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[ The PC Guide | The PC Buyer's Guide | Requirements Analysis | Determining Your PC Requirements ]

Desktops vs. Notebooks

While "regular" desktop PC systems have always been and likely always will be the way that most people buy PCs, notebook PCs (also called laptops) have become very popular in recent years. At first they were almost exclusively the province of big business "high rollers" due to their very high cost. Now the cost of some notebooks PCs has come down dramatically, and they have really entered the mainstream. Many people use a notebook as their only PC today, and for some they offer advantages that make them very worthwhile. However, notebooks also represent a trap that far too many people fall into.

Let's illustrate the reality of desktops vs. notebooks by looking at the relative advantages of each. First, the advantages of desktops over notebooks:

  • Price: Desktops are always cheaper than notebooks for comparable performance and features. In fact, they are often half the price or less. (Although part of the reason for this discrepancy is the LCD screen used on notebooks; see below for more on this subject.)
  • Performance and Capacity: Most desktop PCs provide better performance than notebook PCs in addition to being cheaper. For example, you can't get at any cost a standard hard disk for a notebook that is as large as the ones shipping in better desktop setups. You can't get a 10,000 RPM hard disk for a notebook. You can't get a 21" monitor; etc.
  • Technology Lag: With rare exceptions, new technologies show up in desktop PCs at least six to twelve months before they make their way to notebooks. Notebook users are always "behind the technology curve" relative to desktop users.
  • Reliability: Due to the extreme miniaturization and difficult design constraints inherent in the compactness of notebooks, and the fact that they get moved around a great deal, notebooks are considerably less reliable than desktops. The "rule of thumb" figure I last saw was that a notebook was ten times as likely to require service as a desktop. That seems a bit high to me, but regardless of the exact number, it is significantly more likely that a notebook PC will need repair. They are fragile and must always be treated with care.
  • Expandability: Desktops have far more expansion options than notebooks. A desktop PC has expansion slots that let you add any of a variety of thousands of hardware cards. Notebooks now have PC card slots, which are a wonderful improvement over how things were before they were invented. Some notebooks also have available docking stations that can take one or maybe two expansion cards (at considerable expense). Still, there's really no comparison; desktops are much more expandable.
  • Selection: There are thousands of notebook models made by hundreds of companies, but there even more options for desktop units. This is also less of an issue than it was several years ago, but still, you don't have nearly as many choices for notebooks as you do for desktops.
  • Configurability: When ordering a new notebook you will have fewer options for customizing your configuration than you will for a desktop. Most notebook manufacturers have a number of different standard configurations from which you can choose, but limited options beyond that point.
  • Upgradeability: Most desktop PCs have a myriad of upgrade options available to them; more memory can be added, hard disks easily replaced, and sometimes, even the system processor can be upgraded at low expense. A motherboard upgrade can be a bit pricey and difficult, but is much cheaper than getting a whole new system while yielding many of the benefits. In contrast, despite improvements in recent years (user-upgradeable memory and hard disks being the most obvious) notebooks have few upgrade options.

And again, having said all of this, bear in mind that notebooks have actually greatly improved in several of these areas over the last few years! This is especially true in the areas of expandability, selection and reliability. Yet still, the gaps persist, and likely always will. Now, let's take a look at the advantages of notebooks over desktops:

  • Portability: Notebooks let you "take your PC with you". You aren't tied down to one location; you can work at the office and your home with the same equipment and the same data. You can work in transit, and take everything with you on trips.
  • Power Savings: Notebooks use much less power than desktops.

That's pretty much it! And in fact, that's what the decision of desktop vs. notebook comes down to: how important is the portability to you? Do you really need to take the machine with you? For many businesspeople, the answer is a resounding "YES!" However, some folks (including myself once, many years ago) talk themselves into buying notebooks by greatly overestimating how much traveling they will do, or based upon romantic notions of writing the Great American Novel on the beach in the moonlight. Unfortunately, that's not how things usually work out in the real world. :^) So be sure to be honest with yourself about your portability needs.

To be fair, there's one other important and usually overlooked advantage of notebooks that should be discussed: they come with LCD screens. Many people find LCD screens "night and day" superior to conventional PC CRTs, including this author. These screens are expensive, and their presence on a notebook PC is one of the reasons for the increased cost of notebooks. Now that LCD monitors are available for desktop PCs, and people are seeing their very hefty price tags, buyers are starting to better understand part of the reason why notebooks are so expensive. At any rate, if you are an LCD screen lover like me, be sure to add in the cost of a desktop LCD monitor into your comparison of desktops and notebooks; it will greatly narrow the cost gap (though the other limitations of notebooks will remain). If you haven't used an LCD screen before, compare one to a CRT sometime--you may find yourself hooked! :^)

Of course, the LCD screen on notebooks is also part of the reason why they use so much less power than desktops.

Next: Software Impact on Hardware Requirements

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