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?
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.