Introduction: Analyzing the Price of Mobility

Computers have been getting faster over the years, and with the increased performance we eventually passed the point where most systems were “fast enough” and the various features and use cases became more important. It used to be that to get similar performance to a desktop, a laptop would generally cost two or even three times as much – and even then, sometimes it was simply impossible to match desktop performance with a laptop. Has that changed with the era of “fast enough” computing? One of our readers suggested we take some time to investigate this topic to help enlighten the general public, so we pulled together results from recent laptop and desktop/CPU reviews to see how much of a premium we’re now paying to go mobile.

There’s a related topic that I’m not even going to get into right now: tablets. The short summary is that at the low-end of the price spectrum, tablets can actually fill quite a few requirements. They’re slower, but battery life and portability is also better. Typing on a screen is not something I really enjoy at all, though, so adding a keyboard would almost be a requirement, which means at a minimum we’d be looking at closer to $500 for a decent tablet with a keyboard (e.g. ASUS Transformer TF300T with the keyboard dock). Okay, I said I’m not getting into this subject; basically, it’s possible to get a $500 tablet with keyboard (perhaps even $400) but performance is a major step down from even a budget laptop. That’s changing but for now I’m going to focus on Windows laptops vs. desktops.

Naturally, when we talk about performance, there are many factors at play. CPU and GPU performance are usually the biggest items, but in some cases the performance from the storage subsystem can actually trump the other two. A modern desktop with the fastest CPU and GPU available will handle pretty much anything you want to throw at it, but if it’s using a hard drive (HDD) for storage even a moderate Ultrabook equipped with a solid state drive (SSD) can be faster at booting into Windows or launching several applications at the same time. That might seem like an odd performance metric, but if you’ve ever experienced the dreaded “turn on the PC and wait five minutes after Windows loads before the system is actually ready for use” scenario, you’re running into storage bottlenecks.

We’ve advocated the use of SSDs for the OS and applications for several years now and we’ll continue to do so. In terms of storage performance, a good SSD will be at least 2-3X as fast as the best HDD for sequential transfers, but more importantly it can be 50-100X (or more) faster in random accesses, which is similar to what happens during the Windows boot process or when you launch a bunch of applications simultaneously (or launch a browser with dozens of tabs).

The good news is that nearly all laptops can be easily upgrade with an SSD if you’re willing to pay the price and take the time to do the upgrade yourself; the laptops that can’t be upgraded with a typical SSD are usually Ultrabooks that already have SSDs. The only drawback for SSDs is capacity: a typical 1TB 5400RPM 2.5” HDD will cost around $80; Seagate’s hybrid 1TB HDDs (with a bit of solid state cache to improve performance) will set you back around $130. The least expensive 240GB SSD in contrast costs around $165, with “better” models (faster, more reputable, and/or larger) costing up to $230 (or more). That’s 2x to 3x the cost of a hard drive for 1/4 the capacity, but the performance benefits are tangible. We’ll stick with comparisons between SSD-equipped systems for this article, just to keep things easy.

CPU/General Performance Discussion
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  • JarredWalton - Monday, September 9, 2013 - link

    There's also the screen size issue. For handheld tablet use, a 7" screen is fine. Sitting on a desk with a keyboard, however, 7" can be painfully small for anyone over 30 or with moderate vision to read. Even 10" tablets may not work for everyone, but at least I can make a good go at it.
  • rburnham - Monday, September 9, 2013 - link

    It really does come down to lifestyle. A buddy of mine is on the go a lot, so he invested in a good Alienware gaming laptop. It's big, it's fast and it can double as a nice workstation too.

    On the flip side, I currently do not travel at all, so I have a desktop workstation and desktop gaming PC. However, I plan to move to a new area in the near future, where I will be traveling on the weekends. I will keep the gaming desktop, but the workstation will be replaced with a mid-range gaming laptop, which will double as a 1080p workstation while at home.

    I just love that we have these options. It's a great time to be a computer user.
  • Sadrak85 - Monday, September 9, 2013 - link

    The facts here actually support a slightly different conclusion, although noted to be out of the scope of the article; for "basic" computing needs such as web-browsing, you don't need massive performance, and even those laptops are more than required. Mobile is the answer. Mobile can handle email, web, basic text-editing, some photo, and presentations. Thus, the ideal setup is your own preferred mobile device and a desktop for 1)ergonomics, 2)value, 3)speed, 4)reliability. Forget the laptop entirely! It's the "Utility Van" of the modern era. Niche cases, like hardcore gamers on the go, or someone who needs just enough power on the move to whine about a tablet, but not enough to remote-desktop to a more powerful machine. The only reason there is still a laptop in my home is because it's a relic of my wife's college days, and it's nice to play Minecraft in the same room as her (she gets the 3240x1920 display when we play together because I'm a gentleman).
  • JarredWalton - Monday, September 9, 2013 - link

    I mentioned tablets in the introduction, and for most people that need to type anything I still feel laptops are far superior to tablets. Others will disagree with that, and that's fine, but I have typed a fair amount on my two 10" tablets over the past two years, and I don't like it at all. Adding a keyboard could fix some of the issues, but then I have something larger to carry around and a 13.3" laptop (or 14" laptop) is still going to provide a much better keyboard experience for anyone that doesn't have petite hands.
  • Sadrak85 - Tuesday, September 10, 2013 - link

    Yeah, but an ergonomic desktop keyboard is better still; tech journalists who travel need decent laptops because they're writing in hotel rooms, etc., and maybe paperback novelists need the inspiration of writing in a cabin in the woods, but when I update my website, I do it in front of my desktop, in my home office, where a laptop would cramp my style.
  • max1001 - Monday, September 9, 2013 - link

    Gamers are what keep the desktop market alive. You can keep playing games on release date at max setting as long you keep upgrading your GPU now and then. I usually upgrade mine once a year and sell the old one on Ebay. The whole system get a refresh every 3 yrs or so.
    Laptop on the other hand are totally different story. My XPS 17 with 650m going to be useless in a year for gaming and it's not even worth selling it back out on ebay.
  • Sadrak85 - Tuesday, September 10, 2013 - link

    Don't forget cheapskates (the only reason I overclock is so I don't have to buy the next model up) and people who own comfortable chairs and ergonomic keyboards.
  • hoboville - Monday, September 9, 2013 - link

    One important factor that cannot be expressed enough with regards to laptops--especially since you mentioned college--laptops get stolen a lot. You'd be hard pressed to find the same to be true with a desktop PC. And if you're a gamer with a $2000 laptop...not fun to contemplate.

    I refurbish and repair computers for a living, and people break laptops all the time (can't tell you how many times people have spilled beverages on them). Repairing them is rarely an option, if the customer has cracked the screen or messed up the keyboard and it's not under warranty...their options are very limited.

    There's hidden costs to mobility and all-in-one solutions, performance is just one aspect. Besides, when was the last time you dropped your desktop PC accidentally?
  • vpk24_astro - Monday, September 9, 2013 - link

    It'd be really interesting to see how far we are from discarding laptops entirely in favor of tablets. The thermal constraints - the only ones set in stone, should be the only limiting factor in the long run. Fortunately, the thermal envelope that laptops have to run in is very comparable to what tablets have to play with (factor of 2X or so in heat generated). How many generations before we see tablets as powerful as today's laptops? Are there any variants of desktop linux that have been ported to a tablet? Can I plug a keyboard, mouse, HDD and monitor into a tablet all at once?
  • Selbatrim - Monday, September 9, 2013 - link

    This is pretty much the same argument. You wonder when a tablet will be better than the CURRENT laptops but by then the laptop has progressed further and you still get more for less.

    The question seems to be when will the form factor no longer represent any impact on price or performance? For the mainstream this may perhaps happen in the next 10-15 years, but for the enthusiast it will take so long it is not really possible to contemplate.

    Again, I just looked at this in a fleet refresh and the approximate priceratios we came up with was this:

    1 tablet(full x64 specs here, not arm etc) for the price of 2 laptops or 4 desktops. Will this ratio change? Perhaps. But if you are looking at value for money the foreseeable future is desktop over laptop over tablet.

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