World’s Smallest Gaming Desktop! Wait, Do We Still Need Desktops?

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Remember what Charles Ingalls used to call daughter Laura on Little House on the Prairie? That’s right, “Half Pint.” Those two words popped into my brainpan when I got a look at Alienware’s new X51, something it calls its “smallest gaming desktop ever.”

Not that it’s the smallest desktop I’ve seen. There’s stuff like the Lenovo Q180 weighing in, the wild world of “desktop replacement” laptops, of course, and trumping them all: Apple’s Mac Mini.

But Alienware’s going to claim this is a big deal because it’s a gaming desktop, by which they mean it comes baked with an Intel Core i processor (your choice of i3, i5 or i7), an Nvidia GeForce GT or GTX graphics card, 802.11n wireless, HDMI 1.4 (think 3D TVs), USB 3.0 and 7.1 audio support. The version with an i3 processor, GeForce GT 545, 4GB of memory, a 1TB hard drive, dual-layer DVD-RW and Windows 7 Home will set you back just under $700.

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There’s my Alienware plug out of the way, so here’s a question that’s been with me since my Looking Forward to 2012 roundup: Do we really need dedicated desktops in 2012?

I’m an older-school PC gamer who dove in during the i386 era and started hand-building gaming PCs back in 1994. Desktops used to be the center of my universe. I loved pulling them apart and putting them back together — amateur hour compared to what real engineers do designing the chips that go on the boards that sit inside these things, but more satisfying (and cost-effective) than buying prebuilt gear bogged down with mediocre components and shovel-ware. (Also: That extracurricular fiddling got an English major a gig as a systems engineer with the world’s largest railroad.)

But that was 1994 (through 2008, give or take). With one or two exceptions (I’m looking at you, The Witcher 2), I haven’t played a game that needs half what my last PC was capable of outputting in frames-per-second for years. The last major PC game that had hardcore rig-tweakers in a tizzy was Crysis, which takes us back to November 2007 (and, in part because of its   steep system requirements, Crytek’s first-person alien-buster was a flop, sales-wise).

A huge swathe of PC gaming is now done on casual or social sites like Facebook, Pogo and Kongregate. Factor in online roleplaying games — the lion’s share of PC gaming’s remainder — and from 2005′s World of Warcraft to 2011′s Star Wars: The Old Republic, the target hardware demographic (in terms of performance) tends to be years behind the curve. Watching Intel, Nvidia and AMD annually attempt to foist $500 to $1,000 processors on a dwindling core gaming audience…it’s like someone trying to convince you to drink from a fire hose.

Desktops have a library of foibles: They take up space under (or on top of) your desk. They’re totally unusable without discrete keyboards and displays. They consume a lot of power. They’re the antithesis of movable, tethering you to one location when the watchword in 2012 computing (and beyond) is “mobile.” And here’s the kicker: If you compare price and performance based on what you actually need to run program X or play game Y — I keep coming back to games because unless you’re Pixar they’re the high-end performance benchmark — a laptop more than gets the job done for the same amount of money. Look at Alienware’s own M11x gaming laptop lineup, then keep your eyes on the upcoming wave of gaming-angled ultrabooks.

Just to be clear: This isn’t a tirade against the keyboard and mouse. Those two work fine with laptops (and various tablets) and I’ve yet to see an interface that’ll replace them — haptic tools, motion-recognition, voice-controls or otherwise — when it comes to manipulating stuff like 3D editing software or playing real-time strategy games and first-person shooters (where lightning-fast, pixel-precision accuracy is required). I’m just saying “take a look around at what’s going on.” Tablet sales are taking off. Smartphones are through the roof. Laptops now routinely outpace desktops. And assuming tablets don’t short circuit the arrival of ultrabooks, expect those to put another nail firmly in the desktop PC’s coffin this year and next (Gartner says all-in-one PCs sold well this holiday where ultrabooks barely made a dent, but that’s primarily a consumer awareness issue at this point — expect that to change as ultrabook prices fall below $1,000).

I sold my last desktop in December. I bought and filled its black, tower-sized metal frame with bleeding-edge hardware in late 2010, then upgraded (a new motherboard and processor) in 2011. Truth be told, I played two, maybe three games on it. The rest of the year I spent on my Xbox 360 and PS3 (scratching the “big screen” itch), the 3DS and PSP, my iPhone 4, my extended family’s iPad 2, or playing PC games on my MacBook Air in Boot Camp mode. Next up: A new MacBook-whatever with a zippy AMD graphics processor, a shift to something like Alienware’s next iteration of the M11x, or perhaps Razer’s fascinating LCD-keyboard-rigged Blade.

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Matt Peckham is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @mattpeckham, Google+ or Facebook. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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