Smartphones and tablets were supposed to kill the PC, starting with the static, unnecessary desktop and moving onward to the battery-deficient and cumbersome laptop. Of course, we know that didn’t happen. Laptops now morph into tablets, the battery life improved, and our smartphones now exist as just another notch — albeit an ultra-portable and increasingly more powerful one — in the greater computing continuum. The post-PC era never happened because we refused to stop using the PC.
At CES, it’s become clear that not only are laptops alive and well, but the desktop is back with a vengeance. In particular, the all-in-one is seeing a kind of creative renaissance wherein once-boring hardware makers like Dell and HP are now putting out some of the most interesting and desirable desk computers to date. By combining high-quality monitors with advances in engineering and design, these machines are proving the value and potential of the category, refuting the idea that mobility is paramount.
These devices serve both broad and niche purposes, for general consumers, gamers, and artists alike. And thanks to the rise of virtual reality and the surge in 4K video, there’s now a stronger appetite for high-end components and extravagant displays. These computers may not be bestsellers, but they are nonetheless pushing the market forward and introducing ideas that may become unquestionable staples when costs come down. They also act as an exception to the idea that the modern PC is nothing but an appliance or “furniture,” as The Verge’s own Walt Mossberg argued back in October.
It’s necessary to note the role of Apple’s iMac in this conversation. That desktop was once the standard bearer of the all-in-one, mixing elegant design with enough power and hip aesthetic to become the coveted signature product of graphic designers, video editors, and other creatives. The iMac remains top-of-class, but it now has to contend with an ever-expanding, more aggressively updated group of Windows all-in-one PCs.
Microsoft’s Surface Studio, announced last October, established a strong consumer appetite for a well-designed, art-focused all-in-one PC that could combine Apple aesthetics with the freedom of Windows. It put Windows, and the desktop especially, on the map for creatives. Now here at Las Vegas, we’re seeing other PC makers follow suit, with all-in-one and other desktop experiments that prove the category is still capable of breaking new ground.
At CES, PC makers have built on the idea of the Surface Studio to iterate further. Dell’s new Canvas, which it showed off at its press event yesterday, is not a desktop. Instead, it’s a peripheral system that combines a drawing tablet and a color dial called Totem. It’s essentially a Surface Studio without the PC innards — or a Wacom Cintiq if you’re looking at it from an accessory perspective. It combines with an existing PC to create a multi-display work station.
Dell is positioning the Canvas not as an accessory you’d plug in when you need it, but as a way to permanently augment an existing PC setup with the best parts of the Microsoft’s new all-in-one. “The future is where multiple panes of glass surround you in the workplace,” Dell’s Sam Burd, the company’s executive vice president of its client product group, said at a CES press conference yesterday.
We’re also seeing PC makers tackle a the same challenge as Dell’s Canvas from the traditional all-in-one angle. Dell’s new XPS 23 is catering to musicians and music lovers with a built-in 10-speaker system that the company claims is two times louder than an iMac. But the device’s more interesting, understated feature is a 4K touchscreen option. When combined with a display stand, the XPS 23 can lie almost flat on a desk surface. A capacitive 23-inch 4K screen that can shift below 90 degrees offers all sorts of interesting possibilities, both for digital artists and anyone who’s interested in fast, two-handed touchscreen computing.
HP is focusing less on the art crowd and more on the gaming, entertainment, and productivity sectors with its latest Envy all-in-one. The desktop now features a 34-inch 3440 x 1440 curved display for what might be the most immersive consumer all-in-one out there. The screen doesn’t come with a 4K option — that would likely have increased its price tag to an unreasonable level. But for $1,799, the new Envy marries all the best concepts and luxuries of the desktop in a relatively affordable package.
None of these machines would seem to have the universal clout and please-everyone approach to displace the iMac, not yet at least. Apple will also update that all-in-one likely to take up its mantle desktop, considering the Mac Pro hasn’t been updated in more than three years and Apple discontinued its Thunderbolt display line.
But these Windows all-in-one’s illustrate the increased relevance of the desktop in the mobile era. Consumers, more than ever before, are hungry for powerful machines — for art and virtual reality and gaming. And hardware makers are realizing that a nondescript tower next to a forgettable display pales in comparison to well-designed single machine that represents the ideal of the modern work station.