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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  • nerd1 - Monday, September 9, 2013 - link

    My main machine is a 17" alienware with 680M, which is comparable to GTX660, and it cost me less than $2K with 16GB ram and 500GB SSD / 1TB HDD. It is not terribly heavy (I carry it with backpack every day), fast enough for my work, and runs most game at 1080p easily.

    Similarly powerful desktop will be around $1400 (after adding display, keyboard and SSD), and I will still need a quality laptop with SSD, which won't come below $1000. So I think powerful laptop systems totally make sense for *some* people who are fine with 1080p gaming.
  • Notmyusualid - Monday, September 9, 2013 - link

    Jarred, amazing if you can get that performance for ~$1k.

    But most of us outside the USA pay through the nose for our electronics.

    My machine cost, (sourced in the UK) 3k GBP, without fancy SSDs, TB disk, nor memory. Factor in 800 GBP for those and your 3800 GBP machine is $5966.38 - including case but *without taxes*. And VAT (sales tax) here is 17.5%.

    Oh how I wish I could have spent that on a Desktop... but as noted, that is not an option for me.

    Love the article, and the site - keep up the good work, and try not to cry reading those prices! :)
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, September 10, 2013 - link

    Obviously prices have come down since your original purchase on some parts, but yeah -- desktop GTX 760 with a bit of overclocking is going to be pretty close to 780M SLI performance. Some cases it might be a bit slower, but you could always upgrade to a slightly faster GPU for not much more money. Glad I don't have to pay your prices!
  • JlHADJOE - Tuesday, September 17, 2013 - link

    Well I never thought about bringing a desktop along. I figured for most people the setup would be a desktop at home, and a laptop on the road. I suppose you're the exception here.

    My desktop is a 4770k and GTX780. I'm not sure if it's faster than your M18x, but I imagine they'd be about even. I have a Macbook Air for when I'm mobile.
  • LDW - Sunday, September 8, 2013 - link

    Thank you for an interesting analysis. I would like to suggest another angle for a future analysis....

    Constrain the laptops and desktops to use just the on-chip graphics processing made available from Intel and AMD, and pick several games that place lighter loads on the hardware to use to study their performance. These games may be older or may be current games with constrained settings.

    The question to be asked by the analysis is "How is the on-chip graphics doing in in the market? How does it compete with the discrete graphics (mobile and static)? Might there come a time in the future where the graphics performance of the on-chip graphics processors be 'good enough'?"

    I think the answer to the last is yes, but haven't a clue when that will occur. Thanks again for an interesting analysis.

  • jtd871 - Sunday, September 8, 2013 - link

    I was a bit disappointed to see that mobile IVB was not included as a comparison point, as many mobile owners will have purchased in the past several years.

    As has been inidicated by many others, the performance just has to be good enough. My lappie is a iBuyPower CZ-17 (17" 108p, IVB i7, GTX675m) with aftermarket RAM and SSD upgrades. I probably have $1800 in it. The cost is worth the smaller footprint. My kids are using my previous laptop (Lenovo ThinkPad T61 w/Core2Duo & NVS discrete gfx), which cost the same amount 5 years previously.

    As a comparison, the performance gained for the same money over 5 years is tremendous. My 'best value' paper build list for a $1500 desktop (including OS) would probably smoke my current laptop, but the laptop is still very nice for 1080p gaming and 1) I didn't have to put it (all) together myself 2) it is portable.

    The whole notion of battery life on a gaming laptop is kind of silly. It's basically a glorified UPS (which I appreciate), as I have pretty much never heard of anyone gaming without being on the mains.
  • JarredWalton - Sunday, September 8, 2013 - link

    Ivy Bridge wasn't included because, outside of the iGPU and battery life, it's not really all that different from Haswell. In fact, outside of the iGPU and battery life, even Sandy Bridge offers competitive performance to Ivy Bridge.

    As for battery life on a gaming notebook being silly, I don't think most people really expect to be able to play a modern AAA title like Battlefield, Call of Duty, etc. and get good battery life, but when you're not gaming there's really no need for battery life to suck.

    By my calculations, a 17.3" gaming notebook at idle should be able to draw around 10-13W max, mostly depending on the LCD brightness. Sadly, most are still drawing 20-25W at idle. There's no reason for this other than the manufacturers being too lazy to properly optimize the firmware for power savings.
  • Termie - Sunday, September 8, 2013 - link

    Great article, Jarred! Wow, it's amazing to see what those Haswell mobile quad-cores can do!

    By the way, you refer to the i7-4500U in the text, but your chart has the i7-4200U. I think the text is correct, and the chart isn't.
  • nunomoreira10 - Sunday, September 8, 2013 - link

    Either cpu perfomance has evolved so much on laptops or evolved so litle on desktops.
    intel need some competition and fast
    the bright side is i wont be losing much if i get a mainstream quadcore laptop
  • JarredWalton - Sunday, September 8, 2013 - link

    The thing is, for the most part people don't need faster CPUs. If we had CPUs that were 10X as fast, what would we do that we're not already doing? Intel has plenty of competition: ARM is the big one, but Intel is almost competing with their own past success. Until there's software that needs more CPU performance, focusing on other priorities like power and graphics makes more sense.

    And for the record, I don't think we need lots of new "innovations" in software that require faster CPUs. Look at Android and iOS; those require basically one fourth the performance of Windows to be plenty fast (outside of some web page rendering), and they deliver tons better battery life. More than anything, I think we're fast approaching the point where monolithic OSes, CPUs, etc. start to become irrelevant.

    A few more years and I could do most of what I need to do with an iPad/Android tablet with a good keyboard attachment. I'll still prefer laptops though, because larger displays and keyboards are more comfortable for me to use -- at least, I will until we reach the point where we can actually start connecting our brains directly into our computers. Hahaha....

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