Desktop or laptop? Help me choose my next computer

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scales-of-macIt’s time for me to decide what my next computer will be. I’ve been using a desktop as my main machine since I purchased my first computer back when 10mb (yes, I said MegaByte) hard drives were considered ginormous. The question I’m trying to answer for myself is – should I finally ditch the desktop and go with a laptop as my everyday computer? I welcome advice on which way I should go…

How about a little history first? After several false starts, I finally made the switch from Windows to OS X back in the summer of 2005. My first full time Mac was a 20″ PowerPC iMac. A year later, I upgraded to a 24″ Intel iMac and have been using that same machine ever since. Now that three years have passed, my iMac is starting to exhibit some hardware problems. For the past few months I’ve been dealing with intermittent lockups that require a complete reboot and weird graphics anomalies.

One of the weird glitches I see on my iMac display
One of the weird glitches I see on my iMac display

With the help of new Gadgeteer writer Adam Scinto, we figured out that it is a GPU (graphics processing unit) overheating problem that has plagued my particular iMac model. Since the machine is 3yrs old now, I don’t think it’s cost effective to have the problem repaired, so I’ve been considering my options for upgrading.

Here are the tasks that I use my iMac for on a daily basis:

eMail – Gmail
Writing reviews – WordPress editor through Firefox
Image editing for reviews – Photoshop (I’m still using the PowerPC version of CS2)
Surfing – Firefox
Chatting – Adium
Listening to music – iTunes through iMac’s built in speakers

Nothing too crazy there huh? I don’t play games, so my work is actually pretty light weight in terms of needed computing power. Probably the most cpu / gpu intensive tasks that I do are editing photos for my reviews and short videos that I sometimes include in my reviews.

My iMac also holds:

Image archive for pictures that I’ve taken
Movie archive for videos that I’ve taken
Music library (all saved .MP3 files)
eBook library
other odds and ends

I do nightly backups using SuperDuper on to an external USB hard drive. I also backup and other sites that we host to that same drive every night.

What I like about the iMac:

24″ LCD
It runs very quiet
Full size keyboard

What I don’t like about the iMac:

I can’t take it into the living room with me when I want to work in front of the TV at night. I know that isn’t much of a complaint, but it’s all I can come up with 🙂

So, what do you think? Is it time for me to go with a laptop this time or am I better off sticking with a desktop? For those of you that are laptop only people, are you happy?

44 thoughts on “Desktop or laptop? Help me choose my next computer”

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  2. Best answer? LAPTOP.
    Why? You can use a Laptop as a desktop. Desktop as a laptop? Not so much.
    Besides. The main difference with most portables vs stationaries used to be power (as in processing or graphics). Nowadays, you can get a reasonably priced workhorse that can do the work of both. And yes. I’m following you on Twitter. LOL.

  3. I have been full time laptop for almost 7 years (iBook, PowerBook, MacBook, MacBook Pro) and would never go back. My current one has a 500GB HD, so no storage woes. For me, the physical versatility (couch computing, etc.) more than makes up for any price premium or specs shortcomings.

    That said, I have a pretty robust “docking” setup on my desk, consisting of a 24″ 1080p monitor, mouse, keyboard, and a few giant external hard drives, most of which I regularly use during the 9-5 work week. That probably offsets some of the “I miss my desktop” sentiment and makes a best-of-both-worlds solution.

  4. I’ve been using a laptop as my main machine since December 07 (Macbook 13in), without problems. I was impelled to make this change since my previous box was a Mac mini (therefore a compact, therefore I wasn’t gaining particular specific benefits of using a desktop, without having the benefits of using a laptop). I’d assumed it would be reasonably easy to lug the mini about, say to user group meetings, but the combination of having to think about a screen plus the vast size of the power supply comparative to a Macbook’s made this non-optimal.

    I never use the laptop features in my normal use of the machine, as it’s closed with separate keyboard and monitor. This will apparently cause a bit more wear and tear on it than you get on a desktop, but it is actually mentioned as possible in the manual.

    I *do* occasionally take it to the user group, and it comes into its own on holidays, where as long as I can find ethernet/wifi, I can get on with stuff just the same as at home because all my stuff is still there.

  5. I am a long-time PC user – with only a brief foray into Macs – but the issues are the just same when it comes to making this choice. I recently upgraded my desk system and then, discovering how much better the newer technology is (don’t ask how long it had been!), I upgraded my notebook too. Now I wonder why I bothered with the desk system. The notebook is wonderful: big, bright screen, full-sized, excellent keyboard, an equal amount of RAM, huge HD, etc. – and yes, I can use it on the couch, on the porch – anywhere I roam… and at my desk as well. I believe if I had upgraded the notebook first I might have added a dock to my desk and abandoned my desk system completely.

  6. Thanks for the comments so far everyone! 🙂 If I do go with a laptop, I like the idea of the docking station (Bookendz) because I’m pretty sure that I’ll get an external monitor, keyboard and mouse to go with it. I’m so used to a 24″ display that it would be hard to go down to 13 or 15″.

    For those of you with the latest Macbooks / Macbook Pros, do they run quiet? Can you hear the fan running during normal use? I have an older 15″ MBP (actually my SO says it’s hers…) that is almost silent. I wonder if the newest ones are as quiet?

  7. Julie,

    As you know, I have OCD.

    My new MBP (unibody) and even my previous gen MBP were completely silent under normal operation. So quiet, I’d have to put my ear just above the palm rests to hear ANYTHING. And it’s a mere 3′ from my bed.

    My typing is louder than the machine noise!

    Bonus by going w/the laptop with external monitor: You’re not constrained by monitor size. Use the laptop in an open config to have dual monitors! Use the bigger one for main work, the laptop screen for all your chat/IM activity, etc!

  8. Laptop with external screen. You don’t give up anything in power these days and its just much more convenient. Check AppleInsider for the best prices.

  9. Julie, I’m a longtime laptop as desktop convert (over 6 years now) and having the ability to pair it with a keyboard/mouse and larger monitor is a great benefit. And the Macbook Pro 13″ I’m now using is very quiet under normal use. There are enough ports for connectivity and device usage (as well as backup to a portable drive when traveling out of town). One thing to consider with the smaller 13″ is can you use it with its current config of a glossy display. Only the 15″ and 17″ offer a matte display option. Good luck in your decision. Laptops are all I look at nowadays.

  10. I agree with the laptop/large monitor folks. If you’re doing graphics intensive stuff, shut the laptop, and just use the external display. This gives you more RAM (since the internal graphics are run from RAM, not GPU), and makes things snappier.

    I love the Apple Wireless Keyboard – I have one for my laptop and one for my iMac (G5) in the basement. And I am one of 5 people globally who don’t mind the wireless Mighty Mouse. BT connections to the laptop are phenomenal – with or without the laptop’s LCD.

  11. One thing I can say for sure is that you’ll need something between your macbook and your lap unless it’s pretty cold and you want it to warm you up, they run pretty hot.

    We can help you there with some of our cooling pads 🙂

  12. There are actually a couple other arguments for laptops that I can think of. All the macbooks (afaik) come with those little remotes for controlling iTunes, so you can bring your laptop out in the living room/dining room and remotely control your tunes from across the room (preferably connected to better speakers obviously). Related is the option for connecting the laptop to the TV. Apple could make this a lot easier than they do with the proprietary cable issue, but its nice to know you can do it if you want.

  13. Go with nothing less than macbook pro with external monitor of 20″ or 24″.
    I have a black macbook & 24″ iMac and whilst I love my macbook and use it all the time, when I turn on the iMac I am just amazed at the screen and vividness.

  14. I had nothing but desktop computers for years, but I got a laptop when we considered homeschooling our daughter. Ended up not homeschooling her, but I’ve stuck with the laptop. I can put it in my computer armoire, but I spend most of my time with it on an oversized tv-tray-type table in front of the sofa.

    My biggest concern was giving up my ergonomic keyboard. I know I could have an external keyboard, but I finally found I don’t really need the ergonomic shape any longer. I no longer write programs for 10 hours a day, so I no longer have a cyst in one wrist and a brace on the other!

    The thing I like most about my laptop is I can take it with me when we travel. Even though I back up my computer, I’ve started to obsess about keeping my digital pictures safe since I lost my parents. I just take the computer and my pictures with me.

    The only thing I miss about the desktop is the numeric keypad. I may consider getting a 17″ laptop next time so I can have that keypad again.

  15. I am wrestling with the same decision: I can’t decide between the 13″ MacBook Pro and the 20″ iMac. One of these will be my first Mac since 1984. (I still have my original Macintosh, carrying case, etc.)

    I take it you don’t hold a grudge about the beginning failure of your 3-yr old imac? Seems too soon for me. My Sony Vaio is more than 3 years old and still running without any problems except old age…

    Make your decision so I can make mine!

  16. Everyone is talking about Macs, the question was whether a laptop is preferable – well, if you can afford the lap top go for it – as everyone has pointed out, laptops are far more versatile and can be hooked up to a large monitor to “pose” as a desktop. The only advantage with desktops is that one gets more bang for their buck, i.e. your chip (CPU) will be faster and your RAM and HDD larger for the equivalent amount of money as one is not paying for minituarisation. Personally, I prefer Asus and Toshiba Laptops – I think Apples are overpriced, though I realise they are good for CAD and Graphics work. The other thing I dislike about Apple products is that they tend to hog resources – Apple iTunes being a case in point. I am very happy with my Windows Vista and have been a “PC” adherent for close on 20 years.

  17. A 24″ 3.06GHz iMac is going to cost you circa £1,800 but will only be accessible at your desk, in your house.

    You could furnish yourself with a desktop AND a lap top and actually spend less money too – by purchasing a 13″ 2.53ghz MBP together with a 24″ Apple Cinema Display.

    Admittedly the trade-off here is processor size/performance, so if this is an unacceptable compromise you could always consider purchasing a 15″ 3.06ghz MBP with a 24″ Apple Cinema Display at a cost of circa £2575.

    This would give you all the benefits of an iMac AND a high-end MBP for just £600 more than the iMac itself would have cost you. So consider yourself getting a high-end MBP for just £600! That’s a bargain in anyones book!

  18. I like the most machine I can get for my money, so I’ve always been a desktop PC guy. If I was to switch to a desktop replacement, I’d have to spend 2 or 3 times as much as it would cost me to build my own system. And a desktop replacement, for me, would be huge and fairly heavy. And I keep computers as long as I can by doing upgrades…laptops don’t allow much in the department.

    I like a powerful desktop PC with a nice big monitor for most of my stuff and a netbook for all the portable stuff I do.

    Use the proper tool for the job…one machine can’t do that for me, but if you don’t mind the limitations a desktop replacement has, never need to edit and render video, never play games more intensive than Peggle or Minesweeper and can find one that’s not terribly expensive or heavy, then maybe you can.

  19. I also have been using a 17″ Powerbook/MacBook Pro for at least three “cycles.” A computer cycle for me is every 2.5 years, just before the AppleCare expires, I begin to lust after a new model. I’ve had my eye on an external monitor, but find the 17″ is just fine for working on web design, and everything else at once… especially since Exposé and Spaces have allowed me more display flexibility.

    Go laptop. For sure. If you can afford the external monitor- go for a 15″ — You can happily sit around the house or plop down at your desk and use a wireless Mighty Mouse. I have AC adapters at the desk and at my favorite chair. You might have to invest in some new software…

    Oh, and a Time Capsule for wireless backups… and…

  20. Decisions, decisions… I hate choices. But I think (with all of your help) that I’ve made up my mind to go with a Macbook Pro, an external monitor and an Apple Wireless Keyboard this time. Now I just have to decide between a 13″ and 15″ MBP. Argh 🙂

    Since upgrading to Snow Leopard, my iMac hasn’t frozen with the spinning beachball problem and the GPU is running a little bit cooler. I am still getting the occasional graphics wackiness, but it doesn’t hinder my work. Knowing me, I’ll put up with these problems until they get really bad. I still plan to upgrade before the end of the year, but I may push it out for another month or two.

  21. Unless money is no object, if you don’t *need* a notebook buy the desktop. When you build out a notebook that compares spec for spec to the iMac you’ll find that the notebook is considerably more expensive. Moreover, you’ll have a smaller display and fewer ports, and almost certainly a smaller internal drive and slower processor as well. And that smaller package brings another serious downside – greater thermal stress. I’ve never trusted a notebook to last as long as a desktop.

  22. ok for your needs i would recommend a laptop because you want it to be portable, sounds like your not doing too much as far as graphics so you should be fine there. i’m not much for macs, you can get a hp or dell for less than a mac i spent $600 about 7 months ago on an hp laptop that i love, and if you buy an hp now you will get a free upgrade to windows 7 when its available, i cant say enough about windows 7 its good….

  23. Well, I have yet to own any Mac product, but you’ve made a smart choice…the MacBook Pro aught to be great. Please keep us up to date with how it works for you.

    I may not be all that “techie” but I see the beauty in a Mac and would love to learn more about them. I’ve told my husband that as soon as I make enough moola- I’m buying myself one and giving him my dell laptop (LOL)…

  24. Laptop. You can plug it into a docking station for all the desktop features. The price difference is noticable but laptops are more reliable (when used as desktop machines) and are portable. I have desktops and laptops (plural) and do a lot of travel. I back up everything before travelling, and take the laptop with me (together with universal charger)… At home I take my laptop to the lounge, to the bedroom (if my wife permits 😉 and I use it at my desk. I only use the desktop for the extra power it provides in editing video (and because I hate unplugging all the video equipment). The laptop is just so – well – portable.

  25. I am currently using an aluminum 13″ MacBook with a 24 in external monitor (and have an older iMac G5), and it works pretty well for me, though I wonder if Apple does announce an iTablet thingy that can also display webpages in portrait mode if I would really need the portability of the 13″ vs a 15″. Don’t know when Apple is planning to announce new products with the new Intel i7 or i5 chips, or if it will go into the next iMac before laptops…iMac+iTablet vs MBP+ext monitor…something to consider.

  26. About half a year ago I bought a ThinkPad – second-hand – and been using it since then. I realized that I don’t need my more powerful desktop anymore, so I sold it. I’m comfortable in this situation, don’t want my desktop back.

    I’m not into Macs, but they sure have their advantages. In my book, for your needs, a laptop would do better.

  27. I have a 13″ Unibody Macbook (from before all the unibody ones were “pro”). It’s easily the best laptop I’ve ever used, and the current MBP’s fix a few of the extremely minor issues I’ve had with it. The additional battery life would make it even more useful. It is my first personal Mac, though I’d used Windows, Linux (various distributions) and Mac at work.

    Previously, I’d preferred Lenovo/IBM Thinkpads for their trackpoint joystick-style pointing devices, but the “zero-button” trackpad with multi-touch gestures makes it so much more useful. I’ve yet to see a Windows laptop with as good of an implementation of gestures.

    I prefer matte screens to glossy, so if I were buying a new laptop right now, I’d consider the 15″ with anti-glare. I added a ~$50 matte protector to my screen, and it’s not quite as good as a “native” matte screen, but far preferable to the reflective glass when I’ve got a dark background.

    I use it primarily as a laptop, but I also occasionally hook it up to our HDTV and control it with a Logitech diNovo keyboard/mouse for media stuff or when I want a huge screen.

    Again, it’s by far the nicest laptop I’ve ever used (previous over the last 8 years include Dell, Lenovo/IBM, Toshiba, and an early model Intel MacBookPro. The only real disadvantages to the current crop of MBP’s (from my perspective) is that the 13″ doesn’t have a matte option, and they made it slightly harder to upgrade the disk drive.

  28. EASY! 2 words – TAX DEDUCTION – your work centers around using computer systems – go speak to your accountant to see what % you’ll get back from purchasing your gear (this will be based on being an employee, or self employed, what you earn, whether you’re registered for GST etc) then take your intended budget bucks and buy both, then network them so you can use either – I mean really, would you want to spend hours with your videos and images looking at a laptop screen?? Nas-TY! I have both the big imac and a simple mac laptop (as like you I’m no gamer) – both 3 years old- and I love switching between the 2 – go on you deserve it!! I love all my Apples!

  29. I’ve been evaluating the same options, but the thing that always pushes me towards a desktop is the multi-monitor support. If not for that, laptop all the way.

  30. I’ve been a dedicated Laptop use for the last 7 years, I’ve Been very happy with this decision, as I love the ability to be compleatly mobile and work from anywhere.

    The few times I’ve wanted a desktop has been when working on heavy Video Projects or wanting to play a few of the newer games. In most cases I’ve been been able to access someone else’s machine for those few infrequent times.

    Looking at what Julia’s outlined as her typical usage scenario, A laptop’s definitely looking like a better balance of features verses mobility, especially when paired to an external monitor.

    I’ll also recommend going for the 13″ Macbook Pro over the 15″ as the increased mobility afforded by a smaller machine can be godsend when out and about or travelling (Try opening a 15″ on a Plane) and the primary benefit of the 15″, increased Processor and graphics performance are probably not going to be needed much.

    I’ve got a 13″ on order (Waiting anxiously for it :)) and went with it because the 15″ did not offer any major advantage for my requirement without compromising the needed mobility (Though an express card slot or Esata slot would have probably changed my mind)

    So I’ll say definitely go for the 13″ Macbook Pro and pair it with a nice screen, say something like the Apple 24″ Cinema display.

  31. Julie,

    If you have Mint wireless computer speakers for your mac. you could enjoy really powerful sound without loosing your portability. All you need is jug plugging in the USB wireless audio transmitter into you Mac USB port and click system preference>Sound>Output>select Mint as the output. You can buy the Mint 130 at $89.99 at

  32. Laptop for sure – I have a 24″ iMac that is the “family” computer. After I obtained a 13″ MB unibody and upgraded the internal drive to a 320GB one I RARELY use the iMac. Ultimately I would get a 24″ external display and have a decent size external hard drive for backups and additional storage (actually 2 drives to rotate outside of the house). With an Apple display you can reduce the amount of cables being connected to just power and the display port. Regardless of iMac or Macbook a bluetooth keyboard and mouse makes for better typing position and (again) no wires! If you get a MB Pro the extra GPU would probably come in handy for the times you do any video editing or play a game that takes advantage of it.

    I still have desktop machines though they’re for playing PC games but iTunes, web surfing, and most of my day-to-day personal “work” happens on my MB.

    One thing that hasn’t been mentioned too much is price. I had a real tough time spending almost 45% more for comparable hardware getting an Apple Laptop vs. a PC. I still have PCs running Windows and Linux but it’s very nice not to have to play desktop support dude as my family is mostly on OS X and I’m the only one that updates those systems.

    1. Another thought has crossed my mind… I could hackintosh a laptop. The idea isn’t very appealing, but it is doable.

      It was suggested that I contact and ask what they might offer for my iMac in trade for a new Macbook. I’m waiting to hear back from them…

  33. I’ve been considering this very question myself (although PC, not MAC), and I have a concern I haven’t seen anyone address yet. I leave my PC on all the time. I mean literally 24/7/365. Can a laptop put up with that, or will the heat buildup cause a premature death? I’m curious to hear what you others have to say regarding this.


    1. @Larry You just made me stop in my tracks because I leave my computer (iMac) on 24/7 also… But, I leave my laptop on 24/7 here at my day job and it’s about 3yrs old… it’s still running. Hmmmm…..

  34. I made the switch to laptop only and haven’t looked back. I also leave my MBP on 24/7 and have had no problems whatsoever. My Pro is a June07 model and I haven’t had a moments problem with it, even with the hard use. The only time I hear the fan is when I’m using Parallel and Windows, then the thing cranks up and the fans take off. I understand the newer MBPs don’t have that problem.
    One think I do have is an M-Stand, external mouse and keyboard and my Mac doesn’t seem to have any problem staying cool. Again, mine is 2 years old and the new ones should even be better.
    Good luck!

  35. If you do go for the Macbook Pro I saw some refurbished ones on the Apple site the other day. (I’m considering a similar dilemma :)) I had a Powerbook I got as a refurb several years back and it worked beautifully. Still works, though I sold it (G4 was getting too old for my usage). Refurbs are a nice way to cut into the premium sometimes.

  36. Julie:

    Go for the 13″ laptop and external monitor.
    If you are worried about leaving the laptop on all the time, when you can afford it, get a refurbished MacMini and use it as your “desktop”, networked with the laptop. You’ll surely find that you will use the laptop most often, but you’ll have the security of a second computer just in case.


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