The growth in computing power and battery life for phones and tablets has left traditional PCs and desktops searching for an identity. This has forced manufacturers to reexamine the form, functionality, and purpose of PCs overall and desktops in particular. If a tablet can do what once required the power of larger systems, do desktops even have a place in the market?
PC sales continue to decline, so perhaps a natural conclusion is to write off the whole category. Instead, manufacturers are capitalizing on the size and power of specialized desktops, with machines that tackle specific tasks and audiences and give traditional systems a reason to stick around. They may not reach the sales numbers seen during the golden age of PCs, but the business is there.
One roadblock for Windows machines is that Apple long ago claimed skilled creators—photographers, graphic designers, artists, engineers, and animators—who need big-screened, lightning-fast systems for artistic and data-crunching work. The first Intel-based iMac in 2006 in particular cornered the market on professional and home-office use.
Microsoft and its partners have only just started to respond. Windows systems have long been seen as stodgy and business-facing, but Microsoft’s Surface line and other increasingly slim and sleek Windows systems have helped to reverse that in recent years. But despite the addition of some pretty impressive all-in-ones, non-Apple desktops are still waiting for their savior.
Apple could be accused of stagnation under Tim Cook, and while I’m not so quick to blame the man himself, you can make a case that we’ve mostly seen iterative upgrades through his reign. As such, Cupertino’s control of the personal computer space is waning.
The MacBook Pro line is notoriously slow to update, and for the most part, the once-revolutionary iMac has merely decreased thickness and increased screen resolution for several generations. Apple has drawn a clear line between its touch-based mobile operating system, iOS, and its computer OS, macOS, with no plans to combine the two. They might work together, share a payment system, and take advantage of top-notch integrated software, but the company clearly sees them as two separate platforms.
The new MacBook Pro’s Touch Bar is a step in that direction, but if anything, it feels like an effort to relegate touch functionality to a corner of the experience. By contrast, those sleek Windows all-in-ones often incorporate touch control while adding little to their capabilities.
Microsoft Surface Studio
Enter the Surface Studio. Its use of touch technology will—for now, at least—most set the Studio apart from the iMac. This stunning 28-inch desktop does not simply include a touch screen but embraces it as a core part of its design. Not only does it look gorgeous, with an all-aluminum body and the world’s thinnest display (inspiration was undeniably drawn from the iMac itself), but it goes right for the jugular in terms of audience.
I was in attendance when Microsoft Corporate VP of Devices Panos Panay debuted the system. He especially wowed the crowd with the Studio’s flexible hinge, which allows you to fold it down nearly flat to serve as a natural drawing surface. In this way, the touch screen calls out to designers and artists, offering something cool and genuinely useful.
As such, it serves as your large high-res monitor, powerful processor, and digital canvas all in one, which has advantages. For one, you don’t have to buy multiple devices to do the same job, and you may in fact end up saving money despite the Surface Studio’s high $2,999 starting price.
Regardless, the Surface Studio is a remarkable achievement in engineering and could very well be the innovation needed to revitalize the market. Apple’s comparative lack of imagination is surprising (and disheartening for longtime users, to be sure), and it might just lose the company a large chunk of the creative market.
Microsoft also made a very savvy marketing decision by featuring kids and young teens in its initial presentation. PCMag’s Sascha Segan has written about this in greater detail, but children were shown a lot in the Windows 10 Creators Update portion of the show. Microsoft is not only aiming its premium desktop and entire operating system at creatives, but the company is also including tools and software meant for children. They’ll feel welcomed by Windows from an early age and won’t associate digital creation only with Apple. It’s a very smart strategy and key in linking the present to the future.
Will 2-in-1s Save PCs?
It remains to be seen whether the Studio will truly spark a sales turnaround and light a fire for the PC market. This isn’t entirely wishful thinking, though: The Surface Pro line had a measurable impact on the PC space. Two-in-ones have consistently shown the best growth in PC sales even as overall numbers have declined, and that’s largely due to the appeal and success of Microsoft’s device.
Other manufacturers have followed suit with sleek convertibles and detachables of their own. Products such as the Lenovo Yoga 900S, Acer Aspire Switch 11 V, and HP Spectre x360 15t occupy different parts of the 2-in-1 spectrum in terms of price and functionality, but they aim for the appealing combination of portability, touch, and power. And Microsoft stands to benefit either way as more users embrace its software platform.
Additionally, Dell unveiled the Studio-like Canvas at CES in January. It has some key differences from the Studio (primarily that it’s not a PC in and of itself but rather a huge horizontal touch-and-drawing display that connects to a computer), but they aim to achieve the same goal for creatives on Windows. The Canvas was in development alongside the Studio, so it’s not a direct reaction to it; and both Microsoft and Dell stand to benefit if this concept takes off.
With the right execution, the Surface Studio may succeed as the Surface Pro did before it. And its descendants will be adopted by a whole new generation of artists, graphic designers, modelers, animators, architects, and game designers. We’re looking forward to seeing how it shakes out.