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).

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 System76 Gazelle Professional Laptop Review & Giveaway System76 Gazelle Professional Laptop Review & Giveaway As an avid user of Linux, I’ve been very interested in laptops specifically built to operate Linux, as my own laptop had a few minor issues that were never resolved. This high interest led us... Read More 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 How To Design Your Own Awesome Workstation How To Design Your Own Awesome Workstation I work in a tiny apartment, and use two 24” monitors. I needed a workstation that fits into a tiny niche, but can still accommodate me for many hours every day and let me work... Read More ), 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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  1. Gary@computerupdates
    December 14, 2015 at 11:25 am

    That would depend on what you plan to do with it. Evaluate your computing needs and decide what's best for you.

  2. Bryan Price
    February 7, 2013 at 2:27 am

    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
      February 8, 2013 at 9:27 am

      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
        February 8, 2013 at 2:41 pm

        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
          February 8, 2013 at 2:44 pm

          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
          February 8, 2013 at 4:02 pm

          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. :/

  3. Jeffrey Zabala
    February 7, 2013 at 2:02 am

    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
      February 8, 2013 at 9:25 am

      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?

  4. Boynton D. Knipple III
    February 2, 2013 at 7:11 am

    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.

  5. Anonymous
    February 1, 2013 at 6:51 pm

    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
      February 2, 2013 at 2:25 pm

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

  6. Chris Hoffman
    February 1, 2013 at 6:25 pm

    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.

  7. Dave Parrack
    February 1, 2013 at 5:11 pm

    It's laptop for me for its versatility. Nothing I do on a daily basis requires heavy processing power. If I played PC games though, that would be another matter.

  8. Suvadeep Paul
    February 1, 2013 at 2:19 pm

    I would always go for the Custom Desktop machine..Its much better, totally customizable and easier to use and maintain. All the parts get more warranty than branded products. Main problem comes when upgrading a branded machine which I've faced with my HP desktop. Laptops are better for office purpose. I've HP DV6 and after using it for gaming the cooling fan started to produce noise after couple of months and in the end I had to service the laptop and repair the cooling system. For high performance I will always buy custom desktop machines.

  9. Scott
    February 1, 2013 at 1:41 pm

    Fortunately, I have a very honest 'computer guy' who made me a custom desktop: quality hardware, Windows 7 Pro, and only the software on it that I really need. :-)

  10. Mac Witty
    February 1, 2013 at 1:17 pm

    I do no see it as either or - for me is it both. Desktop for home and office use as they are more powerful for heavy work - laptop for being on the road with good syncing.

  11. Scott Macmillan
    February 1, 2013 at 12:47 pm

    I have always had my Computer store of choice assemble a Desktop according to my needs.I do a lot of photo work,downloading and burning discs for friends to watch documentaries who don't have computers and watch them through DVD players.I have a laptop as well but for the foreseeable future I will continue owning a desktop for home use.

  12. Trevor Lenten
    February 1, 2013 at 11:25 am

    Building your own desktop is the way to go with the mobile market exploding right now.

  13. Sas
    February 1, 2013 at 3:54 am

    i will never buy a desktop in my life, as long as apple exists.

  14. Kirby
    February 1, 2013 at 3:16 am

    I'd definitely go for a desktop. A gaming rig in particular. My desktop at home is a Pentium 3 rig so I've been playing most of my games on a Dual Core laptop. Definitely miss the feel of gaming on a desktop. I also don't think desktops are dying and they'll be around for a while I think.

    • Dr.Samuel Chandra Kumar
      February 1, 2013 at 8:38 am

      Yep! definitely agree with you there, I am also planning on a gaming rig and I definitely don't think that desktop's are dying, in fact, they are just starting to increase in numbers in developing countries with increasing availability of various brands and cheaper prices.

      • creem
        February 1, 2013 at 6:34 pm

        They indeed are dying. Its a different fact that they being "born" in developing countries. Any technology reaches late in these countries.

        The fact is that desktops are dying in developed countries. In a country like India as far as I know in my family and friends since the past 8 years I think almost 95% have purchased a laptop as their first computer.

        That is a sure sign its dying. Many will never own a personal desktop for the rest of their lives. I think that is again a sign that the desktop is dying.

        Yes it won't die with professionals like me..who need to design graphics and with gamers, but todays technology is changing the entire game.
        The only reason why I am not opting for a Laptop is the screen size. I need to see my entire website design and then have space on the side for all the photoshop pallets. I don't like to be scrolling to see my design.
        Today's laptop now come with full HD resolution so that takes care of that. They are very costly and they lack certain features. Like they don't have enough of hard disk space or don't come with super battery backup. These cost more than 200000. If I am going to pay that much I don't mind paying another 50k and for the stuff I am asking but they just don't make it yet.
        20000 Mah battery 2TB SSDs 32GB rams and IPS screen with touch. Gorilla glass waterproof and around 4GB of graphics :-P..
        That is why I kill my desktop...haha

  15. Chun Tat David Chu
    February 1, 2013 at 1:35 am

    I disagree the cost portion about building your own desktop. Buying a desktop could be just expensive than buying a laptop. It really comes down to the part and what you want in your desktop.

    Same logic applies to a custom desktop. It could be as expensive as you want or as cheap as you want.

    • Victor Ong
      February 1, 2013 at 6:36 pm

      True. Building a desktop actually does save money. you get more power for the same costs in general.

  16. Ivan Biolango
    January 31, 2013 at 11:57 pm

    For me I would like to choose both laptop and desktop has something to do with my everyday task using both computers. I don't think desktop is dying in fact many of us or most of us here are using desktop computers rather than laptop.