Tuesday, October 21, 2014
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Desktop or Laptop--What's Right for You?



Not too many years ago, the choice between a desktop and a laptop computer was pretty clear--desktop models were full-featured, less expensive, and ergonomically designed, but also bulky and immobile. Laptops were portable, but also more costly, with limited features.

While some of these differences remain, they're less distinct. Laptops, also called notebooks, have come down in price and pack more power and features. Desktop models take up less space. So how do you choose?

"The price is usually a big factor, but more important--what do you need? That's the biggest factor," says Richard Bartlett, staff consultant, Comprehensive Computer Consulting Inc., Sun Prairie, Wis.

What do you need?

"Desktops and laptops are becoming very close in their capabilities; it's a matter of what your primary use is for them," says Pam Kaufman, president of consulting firm A Perfect Setup, LLC, Middleton, Wis. "If you're traveling a lot and you need the computer to be accessible to you at all times, a laptop is the only way to go. But a desktop has more going for it in terms of cost, durability, and ease of maintenance."

"The laptop's biggest advantage is its portability," agrees Bartlett. "The downside is still the cost and the power."

Portability

Traditionally, desktops have had zero portability--you only could access files located on your desktop computer from that computer. But that's changing; your desktop may stay in one place, but your files don't have to.

USB (Universal Serial Bus) memory keys, small devices that plug in to your computer to extract or load data, let you move files from one computer to another quickly and easily. And wireless networks allow you to work on the same files from any other networked computer.

Price is usually a big factor, but more important, what do you need?

"You're now able to access and control your desktop from any other computer or Internet-enabled wireless device through programs like Gotomypc and Logmein," explains Kaufman. "It's a remote control ... amazing."

This means that, although desktops definitely take up more space, they no longer limit the portability of your files. In fact, because of their other advantages, Bartlett says, "If you're only going to work at home or at the office, you're probably better off buying two desktops, one for each place."

On the other hand, you can take a laptop anywhere, and some people use them exclusively, replacing their desktops. Models range from ultralights that can be less than an inch thick and weigh just two or three pounds, to "desktop substitutes" weighing as much as 11 pounds. A tablet allows you to write on the screen with a stylus (a pointing and drawing device shaped like a pen); to use a keyboard, you must plug in an external one.

The ultralights are perfect for travelers, but have a battery life of three hours or less, and small screens and keyboards that are less comfortable to use. Desktop substitutes are fast and powerful, with full-size keyboards and up to 17-inch screens, but they're less convenient to lug around.

In-between models have longer battery life and larger screens than ultralights, but less power than desktop substitutes. Purchasers need to compromise between power, portability, and price, according to Money magazine.

As with any major purchase, your credit union can help with financing.

Another aspect of portability, Internet access, has changed with the advent of wireless connections. Formerly, laptops had slow dial-up connections, so they could access the Internet only from limited locations. Today, says Bartlett, "You can be just about anywhere, and you can get on the Internet and check your e-mail or access anything that's available over the 'Net.

"When I'm on the road, sometimes all I have to work from is a hotel room or restaurant," he continues. "A laptop is perfect. I activate my wireless connection--which is built into most laptops now--and it's just like sitting at my desk in my office."

Bartlett says finding a wireless connection used to be challenging, but that Wi-Fi (wireless fidelity) "hot spots," or zones, are becoming more common in cities and in business parks as well as in airports, hotels, and cafés. "Coffee shops will have signs that say 'free wireless Internet connection,' " he says.

Capabilities

Just as Internet capability is no longer a desktop vs. laptop decision point, features and functions are equivalent between the two, although desktops generally have better sound quality. According to Consumer Reports, comparable models have nearly identical hardware, including CD and DVD drives and ports for adding peripherals.

The past few years have seen vast improvements in laptops' speed, screen displays, and battery life. You can buy low- to mid-range models (Consumer Reports calls them budget and workhorse models) that include core business functions. The high-end multimedia laptops even can accommodate video editing and high-tech video gaming.

Desktops and laptops are becoming very close in their capabilities; it's a matter of what your primary use is for them.
"They've come a long way. It used to be really difficult navigating using the key pads, but now you have mouse capability," says Kaufman. "I still don't think the screen clarity is as good on the smaller laptops."

Cost

"The cost for a laptop is considerably higher than for a desktop with comparable speed and power," notes Bartlett. Although laptop prices are falling, you'll still pay hundreds of dollars more, according to Consumer Reports.

"Service and repair costs are much higher too," says Kaufman. "To get at the parts, laptops pretty much have to be taken apart. The parts themselves are more expensive--almost double--and labor costs more. With a desktop, you can just open the back or side panel and replace the parts."

Because desktop components can be added or removed separately, unlike many laptops' all-in-one design, desktops can operate without some parts. As noted in Consumer Reports, often, any failure puts a laptop totally out of commission.

Laptops' size and design also limit your upgrading options. "This is a secondary cost: In a relatively short time your portable becomes obsolete," says Bartlett. "With a desktop, you can extend the life by adding peripherals more easily."

The laptop's biggest advantage is its portability.

Power

For years, users found lack of speed and power to be a problem with laptops, but it's no longer a major issue. With the smallest laptops, battery life still can be less than with mid-range ones--or desktops--but the newest processors significantly extend laptops' running speed and battery life.

After testing budget desktop and laptop models, Consumer Reports found the speed ranges to be equivalent. And many budget laptops have battery life of at least four hours, long enough for an airline flight.

Durability

Laptops' biggest advantage--portability--also makes them more vulnerable. They're more likely to be dropped and broken, or lost, or stolen. "You can probably store as much data on a laptop as on a desktop, but you probably wouldn't want to--you risk losing it all," says Kaufman.

Ergonomics

Early laptops had small, cramped keyboards and small, hard-to-read screens. In all but the ultralight laptop models, these ergonomic issues now have been corrected. However, desktops still may be better equipped to prevent stress injuries. Because a desktop's monitor and keyboard are separate, you can move and adjust them to provide comfort. A laptop's attached screen and keyboard provide less flexibility.

Kaufman notes, though, that you can use a docking station to essentially convert your laptop to a desktop workstation. A docking station is a platform with slots to plug in your portable computer, separate monitor, keyboard, printer, and other peripherals.

The past few years have seen vast improvements in laptops' speed, screen displays, and battery life.

"The docking station has a full-size keyboard, mouse, monitor, external drive; it just waits for you to plug in your laptop so it has a CPU (central processing unit) to run with," says Bartlett. "In my case I spend half my work days in Washington, D.C., half in Wisconsin. I have one docking station; when I'm away from my primary office I just use the laptop by itself."

Helpful Web links

Important desktop features

Important laptop features

Laptop vs. Desktop discussion with David Coursey, executive editor, ZDNet AnchorDesk

Laptop vs. Desktop discussion with David Berlind, executive editor, ZDNet AnchorDesk

Macintosh laptop discussion with Charles Moore, contributing columnist, Road Warrior

PC World's list of top 15 laptops, or notebooks

PC World's list of top 15 desktops



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