8, which features several departures from past operating systems, including a touch-screen function. But Windows 8 not only powers PCs but tablets as well, providing desktops and their more mobile laptop counterparts with some of the same features from the tablet world.

But not every PC user, apparently, is comfortable with that. Bill, of Burke, Va, said he bought a new Toshiba Satellite computer as a gift for his father-in-law as a Christmas gift. Though it came with Windows 8 pre-installed, he paid a computer store to downgrade the system to the more traditional Windows 7. He too, reports a bad PC experience.

"I didn't even open the box, just took it to the pros to do the install," Bill wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. "Out of the box, the G key on the laptop was broken. It works if you mash down on it, but it needs to be replaced, which can only be done by replacing entire key board for $140. It was under warranty but Toshiba refuses to do anything."

Betting on the PC

PhotoOne company that does not believe in the death of the PC is Intel, for decades a leader in chip design and manufacturing. It's invested recently in a line of sleek Ultrabook notebook computers and is currently developing a new processor that it says will improve computing and graphics features while using less electricity.

Xi3 Corporation is another company betting on the future of the PC, while trying to redefine what a PC is. At the just completed Consumer Electronics Show, it introduced the Z3RO Pro Computer, showcasing what it said is the future of small form factor desktop computing.

Tiny desktop

Unlike the boxy desktop, the Xi3's tiny chassis is the size of a typical paperback book, making it smaller than most tablets.

However, it's a computer designed for general computer use, including home and office environments, and is powerful enough for specialty applications such as digital signage environments and home theater use.

"The Z3RO Pro Computer is the ideal size for the ultimate in small form factor x86-based general computing," said Jason A. Sullivan , the company's founder and CEO. "In this post-PC era, it's clear that there's no reason to buy a tower or mini-tower computer ever again. Not only does the Z3RO Pro Computer help round out the Xi3 product line, it also marks the end of desktop computing as we've known it."

The tiny "desktop" is available with:

  • A dual-core 64-bit, x86-based processor running at 1.65GHz (with 2MB of Level2 Cache),
  • An integrated graphics processor (GPU) containing 80 graphics cores (or shaders),
  • 4GB of DDR3 RAM,
  • 16GB—1TB of internal solid-state SSD storage (with up to 12Gbps throughput speeds),
  • Two display ports providing maximum resolution of 2560x1600 (including 1 HDMI/DisplayPort v1.2 and 1 Mini-DisplayPort v1.2),
  • Four eSATAp 3.0 ports, and
  • 1Gb Ethernet port.

The computer ships standard with openSUSE Linux v11.2, but will also run an array of other x86-based Operating Systems, including Windows 8 and lower and other Linux variants. Perhaps best of all for consumers, it starts at $399.

Still kicking

Jay Chou, senior research analyst with IDC's Worldwide Quarterly PC Tracker, also doesn't believe the PC is on its deathbed. He said some of the fourth quarter's slow PC sales can be attributed to faulty marketing, with too much attention paid to Windows 8's touch-centric innovations and too little to other positive aspects of the operating system.

"As Windows 8 matures, and other corresponding variables such as Ultrabook pricing continue to drop, hopefully the PC market can see a reset in both messaging and demand in 2013," he said.


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