Desktops: Better Performance for Half the Cost

Despite it being a Wednesday, this is not a Wildcard Wednesday post.  It’s just Joe posting a day late.  For our new readers, I (Joe) typically post about computers on Tuesday, and Joey posts about money on Saturday.  Occasionally we toss things up and do a Wildcard Wednesday post on … Wednesday.  But today is not that day.


I’ve been over what makes the best laptop.  If you follow my advice, you’ll get a great laptop that will last you years and has the highest chance of being repaired.  But that longevity comes at a lot of up-front cost.  And, if I’m being honest, laptops are terrible.  A laptop that’s good at being portable is expensive, has a small screen, and performance that’s just “good enough”.

Which brings me to Desktops, and how they are far better than a laptop if you don’t need to move.

You probably don’t need a laptop

Think about what you use your laptop for right now.

Watching movies on your TV?  A $30 Roku box lets you stream from just about every service imaginable.

Taking your laptop on travel?  Your phone can do all the flight check-ins, web browsing, and movie watching a laptop can.  And because of notifications about delays and their ultra-portability, phones are usually better at it too!

Typing reports on your couch?  Is that really worth the $600+ premium for that privilege?  Besides, that’s bad for typing ergonomics!

There are perfectly valid reasons for getting a laptop.  Say you’re a student, and you need to take notes or give presentations.  Maybe you’re self-employed and need to bring a computer to field locations.  Or maybe you’re my Mom and need to make school lesson plans while waiting for your daughter’s flute lesson to finish.

But if you don’t regularly need to bring your personal computer when you leave the house, then you’re a prime candidate for a desktop.

Much Better Performance

The Laptop and Desktop versions of processors are not created equally.  A mid-level i5 Desktop part will outperform a high-end Laptop i7 part from the same generation by 50%!1Source: http://cpu.userbenchmark.com/Compare/Intel-Core-i5-8600K-vs-Intel-Core-i7-8650U/3941vsm353957 Since laptops have to worry about battery life, laptop CPUs will be clocked slower and operate at lower voltages.  This leads to lower power consumption,2Yay! but much worse performance.3Boo!

The biggest problem, though, is keeping the CPU cool.  When CPUs work hard, they produce a lot of heat.  A laptop has to cram it’s heatsink into what little space isn’t taken up by motherboard or battery.  By comparison, a desktop is built around a beefy chunk of metal that can pull heat out of a processor all day.

A desktop isn’t nearly as space constrained, and has a much larger heatsink that can handle the increased heat production.  This also leads to much quieter operation under high load.  My laptop sounded like a vacuum cleaner when it played games, while my desktop is only slightly louder than idle.  The lower temperatures of a desktop heatsink also means a lower chance of catastrophic part failure, and longer lifespans.

Trivial Reparability

If you’re reasonably technical and very careful person, you can probably repair a good professional laptop.  Things like RAM, hard drives, and keyboards are usually just a few screws away.  Replacing a screen and cleaning the heatsink usually require a more substantial teardown and some substantial patience.

Remove two screws and my VAIO presents you with easy access to RAM, Disk Drive, Battery and Wireless Card. Anything else, and you’ve got to spend an hour completely disassembling the whole thing.

A desktop, however, is stupid simple to repair.  You probably don’t even need any tools to get into the case.  And once it’s open, all the components are right in front of you, in easy-to-remove sockets, practically begging to be taken out and swapped around.  All the components are separate and standardized, making diagnosis and repairs easy.

Pull a latch on the cover, and you’re presented with everything, no tools required. You can swap RAM, GPU, and a disk drive in seconds.

For example, power supplies are a common point of failure.  In a laptop, that circuitry is embedded in the motherboard, which will need to be completely replaced along with the CPU if it’s soldered together like most modern laptops.  Most replacement motherboards I saw were $300 – $500 + substantial labor because it requires a complete disassembly of the laptop.  The power supply is separate on a desktop.  You’re looking at an $80-max part plus a DIY 20 minute replacement, 40 minutes if you’ve never touched a screwdriver before.

She’s not the prettiest, but she’ll get the job done with ease.

Fantastic used market

I rarely recommend buying laptops used because most of the time, people sell laptops that they can’t fix, so you’re buying their problem.  Desktops, however, are frequently resold by companies on a regular (and probably unnecessary) upgrade schedule with tested working components and a fresh Windows install.  And since the heatsinks and case fans actually keep the components at a reasonable temperature, they last so much longer than their laptop counterparts.

There’s a huge supply of and little demand for these off-lease workstations, you can pick up a great used Dell Optiplex desktop with an i5, 8GB of RAM, and a 256 GB SSD for $300 on Newegg4As of october 2018, of course. Also related: this is how I got my desktop!.  Yes, the i5-3570K that comes with it is 6 years old.  But guess what?  It’s only slightly slower in userbenchmark.com’s “real-world” score than the current-generation i7-8750H laptop CPU in a brand new $1800 Razer Blade gaming laptop.5Benchmark Source: http://cpu.userbenchmark.com/Compare/Intel-Core-i7-8750H-vs-Intel-Core-i5-3570K/m470418vs1316
Razer Blade Source: https://www.razer.com/comparisons/blade-15
  Add $100 for a new 21” 1080p monitor if you don’t already have one.  Boom.  You’ve got a perfectly functional and overall better computer than a much more expensive laptop.  If you’re into gaming, add a new ~$250 nVidia 1060 6GB GPU and your games will perform just as well as that $1800 gaming laptop.

tl;dr:

Desktops may be dwindling in popularity in the last decade, but they are really worth a look.  Think really hard about what you do and if you really need the portability of a laptop.  Because if you don’t, a desktop is a better choice every time.

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