Should I Get A Laptop Or A Desktop Computer?

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laptop or desktopNew laptop sales have long since eclipsed those of desktop machines. But when buying a new computer, is it a foregone conclusion that you should buy a laptop? I say, definitely not. While modern laptops are very capable machines, going for a laptop shouldn’t be an automatic choice. Some users are better off with a desktop. Also, when getting a desktop you can either get a ready-made system, or carefully spec out and build your own custom rig.

Let’s look at the pros and cons owning a laptop or desktop. If you’re trying to decide what sort of machine your next computer should be, by the time you’re done reading this, you should have the answer.

Getting a Laptop

laptop or desktop

A laptop…

  • Is portable,
  • Has fixed peripherals,
  • Usually doesn’t have discrete graphics,
  • Has limited upgrade options,
  • Has a distinct identity as a product.

Some of these are really obvious, starting with portability of course. But having a computer you can lug around is only of benefit if you actually take it out of the house. So ask yourself: Do you actually need to carry this computer somewhere on a routine basis? If you really do, it’s a no-brainer. But many users get laptops only because they’re smaller, and don’t really take them out of the house. In which case, you might be better with an all-in-one desktop machine.

Fixed peripherals are the flip side of the portability coin. This isn’t often mentioned but it bears thinking about: When you get a laptop, you’re stuck with a specific screen, a specific keyboard, and a specific trackpad. That’s what you get. Yes, you can always plug in an external monitor, mouse, and keyboard… but then how different would it be from a complete desktop? Besides, even if you plug in external peripherals, the ones built into the computer are still there, cluttering things up (you’ll end up with two pointing devices, only one of which you use).

The lack of discrete graphics is only a con if you’re a gamer. If you don’t play graphics-intensive games on your computer, render 3D art, or mine Bitcoin, you shouldn’t really care about the lack of a graphics accelerator. Of course, some laptops do come with discrete graphics cards, but they tend to be expensive and heavy (so again, you need to carefully think if you really need the limited portability of a large, heavy laptop).

The bit about limited upgrade options is pretty obvious, and is a con, but a small one. On most laptops you can upgrade the RAM and hard drive, and that’s about it. To be fair, most desktop users don’t upgrade their systems during their lifetimes, so this isn’t a big consideration (unless you know with certainty you’re going to upgrade).

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Now, when I say it has a distinct identity as a product, I mean that your laptop is one specific thing. Let’s say you’re thinking of buying the System76 Gazelle laptop: No problem, you can just go find a System76 Gazelle Professional Laptop Review and read all about that specific computer. What’s the keyboard like, what’s the screen like, etc. That’s not something you can usually do with a pre-made desktop, and this is a definite plus.

Getting a Ready-Made Desktop Machine

which is better a desktop or a laptop

A ready-made desktop…

  • Is generally larger than a laptop,
  • Has peripherals you can swap out,
  • It’s not as easy to buy as a laptop,
  • Requires trusting your vendor,
  • Generally offers more powerful hardware for the same money,
  • Is a boring, business-oriented product.

For ready-made desktops, I’ll actually start with the last item first. These are incredibly boring products. You won’t find reviews of ready-made desktops on major tech sites, except when it comes to all-in-one PCs. On the plus side, this is pretty much your most affordable option for getting a new computer.

When I say “ready-made” I don’t mean a Dell or HP workstation that has its own model number. I mean the sort of thing your neighborhood computer store advertises in the local paper: A rig they’ve put together and tested, and generally offer for the cheapest possible price. For something like $400, you can find yourself with a perfectly serviceable computer running the latest operating system, including a screen and a cheap keyboard/mouse combo. It won’t be a beast by any stretch of the imagination, but it sure is cheaper than a laptop.

This is also where trusting your vendor comes in: Unlike a laptop where a large maker puts their reputation on the line, buying a desktop your corner shop put together really requires you to trust them personally. Did they really test the components? Are you getting what you paid for? It’s a much more personal affair, which makes it trickier to buy than a laptop. You can ameliorate this by going to a big-box chain (say, getting your computer at Office Depot or something like that), but then you’ll be paying a big-box markup for the machine, so there’s a definite trade-off more there. Your best bet would be going to a small corner shop that has a good reputation, even if it’s in another part of town.

On the other side of the ready-made spectrum are the all-in-one systems. If your primary motivation for buying a laptop is aesthetic, you should take a look at these. Just like laptops, they don’t have any unsightly cables, and they’re just one cohesive bundle. You’re also going to be stuck with the same screen they come with, and you’ll have limited upgrade options — again, just like a laptop. Think iMac, basically. The good news is that companies like Apple do take their all-in-ones seriously as first-class products, releasing upgrades like the new fusion drive. These are actually right in the middle between pre-made computers and laptops: They have their own identity and they occasionally do get reviewed, but not as often.

Building Your Own Custom Desktop Machine

laptop or desktop

Your own custom desktop machine…

  • Has only the parts you wanted it to have,
  • Takes hours and hours of research to pick the parts for,
  • Is generally powerful,
  • Can easily be as expensive as a laptop (or more),
  • Is entirely your responsibility in terms of performance.

This is my personal favorite, but that really doesn’t mean it’s best. It’s just right for me — I’ve been building my own machines ever since I was 15 or so, and it has worked out well so far. Depending on your temperament, spec’ing out a new machine can either be a very tedious process or an exciting one.

Here, too, having a reputable store to work with is immensely helpful: You don’t have to do it all by yourself. What I personally do is ask a store to come up with a powerful spec, and then individually review each and every part, researching for online benchmarks and alternatives, and modifying as needed.

If you want you can assemble the pieces on your own, but that’s really not a must: If you have the store do it (with the specific parts you picked), you’ll generally have a high-quality result. Of course, if you’re building it for fun (or building it into a table or a custom workstation), there’s nothing like putting it together using your own ten fingers.

Where’s The Bottom Line?

There isn’t one. Buying a computer is a very personal choice, and there’s no clear winner here. Maybe some of the points I made were painfully obvious to you (I hope so, because I didn’t want to miss the obvious ones), but I hope some of the others were more thought provoking, like a laptop having its own identity as a product.

What did you pick – a laptop or desktop, and why? What’s your next system going to be, and do you think desktop computers are really dying?

Image Credits:Decision via ShutterStock, laptop via ShutterStock, workstation via ShutterStock, circuit board via ShutterStock

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Comments (24)
  • Bryan Price

    I have built my own desktops for over two decades. My latest, I had to scrape together quickly, my previous five year old build had the motherboard failing to even POST, so I didn’t really get exactly what I was thinking about getting, but I still managed a quad core machine, while keeping my some of my old hardware. Too bad the 1.5 TB drive decided to not cooperate. Still using my old nVidia graphics card, monitors, web cam, speakers (two decades old, probably going on three now) and DVD writer.

    The next one, I still will most likely be building a desktop. I have 5 TB total disk space currently, so unless I migrate everything to a NAS, I just don’t see a laptop or tablet offering me that kind of storage, even in the next five years. I’ll be pleasantly surprised if it happens. I just don’t expect it.

    If I do go with a laptop, a Chromebook that I can RDP into my desktop might be the best thing for me. So, technically, that’s both.

    • Erez Zukerman

      Chromebook + RDP is brilliant really. I used to do a similar trick with an old Toshiba laptop I had: I’d RDP into my main machine from other places around the house. On a LAN, it worked amazingly well — felt just like I was working on my “main” computer. The only problem was that I use dual monitors, and the laptop has just one, so it would constantly mess the ordering of my windows.

      What happened to the 1.5tb drive? Did it get fried, or…?

    • Bryan Price

      Yeah, I had a Windows 2003 system set up. The kids would be running WOW, and I’d be running something else on it through the laptop I had at the time. They didn’t even notice.

      The 1.5 TB hasn’t completely died, but accessing it means that the drive is busy at times for close to a minute. Having the drive connected means that it happens at the most inopportune times, when Windows decides to touch it for some reason. I should mention that all of this was going on (the drive failing, the motherboard failing to POST) all as I was trying to install Windows 8 Consumer Preview. Only, because I bought a current motherboard, to run into the Sandy/Ivy Bridge bug that Windows 8 had at the time! Which is why I’m not running Windows 8 now. I’ve installed enough on this computer, I want to enjoy it!

    • Erez Zukerman

      lol, that makes sense re Win8. I do use it, and I must admit I’m not exactly a huge fan. I’m kind of scared to think what they’re going to be doing with Win9.

      I see what you’re saying about that hdd! Mega-frustrating indeed.

    • Bryan Price

      Oh, I forgot to mention that the drive isn’t showing any issues when I pull a S.M.A.R.T. report on it. Pulling the drive fixed things, so it’s certainly the drive. :/

  • Jeffrey Zabala

    I’m in the market for a new PC. I’ve owned 3 laptops in the past 12 or so years. My latest laptop has spent most of it’s life sitting on my desk and I’ve even connected a monitor to it as a 2nd screen. Seeing how much I use my phone and tablet away from home I don’t see much reason for shelling out the money for another laptop and don’t want a large tower either. My search has been focused on a small form factor tower. Something simple and compact, but good enough for everyday needs.

    I completely agree with your conclusion and the right choice is clearly up to the user and their needs.

    • Erez Zukerman

      For some reason I always find myself ending up with enormous towers, the kind that can take in seven HDDs or something ridiculous like that. I’ve never filled one up, but I did once have a PC with four separate drives.

      The thing with small form-factor is that you’re also a bit limited in your choice of motherboards, as they all have to be mini-ITX. Did you find a good board? Or are you just going to buy a ready box?

  • Boynton D. Knipple III

    If it was possible to build a laptop in the same manner as a desktop, that would probably be a game changer. But, that’s not the case, and it probably never will be feasible. The laptop manufacturers remember all too well how the desktop PC became commoditized.

    Building your own desktop also allows you to choose from a variety of operating systems that can be customized to specifically serve your needs and improve security. Finally, your DYI desktop WON’T be compromised by the manufacturer’s or vendor’s additions of annoying software that can immediately expose you to invasion of your privacy and a slew of malware.

  • Anonymous

    Good article, though I would disagree with you about the price. Recently, the prices of laptops & desktop systems have been pretty much the same, at least in the UK. Two additional points:
    Desktops tend to last longer than laptops, not necessarily because they are better made but because any major fault on a laptop (e.g. screen failure, motherboard failure) will lead to a very expensive repair, whereas on a desktop system you can usually just replace the component (perhaps with a new generation of same) and keep going.
    The other difference, and for many this is the clincher, is that desktop systems have much bigger screens. A laptop may have a 16″, 17″ or perhaps even 19″ on some monster machine, but even a modest desktop PC will have a 22″ screen, and 27-28″ is not unheard of.

    • Erez Zukerman

      That’s very true! I agree with both points (and even Liked your comment :) )

  • Chris Hoffman

    Warranty is a concern, too.

    I’ve always built my own desktops, but this can be problematic when something starts going on. If you build your own computer, it’s your responsibility to figure out which component is failing and RMA it. If someone else builds your computer for you, it’s their problem. They have to figure out which part is buggy and make the computer work again.

    Sometimes it’s obvious, but sometimes it’s hard to pin down — I’ve had faulty motherboards and power supplies before.

    This wasn’t as much of a problem when I was a young tinkerer with more time on my hands (although it was annoying then , too), but it’s definitely more of a concern these days.

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For more details, please read our disclosure.
Affiliate Disclamer

This review may contain affiliate links, which pays us a small compensation if you do decide to make a purchase based on our recommendation. Our judgement is in no way biased, and our recommendations are always based on the merits of the items.

For more details, please read our disclosure.