Ever since the first laptop was introduced to the world, the debate between laptops and desktops has been a nonstop affair. What might seem like a simple decision is actually more complicated than one might imagine.
Aside from choosing whether you want to go Mac or PC, you have to think through where you are going to use it, if you have space in your home for a desktop, and what the best computer you can get for your budget is.
The answers to these questions and others will help sway you in one direction or another, so let’s take a look at how to best decide whether a laptop or desktop is better for you.
Desktop vs. Laptop: Side-by-Side Comparison
|Price||Starting at $300||Starting at $500|
|Operating System||Windows 10/11, macOS, ChromeOS||Windows 10/11, macOS, ChromeOS|
|Upgrading||Hard drive and RAM||Hard drive, RAM, motherboard, graphics card, and more|
|Ports||USB-A, USB-C, Ethernet, 3.5mm, Thunderbolt, HDMI||USB-A, USB-C, Ethernet, 3.5mm, Thunderbolt, HDMI (desktop advantage is more overall ports)|
|Camera||Built-in or third-party||Third-party|
|Battery Life||3-21 hours||N/A|
Desktop vs. Laptop: What’s the Difference?
Trying to decide whether desktops or laptops are the better value or more friendly on your wallet is perhaps the most difficult way to look at this comparison. For starters, prices fluctuate frequently and often without warning. More importantly, what $1,000 will get you in the laptop world might only cost $700 in the desktop world.
A good rule of thumb is that desktops can often start as low as $400-500 while still giving you plenty of power for most home office and schoolwork. Similar performance on a laptop likely begins on the higher end of the desktop number (think $500-$600) but ramps up much faster to the $1,000 mark than desktops do.
Things get even more interesting when you start looking toward the high-end of computers. What you discover on this side of the price fence is that a desktop could be half the price of a similarly performing laptop. For example, the $2,000 desktop will likely give you some of the best specs around while a $2,000 laptop isn’t guaranteed to offer better performance.
No matter how you look at it, desktops will win the pricing war nine times out of ten while giving you more performance for your dollar than a laptop.
Space and Portability
Trying to look at space and portability is going to quickly lead you to believe that laptops are easily going to win this round. Trust your intuition this time as laptops are much easier to carry around and the only portable computer type. Desktops, with separate hardware for the computer, monitor, mouse, etc., require significantly more space in a house or on a desk. Laptops can pretty much go anywhere, anytime, and desktops can’t even change rooms without powering everything off and closing down whatever you are working on.
The bottom line is that it would be really tough to make an argument around space and portability for a desktop over a laptop. Even an all-in-one desktop is still more sizable than a laptop and restricted to one place at a home without picking everything up and moving it around a room (or to another room). The laptop takes a nice victory lap in the portability section.
Laptops might be more portable but that comes with one big caveat, and that is a smaller screen size.
A standard laptop range hovers between 13 and 17 inches in screen size, a standard that has been around for the past few decades and is unlikely to change in the future as portability remains super important. Desktops don’t have a similar screen size restriction so you can buy an 18-inch monitor or grab a 30-plus-inch monitor off Amazon at any time.
Screen size is also going to play a role for movie watchers and gamers who are likely to agree the bigger the screen, the better. The good news is that there are many large monitors available or you can use a television as a monitor all of which help put screen size as an easy win in the desktop column.
While you can make an argument that laptops are upgradable, only a few of the components, mainly the hard drive and RAM, are available for upgrading. This is not at all the case for desktops which are easy to upgrade, and not only are they easy, many computer manufacturers will use the ability to easily upgrade as a selling point.
Upgrading a desktop still requires a basic level of understanding of the hardware if you want to install more RAM. You’ll want a much deeper understanding of the components if you want to try a more challenging upgrade like adding a water coolant system. What matters most with desktops over laptops is that there is definitely more room to add new components or upgrade old ones. With a laptop, your components are so tight because of the limited space that upgrading anything else is a nonstarter.
Looking at storage is an interesting comparison between desktops and laptops because of the size considerations of the hardware. Companies like Apple have only recently upgraded its laptops to a default 256GB of storage for all laptop models. Apple isn’t alone in this endeavor either, as Dell and HP appear to be following suit with ensuring that 256GB is a default option for laptop purchases. Upgrading to a larger storage size could require significantly more money which, in the case of Apple, means another $200 each time storage doubles under 1TB.
Desktop storage is far more satisfying as most computers come with 512GB or 1TB hard drives by default. Depending on the desktop computer, you might even get a 256GB SSD and a 1TB disc-based hard drive. When computers offer this type of dual setup, it’s an important takeaway in that desktops can have more than one hard drive installed, which is not something any laptop can do, and desktops do it at a lower cost.
Yes, laptops can use external drives but this comparison should really only consider what comes as standard with each desktop or laptop purchase. Replacing the hard drive on a laptop with more storage is one of only two primary upgrades that can be performed on a laptop, and it’s more difficult to do than on a desktop. Pen this category for desktops.
Performance is a tricky subject when you consider a desktop versus a laptop and what your ultimate goal is for a computer. For someone who plans to play PC games, the type of performance you need on either a desktop or laptop is vastly different from someone who just wants to browse the web and stream movies. There’s no question that laptops are powerful computers, but when you want better performance for the dollar, you’re only going to find that with a desktop.
However, how much power you need is really dependent on what you want to do. If surfing the web is your top priority with a computer, then just about any desktop or laptop will do. If you want to surf the web with 14 open Chrome tabs, run PowerPoint, and edit an Excel file, all while being on a Zoom call with your remote team, performance becomes a primary consideration.
The biggest takeaway around performance is that you can find enough of it on both laptops and desktops. If you can think of a task to try and test a computer’s limits, you can do that, but if you measure the same performance for a laptop and desktop side-by-side, the desktop will almost always be better.
This isn’t a hugely significant consideration for most people but a laptop is likely going to be louder than a desktop. The reason is that a fan is almost always set within a laptop to help keep the components cool while working. Anyone who has ever used a gaming computer knows how powerful a fan can be but also why it’s necessary. On the desktop side, they almost never have a fan because they can have different cooling systems thanks to their larger hardware housing that, simply put, has more free space.
This is another pretty easy topic in favor of desktops as they have no batteries whatsoever. The good news is that, for laptop owners, battery life has come a long way from where it was a few years ago. It’s no longer uncommon to see battery life between 10 and 20 hours on a laptop without spending an absolute fortune. Even so, if you don’t want to worry about battery life at all, a desktop is the way to go.
Desktop vs. Laptop: 5 Must-Know Facts
- Upgrading a laptop is very limited compared to a desktop as it’s mostly just the hard drive and RAM that can be replaced whereas a desktop can replace just about everything.
- Desktop owners never have to worry about battery life, ever.
- Laptops come built-in with cameras while desktops usually require a third-party camera purchase.
- Desktops can either be separate hardware (mouse, keyboard, monitor, computer) or an all-in-one which combines the monitor and hardware components into one piece.
- Both desktops and laptops generally start with 256GB and 8GB as their standard storage and memory (RAM) options.
Desktop vs. Laptop: Which One Should You Buy?
Unfortunately, this isn’t an easy answer, and while it seems as if desktops might have more advantages here than laptops, it’s not a true cut-and-dry decision. For the most part, desktops offer better overall value than laptops when you try to compare similar specs. As laptops cost more money to build for their manufacturers, those costs are then pushed onto the consumer. What really should inform your decision here is which one is right for you and your needs.
Are you someone who travels frequently or works out of the house regularly? Then a laptop is probably the better decision for you. If you are someone who usually works from home and has multiple Chrome windows open at once, a desktop with a large monitor is going to serve you best. Gamers will also find that desktops are the best bang for the buck as gaming laptops can quickly get expensive while still being outperformed by a desktop.
The other big consideration here is that you can use a laptop as a desktop by connecting it to a monitor, and adding a keyboard and external mouse. This is the best of both worlds for many people but it also requires additional costs. If you can make it work, this is the best path forward, but if you’d prefer one type of computer system over the other, the desktop wins out for most people.