Monday, April 21, 2008

Deciding between a Laptop or Desktop

The question recently arose from a friend of mine, and it’s a question I pondered myself for a long time. I’m not the typical user however, so my answer is not always what I would recommend for someone else. Or rather, I should say I was not the typical user; anymore I am I have found, especially with my recent switch back to iPhoto from Aperture.

What’s most suitable for the average user? Should you opt for the desktop or the laptop equivalent? The difficult part is deciding what is
an equivalent for your needs. This is a case for Apple’s machines because they don’t have actual equivalents. Their bottom-tier desktops – the Mini – is not the equivalent of the MacBook, their bottom-tier laptops, at least not in whole. Their top of the line Mini is probably close to their bottom-rung MacBook though, and from the MacBook it’s quite a jump to the next most powerful machine, the iMac, Apple’s flagship consumer desktop machine. From there it jumps to the iMac lineup, and then you have on the laptop side you go to the MacBook Pros, which then leads back to the desktop side, with Apple’s pro-grade Mac Pro machines – towers not built for the average joe, but rather for video editing houses & big-production businesses.

There’s lots of blur about what’s “equivalent” and what’s not. If you’re looking at a Mini you’d probably also take a gander at the MacBook as an alternative, but then again if you were looking at the low-end iMac you might also look at the MacBook too. And if you were looking at a top-level iMac you might eye the MacBook Pro models, so it all really depends on your pocketbook and what your preferences are. But we’re not going to weigh the individual machines here, we’re just going to sort of gloss over some basic fundamentals of what type of machine may be more suitable to the average user. And although it’s framed around Macs, the basic idea of “laptop or desktop” applies equally well if you’re on Windows, though really you shouldn’t be, get with the times people :-)

Anyway. There’s going to be tradeoffs. Some of them are going to be easily spotted on the specs page comparisons, others are not, and you have to be careful to weigh all of them. To start, yes desktops will always be faster & roomier. This is a “well duh” sort of idea, as it stands to reason that with more internal room in the case, there’s more room for higher-powered hardware – faster CPU’s & GPU’s, and more spacious, larger Hard Drives. This comes at a cost mind you, as typically these also require more power consumption. So even though you may pay less for the desktop with a slightly faster CPU rating, you’re going to be paying more with every hour that goes by, as it sucks down more power to fuel that machine.

The spec page comparisons are easy to see; you can see technically what you’re going to get for your money. Laptop A is going to give you 2.4ghz, Desktop B gives you 2.6ghz, etc. You can see that. But what about the stuff not on the sheet? How valuable is it to be able to use a “computer” away from a desk? I have been laptop-only for 4 years now; I know what a desk looks like because I pile things on it to file later. That’s it. It’s one of those things that you don’t realize how valuable it is until you try it for a couple of weeks then try to go without it again. It’s nice to sit comfortably and do my work (or whatever you call it anymore). It’s nice to be able to take my computer with me and work while I eat at a café somewhere. Or how nice it is to be able to sit outside in the shade and get my work done, not confined to a single space when something needs to be done.

It’s very liberating, actually. You don’t realize how useful a computer can be, or even how well you can integrate its usefulness into other areas of your life until you have the ability to take it with you everywhere. Mobile address book. Mobile internet access (and thus mobile shop ‘n compare!). Mobile typewriter. Mobile data store. That information that’s sitting there somewhere in your documents folder that you need right now? With a laptop, it can be at your fingertips no matter where you go. And it doesn’t stop there, either. I use mine as a remote control for my music. My computer stores all my music and it plays through my stereo system wirelessly. So when I want to change a song, I reach over and change the song. Washing dishes? Not a problem, just reach over and hit “next.” Hell you may not want to read this, but I can type up or research what it is I am curious about while on the john (the lower-case, figurative john. You get it, right? Oh come on. It’s a toilet folks).

You do give up some power, and usually some screen size too. Not only that, but typically you give up some hard drive space as well. You lose on the spec sheet war. But the thing is, especially with today’s advanced computers & internals, how much does that really impact you? Most of us – including me anymore – do not do much more than mail, documents, pictures, and watching videos. Oh and the internet thing, too. That does not require a fast processor, nor a gaming-centric GPU. Of course if you
are a gamer, then of course you need to look at what specifically will support your habit – er, addiction – er, uh, hobby, but those that require the top of the line rarely realize that they’re not the norm, they are the fringe.

I can say that because I have been the fringe, I have needed the higher-powered machines in the past, and I have also seen the improvements technology has made in a short time, seen it erase the needs for higher-powered machines, and also been victim of the desire to have better than I need.

I used to shoot RAW images until not so long ago. It was fun, and it required better programs and hardware than the typical consumer-level stuff. I shopped around when it was time to get new hardware as mine was aging and showing it, and I made the mistake of thinking that I would again need “Higher-level” equipment. This of course would cost me, but I was shooting RAW, dammit! Anyway, my significant other got a consumer machine for herself – a MacBook – as she did not have the same needs I did. Well I played with hers since it was there, and it turned out that today’s bottom-end was more than enough to run the higher-end needs of just a year ago. So take it from me, unless you’re doing serious video editing (think
Pixar) or messing around with 14 megapixel images in Photoshop, or manipulating Gene decoding in a Harvard Medical Lab somewhere, don’t fool yourself into thinking you need the 800lb gorilla.

Weigh your options. Think about how much space you need on the machine. Think about how much a desktop weighs you down, in the sense that the seat you select for your desk is the one your butt will be planted in whenever you need to compute. Think about that
especially hard, as that’s the biggest of the specs not listed on a sheet.

It would be my recommendation that for most people, a laptop is more than powerful enough. And though you give up some “power,” it’s like getting the
Accord instead of the Mustang – yeah it’s less powerful, but if you’re only doing 55mph, will you even notice the power you give up? Probably not. The hard drive can be upgraded easily – most times before you order it – meaning that you can more than likely get room to grow for many years out of it, if not just a plain excess of space! Though you give up some spec sheet stuff, you gain all the intangibles that a desktop unit cannot grant. Mobility. Lower power consumption. Accessibility (tied to mobility). Convenience. Couple this with the fact that price differentiation between the two has fallen; it used to be that a laptop was two to three times more than a “comparable” desktop machine, especially in the windows world, and they were also far less reliable. However the growing pains of the mobile computing revolution seem to have settled; most come with multi-year warranties, and pricing has fallen as such to be close to in-line with desktop machines. Yes you give up a little, but remember all you stand to gain.

I say this as I post from a
laptop of my own, of course. Maybe I’m biased? Hey, maybe it means something that I have done it, and chosen to do it not just once, but twice, with my own money. It might mean something.


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