Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Desktop vs. Laptop

As the price of both desktops and laptops fall, more and more people are considering laptops as their next computer purchase in place of a desktop machine. I can see a number of reasons for this trend:

1. Narrowing of performance gap. In times gone by, laptops generally had much inferior performance to desktop machines. They usually came with much slower processors, smaller and slower hard drives, minimal memory and small screens which ran your applications much slower than an equivalently priced desktop machine. While desktops still have the upper hand in absolute processing power terms, most modern laptops are more than powerful enough to run the typical applications that a home user needs e.g. word processor, web browser, e-mail, CD and DVD playback etc. and the size and quality of the screens can now rival desktop machines.

2. Drop in price. While still more expensive than an equivalent (in terms of processor/memory/hard drive) desktop, the price of laptops has dropped significantly over the years and one can purchase an "entry" level unit, allbeit with a low spec, for under €500.

3. Space-saving size. With the advent of the shoebox apartment, and marginally bigger townhouses, desktop PCs, particularly those with legacy CRT monitors, are seen as too big for such environments. Laptops, which can be brought out when needed and put away in a press when finished with appear attractive when space is at a premium.

4. Portability. Some people have a genuine need to be able to use their PC in different locations e.g. home and work, at a friends house, or while relaxing in the garden. With the advent of wireless networking, it is appealing to be able to browse the web from the downstairs sofa, the garden lounger or even while in bed.

Notwithstanding the above, there are a couple of points to consider before rushing out and buying a new laptop.

1. Breakdown rates are higher. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, modern desktop computers are incredibly reliable, especially when you consider their level of complexity. Unfortunately laptops do not share this level of reliability. There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, laptops, by their very nature are moved around more often. They are, therefore, more prone to accidental knocks and drops - a great way to cause irreparable damage to the hard drive or leave the screen only good for replacing. Secondly, the high density packing of components in a typical laptop case leads to high internal temperatures as heat dissipation is not as efficient as in most desktop cases. This leads to a greater degree of thermal cycling in the components which results in stress on component/motherboard interfaces. Too much stress and a dry joint (electrical isolation) can result. Finally, certain components are prone to physical failure. For example, one of the commonest problems I've seen with laptops is a damaged power socket at the rear of the unit. This arises from rough or repeated insertion/removal of the power plug and can result in the socket becoming detached from the motherboard it is normally soldered to - certainly a non-trivial repair scenario.

2. Repair costs are higher. By and large, all components that go into a desktop PC comply with industry standards for design and interoperability. That is to say that a power supply unit from one desktop will fit any other desktop - the same goes for sound cards, graphics cards, dvd-writers, etc. Unfortunately this is not necessarily the case for laptops, with individual manufacturers coming up with bespoke designs. In addition to raising the cost for replacement parts, it essentially means that the dissassembly and reassembly of laptops from different manufacturers is completely different and, consequently, more time consuming. Also leading to higher labour costs when repairs are necessary is the greater complexity involved in working on laptops due to minuaturisation and restricted access. Packing so many components into a small space means that to get at the defective power socket mentioned earlier requires, in many cases, removal of practically all components and plastics attached to the motherboard just to get a soldering iron in place. And time, as they say, is money.

3. Upgradability/Expandability is lower. Your average desktop is modular in design and many aspects can be upgraded and expanded, in many cases by the end user. For example upgrading memory, sound cards, graphics cards, hard drives or adding new features such as firewire, wireless networking or tv tuners are all relatively simple procedures that can be applied to practically all desktop computers. On the other hand many laptops have little or no upgradability or expandability. For this reason, buying a cheap laptop with a view to beefing it up when you need better performance or new features is not a wise option. If you need a full feature set in a laptop, buy it with those features on day one, but be prepared to pay extra for them.

Don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan of laptops and use one everyday in the course of business. But I think that they have become somewhat of a fashion item and it has become almost trendy to have one instead of, or in addition to, a desktop PC (mobile phones in the 80's, anyone). Before you buy one make sure that you really do need the two main advantages that a laptop offers over a desktop (portability and compactness) and be aware of the potential downside.

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