Notebook Computers vs. Desktops

By

This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2220, 2004-05-14, as the cover article, in both their print edition (on pages 16-17) and their website.

If and when you are in the market for purchasing a new computer, perhaps the first decision you will make is whether to get a notebook computer, or a desktop computer. (By the way, the term "desktop" does not imply that the machine resides upon one's desk. In fact, considering that most non-portable computers end up tucked underneath the desk, they might be better described as "desk-props" or "carpet-tops".)

Many years ago, your optimal choice between getting a notebook or a desktop, was easily determined based upon your needs for portability. If you anticipated only requiring to transport your machine back to the computer store for servicing or upgrades, then a desktop would be the natural choice. Moreover, you would get a lot more computing power for your money. On the other hand, if you needed to do computer work while traveling, or needed to bring your files and applications with you to another office, then a notebook was the obvious choice.

But nowadays the decision is less clear, especially with the introduction of docking stations that allow you to quickly insert your notebook into a cradle that is already connected to your company's network and perhaps to a monitor with a better display than the one in your notebook. The distinction between the two categories has been further blurred by the more recent advent of notebook computers so powerful that they are referred to as "desktop replacements".

Nonetheless, if you are fully certain that your new computer will never need to go with you, or you are sure that portability will definitely be needed, then your best choice is still clear. Otherwise, read on.

Notes in an Electronic "Book"

There are several advantages to notebook computers — portability being first and foremost. Desktop machines are simply too bulky and heavy to be easily transported from one location to another — to say nothing of the need to also bring along the display unit, keyboard, and other peripherals, if none are available for use at one's destination. The one major exception to this rule is if you plan on bringing your computer to gamefests or other LAN parties, in which case you will be best served by a desktop computer, which can be outfitted with high-end video and sound cards, essential for top-notch gaming.

Another advantage of notebooks, is that they tend to be quieter than desktops. This may primarily be due to the fact that on most desktops, the largest and noisiest fan is the one pulling heat out of the power supply unit. In contrast, the AC adapters for notebooks are free of any fans. That is not to say that noise levels from desktops have not been reduced over the years, nor that the typical notebook runs silently. But the most common notebooks on the market nowadays have just a few small fans that produce less noise than your average non-portable machine.

Some of the advantages of desktops have now largely disappeared. Many years ago, flat-panel LCD displays — preferred by many for their clear, flicker-free images — could only be obtained as part of notebook computers. But now, standalone flat-panel monitors have become much more popular than their overweight cousins, those desk-hogging CRT monitors, which consumers are now happily giving to subordinates and charitable organizations.

Another advantage that has gone the way of "affordable housing" is that it used to be much easier to employ alternative keyboards and pointing devices with desktops; but now notebooks are just as capable of working with your favorite ergonomic keyboard. The same is true of using a second monitor, particularly with the development many years ago of docking stations, which allow you to disengage a notebook computer from numerous peripheral devices in one motion. This avoids unplugging and later re-plugging all those devices, which increases the wear on them and odds of damage.

A Computer on Every Desk

As for the choice of getting a desktop PC instead of a notebook, one can easily build a case for that option (no pun intended). Desktops have always been cheaper than notebooks, and will likely stay that way in the foreseeable future. This is partly a consequence of the LCDs in notebooks costing more to manufacture than the CRTs that usually accompanied a brand-new desktop system. In addition, notebook components are more vendor-specific, with no generic alternatives available. Regardless of the reasons why, you will certainly get a lot more bang for your buck if you get a desktop.

While typical notebook computers can be enhanced using their PC card slots, desktop computers are much more easily expandable (such as adding a second hard drive), and usually at less expense. That is largely because there is a fair amount of room inside a desktop case, while the inside of a notebook computer is as cramped as an analog watch. Admittedly, this advantage has been offset somewhat by the growing availability of USB external drives. But for some expansion options, such as multiple internal optical drives, notebook computers are completely out of the running.

Desktop machines are more easy to repair, either by you or any service technician. In fact, notebook owners are strongly urged not to attempt their own repairs, which would invalidate the warranties anyway. Once again, this ease of repair is a result of all that extra room in a desktop, though that may be hard to believe when you are staring at the rat's nest of dusty cables inside your current desktop.

Because desktops are roomier, they tend to be able to handle more heat without malfunctioning, and thus can have faster chips. Every year the system processors get faster, in desktops as well as notebooks. But the desktops always seem to have a big edge in speed, and there is no reason to think that the situation will change in the near future. On the other hand, much of that extra processing power is going to waste for consumers who use their computers for only doing a handful of lightweight tasks at one time. Despite the best efforts of software manufacturers to bloat their applications, computer chips typically only have a fraction of their capacity in use at any time.

Your Choice

Nowadays it is usually not a cut-and-dried decision as to whether to get a notebook or desktop. If you cannot imagine ever needing to transport your computer, then a desktop would be your best choice. But if you foresee the need for any portability beyond servicing or LANfests, then consider a notebook computer for use on your desktop — possibly in conjunction with a docking station if you want to use a display larger than the one built in to your notebook, or if you will be taking the notebook with you frequently and want to save time disengaging all of those peripheral devices.

In either case, the technology just keeps getting better, and the prices just keep hitting lower.

Copyright © 2004 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.

Content topics: