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ATPM 9.09
September 2003





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The Bottom Line

by Mary E. Tyler,

Laptop vs. Desktop

As a small business owner, if you don’t watch the bottom line, you can end up at the bottom of the barrel. The challenge is to find news, reviews, and even commentary that has the small business perspective in mind and its interests at heart. According to the government, a company with 250 employees is small. If you ask me, 250 employees and millions in revenue is pretty @!$#% big!

Far too often we’ve seen that big business and small business do not have the same interests. The truth is, neither do small businesses and tiny businesses. Sole practitioners and offices with two, three, even ten employees don’t have in-house IT personnel. Often they support, maintain, upgrade, and even repair their own equipment.

I know. I’ve been in business out of my home office (in one way or another) for about a decade. From shareware developer to Web design and development and on into technical journalism, I know what it’s like to fly solo. So if you own or are considering a home-based business, or if you have a tiny office with only a few computers, I’m talking to you.

When I first set up my office, it wasn’t SOHO, it was TOHO—tiny office, home office. I didn’t even have a room of my own, just a desk about two feet from my bed. There wasn’t much choice in affordable computer equipment then. The Mac I bought in college was as good as it got. These days the choices and configurations are nearly endless. I’ll assume that you’ve already resisted the temptation of a cheap Windows PC and are looking for a trusty Mac.

It used to be that laptops were financially out of reach for most tiny businesses, but with the advent of the iBook, that’s changed. You can get a very capable laptop for about $1000. For another grand, you can get a top-of-the-line computer, or what would have been considered a supercomputer a decade ago. The fact that laptops are affordable just makes the decision all the more difficult.

So let’s talk money first, since most TOHOs are on a budget tighter than Scarlett O’Hara’s corset laces. Desktops win in two out of three price ranges. On the low end, you’re going to get a lot more bang for your buck with a desktop. The $1299 iBook can’t hold a candle to the 15" iMac, also $1299. And for five hundred bucks less, you can have a competitive eMac. You can also have a great eMac for $1299. If you really want it, and have money to burn, the dual G5 clobbers the tricked out 17" PowerBook, and for several hundred less. But do remember you have to buy or otherwise own a monitor for use with the G5. If you’re like me, you’re in the $1800 range. The 12" PowerBook and the 17" iMac are closely comparable, both at $1799. The iMac has more screen and a few more megahertz. The PowerBook weighs about four and a half pounds and can be toted hither and yon.

If you often travel to Hither or Yon (get your super-saver flight on MAC Airlines), you’ll want something portable. The iMac and eMac are luggable if you’re going on a road trip to Rhode Island for a couple weeks. G5s are not portable, even with a big trunk. Last time I took a tower on vacation, I blew a PCI slot and my vacation got $3000 more expensive. To take back and forth to client meetings, vacations, business trips, or just to your second office (mine is at McDonald’s Playland), you can’t beat a laptop with a crowbar and two goodfellas.

Now while the good news is that laptops travel well, the bad news is that if you want a full sized keyboard, mouse, and screen, you have to carry them too. And of course, Apple makes a snazzy-looking power supply, but they never make it compact and easy to carry. Neither cord retracts and your toddlers will tread on it if you try to mix your authoring (CD/DVD) with your Arnold (daily on Nickelodeon). If you’re not careful, you can pull it out of the wall or out of the machine, potentially breaking the connector.

In a laptop’s integrated keyboard, a Coke will cause a lot more damage than if you just dumped it in your desktop’s keyboard. This brings up the whole topic of parts and repair. Laptops generally have to be sent away for repair, if they can be repaired at all. If your desktop monitor breaks, worse comes to worse, you can replace it. If your laptop monitor breaks and it’s not under warranty or AppleCare, fuhgeddaboutit. Laptop parts and upgrades are more expensive, even on eBay. While you can get away with not having AppleCare on your desktop, it is an absolute necessity for a laptop. Laptops are more delicate, more prone to being damaged, and, due to their wandering ways, are more likely to have mishaps. Laptops walk—that is they’re easier to steal than the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, and Ford Taurus put together.

Thankfully, laptops are also easier to hide. That’s because (duh) desktop machines and their various peripherals take up more space than the final frontier. A large monitor can completely obscure your desk, not to mention the laser printer in the corner, an inkjet for color, and the tower underneath. Add a cable modem and router and forget about actually working at your desk. You could end up needing to buy one of those unsightly office desks just so you can work. A laptop, by definition fits on your lap, even the 17" PowerBook. Instead of being at arm’s length, you can have a warm relationship with your faithful companion.

Unfortunately, with some of the new G4 PowerBooks, it can be a very warm relationship indeed. Depending on the processor, a laptop may put out a significant amount of heat. Certainly enough to be uncomfortable, but probably not enough to burn. You want your technology hot, but not that hot!

Once you have a laptop, like all hot technology, it cools fast. What was young and frisky this year is ancient and pokey next year. With a desktop, you can swap your mostly useless DVD-RAM (some Sawtooth G4’s) for a SuperDrive off eBay. Try replacing the pathetic 6 GB drive in your clamshell design iBook SE; it takes something like 22 steps and about four hours of delicate tinkering.

Now whether that’s a pleasant afternoon or not depends on who you are. The biggest factor in what to choose is what you want to do with the machine now and maybe in the future. People who need high-powered computation, graphics, and video and don’t need to go anywhere should have a G5 on their desk. If you’re doing Nisus Writer Express, Excel, Keynote, Eudora, and Safari and you want to use the computer in your recliner while your kids watch the Wild Thornberrys Movie, then that 12" PowerBook with an AirPort base station looks awfully attractive. If you’re a graphics professional, you’ll be more concerned with color quality than mobility and should get a CRT rather than an LCD screen. You have to choose the computer that fits your needs and only you can assess those needs.

All in all, it really sounds like the laptop got the worst of it in this shoot out. But that’s not the case at all, because while there are drawbacks, for people who have laptops, portability trumps them all. What’s really most clear is that the people who choose a desktop love the extra screen real estate and processor power. They love the desktop. People who buy a laptop love the flexibility and portability. They’d never trade their laptop and don’t regret buying it. When it came down to making my choice, I thought, “Since I’m borrowing anyway, what’s an extra two grand?”

I bought both.

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Reader Comments (13)

Dave · September 3, 2003 - 10:19 EST #1
There's another option--a new desktop and an old laptop. I use a Duo 280 (3 lbs., greyscale) for travel. It runs Eudora (a quick copy of the Eudora folder and all mail is transferred), Word 5 (conversion is easy), Excel 5 (ditto), PowerPoint, and even SPSS 4 for statistics, and it does them all quite nicely. The only thing an old, very cheap (under $300) laptop does NOT do well is web surfing. Batteries are the most expensive part of an old laptop, but if you only use them in a hotel room or a car or on the train, you can hook them up to a power supply and do just fine.
anonymous · September 3, 2003 - 11:03 EST #2
I have to disagree with both the conclusions of this article and its tenor. It doesn't read like an objective analysis of the question--more like a sales pitch. In addition--sorry Mary--you pollute it with too many "cute" phrases.

The bottom line on the desktop vs. laptop argument is one of personal preference. I'm currently using an iBook as my main Mac. I have an iMac (three years old) that serves as a backup and a server. The advantages of the iBook are many: portability (even within my house), flexibility (because it's easier to integrate with external peripherals, at least USB or FW ones), and resalability. When I sold my last iBook, which was about 18 months old, I got a much higher percentage of its purchase price than I could ever have hoped for a desktop. With that in mind, my new strategy is to buy a new iBook every 12 to 18 months.

I don't think the bottom line (cost) issue is very important. If you are running a small business, it's not a few hundred dollars that makes you choose one over the other. Every additional dollar my iBook cost was more than earned by its flexibility. (With an AirPort network, it can be used in lots of places.)

Frankly, given the speed of all current Macs, and the needs of most users, laptops are perhaps the best choice for all but those doing processor-intensive work, such as graphic design. Add to that a much more comfortable screen, and you should really consider an iBook or PowerBook more seriously.
Michael · September 3, 2003 - 12:10 EST #3
Up front cost is only one component of total cost and I've found that having a laptop has saved me time and allowed me to secure a number of sales that were helped by being able to instantly demonstrate an idea. Also, I don't want to have clients in my home. That's private.

Another factor to consider is that a SOHO business can keep you too isolated and cooped up. Too long in the home makes Mike feel crazy! With a laptop and an AirPort card, my office is always with me. The library or a coffee shop provides a nice working environment. Widely available Wi-Fi and a cell phone provides excellent connectivity. (I don't use the phone in the library.) An extra carrying case lives in my trunk that holds a thin, USB-powered scanner and portable battery-powered printer, together only 7 pounds. Have office, will travel.

If you work at home because it allows you to spend more time with the family, these considerations might not be as important, but it's still nice to be portable. It's also nice to work from a La-Z-Boy recliner. An inexpensive lap desk will insulate you from the heat of a PowerBook and give you room to add a track ball.

If I were buying today, I'd get the 12-inch PowerBook. It will drive a larger external monitor than my iBook and it has AirPort Extreme. I sometimes use an external monitor and keyboard at home. A PowerBook won't keep up with a G5, but I don't game, do video production, or work with huge Photoshop files. I also don't own a race car. Massive speed is nice if you need it, but most of us don't. Almost any computer sold today is fast enough for general business use.
Eric D.V.H. · September 21, 2003 - 08:26 EST #4
Laptop? Desktop? Why bother when you can just buy the latest in Apple's PowerBook Duo line!

On the road, it's as powerful as any other PowerBook while also being smaller and lighter due to less ports and such (though the optional MiniDock can make up for that). There's even a wearable version with an HMD coming out next quarter.

At home, slid into its Duo Dock. It turns into a full desktop machine with access to several PCI-X and HyperTransport slots, full 5.25" and 3.5" drive bays, extra DIMM slots, extra L3 cache sockets, and even a socket for an optional Altivec vector coprocessor for use with G3s and the new VPU-less portable G4s and G5s.

OOPS, looks like Apple foolishly axed the Duo line years ago, thus destroying probably the last innovative form factor they've invented, aside from the new iMac. Oh well.

Seriously though, I'd go with Dave's suggestion. Laptops are STILL too slow, confining, and, to put it bluntly, unusable for serious computing--even word processing and (gag me with a spoon!) web surfing are painful on a laptop's tiny, low-res screen, though I'll admit that even working on a single-monitor desktop gives me fits of claustrophobia.

Desktops aren't just superior in terms of power, but display space, keyboard/mouse space, and ergonomics.

Even worse, laptops are lousy portable machines:

1) The batteries are useless, as a fully charged battery (400 MHz Pismo G3) barely lasts through a 5-hour flight at the most miserable settings (all drives spun down, RAM disk, maximum conservation settings, dimmest screen, running only Exile 2) and vanishes in under an hour when running at full power. So, laptops are only really usable with their umbilical cord plugged firmly into a nearby wall socket and their user's rear end planted firmly on a stationary level surface.

2) The things are heavy. Without the display, keyboard, pointing device, and speaker(s), just the plain laptop itself is bulky and heavy (2 lbs., minimum, usually more like 5 lbs.), The piles of cords, power supplies, accessories, and other crud required to make them usable, along with a bag (sometimes an inner AND outer bag) to carry all of this garbage easily adds up to 15-30 lbs.

So, basically, laptops aren't portables. They're luggables. Since there aren't currently any machines I'd call "portable" while still actually being useful for something purely off batteries for lengthy periods (except maybe those little eMate-ish Psion EPOC laptops), the best machine for luggable use is a cheap, 5-lb. supplementary machine.

The only exception to this is an exceedingly rare group of people who use fast machines in the field with available stationary AC power, like journalists and their coterie of photographers, TV cinematographers, etc.

Lee Bennett (ATPM Staff) · October 28, 2003 - 22:20 EST #5
Eric - all that sounds awfully misinformed (note, I said mis-informed, not un-informed). First of all, my 1 GHz 15" PowerBook performs pretty much as well as my dual 800 MHz tower at work though, admittedly, the tower is still on OS 9. But then it's widely considered that OS X 10.3 has restored a lot of the speed people have missed from OS 9. Popular report has it that Panther also significantly improves battery life. As a desktop-ish machine, my PowerBook's wide display is sufficiently spacious and I even easily add my 17" monitor to the mix. Plenty of desktop real estate. And, finally, I'll put a PowerBook's weight up against almost any full-featured PC laptop any day. Sure, there are PC laptops that are much lighter—but they're lighter on more things than weight.
Patricia · January 19, 2006 - 21:21 EST #6
I got a laptop, but I changed it for a desktop. Really, I don't like laptops. They are very sensitive and very expensive in case they have to be fixed, that does not happen with desktops.these are more powerful and ergonomics and their fan are much better than the laptop fan
Lee Bennett (ATPM Staff) · January 19, 2006 - 21:39 EST #7
Patricia - hmm, I'd say don't generalize on such statements. That may be the experiences of you and some other people, but not everyone. Personally, after I owned a Performa 577 for a while, I went with a PowerBook 3400, then a Pismo G3, then my current 1GHz TiBook. All have served me very well. In fact, my Pismo laptop even survived a nasty car accident, having flipped 6-7 times in an SUV. I used it for a few months after that (including immediately afterward in the hospital) until I sold it. That person still uses it today.
Patricia · January 20, 2006 - 12:03 EST #8
Lee: I say what I think about laptops, maybe for another people they are nice and useful, but this is not my case. I got a Toshiba satellite L 20 and the fan did not work like the fan of my old desktop, contrarily, the Toshiba was like boiling all the time to such the point that I could not type due to the temperature and I had bought it brand new.After all, ecah perosn uses what it is more befitting for her or him
Lee Bennett (ATPM Staff) · January 20, 2006 - 17:07 EST #9
Patricia - Toshiba, eh? Maybe that's the problem. :-p

Sure, we're biased a little bit, and we focus only on Macintosh topics. I won't say that Apples are hands-down the best-made hardware, but I will say they're better-made than many other PC laptops.
aamir · November 30, 2006 - 16:38 EST #10
laptop eeeeh. laptops are slow like tertel. the graphics of laptops mild. in other hand desktops are powerful machine u play a big ghraphics games on it. ure graphics tool are esily handed by desktop. my first and final choice is desktops.
Ryann Pauig · January 16, 2007 - 07:48 EST #11
i agree to the people who are using desktops, because they choose the performance of a pc's.Thank's to the performance of a desktops cause i finally finished my research paper..................

In the "philipines" 80% are using desktops than laptops
Ryann P. · January 16, 2007 - 19:09 EST #12
As students consider purchasing a new computer, one inevitable decision will appear: should it be a laptop or a desktop? Students must carefully consider their computing needs in deciding between these options. Over 93% of students choose the portability of laptop computers over the power of desktops.
Heita Saara · August 15, 2007 - 15:36 EST #13
As a student at Varsity, i find this article very informing and so are the added comments, so congratz to the author.

In the end its wat u need the or proccessor for and your personal preferrence i guess:)

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