A key question: desktop or laptop? Big PC makes more sense

Your computer

or why not get one of each?

October 12, 1997|By MICHAEL HIMOWITZ

AFTER six years of beating up on his old computer, a friend decided it was time to buy a new one. He did some comparison shopping, but instead of coming to me to ask whether he should by an IBM or a Compaq, he had a more interesting question: Should he buy a desktop computer or a laptop?

"I don't do that much traveling," he said, "but I do take a couple of trips a year. It seems to me that if I can get the same stuff in a laptop that I can in a big computer, I'd be a lot more flexible and save a lot of space. The only problem I saw is that laptops are really expensive. Do you think they're worth the money?"

A few years ago, this question would have been a lot easier to answer. Laptops were generally underpowered, overpriced ergonomic nightmares whose only redeeming virtue was their ability to fit in a briefcase.

Today, laptop computers are still overpriced, but they're more comfortable and easier to use. If you have the money, you can buy a laptop that performs as well as all but the very best desktop computers. But that doesn't necessarily mean a laptop is a good choice for your only computer.

First things first -- laptops are expensive to buy and horrendously expensive to fix.

There are a couple of reasons for this. First, any time you try to shrink something as complex as a computer, you run into problems. Of these, heat is the worst. Microprocessors, memory chips and other components use a lot of energy, and it has to go somewhere.

Since there's no room for a fan or heat sink in a laptop, manufacturers have to use more expensive components that take up less space, draw less power and produce less heat. Even so, the top speed of laptop microprocessors is typically lower than the speed of the chips used in desktops.

Most laptops are also highly "proprietary," which means that they use sophisticated custom circuit boards peculiar to their manufacturers. These are expensive to produce because laptop makers don't have the same economies of production that desktop computer makers enjoy. For the same reason, memory chips for laptops are often of nonstandard design, which makes them twice as expensive as desktop computer RAM. When anything breaks in a laptop, it's usually more expensive to replace because there's only one supplier for the part.

So far, we haven't even touched on the most costly part of a laptop computer -- the liquid crystal display screen. LCD's are devilishly difficult to produce, and in many laptops, the screen accounts for half the production cost. To their credit, LCD makers have improved their products significantly over the years.

The bottom line -- when you compare them feature by feature, a laptop will cost at least 50 percent more than a desktop computer. At the high end, the gap is even greater. You can buy a superb, multimedia desktop machine with a 17-inch monitor for well under $3,000. A fully-equipped laptop with similar performance will run about $6,000.

Now let's consider comfort. When laptop makers advertise "full-size" keyboards, they're lying. A desktop keyboard is about 20 inches wide, while a laptop computer is 11 to 12 inches wide. While the alphabet keys on a laptop may be full size, everything else is sandwiched in wherever the designer can find room. Likewise, you'll have to get used to a touch pad, track ball, pointer button or whatever gadget the manufacturer substitutes for a mouse. None of these are as good as a mouse; if they were, desktop computers would have them.

If you spend a lot of time in front of your computer, a laptop sitting on your desk is an ergonomic disaster waiting to happen. The keyboard is just too high for safe typing, and you're seriously at risk of repetitive stress injury. You're much better off using a desktop machine at a workstation designed for safe computing.

Now there are remedies for many of these problems. If you want a larger screen when you're home, most laptops can be connected to a regular monitor. Likewise, you can hook up a regular keyboard and mouse to a laptop. Of course, that makes the laptop even more expensive and doesn't make much sense if your main argument for a laptop is saving space.

My advice -- if you're more than a casual computer user, a desktop machine is well worth the space it occupies. And if you do travel, there's no reason you can't have both. Most travelers don't need a computer that can play network Doom -- they need a basic PC that will run a word processor, spreadsheet and communications software.

In fact, you can buy a good multimedia desktop PC and low-end laptop for a lot less money than a top-of-the-line portable model. It's something to think about.

Pub Date: 10/12/97

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