or Laptop: How to Decide?
by Reid Goldsborough
May 15, 2004
One remarkable reality of the personal computer revolution
is that the computers and the components in them continually
get faster, smaller, and cheaper. One dilemma this has
led to, for many buyers, is deciding just what type of
computer to buy when it's time to replace your current
The major decision is between a traditional "desktop"
computer, which sits atop a desk in your office or home,
and a "laptop" computer, also called a "notebook"
computer, which can perch on your lap and is not much
bigger than a notebook you might tote around with you
on the way to a meeting or class. The term "laptop"
used to refer to a larger portable computer and "notebook"
to a smaller one, but this distinction has largely disappeared.
To complicate matters even further (whoever said computers
were easy?), you can choose among different types of both
desktop and laptop computers.
With desktop units, big tower PCs are more expandable
than mid-tower systems, and this can be helpful for advanced
users. Compact systems and all-in-one units are less-expandable
still. The latter units integrate the monitor and case
and are very easy to set up.
With laptops, "desktop replacements" pack virtually
all of the computing power of a desktop system but can
still be conveniently transported from one location to
another. Ultraportables are for "road warriors"
who travel frequently with their machines and can benefit
from having to lug around the lightest burden possible.
Value notebooks offer a middle ground between the two
at lower prices.
One sea change in the world of computers is the increasing
feasibility, even desirability, of using any kind of laptop
as your sole computing device, whether in the office or
home or away from it. Unlike in the past, today's laptops
provide all the processing power, memory, and hard disk
storage space that most users need at a price premium
that's the smallest it has ever been. And the market has
Last year, the market research firm NPD Group made headlines
in the computer press by announcing that sales of laptop
computers in terms of revenue in the retail market had
surpassed those of desktop systems for the first time.
The picture is similar, if not as revolutionary, regarding
the total number of units sold. I asked Alan Promisel,
an analyst with market research firm IDC, to do some number
crunching, and he reported that unit sales of laptop PCs
in the U.S. as a percentage of the total market have been
increasing: 16.7 percent in 1999, 19.1 percent in 2000,
21.4 percent in 2001, 23.7 percent in 2002, and 27.2 percent
Clearly, the trend is up.
Still, despite portability and size benefits, laptops
don't make sense for everyone, said Leigh Weber, incoming
president of the Independent Computer Consultants Association
and a computer consultant in Maple Glen, Pennsylvania.
Though the price difference is smaller than it has ever
been, it could still cost you several hundred dollars
for the increased portability and space savings. And though
the functionality difference is less than it has ever
been, if you're doing high-end gaming or high-end graphics
(such as video editing and computer-aided design), you'll
benefit from the added capabilities of a desktop unit.
Laptops are also less ergonomic. Some people find themselves
slumping over their laptops, which can cause neck and
back strain. Some laptops have reduced-size keyboards,
which can crimp your hands. If you do a lot of number
crunching, most laptop keyboards don't have a separate
number pads, which you may find less convenient. Some
people don't like the pointing device built into laptop
keyboards, which takes some time getting used to and isn't
as precise if you do a lot of graphics or drawing.
There are work-arounds for these shortcomings, however.
You can add a numeric keypad and external mouse to a laptop,
though this makes it less convenient to take it to the
next location. You can use a "port replicator,"
plugging your laptop into it to have access to a larger
monitor, keyboard, and mouse.
One wildcard to the above picture is the all-in-one PC,
which uses little space, like laptops. Apple Computer,
with its colorful iMac, created this trend, and Gateway,
Sony, Hewlett-Packard, and others are following suit.
Sales of these "designer" units, which can be
as appropriate for the living room as the home office,
are projected to increase from 1.2 million in 2003 to
32.1 million in 2008, according to market-research firm
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author
of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org