Why You Should Buy a Desktop Computer

by Andrea Karim on 6 June 2011 21 comments
Photo: Yuri_Arcurs

My first laptop, purchased back in 1997, was a 12-pound gray Toshiba that took approximately eight minutes to fully boot and froze constantly. It had something like 256MB of RAM, which was considered a great deal of RAM at the time. I believe it cost a little under $1,800 (which, in today's money, is like $6 million). It broke down after a year, which is fine, because I probably would have thrown it out the window if it hadn't simply stopped working. (See also: Make Your Computer Faster Instead of Buying a New One)

The laptop computer has undergone quite the transformation in the past few years. Laptops are lighter and more stylish, and they have more processing power than my first laptop could have ever dreamed of. But I'm probably not going to be buying one anytime soon. Now, with the advent of better laptops, tiny netbooks, and adorable iPads, my next computer is going to be a desktop.

Why on Earth would anyone pay for a big, clunky machine that is stuck in one place? Here are a few reasons why I am choosing a desktop over a laptop.

Desktops Are More Affordable

Dollar for dollar, a desktop is simply a better investment in terms of raw computing power. Making RAM and memory small enough to fit in the laptop is expensive, so you pay more for the same processing power in a laptop than you would in a desktop.

I'm not really a multi-tasker, but a great deal of my work involves switching between applications. I might be working on a website and then change over to graphics editing and then need to check the contents of a technical manual. I need a computer that has the RAM to handle all of the back-and-forth. Many of today's laptops have that much memory, but the cost of that memory in laptop form is prohibitive for me.

Could I get all the processing power that I need in a laptop computer? Yes, but I would pay a great deal more for the portability.

I Don't Like to Work Just Anywhere

Stop by any cafe with WiFi, and you will find at least 40% of the customers are working on some kind of portable computer. This kind of productivity is fine, but not everyone can work effectively in a cafe. Personally, I can't even READ in a cafe. If I go to a coffeehouse, I can do two things: drink coffee and stare at other patrons. I am literally incapable of doing more than that.

People love the portability of laptops, tablet computers, and netbooks because they can use the technology to work anywhere. And that's great — for people who are able to tune out ambient noise and concentrate on one thing at a time. For some of us, that's just not a possibility. I, for one, can only perform work in my cubicle at work or at my desk in my home office. Other locations just aren't conducive to my productivity. I'm easily distracted, and the noise in airports, cafes, and bookstores doesn't help me work.

WiFi and I...We Don't Get Along

I'm not sure what it is about the magnetic field surrounding my body, but I am capable of repelling the signal of any wireless network in my vicinity. Does anyone else experience this? If I am lucky enough to locate an actual wireless network, I won't be able to convince a laptop to connect to it. In my home, we have a wireless network set up for my husband's various laptop computers. I can't use them. In order to guarantee that I can watch "Modern Family," I have to plug a computer into a wired Ethernet connection.

I recognize that this is not a normal problem that normal people experience, but it does make a huge difference in how I feel about traveling around with a laptop.

I Like the End of a Workday

I like the idea of being able to put my work down. If I carried a laptop with me everywhere, I'd never escape from the feeling that I could be working at all times. I like to separate work from the rest of my life. The beauty of having a desktop computer is that once I walk away from it, I walk away from work and can concentrate on other things. When you work as many jobs as I do, having that kind of physical separation is important.

Laptops Have Lousy Ergonomics

Laptops aren't always conducive to comfortable typing. Once you get used to an ergonomic keyboard and gigantic trackball with gel wrist pad, it's hard to go back to a strange, cramped little keyboard that's missing the number pad, or using those little keyboard nipples in lieu of a mouse. Or a touchpad. My god, I hate touchpads. One accidental swipe with the thumb, and you end up deleting entire paragraphs at a single keystroke.

I've often heard people suggest that laptops can function as desktops. "You can dock your laptop and plug in a mouse and a keyboard!" This is true, but once you've docked a laptop, you might as well be using a desktop. Why bother paying extra money for portable technology when you just have to pay hundreds extra in peripherals in order to make it feel comfortable to use?

Data Is Highly Portable

But what about moving data around? The great thing about a laptop is that you can take your ENTIRE hard drive with you wherever you go. This is true. But I can also take whatever I am working on wherever I go via a USB thumb drive or external hard drive. I don't travel much for work, but on the rare occasion that I do, I can access my documents using Google Docs from a borrowed or rented computer. Of course, for some people, travel with a laptop is a fact of life, but for me, travel is a rare luxury that isn't meant to be marred by experiencing airport security while hauling a laptop.

Lifetime/Durability

A business laptop comes with a standard warranty of about one year (top-of-the-line models might come with three-year warranties, but are significantly more expensive). A desktop comes with a standard warranty of three years. This means that it is cheaper to fix desktop computers in the long run. The reason is obvious — a laptop gets moved around, banged up, and is prone to breaking down sooner as a result.

Security

Of course, someone could break into my home and steal my desktop — I'm not suggesting it won't happen. But it's much less likely to happen than having someone steal a laptop. Anyone who broke into my house would have get past a ferocious, man-eating Pekingese, whereas swiping a laptop from my car wouldn't take much effort at all.

Do you use a desktop computer, or are laptops the best thing that has ever happened to you? Do you have some unique combination of computing power that makes your life easy? Share it with us in the comments.

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Guest's picture
claire7676

Why my next computer will be the first laptop I have ever owned:

1) Desktops generate a LOT of heat. I share a small room (6 feet by maybe 12 feet) with my husband that we use as an office. He has TWO laptops that usually run 24/7. The only time that room starts getting really warm is when my desktop has been on for a little while. We even purchased blackout blinds for the window in that room to keep out the heat from the sun. The extra warmth is fine in the winter but in the summer, that room has gotten so hot (upwards of 83+ degrees - we have a thermometer in that room) I have had to turn off my computer and physically leave the room. Which brings me to my next point....

2) If the space your computer is in becomes unconducive to working, you can pick up your computer and move elsewhere in your own home. Like I stated in the point above, the room could be at an unsuitable temperature. Or maybe someone else in the room has taken to chomping their gum loudly & you can't focus. Whatever the reason, you can pick up and move to the dining room table if you need to. Likewise, if you have children that insist on playing in the living room instead of right outside the office door, you can pick up and move to be near them.

3) Laptops can require less space, which costs less money. I know many people set up a laptop just as they would a desktop, and place the laptop in a permanent location, such as a desk in an office area. But, you don't have to do that if you don't want to. In an ideal world, I would have no paperwork and everything would be electronic. While I do have very little paperwork, if the aforementioned situation were really true, I would just need a space to sit my laptop on when I needed it (I am not one of those people that has to be online for hours on end). That space could be the kitchen table. It could be the coffee table. But, if I didn't want a desk, I would not HAVE to have one. If I didn't have a desk, I would not need the space required for a desk, i.e. either a wall of a larger room or an extra bedroom used as an office. Less space required for me to live in = less rent or mortgage I need to pay. Does this point seem like a bit of a stretch? Kind of, but think about it. I have seen many people buy a house with one more bedroom than they need so that room could be converted into an office. If they didn't need that extra bedroom, they could buy a smaller, more affordable house.

In the past, I have seriously resisted buying a laptop because it was more expensive and I felt like there was nothing I was lacking by getting a desktop. Now that I have realized the points above, when my desktop finally goes (knock on wood - the thing has lasted me at least 5 years and keeps on truckin'), I will be buying my first laptop with a huge smile on my face.

Andrea Karim's picture

I can see the appeal of a laptop for certain. I actually need desk space in order to work - I find it offers really nice separation between work and the rest of my life. And because my husband owns his own business, we have servers running all the time in our house, so an extra room for work is simply a fact of life for us. But laptops do take up less room, that is for sure.

Guest's picture
Guest

I prefer a desktop myself... but I have resigned myself to eventually needing a laptop or some handheld device for work.

Guest's picture
Debbie M

You have made some good points, and I’ve been thinking of switching to a desktop next time because it costs less and because I’ve been keeping my computer plugged in at my desk anyway. Plus a lot of web pages insist on assuming I have a bigger screen than I have. You make an additional point I hadn’t thought of which is better ergonomics.

However, I may stick with a laptop anyway just because it takes less energy to create and to run (and thus leads to less pollution). One thing you should know: you can plug a laptop computer into a wired Ethernet connection.

To answer your questions, I use a desktop computer at work and a laptop at home. I loved the laptop when I was participating in National Novel Writing Month and was meeting with others at coffee shops to write together. And I also love it for giving me a place to download pictures when I travel (though there are lots of other tools that can allow that). I definitely don’t have any special combination of computing power (except the power to not interfere with WiFi).

Andrea Karim's picture

A helpful reader just emailed me to remind me that you probably won't ruin a desktop computer by spilling coffee on the keyboard, whereas you can easily destroy a laptop that way. That reminded me that I actually had a laptop ruined once when my dog walked over to where I was working and projectile vomited onto the keyboard.

Would that I had remembered before the article was published!

Guest's picture
KevieKev

Personally I think laptops are already outdated. Handle the heavy stuff on a desktop and maintain a tablet or netbook for lightweight editing of docs, reading attachments sent to you, email, and browsing. I find it difficult to work in cafes as well. I find it hard to believe that most cafe dwellers are running apps which are processor intensive and since more and more apps are moving to the cloud anyway laptops are increasingly becoming unnecessary.

Guest's picture
Laura W.

Desktops cost less to maintain. I can fix most problems on a desktop myself. I'm no computer genius, but I built a new desktop...and I can swap out any failed component for about a maximum of $100, including the motherboard. But my laptop I will have to send in for repair. Everything on a laptop is just jammed into a small space, which makes do-it yourself repairs very problematic.

Andrea Karim's picture

Yes, much cheaper to upgrade memory and other things, as well!

Guest's picture
Debra

The reason I bought my first laptop (the one I'm typing on now) is the Cedar Wildfire of October 2003. I don't/can't drive and my brother-in-law's truck was so packed and junked up that there was only room for me and my cat Henry. The house burned to the ground even though the owners of the property said no fire had ever come close. Now I know there's always a first time although I believed them then. Since there are still wildfires here in Southern California, I bought a laptop so I could carry it out of here if there was another. Hopefully wildfires are one to a customer. I still don't like typing on the keyboard, but since I don't write novels, it's OK. A wireless mouse is cheap, so you don't have to use the built-in one. The mouse is the only extra I bought. I treat the laptop like a desktop, it never leaves my desk. I like quiet when I'm online too.

Andrea Karim's picture

That makes sense! Portability in the face of natural disaster.

Guest's picture
JackC

You could also just zip tie all the wires attached to the pc. In case of fire, you just YANK all those wires out from behind the ziptie. That should remove ALL wires, except for the ethernet, and monitor cable.

For those, you can just leave the monitor cable "unscrewed" but plugged in through sheer friction. you can also snap off the little plastic tab thingy on the ethernet cable... though I'm not sure how well the retention is without it.

I've had the monitor cable in my PC "unscrewed" many times. Your desktop doesn't move around at all so there is little chance of it coming out.

With your PC completely free of all cables, you can carry it out just like you would a laptop. Though admittedly a desktop, being bulkier/heavier, would mean it would likely be the ONLY thing you carry out. Though Perhaps you can get a custom PC case that has a carry handle.

Guest's picture

My first PC was a long while back, a RadioShack Color Computer which had a plastic button on the top '4K' and I upgraded to 32K. I'm not sure what that meant Ram? Rom?

It was a great little machine with color graphics and I used my tape recorder for storage. I had a neat game Ghost Gobbler which was an excellent PacMan look alike.
The bottom of my printer's lower case characters were all even (ie the lower case letters j p q were stuck up higher). There was no WWW but perhaps the internet was being established. It all sounds a bit weird now.

Anyway I will purchase my 5th PC this summer as this is 8 years old and it will be an all-in-one desktop.

Guest's picture
thom

Hello Andrea,

I like your article and agree with you and many of the comments made here about a desktop. But I did not like the heat and noise. I have a dell workstation with dual Xeon chips and twelve gig of ram but only turn it on when that kind of processing is needed. For my everyday work now I use a laptop set on a stand with, a large monitor, keyboard and mouse. It's cool and quiet and if for some reason I need to move it, it's not an all day job. Yes it is more expensive and when something goes wrong... I do plan on building a desktop and will probably do something smaller than the boat anchor setting in the corner.

Andrea Karim's picture

Hi, Thom,

I think all the laptops that I have had have been so noisy that desktops seem quiet by comparison! But I might just have been choosing the wrong type of laptop, or I didn't notice the noise with the desktop because the tower was so far from my ear. I can certainly understand why any noisy computer would be a hassle, though.

Guest's picture
UncleSam

One more thing to note. For photographers, for example, desktops always are more capable of doing the right thing right. Leaving aside the more-or-less powerful processing capacity, notebooks always have inferior screens that are a must0have thing for a real photog.

Guest's picture
jbosari

I have to say, you got me on this one. When I read the headline, I thought it should have been titled, "Why I Should Buy a Desktop Computer." You can get a high-performance used laptop for about the same cost with much better features and portability. But many of your arguments swayed me. Although you can have my laptop when you pry it from my cold dead fingers, a desktop is probably a good solution for many. Depends on your lifestyle.

...one point you forgot to mention. You cannot upgrade a laptop as easily as a desktop PC. It's cheaper to buy new components to improve performance on a desktop. With a laptop, you often have to replace the entire motherboard, which costs just as much as a new laptop...

Guest's picture
JackC

I don't even think upgrading anything beyond the RAM is even possible with laptops...

Guest's picture
JackC

My recommendation for people who are at least somewhat tech savy? BUILD YOUR OWN!

You save so much more money, get more out of it, and get longer warranties on the individual components than you would get on a whole store bought PC. My motherboard has a 5 year warranty, as does the CPU, and the power supply. That beats the heck out of the 1 year warranty that comes with most CPUs.

If your into gaming, you can have a really good gaming setup for much less than you could buy as a completed product.

If you really need a laptop... my suggestion is to build a decent desktop, and get a cheap netbook. The desktop would be for your day to day work, entertainment, websurfing, gaming, etc. Your netbook would be for the odd business trip or vacation.

If the idea of building a PC is that much of a problem for you... you can still be way ahead by just buying a decent desktop, and buying a cheap laptop.

Guest's picture
Raw

I use a desktop, why would anyone want to go to a 15 inch screen from a 21 inch/? Why would anyone want to type on a smaller keyboard? Why would anyone want to replace an expensive battery every two or three years? Laptops overheat, once broken thats it, you throw them away and buy a new one. They say desktops will become obselete, not so, say may experts, laptops will be the ones replaced by ipads and smart phones that will make carrying a 5, 6, or 7 pound laptop seem idiotic. Ipads are selling so fast apple has trouble keeping up, plus all the other manufactures selling smart phones. Guess what they will replace? Look around, they are replacing laptops.

Guest's picture
superstar-nova

Absolutely excellent article filled with the exact reasons that I am going to buy a new
desktop (I have both desktop & laptop); I identify 100% with all of your superb points!

Guest's picture
Guest

Get a Mac and all your troubles will be washed away :)