Do Desktop Computers Make Sense?

Laptop vs Desktop Price

Currently the smaller and cheaper USB-C docks start at about $25 and Dell has a new Vostro with 8G of RAM and 2*USB-C ports for $788. That gives a bit over $800 for a laptop and dock vs $795 for the cheapest Dell desktop which also has 8G of RAM. For every way of buying laptops and desktops (EG buying from Officeworks, buying on ebay, etc) the prices for laptops and desktops seem very similar. For all those comparisons the desktop will typically have a faster CPU and more options for PCIe cards, larger storage, etc. But if you don’t want to expand storage beyond the affordable 4TB NVMe/SSD devices, don’t need to add PCIe cards, and don’t need much CPU power then a laptop will do well. For the vast majority of the computer work I do my Thinkpad Carbon X1 Gen1 (from 2012) had plenty of CPU power.

If someone who’s not an expert in PC hardware was to buy a computer of a given age then laptops probably aren’t more expensive than desktops even disregarding the fact that a laptop works without the need to purchase a monitor, a keyboard, or a mouse. I can get regular desktop PCs for almost nothing and get parts to upgrade them very cheaply but most people can’t do that. I can also get a decent second-hand laptop and USB-C dock for well under $400.

Servers and Gaming Systems

For people doing serious programming or other compute or IO intensive tasks some variation on the server theme is the best option. That may be something more like the servers used by the r/homelab people than the corporate servers, or it might be something in the cloud, but a server is a server. If you are going to have a home server that’s a tower PC then it makes sense to put a monitor on it and use it as a workstation. If your server makes so much noise that you can’t spend much time in the same room or if it’s hosted elsewhere then using a laptop to access it makes sense.

Desktop computers for PC gaming makes sense as no-one seems to be making laptops with moderately powerful GPUs. The most powerful GPUs draw 150W which is more than most laptop PSUs can supply and even if a laptop PSU could supply that much there would be the issue of cooling. The Steam Deck [1] and the Nintendo Switch [2] can both work with USB-C docks. The PlayStation 5 [3] has a 350W PSU and doesn’t support video over USB-C. The Steam Deck can do 8K resolution at 60Hz or 4K at 120Hz but presumably the newer Steam games will need a desktop PC with a more powerful GPU to properly use such resolutions.

For people who want the best FPS rates on graphics intensive games it could make sense to have a tower PC. Also a laptop that’s run at high CPU/GPU use for a long time will tend to have it’s vents clogged by dust and possibly have the cooling fan wear out.

Monitor Resolution

Laptop support for a single 4K monitor became common in 2012 with the release of the Ivy Bridge mobile CPUs from Intel in 2012. My own experience of setting up 4K monitors for a Linux desktop in 2019 was that it was unreasonably painful and that the soon to be released Debian/Bookworm will make things work nicely for 4K monitors with KDE on X11. So laptop hardware has handled the case of a single high resolution monitor since before such monitors were cheap or common and before software supported it well. Of course at that time you had to use either a proprietary dock or a mini-DisplayPort to HDMI adaptor to get 4K working. But that was still easier than getting PCIe video cards supporting 4K resolution which is something that according to spec sheets wasn’t well supported by affordable cards in 2017.

Since USB-C became a standard feature in laptops in about 2017 support of more monitors than most people would want through a USB-C dock became standard. My Thinkpad X1 Carbon Gen5 which was released in 2017 will support 2*FullHD monitors plus a 4K monitor via a USB-C dock, I suspect it would do at least 2*4K monitors but haven’t had a chance to test. Cheap USB-C docks supporting this sort of thing have only become common in the last year or so.

How Many Computers per Home

Among middle class Australians it’s common to have multiple desktop PCs per household. One for each child who’s over the age of about 13 and one for the parents seems to be reasonably common. Students in the later years of high-school and university students are often compelled to have laptops so having the number of laptops plus the number of desktops be larger than the population of the house probably isn’t uncommon even among people who aren’t really into computers. As an aside it’s probably common among people who read my blog to have 2 desktops, a laptop, and a cloud server for their own personal use. But even among people who don’t do that sort of thing having computers outnumber people in a home is probably common.

A large portion of the computer users can do everything they need on a laptop. For gamers the graphics intensive games often run well on a console and that’s probably the most effective way of getting to playing the games. Of course the fact that there is “RGB RAM” (RAM with Red, Green, and Blue LEDs to light up) along with a lot of other wild products sold to gamers suggests that gaming PCs are not about what runs the game most effectively and that an art/craft project with the PC is more important than actually playing games.

Instead of having one desktop PC per bedroom and laptops for school/university as well it would make more sense to have a laptop per person and have a USB-C dock and monitor in each bedroom and a USB-C dock connected to a large screen TV in the lounge. This gives plenty of flexibility for moving around to do work and sharing what’s on your computer with other people. It also allows taking a work computer home and having work with your monitor, having a friend bring their laptop to your home to work on something together, etc.

For most people desktop computers don’t make sense. While I think that convergence of phones with laptops and desktops is the way of the future [4] for most people having laptops take over all functions of desktops is the best option today.

6 comments to Do Desktop Computers Make Sense?

  • You mentioned servers as one big area, although there are very wide differences in it. The servers I manage at work are quite different from my home server — both are always-on machines that are stored in a room (or closet) I seldom directly go to, thus, their main management interface is not monitor+keyboard.
    However, at work, I have a couple of big x86_64 machines with Xeon processors and between 6 and 12 HDD hot-swap bays. At home, a Raspberry 3B+ connected to an outside multi-HDD enclosure does the job.
    Ten years ago, before ARM SoC-based boards became commonplace, I used to have an old laptop as my home server, and they would still make sense (only that it happens that I have some RPis I can put to that task). Laptops consume much less power than desktops, are an all-in-one package I can leave running in the upper shelf of a closet, have integrated UPS (well, have a battery)… Perfect as home servers!

  • Kelly

    > Do Desktop Computers Make Sense?
    Yes, obviously. Laptops are basically trash in comparison outside the narrow need for portability

  • Pete

    No mantion of Mini PCs?

  • Gunnar: Yes laptops can work as home servers in some limited situations, they effectively have a built-in UPS which is good. You have a maximum of 2 storage devices in the “workstation” class of laptops but 2*4TB SSDs in a RAID-1 makes a fairly decent home server. But this post is about providing compute needs and a laptop or SoC based server isn’t going to help for the case where you need more compute power than a laptop can provide. For things like compiling kernels and other big tasks you can ssh to a VM in the cloud or a server in one of the hosting companies like Hetzner.

    Kelly: I’m writing this now on a laptop after checking email and logging in to a couple of servers I run to address issues in my monitoring system. It’s not trash, it does everything I need every day.

    Pete: Mini PCs are nice and can be used in a portable manner. But you can’t move one to a different room without rebooting so they have significantly less flexibility than laptops. I haven’t been following the mini-PC space, do they support doing all power and IO over USB-C like laptops do?

  • John

    You seem to be making a C++ vs Python style mistake in this comparison.

    Laptops are designed for long battery life and low heat generation. So the CPUs and graphics cards, even when they have a similar name (perhaps with G on the end) are much slower than the equivalent for desktops. Perhaps 15W max instead of 100+W max.

    If you need grunt for gaming, desktop apps (compilation, spreadsheets), or server apps then you need to design for power & heat dissipation: big boxes, grunty parts, fans. If all you need is spreadsheets, socials and the odd document then a laptop or minipc with a 15W power consumption is perfect.

  • I addressed the issues of gaming and large compiles in this post. Server apps should run on servers.

    The vast majority of computer users only “need spreadsheets, socials and the odd document”.