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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  • lmcd - Monday, September 9, 2013 - link

    Umm I must say, not that many users have spare monitors, let alone ideal ones. Not sure you can totally count that out, nor keyboards or wireless cards.
  • gandergray - Monday, September 9, 2013 - link

    The back of laptop or notebook lids seems to be an area that is underutilized for heat dissipation. Why not position GPUs behind the screen and engineer the back of the lid and the associated space between the screen for heat dissipation? Yes, the lid would thicken, and some circuitry would be segregated between the main body of the notebook and the lid--all of which would require engineering; but GPUs would then have substantially more available surface area and likely could be accessed and changed more readily.
  • bklyn - Monday, September 9, 2013 - link

    I would love to see a similarly written article on the difference in speed and productivity in professional imaging programs like Photoshop, illustrator, CAD etc. I built my current workstation a few years back and I am looking to upgrade fairly soon. The idea of a workstation laptop connected to a professional monitor is pretty alluring in light of the space constraints of small NYC apartment living. My current set up is as small as I could make it at the time without compromising much on performance, but it still takes a huge chunk of my living room. My other issue is connectivity with older FireWire peripherals (hasselblad/ imacon scanners etc). I'm not interested in Macs but I have been pretty jealous of some Macbook pro centered set ups I've seen, if only for the mobility and tidiness of it all.
  • TheCheesePlease - Thursday, September 12, 2013 - link

    The right answer is an thinkpad x220 running an eGPU over expresscard. BEST OF BOTH WORLDS

    Desktops would die quickly if this caught on.
  • versesuvius - Friday, September 13, 2013 - link

    Tablets will replace laptops. Laptops will not replace desktops. Laptops can never best desktops in terms of speed, reliability, serviceability, ease of use, upgradability and quality. On the other hand tablets can do all that a laptop can do while sticking to the idea of mobility and ease of use. Even after all these years, I can not but pity the guy who cherishes the opportunity to relieve him/herself of the burden of that weight on account of having found something to type. Rolling out the mouse or navigating the trackpad is even fun to watch.
  • JarredWalton - Friday, September 13, 2013 - link

    Let me ask you two pertinent questions:

    1) How old are you?
    2) How much do you type in any given day?

    You might think the first question is meant to be insulting, but I am speaking for experience. What I did in my teens and twenties is not something I can comfortably do in my late 30s. I did happen to type about 1500 words on a tablet in a 1.5 hour period earlier this week. My hands still hurt and I have sworn that I won't make that mistake again!

    That leads to the second question: how much do you type? You can pity the guy that pulls out a laptop and keyboard to type, but I can tell you as a writer who generally types 10-25K words per week (email, articles, etc.) that the quality of keyboard matters a whole lot for some people. And it's not just the quality of keyboard -- the size is critical as well; I can't type comfortably on anything less than 12.5", end of discussion (and 13.3" or larger is preferred). If you only consume data and don't type, tablets can be fine. The instant you have to write an article or lengthy paper, you need a keyboard (or you need substantially better speech recognition than the current generation of tablets offer).
  • bkiserx7 - Friday, September 13, 2013 - link

    Great, straight-forward article. Thank you for the read.
  • jeffkro - Monday, September 16, 2013 - link

    You guys missed the point, people who get desktops these days want a full blown keyboard, mouse, and big high res monitor. I have both, but my desktop is a lot more user friendly.
  • TFrog - Monday, September 23, 2013 - link

    When are we going to do a mobile comparison instead of a desktop comparison? It would be most interesting to see the differences between an Intel i7 with 4600/5200 graphics and AMD's A-10 and it's integrated graphics chip. I've yet to see this done anywhere.
  • Insanity133 - Friday, November 29, 2013 - link

    The experience of sitting down at a desktop computer is far better than a laptop, laptops are meant to be lower cost and portable, whilst desktops cost more, but are more comfortable to use and are much more powerful.

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