7 ways the PC changed forever in 2012

microsoft surface lenovo yoga raspberry pi computing changes in 2012 pc‘Tis the season for retrospection: that little lull between the holidays and the bright new year; those special few days when it’s only natural to look back at the highlights (and lowlights) of the weeks gone by.

This year, you couldn’t talk about PCs without talking about tablets and smartphones in the same breath. Seemingly every headline touted the impending mobile future while poo-pooing PCs as nothing more than relics of a more sedentary past. Here’s a reality check: as stagnant as PC sales were in 2012, computers still outsold slates by far. And not a single analyst expects tablets to topple traditional computer shipments any time in the foreseeable future.

In other words, rumors of the PC’s imminent demise are greatly exaggerated, and key events in the past 12 months could have tectonic consequences on the computing landscape for years to come. Here are the major events that rocked the PC world in 2012 and could send aftershocks a-quakin’ in the days and weeks ahead.

Windows 8: Microsoft’s move to mobile, or a complete flop?

Love it or hate it, the release of Windows 8 was easily the biggest computing story of 2012. By now, we all know about Live Tiles, missing Start buttons, and the operating system’s touch-friendly Modern-style apps, all of which are major departures from the traditional interface found in the beloved Windows 7 and its predecessors.

Less talked about are the substantial under-the-hood improvements Windows 8 brings to the table, which may explain why the operating system has landed with a dull thud – though not quite an outright flop – in the market. Microsoft claims to have sold 40 million Windows 8 licenses, though that number includes sales to corporations (which may not upgrade immediately) and PC manufacturers themselves, not just consumers. But consumers and analysts alike say that the public just isn’t chomping at the bit for Live Tile-packing PCs.

Five years from now we’ll hail Windows 8 as the momentous release that it is. The question is, will we remember 2012 as the year Microsoft kicked off its mobile ambitions, or as the year the Windows exodus began? My bet’s on the former, but time will tell.

Snuffing out SOPA

Something truly unprecedented shook the Web to its core early in the year when some of the biggest sites on the Web – including Reddit, Wikipedia, and Google – joined forces to display prominent statements or black out their pages completely to protest two controversial pieces of U.S. legislation: SOPA and PIPA.

In a nutshell, the bills got everyone in a tizzy because they were vaguely worded and could potentially be used to censor websites with little to no judicial oversight. Oh, the fact that big brain types like Vint “Father of the Internet” Cerf said that implementing the technical requirements in the bills would break the security of the Web’s DNS system didn’t help either. In the end, the bills ended up shelved indefinitely. Score one for the Net – for now.

One day later, U.S. feds (with the help of the New Zealand police) cracked down on Megaupload.com for copyright violations, seizing its servers and arresting its operators, leading many to wonder what the government even needs a bill like SOPA for if it can unilaterally crack down on website owners on the other side of the world as-is. Since the raid, many aspects of the Megaupload search and seizure have been deemed illegal by New Zealand magistrates, and the country’s prime minister personally apologized to Megaupload’s owner, Kim Dotcom, after it was revealed that government agencies illegally spied on him.

Microsoft wades into the hardware fray

Though this is only tangentially a computing topic, as the Surface tablet is a mobile product, Microsoft’s decision to compete directly against its manufacturing partners on store shelves has sent shockwaves throughout the entire PC ecosystem. In response, several manufacturers shelved or delayed plans for Windows tablets of their own, though only Acer would say as much in plain terms.

The awkward part: Microsoft blanketed the world in those glitzy dubstep-esque Surface ads, drowning out the ad efforts of its launch day partners.

The more awkward part: Those ads seem to have worked. A top Windows mobile advertising firm says that the Surface RT tablet is far and away the single most-used Windows 8/RT device.

The even more awkward part: In a letter to Microsoft shareholders, CEO Steve Ballmer said that the Surface won’t be the last device Microsoft makes. “There will be times when we build specific devices for specific purposes,” he wrote.

Lenovo topples HP for the #1 spot

This one’s a bit inside baseball, but there’s no doubt that Lenovo toppling HP and ending its rival’s six-year reign as the top PC manufacturer is nothing short of momentous. Perhaps more meaningful for the future is the way Lenovo and Asus are enjoying surging sales while American companies like Dell and HP are basically in free-fall, losing market share in the double digits in the third quarter.

That poor performance in the consumer market has prompted both U.S. companies to shift their focus to enterprise endeavors. They’ll have to battle Lenovo’s entrenched ThinkPad brand in the enterprise sector, but that’s beside the point – I think.

Hybrids hit the scene

The appearance of Windows 8 might not have breathed new life into the sluggish PC market in the way manufacturers hoped, but one bright spot has emerged from Microsoft’s new finger-friendly operating system: the rise of hybrid machines that blur the line between tablet and laptop, converting between form factors on the fly to meet your at-the-minute needs.

Thanks to their size and heft, most Windows 8 hybrids fall firmly into the “laptop first” camp; the display and thickness of devices like the Dell XPS 12 and Lenovo Yoga are petite for a laptop but gargantuan compared to proper tablets. Windows RT devices like the Surface and the Asus VivoTab take the opposite approach. They’re designed primarily for tablet usage, then up their productivity chops when necessary with the help of detachable keyboard docks. Regardless of which you prefer, the new-look Windows is forcing manufacturers to rethink their hardware in new-look ways, and hybrids are redefining what “PC” actually means. And that’s a good thing.

The rise of the mini PC

Hybrids aren’t the only devices shaking up the PC ecosystem. PCs went pint-size in 2012, with the arrival of several new products capable of delivering perfectly acceptable – if a bit underpowered – performance in a package small enough to fit in the palm of your hand.

Even better, these itty-bitty PCs sport matching itty-bitty price tags, which is the whole point of the Raspberry Pi, aka the mini-PC that started the current craze. With its accessible hardware, swappable operating systems, and low $25 to $35 price point, the Raspberry Pi Foundation envisions its computer introducing a whole new generation of youngsters to programming and computer science. The whole thing was designed to make it as appealing as possible to schools across the globe.

Several other mini PCs made their grand entry once the Pi kicked the door open for this smaller, slimmer form factor. APC’s Via 8750 follows the Raspberry Pi’s “open board with multiple ports” design; but perhaps more intriguing are the so-called “On a stick” PCs like the MK 802 II, and FXI’s Cotton Candy (which is still in a developer-focused beta stage). These USB drive-shaped devices pack a full computer and simply plug into a monitor or HDTV, making it a snap to bring your own personal PC with you no matter where you go.

Though these mini PCs have only been in the public eye for less than a year, they’re already improving rapidly. Newer versions (like the MK802 III) sport dual-core processors and discrete GPUs that give them performance on par with mainstream smartphones. Moore’s Law says even more potent mini PCs should arrive in short order.

AMD and Nvidia slug it out in the battle for graphical supremacy

Finally, the battle for graphical supremacy heated up in 2012. AMD landed the first punch of this GPU generation with the Radeon HD 7970, which immediately claimed the single-GPU performance crown when it launched at the beginning of the year.

Nvidia kept silent and bided its time. In May, a full five months after the release of the Radeon HD 7970, Nvidia unleashed the GeForce GTX 680, a graphics card that stole the performance crown back from AMD and did so for a sticker price $50 less than the high-end Radeon that sold for $550 at the time.

Most years, that would be the end of it – but not in 2012. Rather than hanging its head in shame and vowing to do better next year, AMD instead relied on its months of live testing data to release the Radeon HD 7970 GHz Edition, a souped-up version of the regular version with a boosted core clock. Though the card is louder and more power hungry than the GTX 680, it’s as stable as the sun and as good – or better! – than its Nvida counterpart in virtually every performance aspect.

Why does that matter? It’s simple: AMD simply hasn’t been competitive with Nvidia’s top cards from a performance standpoint for more than half a decade. Competition’s a good thing for consumers, and the Radeon HD 7970 GHz Edition gives us new hope for a graphically intense future of gaming … assuming AMD manages to stay afloat in the future, that is.