Your Smartphone Is A Better PC Than Your PC Ever Was Or Will Be

Despite having spent the 2000s turning the generic term "PC" into a pejorative stand-in for "Windows", Apple may be selling the best PC on the market. It just happens to be the one that fits in your pocket.

Our goal at Lifehacker, as stated in the page title, is to cull together "tips and downloads to help you at work and play". (It was previously a much cooler but presumably less Google-friendly, "Geek to live; don't live to geek.") So why are we talking about smartphone categorisation semantics?

Namely because a significant portion of what we've always covered involves using technology to make your work, your play, and your life better, richer, and more productive. For years, that meant focusing on desktop PC operating systems like Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux. Increasingly, it involves mobile (phone) operating systems like iOS and Android (and sometimes others). The more we've covered them, the more we've realised that your desktop PC and your smartphone really aren't all that different. Except one is a whole lot better at performing personal tasks.

Smartphones Are PCs...

When you strip away the advertising and consider the term "personal computer", you're left with a pretty broad term that easily applies to today's currently huge smartphone market (including iPhones, Android phones, webOS devices, BlackBerrys, Windows Phones 7, and so on.) Wikipedia's article on the personal computer defines the PC as "any general-purpose computer whose size, capabilities and original sales price make it useful for individuals, and which is intended to be operated directly by an end user with no intervening computer operator". (Ignore the woefully outdated section on Pocket PCs.) Point is, smartphones easily meet the generic requirement for being classified as PCs.

...only they're more personal...

There's not much room for interpretation on what "computer" means. The tautologous answer is "anything that computes", though we can stick with Wikipedia's more specific definition of a computer as "a programmable machine that receives input, stores and manipulates data and provides output in a useful format".

On the other hand, if we focus on the whole "personal" aspect of the PC, there's certainly more room for interpretation. And from a computing perspective, what's more personal than a gadget that:

  • ...comes with you wherever you go
  • ...knows where you are
  • ...is always connected to the internet
  • ...handles every form of electronic communication short of Morse code (oh wait)
  • ...recognises your voice and reacts accordingly
  • ...doesn't just spellcheck, but corrects your typos

And so on.

Your smartphone's like HAL; your desktop's Deep Blue. (Don't look too far into that analogy—I'm sure it'll break down—but you get the point.)

...and do nearly everything better...

While desktop or laptop PCs are capable of performing most of the tasks mentioned in the list above in one way or another, most often than not they're not default features, and more importantly, today's smartphones do them better.

It's always with you: You've heard the saying "The best camera is the one you have with you"? The same is true for PCs, and in this case, it's your smartphone. (Ignore for a moment the fact that your smartphone is often the camera you've got with you, too.) Most of us don't have the physical endurance to lug a laptop around everywhere we go, and even if we did, pulling it out every time you want to check your email is a pain most of us aren't willing to endure.

It knows where you are: Even better, when you pull out your smartphone to start using it, it quickly identifies where you are and uses that information to inform nearly everything it does for you. (I've also used both iPhone and Android as dash-mounted GPS devices and have never been disappointed.)

It's a great communicator: One of the most personal things we do is communicate, and your smartphone, surprise, is a great communicator. Voice, text, pictures, video—it spans media and medium in a way your desktop never has.

It listens to you: Most smartphone OSes come with at least some form of voice recognition, and it'll only get better. Android phones are currently at the top of this heap, allowing you to use your voice to fill in any text input on your device, search the internet, navigate to anywhere, play music, etc. I've tried really hard in the past to use voice recognition on my desktop and have always been a little disappointed. That hasn't been the case on smartphones.

In fact, if we're considering the "personal" part of "personal computer" to apply more to those things above than to—I don't know—filling out spreadsheets, smartphones perform most PC tasks better than your desktop PC. And compared to the relatively stagnant desktop market, the smartphone market is overflowing with great ideas—both in theory and execution. (Small tweaks to desktop operating systems aside, when's the last time you remember your desktop take a significant leap toward doing something truly innovative or life-changing?)

...except for a few things

It would be crazy not to admit that desktop computers do some things better, and there are some things you still can't do on smartphones.

Namely, right now desktop PCs are better for work. They're better for typing. They're better for manipulating large data sets and for heavy computation. They're better at multitasking. They're better at creation.

But that's all changing. You can, for example, connect a Bluetooth keyboard to a lot of different smartphones, so when it comes to simple word processing, these small devices can work really well. (For what it's worth, though, some smartphone software keyboards are really good. I think I can type on an iPhone keyboard nearly as quickly as on my desktop.)

Yes, you can also criticise smartphones (in the same way the iPad is criticised) for being consumption devices rather than creative devices. Leaving aside the fact that I now semi-regularly draw on my iPad (versus never anywhere else), it's not a criticism without warrant. And creation is a big part of what makes PCs great. But I wouldn't count out your smartphone's creative capacity just yet.

The thing is, smartphones get better at all of this with every OS release and every new hardware iteration. Almost everything that desktop systems do better will, in time, improve on your smartphone. You'll be able to handle serious computational tasks, if only via the cloud. (This already happens, but will happen to a greater degree.) You'll be able to plug it into a monitor or project onto a wall and get the screen real estate and (potentially) the multi-window environment you need.

I'm not saying that the desktop PC is dead (proclamations that institutions are dead are far too common in the technology sphere). But from a personal computer standpoint, your smartphone is doing things your desktop only wishes it could do. (Or, you know, things you wish your desktop would do.)

This whole train of thought may seem apropos of nothing (as someone who writes on the internet, you learn that it's important to peg your thoughts on news if you want anyone to care-this isn't one of those articles), but the smartphone I carry around in my pocket is the the best PC I've ever used, and I suspect I'm not alone. Here's to continuing to hack away at it and make it even better.


Comments

    +1

    Having moved from a dumbphone to an iphone 3GS early this year, I would agree that it has changed a lot in how I email, 'google it' anywhere and generally more connected. I can never go back.

    However the desktop I have at home can run crysis :P
    Its probably a sign that our devices are becoming more specialsed to fulfill certain roles and requiremnents

    Um, yeah. Leaving aside the point that you said "Leaving aside" about a billionty times, I disagree completely with your argument. I sit here typing at my desktop, 3 24" screens attached to it (gogo Eyefinity), with forty or so tabs open, email clients, every Office program, and two different full screen persistent-world games running. The monster on my desk is part production engine, part document creator, part server and part entertainment machine. All at once, with performance headroom to spare.

    The point is that there are niches here that your analysis tramples all over. What about large-screen gaming? And that critical, but elusive factor -- immersion? Until I have in my hand a device with the sheer horsepower to handle proper realism in graphics engines, and display that at high resolution, I'll keep my desktop, thanks. And I find that I am *much* faster on my laptop keyboard than my Desire's soft keyboard.

    Horses for courses. And there are some that do, and will always, require massive reserves of performance on tap. Desktops offer that, no other platform does.

      I find it interesting that you wholly disagree with the stated argument, but only offer niche use cases that don't fit it.

        What, a multi-billion dollar gaming industry on PC is niche? Content creation is niche? You could not accomplish anywhere near the same amount on a 20inches. Also, the performance required for encoding/decoding is a factor.

        And, um, you know, Office? Full fat, complete feature set, and the advantage of a proper keyboard and screen real estate = PC > phone for basic productivity. One could not plausibly argue that one could conduct a full time business or run a corporate office from a smartphone.

        Moreover, the desktop market is not "stagnant", it is stable and mature. Consumers and developers know what PCs (laptop and desktop) can do, and what people use them for. Stability and integration across devices and platforms is far more settled on the PC platform than it is in the mobile space. And even the most casual of glances at the volume of software titles (and, the accessibility of amateurs to programming on that platform) for PCs -- and the rate of development -- would inform the objective observer that the PC is occupying its niche comfortably. It's just that the boundaries are being redrawn (slightly), and whole new territories of device use are opening up as smartphones proliferate.

    Yeah of course they are better than a 'Win' PC.. Of course the ability for companys/bigbrother to 'revoke/remove' software from your phone is a nice feature too.. Honestly it's just for trojans/virus's; not for illegal apps; or modified programs.. Didn't see any mention of a kill switch.. Nice article missing such a great 'feature' item.. Apple, Google, M$ would never use such an item for their own profit..

    search for own or here is a prepared link for a start
    http://www.pcpro.co.uk/news/security/362485/microsoft-details-windows-phone-7-kill-switch

    Then again; I'd rather use open source than closed source code from such trustworthy companys.

    Completely and utterly disagree. @Dain touched on most of the points. The simplest is that smartphones are first and foremost phones, not "general purpose computers".

      Well said Kato! Phones first, then everything else.

      Another obvious limitation is battery life. Phones cannot be always-on devices *and* be mobile, because they need to charge at a fixed point and are for that time immobile. Hence, even if the network infrastructure, cost and processing requirements of *hosting* content on a mobile device (or platform) were waived, the limits of battery technology mean that the value of mobile devices in a server-esque role is negligible. The above is true for laptops and tablets as well.

      One might counterpoint that the cloud is a good substitute for local hosting, but I would point out that then your hosting capabilities are limited to whatever some company can make money from. Google docs is not free without advertising revenue, Dropbox is not free for anyone who would sign up without some people paying for the premium service. I'd rather be in control of my own domain, thanks. Data privacy becomes a concern also -- the host of cloud services can see a great deal about your life from the data you upload to them, which is concerning in itself.

    …except for a few things: namely everything anybody uses a PC for.

    I think that smartphones are just those mini pocket PC or the mini netbooks with a calling application

    I have pretty much 86'd my PC and am using my smartphone for EVERYTHING... It's been a couple months since I used it. I had a Desktop PC and a netbook, but then ditched my PC because I only used my netbook, but then I got my Android Smartphone and rarely fire up the netbook... I have a feeling the smartphone will eventually kill the traditional PC.

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