New 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
- 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).
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
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
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?