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

    You can put two chargers in parallel to double the power, which is needed for some exotic laptops.
  • JarredWalton - Monday, September 9, 2013 - link

    None of the Clevos or Alienwares do this, at least not that I've seen. What "exotic laptops" are you referring to?
  • nerd1 - Monday, September 9, 2013 - link

    Some Clevo ones with desktop processors.
  • JarredWalton - Monday, September 9, 2013 - link

    Ah, I see now that they changed to dual 330W adapters with the P570WM. I didn't realize that, but then I can't say it matters much to me. It's an extremely niche market, and the P375SM is more sensible for almost everyone other than perhaps mobile workstation users that need a 130W hex-core processor. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised at the dual adapters -- the old Clevo X7200 and P270WM could actually overload the old power brick under load. So, who wants to carry around 22 pounds of notebook?
  • Dribble - Monday, September 9, 2013 - link

    I own a fast laptop and a fast desktop and have done for years now. The one thing that can't be understated is how much easier it is to fix and upgrade the desktop. Upgrades to laptops basically means SSD's and memory. With a desktop you can upgrade pretty well anything - add graphics, no problem, and more hd's no problem, etc.

    Equally fixing laptops is hard work. Some stuff can't be fixed and other stuff is tricky. e.g. I successfully replaced the screen inverter in my last one, but that involved taking the whole thing apart (seemed like about 100 screws) then replacing the inverter then putting it all back together. With a desktop that sort of thing would be a 5 minute job.

    Hence I still love my desktop - it o/c's well, is faster, quieter, cheaper, easier to maintain and easier to upgrade.
  • Jaybus - Monday, September 9, 2013 - link

    For many tasks I do not care if I am using a laptop or desktop, as long as I have a real keyboard and mouse and a couple of large monitors. However, I need PCIe slots for ADCs and hardware other than a graphics card, making laptops impossible or at least difficult and expensive to use as my main workstation. If Thunderbird or something similar is someday able to handle the hardware, then I truly won't care.

    However, I still want a fixed location workstation in addition to a light laptop. Laptops are too vulnerable to theft and/or destruction while travelling, so I don't want all of my files on the laptop. Just the ones I will need while travelling.
  • Spunjji - Monday, September 9, 2013 - link

    Thanks for this, Jarred. It's really great to see such a comprehensive analysis put together off the back of a user comment - it really does put these price/performance trade-offs in perspective in a way that's useful fr us, the end users. Bravo!

    Incidentally, I also feel happier about my own setup after reading this - £800 for a second-hand 2670QM Clevo unit with 16GB RAM and a 7970M was some pretty excellent value. :D
  • DrJeckyll - Monday, September 9, 2013 - link

    Good review in general. I think that making a better comparison would be to include peripherals though, to make it a more apples to apples comparison.

    I, for one, just bought a true desktop replacement (Eurocom P375SM with an 8970M). For me, being able to game while on the couch is a big bonus and the capability to pick up and go in a heartbeat is nice. In terms of upgrade-ability, it's a clevo so I can change any component easily; and I ended up paying quite a bit less than a regular laptop in this class bringing the gap between desktop gaming even lower.

    Another interesting comparison would be to build a mini-ITX system.
  • JarredWalton - Monday, September 9, 2013 - link

    The problem with peripherals is that there's a huge range of quality. If we're building "comparable" to the notebooks, we'd want a basic 1080p TN display, cheap stereo speakers with a subwoofer, any pretty much keyboard and mouse. But realistically, most desktop users will have at least a decent quality 21.5" or 23" display, and many will now opt for a 27" 2560x1440 IPS display for $400-$500. I use 5.1 speakers still, an old set of Logitech speakers I've had for about 10 years now, maybe more? (How's that for longevity?) And for the keyboard and mouse, I'm currently rocking a $250 keyboard with a $65 mouse, but quality on these items is far more important to me than saving pennies.
  • SirNathan - Monday, September 9, 2013 - link

    You mention on the first page that a tablet with a keyboard is around $500, but if you get the Nexus 7, you can get a pretty good third party keyboard for around $30. Of course, then you'd have to do without Windows, so it doesn't work so well for comparisons in this article...

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