Buyers Guide: Desktop PC vs Laptop

Desktop or Laptop? Pre-built or home made? We breaks down everything you need to know before choosing your next PC.

In 2020, buying a new computer starts with a single but not so simple choice: desktop or laptop?

Workhorse tablets might be more viable for certain segments of the market than they were previously but for many serious PC users, the tried and true trade-off between the portability of a laptop and a power of a desktop remains intact.

Here’s a detailed breakdown of everything you need to know (and consider) before you drop the cash on your next PC, regardless of whether you’re more interested in something portable, something powerful or something that blurs the lines between these two traditional ends of the spectrum.

What’s the difference between a desktop and a laptop?

Credit: Razer

A desktop PC is one that will reside on a desk in your office or bedroom. It will come with separate parts — usually a tower, which contains the brains and muscle of the PC alongside a display monitor, keyboard and mouse.

On the other hand, a laptop (or notebook) is an all-in-one device that is portable - that is to say it can be carried with you from room to room. Laptops don't require a fixed power source or desk, meaning they can be used between home, work or even while on the go (when traveling on a train, for example).

Laptops have a built-in monitor, a built-in keyboard and a trackpad to replace the mouse, and they can vary in size from 10 inches to 21 inch curved-screen gaming behemoths.

The biggest difference between a desktop and laptop is that laptops are limited by the size of the battery inside them. Most laptops have a battery that can today last anywhere between an average of six hours going up to twelve or more, depending on the type of programs you use. In some ways, the portability granted by the battery inside a laptop is also the form-factor's most significant limitation. The larger the battery, the heavier the laptop and the less portable it becomes.

Speed

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In the old days, if you wanted a fast computer, you had to buy a desktop PC. Fortunately, in more recent times, the gap between desktop PC’s and laptops in general and gaming performance has closed considerably, with manufacturers offering most mid to high-end dedicated gaming hardware in laptop form. 

That being said, if you absolutely need the top of the range for every component of your computer, a desktop PC is still going to give you greater flexibility in putting together all of those parts into one whole. Even if the best processors and graphics tech does eventually trickle down laptop buyers, desktop shoppers usually get it first and they're always have a wider range of options to choose from.

However, when you factor in the practical utility of having a portable PC, the value differential between the two form-factors becomes a bit blurrier. Even if they can't outright beat a high-end desktop PC, modern laptops can provide much of the performance in an integrated easy-to-carry package. Unless you're doing heavy workloads or hardcore gaming, you might not even notice what you're missing out on.

If you want to buy a computer just so that you can view social media and photos, access the Internet or type up documents and spreadsheets, then a laptop is probably going to be a perfectly fine way to go about it. Modern laptops even you the same choice between AMD and Intel processors.

Specifications

The key specifications to look for when buying a desktop PC or a laptop are the CPU, RAM (memory), graphics card and hard drive. 

Desktop PCs are larger and have room for more powerful and complex componentsCredit: Brad Chacos/IDG
Desktop PCs are larger and have room for more powerful and complex components

The CPU is essentially the brain of your computer; the RAM is the space where all your programs will be loaded (the more RAM you have, the more programs you can load); the graphics card determines how well your computer will play games; and the hard drive determines how many programs, documents, videos and other files you will be able to store on your computer.

Laptops will generally have lower specifications than desktop PCs, although there's not much in it these days given the huge range of pre-made and customisable desktops and laptops available. 

At the same price point, a typical laptop might have less RAM and a smaller hard drive than a similarly priced desktop PC, and it will also have a less powerful graphics card. 

The CPU, which makes a big difference in computer performance, can often be the same between a laptop and a PC. For the best performance in a laptop or a desktop PC, look for a model with Intel's Core i5, Core i7 or Core i9 CPUs, or AMD's Ryzen and new Ryzen 2 CPUs. 

Intel's 10th Gen Core processor rangeCredit: Intel
Intel's 10th Gen Core processor range

For more information about choosing between an i5, i7 and i9, check out our guide to Intel CPUs here and our comparison of Intel Core CPUs and Ryzen here

Screen size and resolution

Credit: Gordon Mah Ung

When buying a laptop, you will need to decide what size screen will be suitable for your needs. 

Laptops between 12 and 15-inches in screen size offer a good balance of portability and power, with 15-inch laptops today providing enough space to pack powerful parts into a relatively lightweight frame. 

Smaller 10 to 12-inch netbooks provide all you need if you’re after a small and light laptop for browsing the Web, accessing social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, and streaming video. Most laptops today will have a full HD 1080p display, with the option to go up to 4K for fantastic quality video without having to plug the laptop into another display. This usually costs extra.

For a desktop PC, monitors today begin around 22-inches, with 24-inch and even 27-inch models being the standard, going up to 31-inches and beyond if you want something even larger. It's usually worth spending a bit more on a quality monitor and upsizing to fit your desk space and needs if you can afford it, because the monitor is the one device that you will have to look at every time you use your PC.

Do new laptops and desktop PCs come with any free software?

Credit: Microsoft

Laptops and desktops purchased pre-constructed will generally always come with an operating system installed, with current laptop and desktop PCs ready-to-use with a version of Microsoft Windows 10 preinstalled. 

Computer and computer component manufacturers all generally provide software pre-loaded to fine-tune and control the hardware in the computer, which operates in the background unless the user needs to change a setting. Occasionally some laptops and desktops may also include professional applications, games or anti-virus software bundled with the purchase.

Why buy a laptop?

Credit: IDG

If you aren't willing to settle for the limitations of modern tablets and want a computer that you can use at home and, as well as on the move and at work, then you will probably want to go with a laptop. 

You might also want to consider a laptop if you want to have more freedom to roam when using your computer at home. A fully charged laptop can give you up to a day’s worth of untethered use while traveling or working. 

On the other hand, a desktop PC will restrict you to working from the location wherever that PC is installed.

Why buy a desktop PC?

Credit: HP

If you want a computer that can store a huge amount of music files or a computer made for playing games in comfort, then a desktop PC is the way to go. 

A powerful desktop PC is generally less expensive than a powerful notebook with similar grunt, and a desktop PC also has an advantage in that it can be easily expanded if your needs change (you can add more storage, RAM or a better graphics card at a later date). 

A laptop cannot be expanded to the same extent that a desktop PC can, although you can change the hard drive and in most cases add more RAM.

Should I upgrade my current computer or buy a new one?

A DIY desktop PCCredit: IDG
A DIY desktop PC

This depends on how old your current computer is. 

If it's more than three years old, then finding the best upgrade parts can be a frustrating and sometimes expensive task, and at times it just won’t be possible at all. 

In this case, it will be worth buying a new one that has all the latest technology installed. If you've already got a computer that's less than three years old, but want more speed or more storage space, then an upgrade might be the smarter way to go.

Key components to upgrade are the memory, CPU (or processor), hard drive and graphics card - the relationship between these parts is important however, so if you upgrade to a faster processor, the other parts need to be able to keep up otherwise performance may be bottle-necked by the slowest component.

Should I buy a premade desktop or build my own?

RyzenCredit: Gordon Mah Ung
Ryzen

Premade desktops naturally come with a price premium over the equivalent parts, and are generally supplied with a warranty for the complete computer if something fails. 

People are often hesitant to build a computer themselves, both due to this lack of warranty and the perceived difficulty. Most computers are quite easy to put together yourself, with most plugs colour coded and unable to be plugged in the wrong way. If you aren't confident that you can put it together yourself, seek the advice of a friend or purchase compatible parts. 

When buying a new computer, the operating system, such as Windows 10, will be preinstalled, so once it's all connected all you have to do is turn it on to use it.

What programs will I need to install to secure my private information and stop viruses?

Credit: Supplied

To protect your PC from being infected by a virus, an antivirus program or Internet security suite should be installed. 

There are many to choose from, but common, trustworthy examples include Norton AntiVirus and Kaspersky Internet Security. These programs run in the background while you work and make sure that none of the programs you run or e-mails you read are infected by viruses. For more information on choosing the best AntiVirus software for your needs, check out our guide here.

Antivirus software needs to be updated regularly in order to keep up-to-date with the latest virus threats. Thankfully, most antivirus applications update themselves automatically when you are connected to the Internet.

Can I extend the memory of my computer?

G.Skill's LED RAM looked particularly pretty.Credit: IDG
G.Skill's LED RAM looked particularly pretty.

Usually the memory of your computer can be extended. 

Most desktop motherboards come with four memory slots, but rarely will a new computer comes with memory installed in all of those. The empty slots can be used to install more memory.

If your computer doesn't have any free memory slots, then the memory can be expanded by removing the existing memory modules and installing new, higher capacity memory modules. For example, if your computer has 8GB in its two slots (two 4GB modules) and you want to expand to 16GB, you will have to remove those two 4GB modules and install two 8GB modules.

Laptop computers can also have additional memory installed. It is common with laptops to remove the existing memory and replace it with a memory module of a greater capacity.

Different computers have different requirements for the type of memory (memory speed and memory module), the maximum memory and the combination of memory that can be installed. Make sure you check your manual in the case of a prebuilt computer, or seek advice.

RyzenCredit: Gordon Mah Ung
Ryzen

Next Page - Shopping Checklist for Desktop and Laptops: Everything you need to decipher the spec sheet on your next PC

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Shopping Checklist: Desktops and Laptops

Here what you need to know to decipher the spec sheet on any given desktop or laptop PC. 

Motherboard

Credit: 二斤自制 / YouTube

An often overlooked component in the computer, the motherboard is what all other components of the computer plug into and acts like the central nervous system of the computer. 

The two main brands of processors (AMD and Intel) have different motherboard sockets, meaning they are not cross compatible - this is not an issue when buying a prebuilt computer, however if you are selecting parts for a build ensure that your motherboard is compatible with your processor.

Processor type

Intel are one of two big names in CPU hardware for PCsCredit: Intel
Intel are one of two big names in CPU hardware for PCs

There are two main manufacturers of CPUs (central processing units) - AMD and Intel - and competition in the processor market hasn’t been this strong in decades. 

Whichever way you go, ensure that you choose a laptop or PC with at least four processor cores - with eight and sixteen-cores common at the higher end of the scale, as it will perform better when running multiple applications simultaneously or multi-threaded applications such as video rendering. 

Gaming is less reliant on multiple cores to achieve higher performance than the above tasks, but if you plan on streaming games or video editing, ensure that your CPU has the grunt to handle the task.

For more information about choosing between an i5, i7 and i9, check out our guide to Intel CPUs here and our comparison of Intel Core CPUs and Ryzen here

Processor speed

Credit: Intel

The CPU is an important component of any computer and its speed will affect the performance significantly. 

Within any specific range of CPUs it’s safe to assume that the higher the frequency (e.g. 3.0GHz, 3.5GHz, 4.0GHz) the faster it is. CPUs with a higher core count are able to spread the processing load over more cores. Additional cores and higher clock speeds are desirable because they allow your computer to do more things in a more efficient manner

RAM

Credit: Supplied

RAM (random access memory) is important because it provides the power to run programs at the same time. 

It is important to know how much RAM the system has and how much it can be upgraded to at a later point - each motherboard (the circuit board which all the parts connect to) only has a certain amount of slots in which RAM can fit. 

Up to a point, more RAM will speed up your computer, with 4 or 8 GB of RAM enough to handle day to day applications. Serious gamers and multimedia creators will want to start with 16 GB to ensure the memory can keep up with the rest of the system.

RAM is available at different speeds i.e. 2666MHz, 3200MHz, 3600MHz. Faster RAM increases the speed at which the memory can process data from the processor and communicate with the other elements of the computer.

Graphics

Find out what graphics card the computer comes with.

Intel and AMD once partnered on an integrated GPUCredit: Intel
Intel and AMD once partnered on an integrated GPU

The better the graphics card the better you will be able to play games - so if that interests you, this is critical. The two biggest brands to take note of in the space are AMD's Radeon line and Nvidia GeForce series.

Some laptops don’t come with a dedicated graphics card, instead integrating graphics into the CPU. While this is plenty to deal with regular productivity tasks, it’s not going to cut the mustard when it comes to gaming and other intensive applications.

Storage

Credit: Seagate

Check what size and type of storage the computer has.

Hard drives used to be all the rage, but these days they’ve mostly out of favor, especially for thin and light laptops. This is because they can be slow, somewhat bulky, and produce noticeable heat and noise.

A solid state drive (SSD), on the other hand, offers a lot more speed than a hard drive, runs silently, and can be installed in a form factor that doesn’t add too much to the weight and bulk of a laptop. As a result of these clear benefits, most OEMs have embraced SSD storage as the standard for laptops.

Stick to an SSD for your new laptop and you’ll love the speed with which it can load programs, access your data, and also how quickly it can boot up your system.

If you're buying a new laptop in 2020, you'll want one with an SSD. However, that being said, don't feel overly pressured to spend extra on the latest model here. While it is true that more recent SSDs boast better speeds than older models, the biggest advantages you're enjoy here are tied more to the fundamental advances that SSDs offer over traditional hard drive storage.

Weight

Credit: Andrew Neel

For desktop PC shoppers, weight is rarely a concern. However, for would-be laptop buyers, it's critical.

If at all possible, be sure to check how much a laptop weighs or even go into a retailer like JB Hi-Fi to test out the weight yourself before dropping the cash on a new laptop. While all laptops are technically portable, the way in which that quality is realised can vary and it might not always be in a comfortable equilibrium with the desire to offer good performance on the part of the manufacturer.

Weight can vary greatly between regular and gaming-focused laptops, which require more space and larger components as well as a larger power cable. Taking this into consideration is important before you start carrying around a big, heavy and noisy gaming laptop to work or the classroom. Lugging around a behemoth like the 4.2kg MSI GT76 Titan DT might be technically possible but it doesn't quite live up to the ideal that you'd want from a laptop.

USB ports

On the left we have USB 3 and USB-C plus the power port.Credit: IDG
On the left we have USB 3 and USB-C plus the power port.

This one applies for desktop buyers moreso than laptop users. Nevertheless, it's usually worth checking just how many USB ports that your next PC or Mac comes equipped with. They remain the most common connector port in the industry and, while you can find a dongle for anything on Amazon, it's usually a better bet to just make sure your next PC has enough of them to begin with.

USB ports are needed to connect extra devices, so if you have lots of devices you will need multiple USB ports. It's also good with a desktop PC if there are USB ports at the front of the computer that are easy to access.

USB ports will generally support either USB 2.0 or USB 3.0 - USB 3.0 ports are identifiable by the blue plastic used inside the port. USB 3.0 is capable of faster data transfer speeds than USB 2.0, and is common on higher-spec laptops and computers. Many modern peripherals also tend to deliver the best performance on or require USB 3.0 to function at all.

Remember, you're usually going to lose two USB ports to having keyboard and mouse. If you regularly use a webcam or microphone, there's another two gone. So be sure to keep your USB port requirements in mind when looking at buying a new PC.

Networking

Credit: Supplied

Most laptops will have built-in wireless networking but PCs require a wireless network card installed in one of the motherboard’s PCIe slots in order to be able to connect to a wireless network over Wi-Fi. Most modern desktop PCs have them as standard nowadays but if yours doesn't, you're going to need to invest in one or settle for only being able to connect to the internet via a physical ethernet connection.

Wireless networking allows your computer to connect to the internet as well as stream video from the laptop to a screen connected to the same Wi-Fi network - this can also be achieved via cable connection to a video port.

Video ports

Credit: Photo 111403244© Piyaphun Juntraverot Dreamstime.com

DisplayPort and HDMI are the best quality connectors to connect a PC to a monitor or HDTV, with DVI also available and capable of providing 1080p video.For desktop PCs, video ports do matter because they can limit the types of monitors that you have to choose from. If your PC doesn't have any DisplayPort ports but your monitor relies on that specific connection-type, you're going be in trouble. These kinds of situations can usually be resolved through a connector dongle of some sort but it's usually easier to avoid them outright. 

Laptops will generally have a single HDMI port for video output or, alternatively, rely on the increasingly popular Thunderbolt 3 connection standard, which uses a USB-C port to transmit video and audio. If you're likely to give presentations using your next laptop and a projector or external display, having a video port is going to make that process significantly easier. Click here for our guide to the best HDMI cables.

For more information, check out our guide to computer cables.

Speakers

Credit: Amazon

Desktop computers generally don’t come with speakers, with ports at the back or front of the case allowing connection to a pair of headphones or external sound device. 

In the case of laptops it may be worth investigating the quality of integrated speakers, and while some manufacturers enter partnerships with established audio companies to integrate speakers into their laptops, quality varies greatly.

Keyboard, mouse and other peripherals

Some desktop PCs don’t come with any peripherals, such as a keyboard or mouse, and this will add extra cost to your purchase. Be sure to check out our guide to the best keyboards: Ergonomic and productive home office options.

Laptops, for obvious reasons, don't usually come with any peripherals aside from a charger. This is because their form-factor incorporates these things in the form of a build-in keyboard, trackpad, speakers and monitor. That being said, if you are looking to get some heavy usage out of your laptop, it might be worth investigating pairing it with a proper mouse. Trackpads work in a pinch but aren't always super comfortable to use over longer stretches of time.

Recommended:

Roccat gaming keyboardCredit: Roccat
Roccat gaming keyboard

Next Page - Jargon Buster: Learn the difference between your ethernet and Thunderbolt ports!

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Jargon Buster: Desktop PC and Laptops

  • 802.11a/b/g/n wireless: This is the specification (also known as Wi-Fi) that you need to look for if you want your laptop or desktop PC to be used on a wireless network. 802.11 has four standards: a, b, g and n. The most common one is 'g', but the fastest one is 'n'. Most laptops come with wireless adapters that can run the 'n' standard, but desktops are more often connected with an ethernet cable, so check that a wireless network card is included if you need the connectivity.
  • CPU: This stands for 'central processing unit' and it's the brains of both desktop and laptop computers. A faster CPU will be able to run programs at a faster rate than a slower CPU.
  • Ethernet: An Ethernet port is essential if you want to connect your desktop PC to a network or broadband modem. 10/100/1000 or Gigabit ethernet is the current standard in ethernet connectivity.
  • Graphics processor: Also known as a GPU (graphics processing unit), this processor determines how well your desktop PC or laptop will be able to play games. A powerful graphics processor will provide a smoother gaming experience than a slower graphics processor. A graphics processor may also come with its own dedicated portion of RAM.
  • Hard Drive/Solid State Drive (SSD): This is the physical disk where your operating system, programs and data are stored. The operating system, your programs and data are all loaded from here and put into RAM when you use them. Hard drive capacity is measured in gigabytes (GB) or terabytes (TB) — 1000GB is equal to 1TB. A higher capacity drive will be able to store more programs and data.
  • Netbooks: A netbook is a small laptop (usually 10-inche in size) that is less powerful than a standard laptop. It can be used for basic tasks such as browsing the Internet, creating documents, viewing photos and watching videos. The small size and light weight of a netbook makes it ideal if you need a device to use while travelling, whether commuting or holidays, for example.
  • RAM: This stands for 'random access memory'. It's a temporary storage area where all of your programs and data files are loaded. The more RAM you have, the more programs you will be able to load and the more files you will be able to use at the same time. RAM is normally measured in gigabytes (GB), with its speed measured in megahertz (MHz)
  • USB 2.0/3.0 port: USB stands for 'universal serial bus' and it's a port that can be used to connect many different types of devices, from a mouse to a printer. USB 3.0 ports are the fastest, but still more common are USB 2.0 ports. USB 3.0 ports can be found on all the latest laptops and desktop PCs. Both types of ports look the same and will be able to accommodate the same devices, but USB 3.0 devices will run at the 2.0 speed when plugged into a USB 2.0 port.
  • USB Type-C/Thunderbolt: The latest evolution of USB connectivity, USB-C is the prevalent port option on new Apple computers and is gaining traction on laptop and desktop PCs due to its combination of fast data transfer, the ability to transmit audio and video, and increased power transfer to be able to handle all the requirements of charging larger devices such as laptops.
Thunderbolt cableCredit: Intel
Thunderbolt cable

A Thunderbolt 3 port uses the same connector as USB-C, but is signified by a lightning bolt instead of the traditional USB logo. Thunderbolt provides data transfer speeds up to four times faster than USB 3.1, as well as the ability to chain multiple thunderbolt-compatible hard drives together to just one port.While all USB-C devices will work in Thunderbolt ports, early Thunderbolt products were not designed with back compatibility to USB-C - double check to make sure your Thunderbolt devices are able to connect to a USB-C port. Click here for our guide to the best USB Type-C cables.

This article was originally written by Elias Plastiras but updated by Michael Serban in 2019  and by Fergus Halliday in 2020.