On a Budget: Should you get a desktop or a laptop?

October 8, 2014

Should I choose budget desktop or laptop?

Some ten years ago, buying a laptop entailed several things. First, you had to put down good money for a decent one. Next, you’d have to put up with a small, low-quality screen. Lastly, performance was bearable but not outstanding. Thus, the cheaper and more powerful desktops took centre stage in the home, with laptops sidelined to cases where you really needed them. Things are much different today. You can find laptops at similar prices to desktops, screen quality has improved somewhat and performance is usually good enough for most of us.

With that in mind, if you’re on a budget, does it still make sense to buy a desktop? Or should you stick to its more mobile brethren? Let’s find out.

Getting a Desktop…

There are two ways you can go about buying a desktop. The first is through manufacturers such as Dell, HP and Lenovo, who sell pre-assembled systems to you; the other is by buying the individual parts and assembling it yourself. The latter is almost always cheaper, but more time consuming. I would advocate the latter, though, whenever possible. Assembling your own system is really not much harder than assembling a table from Ikea.

In any case, the computer you’ll end up with is likely to be more powerful than a comparable laptop of the same price. It’s not hard to see why: it’s often cheaper to build things on a larger scale without space or thermal constraints. For example, for $500 you could either purchase a dual-core Intel Core i3 laptop or a more powerful quad-core Intel Core i5 desktop. In addition, storage is often noticeably faster on desktops, as the hard disks spin at 7,200rpm instead of 5,400rpm, which means accessing your files and loading times on games will be faster.

The biggest advantage comes when you think long-term, though. With a laptop, you’re basically stuck with the same thing (perhaps with the exception of RAM and storage) for the lifespan of the laptop. For many desktops, especially self-built ones, you can conveniently swap out parts as they get fail or get outdated. For this reason alone, if you have to get a pre-built system, I suggest getting a conventional tower desktop rather than a small-form-factor or half-size tower as replacement parts are (often) easier to come by.

The desktop I’m currently using is technically ten years old. Over the years, I added hard disk space, more RAM, swapped out the processor, power supply and graphics card (a few times), added a sound card, and the end result is a system that can still run the latest applications and games today. Guess what? I spent no more than $500 on each upgrade (and that’s because of the processor and graphics card; otherwise it’ll just be about $150). On the other hand, I would need to spend about a $1,000 each time to get a laptop of similar performance.

For me, the biggest advantage of a desktop is that you can have all the hard disk space in the world. In the laptop world, you’re usually constrained to 500GB or 1TB. Even if you upgrade, the fact is that you’ll always have just one hard disk. What if it fails? With my desktop, I have the luxury of three hard disks, and an additional solid-state drive to boot, giving me the best balance between storage space, redundancy, and speed.

And if you currently own a desktop that’s just a few years old, you can probably salvage parts such as the RAM, hard disk, and perhaps the graphics card (if any) to augment your brand new system. I once revamped an old Dell computer with a faulty power supply. All I did was to transplant the system into a new casing, add a solid-state drive and a USB 3.0 add-on card and it feels like a whole new system today.

In summary, with a desktop, you get more performance for your money, plus additional flexibility and cost savings down the road (especially for self-built systems).

Should I choose budget desktop or laptop?

But… why do people buy laptops?

Surely, if there’s so much going for desktops, then no one would be using laptops, right? Well, that’s only because I’ve shown you only one side of the story. Laptops these days are plenty fast, especially in bigger-sized laptops that are typical of budget systems. Though they are definitely slower than their desktop counterparts, most of us won’t need that speed anyway. The bottleneck often is in storage speed, which can be solved by simply replacing the hard disk drive with a solid-state drive. Storage space used to be an issue, but with the prevalence of network-attached and external hard drives, as well as cloud storage, many of us would have our storage needs met one way or another.

In addition, you get a screen! Most desktops these days are sold without a monitor, because most manufacturers assume you already have an existing one. Thus, if you need a monitor there’s extra money you need to spend when getting a desktop. Though, even if you already have an existing monitor, the laptop still has an advantage in that you can use it as a second screen. You could basically use your laptop as a desktop if you’d so wish, with an external monitor, keyboard and mouse plugged in.

Of course, mobility is the biggest selling point of a laptop. You can use it on your coach, on your bed, in the kitchen… the possibilities are endless. Plus, with a battery, you won’t have to worry about losing any unsaved work in the event of a blackout (which could be pretty common depending on where you live).

So… which makes more sense?

It really depends on what kind of person you are. If you want something that ‘just works’ decently, and works wherever you go, perhaps a laptop would be a great choice. On the other hand, if you possess a need for speed, or if you find yourself transcoding videos very often and wanting to play the latest and greatest games, or just like having everything in one place (instead of spreading them out to external hard drives or the cloud), then you are a desktop person.

The choice is tougher if you feel that you’re a little bit of both. In that case, consider your needs more carefully. A good question to ask is: what is the one thing you cannot live without? Otherwise, you could also consider options that are between the two.

All-in-one PCs, such as this ASUS has similar specifications to an entry-level desktop PC, but is easier to carry around between rooms and comes with a screen. The trade-off is the lack of upgradeability. There are also tabletop PCs, which are basically giant tablets. I wouldn’t recommend them in their current incarnation though–they are expensive, have laptop-type specification, have poor battery life and are hard to upgrade–basically you get the worst of both worlds. You might as well purchase a laptop and an external monitor instead.

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