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Most gamers know that large PCs tend to be faster than small ones. Quicker chips require more power, generate more heat, and have more transistors, all of which adds up to more space. Very few people believe, even for a second, that a laptop can outrun an equally expensive desktop built in the same year.

Yet many gamers still struggle when choosing between the two. The fact that laptops are slower than desktops is common knowledge, but how much slower can be hard to quantify, and many gamers find themselves weighing the reduction in performance against the price tag and the portability a notebook provides. Here’s what you need to know to make an informed decision between the two.

Processor Performance

Modern computer processors are rarely the limiting factor in video game performance. Important mechanics like the physics engine and artificial intelligence run on the CPU, but the load they place on hardware is trivial compared to 3D graphics. Still, the CPU does contribute to the speed of all software, and it can in rare occasions be important. The strategy game Civilization V 6 Game-Changing Mods to Reinvigorate Civilization V For Free! 6 Game-Changing Mods to Reinvigorate Civilization V For Free! You need something fresh and exciting to breathe new life into the game? These mods have you covered. Read More , for example, runs poorly on slow dual-core processors.

intelcorei74770kbox

You might expect to see a big difference in performance between mobile and desktop parts, but the two are rather similar. Intel’s Core i5-4590, a mid-range quad-core desktop component, reaches an aggregate performance score of 80 in the SiSoft Sandra Processor Arithmetic benchmark The 5 Best Free Benchmark Programs for Windows The 5 Best Free Benchmark Programs for Windows There are many tools that promise to optimize or speed up your Windows computer, but how can you make sure the software did what it promised? Confirmation bias can make it very, very hard to... Read More . Intel’s Core-i7 4700HQ, an entry-level mobile quad, scores identically in the same test. A faster desktop quad-core like the 4770K can score as high as 125, but the Core i7-4800MQ mobile quad can hit 115. Dual-core processors tell a similar story. The Core i3-4130 desktop dual-core scores 55 in the Arithmetic test while Core i5 mobile dual-cores usually score in the low 40s.

There are, of course, some desktop parts that completely destroy notebooks, but these are exotic options like the recently released 5960X Extreme Edition processor. That chip is priced at $999 for the processor alone, so you’ll probably end up with something less expensive in your rig. The desktop processors most people actually buy are a bit quicker than their mobile peers, but it’s not the crushing victory you’d expect.

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Graphics Performance

High-end graphics chips are a real challenge for notebooks to handle. They consume far more power than an Intel processor and require a beefy cooling system to stay operational. This is the reason why gaming notebooks tend to be larger and heavier than standard models.

gtx880m

Mobile GPUs constantly trail their desktop peers. The recently released Nvidia GTX 880M, for example, scores around 6,000 in the 3DMark Fire Strike benchmark. That’s about eight times better than Intel HD 4600 on board graphics, but it’s nowhere near as quick as the GTX 780 Ti desktop video card, which usually hits a score of 9,000 or better in the same benchmark. Even the GTX 770 desktop video card is quicker, as it typically scores around 6,500.

With that said, though, the desktop’s margin of victory is narrower when budget video cards are considered. The affordable Nvidia GT 650 scores about 2,000 in Fire Strike while the GT 750M scores 1,700 when paired with GDDR5 memory (some versions have slower GDDR3 VRAM). The desktop video card still wins, but the notebook chip is quick enough to run games at the same detail settings with only a minor performance disadvantage.

Practical Performance

Benchmark numbers are useful, but they don’t tell the whole story. Performance in real games is key, and when approached from a practical perspective, laptops prove surprisingly capable.

Consider the Alienware 17. When configured with a GTX 880M this notebook can play Battlefield 4 at an average of 44 frames per second with detail set to ultra and resolution set to 1080p. That’s not bad, though a quad-core desktop with a GTX 780 Ti can easily exceed an average of 60 FPS at same detail settings, and ends up providing a noticeably smoother experience. Most gamers will prefer the desktop, but the laptop experience is far from awful.

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But let’s say you don’t play Battlefield 4 and instead enjoy games that are less demanding, like League of Legends. A measly GT 750M can play that game at greater than 60 FPS with detail set to maximum and resolution set to 1080p, and the GTX 880M can exceed 130 FPS at maximum detail. A high-end desktop can double that pace, but does it matter? Not to most players.

In short, the hardware you need will be determined by the games you play, and that in turn should inform your decision between a desktop or a laptop. Gamers seeking to play the most demanding and attractive action titles will find a laptop to be noticeably slower than a similar desktop, but games with technically simplistic graphics can be tackled by either with ease.

Upgrade Options

Desktops and laptops differ in how they can be upgraded. The former, with a few rare exceptions, allows every component to be removed and replaced with new hardware. In theory you can buy a desktop and still be gaming on it a decade from now, albeit with most hardware replaced.

Laptops, by contrast, have many limitations. Most have a processor that uses ball grid array packaging CPU Socket Types Explained: From Socket 5 To BGA [MakeUseOf Explains] CPU Socket Types Explained: From Socket 5 To BGA [MakeUseOf Explains] Computer processors have a home. The socket. Most people ignore this piece of hardware because it has little obvious functional impact. Sockets don’t hinder or help performance they’re standardized in any given line of processors.... Read More . In this configuration the processor is soldered to the motherboard and can’t be removed. The same approach is used by many graphics chips. Some PC builders even solder the RAM and use non-standard solid state drives, though the majority of gaming notebooks still allow easy upgrades for these components.

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Limited upgradability is an issue notebook buyers must keep in mind. Hardware ages rapidly; the GTX 480M was a top mobile graphics chip in 2011, but today it can barely keep up the GT 750M, which itself is nearly a year old. A laptop gamer who finds her once proud rig can’t handle the latest games must throw away the entire system and start from scratch with a newer model.

What You Get For Your Money

Laptops built for gaming tend to be more expensive than desktops; that’s common knowledge. But by how much?

Quite a lot, as it turns out. An Alienware 17 with a GTX 880M graphics card, for example, is about $3,000. That’s a lot of money, and it looks like even more when compared to Alienware’s own Aurora desktop, which can be purchased with a quicker GTX 780 graphics card for around $2,300. In other words, going with the desktop lets you buy a system that’s noticeably quicker for $700 less.

alienware17

The laptop argument is even worse if building your own desktop is an option 4 Creative Ideas To Use When You Build A Computer 4 Creative Ideas To Use When You Build A Computer Building a computer is no longer a particularly unusual task, nor even the reserve of hardcore geeks. It’s actually a rather simple process that tasks patience more than knowledge. PCI slots, SATA ports and motherboard... Read More . A computer similar to the Aurora can be put together for around $1,500, half the price of the Alienware 17 notebook. You could literally build two desktops for the price of the notebook, and the desktops would prove quicker.

Obviously, pricing varies; there are some GTX 880M notebooks available for less than the Alienware 17 and there are many desktops available for less than the Aurora. But regardless of brand, it remains true that a desktop can be had for at least several hundred less than a somewhat equivalent notebook. The gap tends to grow as you consider more capable hardware; a $800 desktop gaming rig is marginally quicker than a $800 gaming notebook, but a $3,000 desktop is far more powerful than an equally expensive laptop.

Conclusion

Desktops are quicker than laptops. The two are closer than you might imagine in the arena of processor performance, but desktops enjoy a major advantage in graphics, which is what really matters for gaming. You’re also going to pay more for a gaming laptop than a desktop and, once the laptop is obsolete, your upgrade options are limited.

All of this makes gaming laptops look a bit silly. Remember, though, that the performance you need depends on the games you play. Hardcore gaming and cutting-edge hardware no longer go hand-in-hand; just ask the pro gamers who make money playing League of Legends and Starcraft 2. You’ll receive better value from a desktop, but gaming laptops are capable and can be a valid choice if you believe portability is essential.

What do you think about this debate? Does the desktop’s power make it the better choice, or does the laptop’s portability outweigh its negatives? Have your say in the comments!

Image Credit: Wikimedia/Tosaka

  1. James
    June 21, 2016 at 6:49 pm

    One thing not mentioned, the price of a laptop includes a monitor while the price of a desktop does not. When this is added in the price difference between laptops and desktops becomes much smaller.

    • Somil
      August 2, 2016 at 9:39 pm

      I could include price of cabinet, keyboard, mouse and other peripherals as well. But this debate is all about that. After 5 years, i might not want to discard my 1080p monitor and other things. I can just upgrade all what's inside the cpu. But with laptop, just because my graphics card is obsolete, i have to replace entire set of hardware.

  2. Yummy Bear
    August 21, 2015 at 10:37 pm

    I hardly use desktop for gaming anymore. Mobility is a must for me and I play strategy games so it doesn't require a whole lot of punch to play it.

  3. Nardtre Rowley
    August 20, 2015 at 6:00 pm

    Desktops are cheaper and faster; they are easier to upgrade with a lot more upgrade options...but my choice is the gaming laptop. Sure, it'll cost you double in the long run but to be able to just take it with you...and no wires....great stuff. You'll get two to three years out of a decent laptop then you sell it and buy new.

    Laptops retain value their value much more so than desktops unless you wreck it. Laptop owners are often fussy about scratches and dents.

    Good-ish article though all this nonsense about 60fps being smoother than 44fps is pooh flop. You can't tell the difference, period.

    • Awesomeness , Thats me
      October 2, 2015 at 11:55 am

      HAHAHAHA LOL okay so, maybe YOU can't see the difference, but true gamers don't accept anything less then 60fps ... you poor pleb

      • Yo
        November 14, 2015 at 9:34 am

        So what is a "true" gamer? Someone who plays games? Wow you're ignorant. He quoted science, fool. Maybe learn something before you open that cock holster.

    • H H
      December 31, 2015 at 6:48 pm

      "You’ll get two to three years out of a decent laptop then you sell it and buy new." --> thank you, that's exactly what i am thinking. Any advice on a good place to sell? Thank you!

  4. Nick Zzz
    July 30, 2015 at 10:28 am

    The only advantage a laptop has over a desktop, is the mobility.
    In upgradeability, cooling, easy to open/clean/maintain, performance etc, a desktop of the same price will be better than a laptop.

    So if you NEED mobility in your computing, get a laptop. If not, get a desktop. Simple as that.

  5. Charles Burnett
    May 16, 2015 at 3:54 am

    The point you miss with this piece is simple; laptops can be operated off the electrical grid and are far more mobile. For instance, I travel a lot and I haven't figured how to take my desktop with me efficiently.

    Buy a laptop.

    • Somil
      August 2, 2016 at 9:44 pm

      Well this debate is desktop vs laptop with "gaming" added to it. Good luck with finding a gaming laptop which can clock more than 3-4 hrs off the electrical grid.

  6. leedog
    February 21, 2015 at 10:49 pm

    i have a gaming laptop, that is a gateway fx. i dont know much about what the specs has but my computer has been used for years now. now everytime i play my steam games they ten to lag a lot in occurdence to offline playing. well at least drops of frame rate, and the graphics are ok for the most part. so, even if anything how easy is it build your own gaming laptop?

    • Ker
      February 22, 2015 at 12:18 pm

      You can't build your own gaming laptop. You have to buy them pre-built or design and craft them yourself.

      Building a desktop on the other hand is very easy. There are many guides out there.

  7. David
    February 20, 2015 at 4:42 pm

    So im going to buy a pc for around 1000$
    But i dont know what to buy a laptop or a desktop i need it to play heavy games but i want to know like if i bought an i7 4th gen or a graphic card will it be more powerful on the pc or desktop.
    Thanks for your efforts.

    • Ker
      February 21, 2015 at 9:35 pm

      You won't find a laptop decent enough for heavy gaming for that price. Desktops are cheaper, faster, and much more customizable. If a part ever fails in a desktop, you can replace it. As for a laptop... Well it's time to get a new one if something breaks.

      You can easily build a gaming desktop for your price range. I'd stay away from pre built desktops though because they will cost more and give less than if you bought the parts for yourself.

  8. dc
    January 30, 2015 at 10:12 pm

    if i could do it over again, i would have built a gaming tower and not gotten a laptop. i do like the portability. i have great power everywhere i go. not just at home. when i get my money back together, ill build a gaming tower also.

    • Somil
      August 2, 2016 at 9:54 pm

      Totally with you! For me, laptop is not always out of question until my usage is restricted to lightweight tasks. I can buy a sleek 2 in 1 13" laptop and be happy with it. But gaming laptops don't make sense as you are practically grounded during their prime usage just like desktops. Its just that you can take them with you in a heavy backpack but you need direct power supply if you want to use it.

  9. McKenzie
    December 1, 2014 at 11:42 pm

    Is $780 iBUYPOWER any good?? Bought TS4 for my daughter, but specs say her laptop can't run it....

  10. Jeremy
    September 22, 2014 at 9:46 pm

    If people really could make 14g a month by clicking on a computer for a few hours a day, I'm sure everyone would do it. Unfortunately these easy money grabs are all scams.

  11. Jeremy G
    September 22, 2014 at 6:08 am

    I'd like to see a comparison with the Piston Xi3 gaming console.

    • Matt S
      September 22, 2014 at 5:10 pm

      I've seen and handled that device. I haven't tested it, but from the specifications I wouldn't expect much. The hardware in it is taken from AMD's mobile (i.e. laptop) line and is far from the quickest available.

  12. likefunbutnot
    September 20, 2014 at 6:31 pm

    Gaming laptops are born to die. Every one I've gotten to look at has had inadequate cooling. I try to discourage their purchase whenever possible, simply because I don't want to hear about someone's $2000+ toy crapping out because a 15-month-old fan can only spin 85% as fast as it could when it was new.

    For the most part, I think discrete GPUs in notebooks are a bad idea unless they're business products with workstation grade parts. The combination of high end graphics hardware with consumer-class cost-consciousness and lack of service and support options make for two great tastes that do not taste great together.

  13. Hildy J
    September 20, 2014 at 3:01 pm

    Two other things to consider. First, desktops can have multiple, linked GPUs to further boost performance. Likewise, desktop motherboards support more RAM.

  14. jony
    September 20, 2014 at 6:36 am

    thanks for an informative article

  15. Ergys
    September 19, 2014 at 9:13 pm

    i feel like there should be more to this than just processor and gpu, the desktop has many many more advantages than just those 2, starting from coolers, ram speed, motherboards, LAN cards, gaming keyboards but if i have to say one of the most important ones is the monitor, i mean, i myself have a gaming laptop and an external 23" LED Dell Ultrasharp monitor, and sometimes it feels odd, imagine buying a mechanical keyboard for your laptop :). Doable but a bit odd. Still as you wrote, it depends on what gamers are really playing.

  16. b
    September 19, 2014 at 8:45 pm

    I think this is a fair article. But boiled down it's desktops, cheaper and faster, laptops more portable like always. I actually have a gaming desktop and stream games using in-home streaming, in 1080p to my laptop with no problems. I think most people should just do this.

    • Ergys
      September 19, 2014 at 9:16 pm

      but wouldn't you need good internet uploading speed for that?

    • Averyvh
      September 21, 2014 at 1:15 am

      Correct me if I'm wrong, but upload speed would make 0 difference. When you are streaming from a computer in your house to another computer in the same house, your computer is just sending info to your router which sends it along to your other computer. You are not uploading or downloading data from anywhere outside your house.

  17. wileybot
    September 19, 2014 at 12:46 pm

    Great article, I know my aging laptop will have more life now as I use Steam in-home stream service. Since keeping up on gaming laptops is ridiculous in $ I think I am done with that plan and will use my desktop to serve the game up. Now if only Steam can dump the "in-home" part and stream our games anywhere!

    • Matt S
      September 19, 2014 at 5:50 pm

      I should try Steam in-home streaming again. I didn't have much with it last time.

    • A Person
      October 16, 2014 at 6:59 pm

      I believe OnLive will allow streaming of your Steam games anywhere.

  18. Ah Rip X
    September 19, 2014 at 12:16 pm

    Why didn't you include about heat dissipation too?

    • Matt S
      September 19, 2014 at 5:50 pm

      Are you talking about how laptops often are louder? That is true. But perhaps less so than it used to be, because there are many more SSF gaming rigs - and they too can be pretty noisy. It kinda depends on what you buy.

    • Ah Rip X
      September 19, 2014 at 10:58 pm

      Not really about the sound. More to how heat in laptop affects performance more because of the meagre coolers in laptops compared to desktops.

    • Matt S
      September 19, 2014 at 11:14 pm

      I haven't seen heat throttling be an issue for a laptop in...well, a very long time. It might be an issue if you use it on a blanket. But don't do that!

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