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January 2014

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Desktops, Laptops, Tablets - Choices, Choices...

Should I get a desktop or a laptop? Should I get a laptop or a tablet computer? The infuriating answer, of course, is that it all depends. It depends on what you need it for and it depends on your personal tastes and preferences. Here are some of the more salient considerations. Some may be obvious, but some may be less so and are easy to overlook.

Laptops have been outselling desktops for some time now. Tablets are the new big thing. Why would anybody want to buy a desktop computer these days?

Price & Power
Even though laptop prices are comparable to desktops now, the fact is that you’ll still get more power for your money by buying a desktop. More power means that you can run more computationally demanding software programs (e.g. accounting software, video editing, etc.) – and run them simultaneously - without much slowdown.

Specific Uses
Certain niches have traditionally been the province of desktops and will probably continue to be so. High-end gaming systems tend to be limited to desktops due to the need for raw power and speed. The same applies to CAD/CAM systems. Video and image editing tends to be done on desktops as well due to high processing and data storage requirements.

If you’re going to be on your computer for a significant part of the day, then ergonomics plays an important role. The traditional monitor-keyboard-mouse setup is usually more comfortable than hunching over a laptop or tablet. Traditional keyboards are often easier to use and the speed allows for smoother transition from thought to prose. Mice are faster and more precise. An touchscreen positioned vertically, in particular, can be hard on the arm and neck. It’s also far easier to trade out keyboards, mice, and monitors when searching to one you suits you better. The variation in keyboards and mice available on the market is enormous. Desktops also offer the possibility of multiple screens for enhanced productivity.

Configurability / Upgradability
Aside from flexibility in configuring your workspace, desktops offer far more options in initial configuration. With laptops, you’re mostly limited to USB peripherals. With tablets, even USB peripherals may not be an option. Desktops offer far more upgrade flexibility and those upgrades tend to be far easier to install.  With laptops and tablets, upgrades range from difficult to impossible; and, the trend is for this to get worse - with soldered-in memory and fused screens.  Furthermore, it’s still possible to assemble your own custom-designed desktop computer from parts. Custom designed desktops get the highest user satisfaction ratings. The customizability options are usually far less with laptops and tablets.

Although it’s easier to physically carry a laptop or tablet to a repair shop, the actual repair is likely to be more difficult and costly. Again, the trend is for this to become worse, with even memory and hard drives becoming increasingly hard to access quickly on laptops. Parts (other than memory and hard drives) are usually unique to one particular laptop model. With desktop, parts can be swapped for testing and/or installation fairly easily.


The big benefit in laptops, of course, is mobility. To have a computer that you can use in the kitchen, living room, bedroom, etc., laptops are just the ticket. If you do any work on the road, then a laptop is a must-have. For vacation, though, I’d recommend a tablet over a laptop. They’re more compact and better suited to what you’d be doing on vacation – reading, checking email, and web searches.

The big downside with laptops goes hand-in-hand with the mobility. You can bring your laptop to the beach, but don’t let it play in the sand or go swimming. Laptops fall, take baths, get vomited upon (really), get squeezed into suitcases, thrown, etc.  None of these are good for your laptop’s health. If you try to throw your desktop out the window, you’re more likely to hurt yourself than the desktop. But laptops may bear the full brunt of a frustrated user’s anger.

One big advantage of laptops over tablets is in the amount of accessories available that can make the laptop almost as configurable as a desktop. Set up your laptop with monitor, keyboard, and mouse and it can feel like working on a desktop. You can plug in external speakers, network cable (most tablets are wireless only), printer, scanner – basically anything that you can connect to a desktop computer.


As with laptops, mobility is the big advantage with tablets – even more so. Tablet tend to be smaller and lighter so they take up less packing space and require less desk space when you’re using them. Their longer battery life also makes them more attractive for when you’re away from home.

It’s hard to complain about the price for most tablet computers. They tend to be significantly less than those of laptops. They can really pack a lot of capability for a relatively small price tag with the ability to cruise the web, read ebooks or emagazines, check email, play games, or watch movies and are surprisingly responsive.

The touchscreen gesture-based interface that popularized the iPhone has migrated easily to the iPad and most tablets. Although it’s not such a natural interface for mainstream computers (e.g. Windows 8), it is natural for working with a tablet computer.

If there’s something that your tablet doesn’t do out of the box, then there may well be an “app” that enables your tablet to do it. Chances are that somebody else also had the need and chances are that some software designer put it together.

Tablet have some of the nicest displays (for their size) that I’ve seen. The big benefit is for reading print that looks as clear (no jaggies) as printed books and magazine photos that look as good as in print magazines. Looking at the screens and resolutions specs of some tablets, more than any other aspect, is what gets me thinking “I’ve got to get one of these.”

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