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February 26, 2020

The Case for Laptops over Desktops

You can’t do what I do for a living and not like to tinker. One of many reasons I’m a Windows Insider MVP is because I’ve never been able to stop myself from messing around with Windows. That really means “messing around on PCs running Windows.” Right now, at my house I’ve got nine PCs, all running Windows 10. Of those PCs, three are some kind of desktop (two with full-sized motherboards, one with a mini-ITX motherboard), and six are laptops ( an MS Surface Pro 3, plus five Lenovos: T520, X220 Tablet, 2 x X380 Yoga, X1 Extreme). There are many reasons why I own twice as many laptops as desktops. They’re certainly more portable, they take up less desk space, and they do what I ask of them — most of the time. Why then, do I continue to use desktops?

The Case for Laptops over Desktops.antec900

Both of my full-sized desktops are built in this Antec 900 case.
[Click image for full-sized view. Image courtesy Newegg.]

Why I Still Use Desktop PCs

I got my first home-built PC in 1995, with some expert help from colleague and co-worker James Michael Stewart. He actually built that machine, but I watched and helped with that work. I built my first one independently in 1997, and when I started writing for Tom’s Hardware in the early 2000s, like all their technical writers I got dragooned into building, benchmarking and reviewing PC motherboards for that online publication. Nearly 20 years later, I’m pretty sure I’ve built more than 100 PCs from the motherboard up, and perhaps more than 200. I like doing this kind of work, and enjoy the ability to hand-pick each and every component that goes into a PC. I’m thinking about building a new one before the end of this year, possibly over the US Thanksgiving holidays. What I like best about desktops is their ability to handle multiple higher-resolution displays thanks to their higher-end GPUs (I’ve got two Dell Ultrasharp 2717D 2560×1440 monitors on my primary desktop right now, and I use them all day long, each working day).

Why then, is this article entitled “The Case for Laptops over Desktops?” Good question! I spent much of this morning trying to figure out why my production desktop crashes every time I plug an iPhone into it via a Lightning/USB connector. In that process I went to visit the driver holdings for that PC’s motherboard, an Asrock Z170 Extreme7+. In checking over the drivers there, I couldn’t help but notice that the only one dated as recently as 2018 is for Windows 7, and that most of those drivers are dated 2015 (6) and 2016 (6), with 3 dated 2017, and none dated 2019. The other full-sized desktop includes an Asrock Fatal1ty Z97 Killer. It has no updates newer than 2017 (1), with most dated 2014 (4) or 2015(12).

What I Like About Laptops Is … Support

What’s my point? As I visit the websites for each and every one of my laptops, all of them — including the T520 and X220 Tablet, both built in 2012 and purchased in late 2012 or early 2013 — have driver updates for 2019, with most drivers of 2018 vintage or newer. When it comes to supporting my home-built desktops, I’m pretty much on my own to keep things running, and drivers up-to-date. I get a LOT more help and support from the laptop makers. Perhaps that’s because they’re from bigger companies, with more and better resources to devote to support. Perhaps that’s because they keep up with a much broader range of hardware devices, as they must integrate memory, storage, graphics, and so forth, into the laptops they sell to their customers.

If you have time and energy to devote to keeping your Windows 10 systems running at peak capability and efficiency — and I do — there’s no reason not to buy, build and maintain your own desktop PCs. But if you want the most computing capability for the least personal support effort, I say: buy yourself a good laptop, and plan to replace it no less often than once every three or four years. My own small fleet of PCs shows this to be a workable strategy, for home and business users alike. And with modern laptops supporting USB-C/Thunderbolt, you can plug ALL of the stuff into a USB-C dock that you used to need a desktop to accommodate. So it is I find myself wondering if I shouldn’t just purchase a higher-end portable workstation (like a Lenovo X1 Extreme Gen 2 or a P53) instead of building another desktop. The home-built desktop remains a bit cheaper for the same general capabilities (about US$1,500 versus US$2,000 and up). But it’s becoming increasingly tempting to drop out of the DIY desktop game, what with values and choices converging across those two worlds.

What do you think, dear readers? And importantly, what do you currently own? Be honest: document all your machines if you comment. Thanks!

Author: Ed Tittel

Ed Tittel is a 30-plus-year computer industry veteran. He’s a Princeton and multiple University of Texas graduate who’s worked in IT since 1981 when he started his first programming job. Over the past three decades he’s also worked as a manager, technical evangelist, consultant, trainer, and an expert witness. See his professional bio for all the details.

3 Responses “The Case for Laptops over Desktops”

  1. Toni Fasth
    November 15, 2019 at 22:41

    Interesting read.

    I currently own only 2 laptops and 2 desktops, but the desktops are very old so my laptops are much faster. I use laptops for the same reasons as you, portability and saving space.

    But…there’s always a but…I do intend to buy/build at least 2 desktops, one to make into a fast multipurpose server and the other one into a fast workstation with good graphics acceleration.

    My laptops can’t keep up with my demanding tasks. So from there on (once I have my desktops) I will use my desktops to do the heavy lifting and my laptops for light work. I might still do most tasks on my laptops but I’ll do some of them by remoting in to the faster desktops or by trasferring jobs to the desktops for number crunching.

  2. November 16, 2019 at 16:09

    Thanks for the feedback, Toni. I look at my production desktop with 10 drives attached (for a total of 15.5 TB of storage) and its one-step-back-from-top-of-the-line GPU (for its time) GTX 1070 and understand exactly what you mean. That said, my fastest machine right now is the 6 core, 32 GB RAM, 2x1TB Samsung OEM NVMe 1st generation X1 Extreme laptop from Lenovo. It beats the Skylake i7-6700 in my desktop on all counts, except graphics.

  3. Storageman (TenForums)
    December 17, 2019 at 21:36

    This has always been a 2 edged sword in my mind. Today’s laptops are much better/faster than they were 20 years ago and they are portable if that is what you need. But Desktops are more upgrade-able and as you stated in your article, for the same $ you will get more computing power. I started building desktops in 1986 out of desperation. I started a PC software company and needed many PC’s for my programmers. Back then there were 2 choices IBM or Compaq. Both were expensive and for a start up with minimal funding, it was difficult. Dell started back then, but he was selling used PC’s that he was refurbishing. Ended up buying a couple of bad ones from him and that led be to building our own. Since then I’ve built dozens of desktops for myself and others.

    Today I still build my own Desktop, but I also have a couple of laptops. I just replaced an old HP laptop (circa 2012) with new Lenovo Flex 15. I spent many hours/days trying to find best laptop for the best price. This is my biggest issue with most manufactures, each make 100’s of different models every year. Trying to compare Feature, Function, benefit is almost impossible. But I do believe I’ll be happy with this machine. My current desktop was built in 2016. Has plenty of expand-ability and can keep up with the latest computing power.

    Here is what it looks like:

    Operating System
    Windows 10 Pro 64-bit
    Intel Core i7 @ 4.00GHz 24 °C
    Skylake 14nm Technology
    16.0GB Dual-Channel Unknown @ 1066MHz (15-15-15-36)
    Gigabyte Technology Co. Ltd. Z170X-UD5-CF (U3E1) 36 °C
    HP 2311 (1920×1080@59Hz)
    8192MB ATI Radeon RX 570 Series (ASRock) 23 °C
    238GB Samsung SSD 850 PRO 256GB (SATA (SSD)) 31 °C System disk
    465GB Samsung SSD 850 EVO 500GB (SATA (SSD)) 26 °C
    465GB Samsung SSD 860 EVO 500GB (SATA (SSD)) 27 °C
    931GB Western Digital WDC WDS100T2B0A-00SM50 (SATA (SSD)) 27 °C
    8GB Microsoft Virtual Disk (File-backed Virtual (SSD))
    Optical Drives
    AMD High Definition Audio Device

    It should hold me for a while.

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