The price of computer hardware continues to drop and more powerful machines appear to be the norm, so the laptop has become more popular. There are still some very good reasons favoring desktop machines unless your needs for a portable machine outweigh the advantages of the desktop model.
- Are small size and portability of prime importance? If so, then the laptop is probably the only answer. However it is equally possible to buy a desktop machine using a small form factor case which, combined with a flat screen monitor and suitable input devices, is only slightly larger than the laptop. Indeed some laptops are now so large that you would need a very big lap or strong legs to work with them on your knee.
- How important is screen size? As mentioned above, laptop machines now include 20 inch widescreen models (diagonal measurements), which are larger than the desktop screens of just a few years ago. However, larger displays will require separate hardware even if you run the screen from a laptop. Widescreen displays are almost the norm now and large sizes still favor the desktop.
- How much do you want to pay? Cost is usually a factor for most of us and while prices have reduced considerably, particularly in the UK, the desktop is generally about 20%–25% less cost than the equivalent in a laptop.
- Do you need video versatility and graphics capability? Most laptop PCs rely on the screen display being driven by a set of integrated circuits – 'chips' which are on the motherboard of the machine. This is fairly common on modern desktop machines too, you may think, but please remember that the laptop has no other option; there is no room or facility for an expansion card to be added, even if you decide to pursue the external graphics driver in a separate box option. This on-board graphics option is unlikely to be satisfactory for those who use their machines for games – the laptop has never been the best option for intensive input and graphical output. And gamers will likely prefer a desktop machine with different input devices – joysticks, steering wheels, pedal controls, and different types of pointing and graphics tablet input devices.
- Hard Disk Drive (HDD) size speed and ease/ costs of upgrade. The laptop design generally uses a 2.5” HDD. The desktop is normally fitted with 3.5” HDD(s), and more than one drive is fairly easy to fit and maintain. The laptop with the 2.5 inch HDD is harder to replace; laptop cases can be devilishly complex to get into, and beware of damaging the keyboard or screen if you have to open the case. The 3.5 inch HDD will likely be cheaper, more reliable, and have faster access times/speeds, as well as having greater storage capacity. In some laptop machines the storage drives are accessible via easy-to-remove base plate sub-panels.
- Optical drives. CD DVD combination drives and writers – laptops are generally limited to one optical drive. While it may be a fully versatile optical drive, it is not possible to copy direct from one optical drive to another 'on the fly' if you only have one. It may not be possible between two optical drives if you have not got your system configured correctly.
- External keyboard and/or mouse. Most regular computer users type quite a lot and agree that the use of a separate keyboard over the laptop keyboard makes for easier typing.
- Reliability. I would not want to fall out over this topic since I am sure many of you will have long-lived machines of both categories. However, repair shops tell me that laptops are less reliable overall than the desktop, and repairs are simpler and cheaper for the desktop every time. If a desktop fails, in a business it will normally be possible to replace a missing component far more quickly than getting the laptop repaired. The ease of access to most standard-cased desktops is far ahead of the laptop.
- Security. do you take your laptop everywhere with you? Have you ever lost it? You are less likely to lose a desktop machine. While replacement of a lost or stolen PC is fairly straightforward, the loss of data can have significant impact. The implications for a business losing all of its strategic and financial systems data is not good. Many catastrophes of this size turn out to be fatal for the life of the business. Data backup is not just for wimps – it can save your business from failure.
- Visiting the websites of two major manufacturers. I have tried to compare similar specification machines in both categories, but obviously with the variety of machines on sale there will be room for argument. But as of now (early 2008), in most categories the desktop is some 20–30% cheaper.
So overall the desktop is likely to be more reliable and easier and cheaper to upgrade and repair in most aspects. Memory upgrades on laptops, however, are probably the easiest upgrade possible, usually needing the undoing of one or two small screws and inserting the new/additional memory board.
The highest-specification desktop machine will be tailored for top performance and will not be a direct replacement in most instances for the high-end laptop, which is likely to be regarded as a computer in one box that you can move about. Do not expect great battery life from your laptop and it may be big and heavy.