Laptop or desktop?

All this talk today about cheap notebooks like the Sotec 3120x begs another question: Who should buy one?
Nearly six years ago, I published a column in the Columbia Missourian newspaper. My working title was 101 Reasons NOT to Buy a Laptop but a cooler-headed editor toned it down. I pointed out that you can buy twice the computer for the same amount of money, and laptops are hard to upgrade and they break a lot and you shouldn’t buy one without an extended warranty. (I was shocked to read that I’d said that way back then.)

All of that’s still true today. Except for the twice as much computer for the same amount of money bit. Thank goodness that’s changed.

Now you can buy twice as much computer for half the money.

Back then my job was to set up and fix laptops. I didn’t actually use one very much. I’ve been using one nearly every day for the past year and I’ve found some things to like about laptops now.

Portability. Duh. But this means not only can you take it with you, but you can stash it easily when company’s coming over.

Small size. A desktop computer’s going to take up most of the desk. My current computer desk has more usable space on it than my kitchen counter, which is nice because that gives me some room to work. Or put more computers on it. Guess which I do? But anyway, I can set up a laptop on a small desk and still have space to work.

Quiet. A lot of desktop PCs have three, even four fans in them. They make a lot of noise. Laptops have one fan and it doesn’t always even go all the time. Go back to a desktop and you’ll discover you’ve forgotten how much you like quiet. (Apologies to Charlie for stealing one of his lines.)

Gorgeous display. Another coworker came in today to work on my laptop (more on that in a bit) and to complain about another coworker. He was griping about how his laptop display looked when he hooked it up to an external monitor. I asked why anyone would hook up a laptop to a CRT. I guess it makes you look important.

Flat-panel LCD displays are gorgeous. No flicker, great color saturation, perfect focus, really easy on the eyes. They don’t update fast enough to be good for 120-fps 3D gaming, but for everything else, they’re fabulous. Staring at a CRT for 8 hours wears me out. Staring at an LCD for 8 hours has no effect on me. I’ve got a nice 19-inch CRT–an NEC, and it’s one of the professional line, not the consumer line–and it’s great. But I’ll take my laptop’s 13″ LCD.

You can get a similar effect by connecting an LCD to a desktop, but you’ll get digital converted to analog and back on an inexpensive one, which will affect display quality ever so slightly. A laptop is all digital, from video chip to screen.

The downside. After living with one, I’ve changed my tune a little. It used to be when someone said they were getting a laptop, I’d cringe the same way I would if they told me they were getting a sex change. I don’t do that anymore.

But there are still issues. I’ve broken my laptop twice in the past four months. And I treat mine well. The first was a hard drive. The second was the power connector–a piece of plastic snapped off. You’re looking at a motherboard swap to fix that one, in this age of people not knowing how to solder.

Laptop keyboards and mice take getting used to. Every time my girlfriend comes over and needs to use a computer, she sits down at the laptop and asks me for a “real mouse.”

And I miss my IBM clackety keyboards when I’m using a laptop. (I suspect Charlie would get really annoyed if I used one of those at work though, since he’s in the cube next to me, and the way I type, those keyboards can overpower fan noise. Or phone conversations. Or earthquakes.)

Upgrades remain a problem. I’ve got an IBM Thinkpad 600. Great display, great keyboard, and it’s small and light. But it’s slow. The memory tops out at some weird amount–I don’t think I can put 256 megs in it. CPU upgrades are all but out of the question. I can put a faster hard drive in it, but desktops give a lot more options. Even in my old original IBM AT case I can shoehorn a newer motherboard with an 800 MHz VIA C3 processor, and I can put in a 15K SCSI hard drive if I really want to. And that’s a 17-year-old case. I’ve got better upgrade options with a 17-year-old IBM PC/AT than I do with a four-year-old IBM Thinkpad!

So should anyone buy this new generation of cheap laptops? Well, remember, “cheap” is relative. Even when you can finagle into buying one for $800 through creative use of coupons, that’s still a pretty serious chunk of change.

And because they break as much as ever, I have trouble recommending a laptop as an only computer. If you’ve already got a desktop and plan to keep it and can afford a cheap snazzy laptop, then by all means go for it. You’ll love the freedom to move around. If you can’t afford $800 plus the extended warranty, wait a month or six. They’ll come down. I believe you’ll be able to buy a budget laptop for $599 by this time next year. Possibly even $499.

But if you’re buying your first computer, I think you’re better off with a low-end desktop and a nice flat-panel LCD display. The LCD will outlive the desktop PC, and the desktop PC will give you a lot more upgrade options. And as someone who’s been playing with these things for 20 years, trust me: You’ll want upgrade options.

7 thoughts on “Laptop or desktop?

  • December 11, 2002 at 9:20 pm
    Permalink

    The clickety-clack wouldn’t bother me nearly as much if you brought me one of those, too. I love those PC/AT keyboards. You could kill a man with one of those things if you swung it just right.

    Of course, if people heard how much I was clicking they would wonder what I do that requires so much typing all day. (Hi, Todd.) See, I’m a programmer trapped in a sysadmin’s body, and…

  • December 12, 2002 at 12:28 pm
    Permalink

    Quiet is not as much a disparity now as before – with some lappy’s using desktop P4’s the fan is working hard and noisy and close range. With my P4 Dell desktop, I can’t hear a thing since it uses a very quiet PS and hard drive. Much better than in past iterations. I don’t think there’s all that much difference now if you buy the quiet stuff on either side of the fence.

  • December 13, 2002 at 11:28 am
    Permalink

    Been using laptops a long time now, and have been very happy with them, thanks to a forward-looking buying strategy. My shortlist for the prospective buyer would be:

    1. Figure out what performance level is “adequate” and then “double” all the specs (double the RAM, bigger HD). This usually means getting the next incremental model. Make a special note of max-RAM — and allow for yet another doubling as a future upgrade. A year on, and you’ll discover that decision was a good one.

    2. Add the options immediately you would otherwise consider upgrading to. Chances are that the laptop model won’t really be supported a year from now. About the only thing you’ll upgrade on a laptop is RAM and a bigger harddisk. (And perhaps retrofitting W2k instead of XP …, unless you go Linux of course)

    3. Good keyboards are a rarity on laptops. If yoru chosen model has a decent one, great! Still, whether or not, invest in a good external keyboard (small or fullsize), if you do any amount of writing. If the laptop kb is ok, you’ll still appreciate the variation in typing posture that a separate kb will give you.

    Just now, Celeron or P3 (often discounted) laptop systems seem to best buy (and quietest). Some laptops now have ATI graphic chips that provide decent games support. Japanese-brand and “noname” many-brand laptops are usually flimsy and unreliable; seems to be a case of buy HP/Compaq or IBM “professional” model to get the kind of reliability and build you’d want to have around for a while.

    Reasearch your choice on the Web. There’s a lot of good info out there. And, yes, it will cost more than it should.

  • January 5, 2003 at 2:00 am
    Permalink

    I prefer an LCD over CRT anyday, and can work on one without eye strain. Laptops are handy devices to have and are not for everyone. Many people think it is a logical addition after a desktop, but don’t end up using it anywhere but near their desktop.

    In my business, my technicians hook a laptop up, via RS232, to various electrical systems so we can set-up and configure these systems with the system’s application. The laptop is a great tool for this, and keeps getting more valuable as more manufacturers are allowing network support for these systems.

    As my company has grown lately, and I have purchased additional laptops, most without a serial port, we find that the USB/232 conversion process has something to be desired. The higher dollor stuff works only if it is set-up correctly the first time, if not, then is time consuming to correct. The cheper convertors I just can’t seem to get working correctly without a hassle. I am dissapointed in the “legeacy-free” ease-of-use-factor of these convertors. At the same time, I love the small form factor of the newer laptops, such as the Sotec 3123X, with it’s internal CD-RW/DVD optical drive.

    And what happened to docking stations? I would not mind the option, but I won’t buy a laptop based on the docking station. Maybe the people who make computers don’t want to make it easy to use only one machine.

    It really does’t matter anyway since I usually have a desktop and at least one laptop on at the same time while working & playing.

  • January 7, 2003 at 5:56 pm
    Permalink

    commentI read your review on the sotec 3123X. I am wondering if you know of any sites on the sotec laptop that are in English. My daughter received a laptop for Christmas of course no warranty and it had been dropped before we received it all still work and it still loads EXCEPT THE LID (SCREEN CRYSTALS WERE BROKEN) We are trying to locate somewhere to purchase a new lid….

    If you can or know any one that can help us please hook me up

    desparate in nortwest arkansas
    before she returns to college in 13 day..
    angel

  • February 12, 2003 at 2:09 pm
    Permalink

    Is it possible to connect a laptop screen to desktop computer with some kind of adaptor or something. It would be real cool, especially considering I have a useless laptop screen sitting around.

  • February 12, 2003 at 11:11 pm
    Permalink

    Not without a whole bunch of work that I wouldn’t be able to figure out. A laptop display is digital, whereas most desktops output an analog signal. Theoretically someone could make an adapter that ran from a DVI connector to a laptop display, but I have no idea what other circuitry you would need and, nor do I have any idea where you’d get a pinout for the laptop screen’s connector.

    If you’ve got a lot more determination and free time than I have, then it might be possible, but no guarantees.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this:
WordPress Appliance - Powered by TurnKey Linux