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What to Buy, a Notebook or Desktop PC?

Hardware Module Comparison

Desktop computers not only have the upper hand when it comes to maintenance and upgradeability, but also when it comes to performance and capacity. While desktop PCs can easily and rather cheaply be beefed up to a terabyte or more of hard disk space, 500 GB is the current upper limit for notebooks. Expanding hard disk space is of course possible with the use of external hard drives that are connected by USB, Firewire, or, depending on the notebook model, eSATA. This limits mobility, however, and also drains the battery more quickly. Furthermore, notebook hard drives use the 2.5″ form factor, and are markedly slower than 3.5″ desktop computer hard drives. For an overview of speeds and capacities of current hard drives, our article Comparison of fast notebook hard drives , The terabyte battle: Barracuda 7200.11 vs. Caviar GP and DeskStar 7K1000 and Spinpoint F1 with 1 TB: Samsung sets the tempo.

As with hard drives, if you compare processor capability, you realize that notebook CPUs are also inferior to desktop processors. This does not have as noticeable an impact on daily work as the differences in hard drive performance, though. While mobile processors tend to be adequate, a slow notebook hard drive can severely restrict productivity. This may result in long waits while starting Windows, copying large files, or using applications that require that a lot of RAM be placed in the swap file on the hard disk.

As is the case for processors, the actual differences in performance between notebook RAM and desktop RAM is minimal. While clock rates for notebook RAM are usually 667 MHz, desktop units connected to DDR3 memory modules can attain clock rates of up to 1600 MHz. Despite this, most desktop computers still use DDR2 memory modules for cost reasons, which have a clock rate of 800 MHz. The difference between DDR2-667 and DDR2-800 modules in everyday office tasks on the computer is negligible, and can be disregarded by average users. (Also see: DDR3 luxury class: High speed, low impact) You have to realize, however, that most desktop systems will allow for more than 4 GB of RAM, whereas 4 GB of RAM is limit for today’s notebooks: there is simply no space for more.

Optical drives perform at a high level in both desktop computers and notebooks. Though price differences between slimline drives for notebooks and drives in the 5.25″ format used to be considerable, the prices today are basically equal: the difference is only about $23.19. This is principally due to the fact that notebook sales in recent years have risen considerably, which resulted in increased production of slimline drives, and consequently, lower prices. In terms of the performance capability of these two kinds of drives, we have to conclude that the performance data is not as dramatically different as in previous years. For end users, there is virtually no difference if a slimline drive or one in the 5.25″ format is used.

  • Oakley707
    How does Tom's computer for 1850$ actually cost 1850$? Seems much lower than that... a 8800 gts (320 meg...?) seems weird!
    Reply
  • spearhead
    with the desktop you could get an even better card then 8800gts 320mb for the cash. 8800gt or 3870x2 and such could give you an advatage for 1850 i could build a far better system and that is true. if not for the graphics notebooks these days are great. they only need to get some upgradebility of the mxm module for us costumers for acceptable pricings then we can more to more mobile solutions. we just want more gaming power for lower prices :)
    we shall soon see faster mobile solutions. the hybrid graphic solutions of the puma platform might offer good preformance for low pricing.
    Reply
  • njalterio
    Overall good article except...

    1)There was no mention of overclocking.
    2)The Tom's guide computer was poorly built for the price. I could easily have included a 3870 X2 and two more GB of RAM. No mention of what case was used....although that probably would not have significantly impact the benchmarks.
    3)Is there some kind of behind the scenes advertising here? Whats with the Samsung/Nvidia only usage? (Intel I can understand for obvious reasons)

    With two more GB of RAM, the 3870X2 (which I am certain would stay within the price range), and a good overclock the desktop computer would have wrecked that laptop in benchmarks!

    Would have been interesting to see a MacBook tested against these computers as well.
    Reply
  • coldmast
    8800gts 320mb? ~$120

    ROTFLMFAO

    give us a cost breakdown on each part of the system spec (desktop)
    are you including the display cost for the desktop (22"ers are at a great price point $200-$350)

    keyboard, mouse? $40-$120

    Desktop and NetBook
    Reply
  • Shadow703793
    spearheadwith the desktop you could get an even better card then 8800gts 320mb for the cash. 8800gt or 3870x2 and such could give you an advatage for 1850 i could build a far better system and that is true. if not for the graphics notebooks these days are great. they only need to get some upgradebility of the mxm module for us costumers for acceptable pricings then we can more to more mobile solutions. we just want more gaming power for lower prices we shall soon see faster mobile solutions. the hybrid graphic solutions of the puma platform might offer good preformance for low pricing.njalterioOverall good article except...1)There was no mention of overclocking. 2)The Tom's guide computer was poorly built for the price. I could easily have included a 3870 X2 and two more GB of RAM. No mention of what case was used....although that probably would not have significantly impact the benchmarks.3)Is there some kind of behind the scenes advertising here? Whats with the Samsung/Nvidia only usage? (Intel I can understand for obvious reasons)With two more GB of RAM, the 3870X2 (which I am certain would stay within the price range), and a good overclock the desktop computer would have wrecked that laptop in benchmarks!Would have been interesting to see a MacBook tested against these computers as well.Agreed.
    Reply
  • coldmast
    these article are always good but some lack proper depth,
    it would be nice to do a series of articles addressing different aspects.

    Cheap Notebooks vs Cheap Desktops

    Desktop Replacements {17"+ screen size} vs Workstations (CAD related)

    Designer Notebooks (Stylish & Elegant) vs Designer Desktops / media centers (Stylish & Elegant)

    and most importantly

    GAMING Notebooks vs GAMING Desktops @~$1500 ~$2200 ~$3000
    Reply
  • garydale
    I've been listening to talk about how notebook computers are catching up to desktop performance for decades now and it still hasn't happened. At any given price point, you can always get greater performance from a desktop system. That's not likely to change.

    However, several issues that weren't raised that should be. When a notebook breaks down, it's often cheaper to get a new notebook if its out of warranty. With a desktop system, just swap out the failed part and continue on.

    I've seen lots of notebook failures too. They just don't seem to be as reliable as desktop systems. Even rescuing the data following a notebook failure is a real pain. The HD interface keeps changing and doing a disk-to-disk copy from one notebook drive to another is impossible - notebooks can't handle two hard drives at once. This means booting from a Linux live cd with the drive you want to copy in a working notebook, then copying the files to an external (usb) drive or a network share.

    Students seem to think notebooks are great - very portable. Yes, and that makes them easy to steal too. If you know a student who wants a computer, do them a favour and get them something big and heavy.

    And how about ergonomics? The miniature keyboard with the screen positioned too low relative to your eye level is asking for problems. Then there is the built-in pointing device. Sorry, but there's a reason why they're not used on desktop system - a mouse simply works better.

    With USB keys going dirt cheap these days, get two or more desktop systems and keep one every place you normally do work. Use a USB key to transfer documents, or share them on the Internet. Of if you want to be able to move a system around, there are some very small desktop systems you can get.

    I'm not saying that notebooks don't have their uses. However, a replacement for a desktop system isn't one of them.
    Reply
  • That acer is uuuuuuugly.
    Reply
  • onearmedscissorb
    It's not hard at all to find a decent selection of very similar laptops with 8600M GT/9500M GS graphics, but with T9300 processors, for $1,300 to $1,400.

    So the laptop price isn't making sense to me, either, but I guess that evens it out some.

    If they're going to allow a budget of pretty much $2,000 and basically directly compare laptops to desktops, what they should have done is used a laptop based on desktop components, as that's what the decent ones tend to start at.
    Reply
  • dmacfour
    With $1850 you could get a laptop with a much better video card. $1300 will get you one with an 8800m GTS.
    Reply