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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  • jjj - Saturday, September 7, 2013 - link

    and i guess there is a lot more that moved on die besides the GPU so all in all what used to take 250mm2 and cost 300$ takes now 3 times less area but at the same price and if we want more there is nothing we can do, unless we pay like morons.
  • TEAMSWITCHER - Saturday, September 7, 2013 - link

    I get what your all saying, it's infuriating to purchase devices that waste transistors implementing a "worst in class" graphics solution - one that will undoubtedly be replaced. But Intel is the only real looser here. The performance of all their Core desktop processors is so great, I would still buy them at the current prices - without integrated graphics or extra cores.

    Finally...don't think Sandy Bridge-E and Ivy Bridge-E processors are all that. The heavily threaded applications that benefit from these CPU's don't go from "waiting" to "not waiting" by adding a couple cores.
  • kamsar - Saturday, September 7, 2013 - link

    I'd love to see a storage comparison between desktops and laptops. I've seen SSDs routinely bench at around 2/3 of the speed of a similar desktop. Desktops just feel faster still.
  • Impulses - Sunday, September 8, 2013 - link

    Must be older laptops with a bottleneck at the controller level...
  • ToToRoTY - Saturday, September 7, 2013 - link

    Wow, the CPU (and CPU only) performance is not half bad! It's certainly a much better improve than the previous generationS. However, the graphics side seem to be quite behind, especially the cost efficient ratio... I wish the manufacturers like Clevo would put more focus on cooling design (& much much more innovations) than they are doing now. It's not like the tech isn't available, it's just not implemented well enough.
  • purerice - Sunday, September 8, 2013 - link

    If you personally are suffering from an externally hot laptop, there are relatively ugly but cheap "laptop coolers" available that plug into USB. If you mean internal cooling, I feel your pain. A month ago I really wanted a Toshiba Qosmio but lots of reviews on their site complain about overheating/breaking down.
  • jasonelmore - Saturday, September 7, 2013 - link

    Thanks for the article, i've always wondered how single core ipc compared to desktop in mobile cpus
  • KaarlisK - Sunday, September 8, 2013 - link

    The thing that bothers me is the dearth of light laptops with 35W TDP CPUs.
    An Ivy Bridge dual core at 3.0 GHz (3230m with both cores fully loaded using x264) consumes about 18W. Clearly, there is no way a CPU intensive game is going to be capable of using a ULT/ULV CPUs full potential, as it will simply run into the TDP limit. In the Ivy generation, there was no gain from using ULV CPUs, except for a few pennies and grams saved on cooling; when the laptop weights only 1.5kg anyway, it doesn't matter. With Haswell, ULT CPUs should have extra power savings in idle/in communication with the chipset, which at least may be a reason to want one.
    Intel's 28W ULT CPU does seem to acknowledge this, now one just has to hope CPUs like that won't cost too much.
  • Sancus - Sunday, September 8, 2013 - link

    I think this article understates the massive savings that the upgradeability of a desktop provides. Because desktop CPU perf is essentially stagnant, unlike in the past when you were well advised to upgrade CPU and GPU at the same time there is no longer any good reason to do this eben for the extreme enthusiast. You could have been upgrading your sandy bridge machine for the last several GPU revisions and end up spending less than the price of a single generation's performance laptops. This ability to keep up with GPU performance without pointless whole system replacements is a huge deal.
  • smallmj - Sunday, September 8, 2013 - link

    With both laptops and desktops being fast enough for non-gaming users, I think the biggest advantage that desktops have is in longevity. I generally tell people that a decent quality laptop (not Acer or HP Pavillion) will last 3-5 years and that a decent quality desktop will last 5-8 years. Also, repairs on a desktop are much cheaper, where repairs on a laptop are often not worthwhile.

    So for most of my users, it becomes a choice between longevity of a desktop and the convenience of a laptop.

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