Introduction: Analyzing the Price of Mobility

Computers have been getting faster over the years, and with the increased performance we eventually passed the point where most systems were “fast enough” and the various features and use cases became more important. It used to be that to get similar performance to a desktop, a laptop would generally cost two or even three times as much – and even then, sometimes it was simply impossible to match desktop performance with a laptop. Has that changed with the era of “fast enough” computing? One of our readers suggested we take some time to investigate this topic to help enlighten the general public, so we pulled together results from recent laptop and desktop/CPU reviews to see how much of a premium we’re now paying to go mobile.

There’s a related topic that I’m not even going to get into right now: tablets. The short summary is that at the low-end of the price spectrum, tablets can actually fill quite a few requirements. They’re slower, but battery life and portability is also better. Typing on a screen is not something I really enjoy at all, though, so adding a keyboard would almost be a requirement, which means at a minimum we’d be looking at closer to $500 for a decent tablet with a keyboard (e.g. ASUS Transformer TF300T with the keyboard dock). Okay, I said I’m not getting into this subject; basically, it’s possible to get a $500 tablet with keyboard (perhaps even $400) but performance is a major step down from even a budget laptop. That’s changing but for now I’m going to focus on Windows laptops vs. desktops.

Naturally, when we talk about performance, there are many factors at play. CPU and GPU performance are usually the biggest items, but in some cases the performance from the storage subsystem can actually trump the other two. A modern desktop with the fastest CPU and GPU available will handle pretty much anything you want to throw at it, but if it’s using a hard drive (HDD) for storage even a moderate Ultrabook equipped with a solid state drive (SSD) can be faster at booting into Windows or launching several applications at the same time. That might seem like an odd performance metric, but if you’ve ever experienced the dreaded “turn on the PC and wait five minutes after Windows loads before the system is actually ready for use” scenario, you’re running into storage bottlenecks.

We’ve advocated the use of SSDs for the OS and applications for several years now and we’ll continue to do so. In terms of storage performance, a good SSD will be at least 2-3X as fast as the best HDD for sequential transfers, but more importantly it can be 50-100X (or more) faster in random accesses, which is similar to what happens during the Windows boot process or when you launch a bunch of applications simultaneously (or launch a browser with dozens of tabs).

The good news is that nearly all laptops can be easily upgrade with an SSD if you’re willing to pay the price and take the time to do the upgrade yourself; the laptops that can’t be upgraded with a typical SSD are usually Ultrabooks that already have SSDs. The only drawback for SSDs is capacity: a typical 1TB 5400RPM 2.5” HDD will cost around $80; Seagate’s hybrid 1TB HDDs (with a bit of solid state cache to improve performance) will set you back around $130. The least expensive 240GB SSD in contrast costs around $165, with “better” models (faster, more reputable, and/or larger) costing up to $230 (or more). That’s 2x to 3x the cost of a hard drive for 1/4 the capacity, but the performance benefits are tangible. We’ll stick with comparisons between SSD-equipped systems for this article, just to keep things easy.

CPU/General Performance Discussion
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  • puppies - Saturday, September 7, 2013 - link

    MY laptop is running a 3 year old CPU (I7 740QM) paired with a GT445 GPU. I installed a 120GB SSD shortly after buying it and moved the windows install over to it using the standard 750GB HDD for file storage.

    It multi tasks like a champ, the SSD makes such a difference I wouldn't dream of owning a machine without one now. I can have multiple office programs open at once and be browsing 10+ web pages and it still performs better than it did with just a HDD under light usage scenarios.

    Gaming isn't an issue as I only play older games on it, if I want to play BF3 etc I fire up my desktop.

    I am alwas on the lookout for an excuse to upgrade all my hardware but I just can't justify swapping it for anything newer as it performs everything I ask it to do so well. So for me the "good enough" performance threshold was at least 3 years ago.

    anyone reading this who is thinking about buying a new laptop I would seggest you seriously look into getting an SSD and putting a fresh install of windows onto it. The difference is night and day.
  • nerd1 - Saturday, September 7, 2013 - link

    BF3 runs fine on many laptops nowadays, even W230ST which costs only $1069 and weighs less than 2kg.
  • WiSH2oo0 - Sunday, September 8, 2013 - link

    If your playing BF3 on a 60Hz monitor you lose.
  • WiSH2oo0 - Sunday, September 8, 2013 - link


    My bro had a $2,200 MSI laptop that he was playing BF3 on. Once he seen me playing BF3 on my desktop w/ my BenQ w/ lightboost enabled and rocking out a 120 fps he put his laptop on eBay the very next day.
  • Garrettino - Monday, September 9, 2013 - link

    If you don't know the difference between your and you're, you lose.
  • WiSH2oo0 - Monday, September 9, 2013 - link

    You're right you lose.
  • WiSH2oo0 - Monday, September 9, 2013 - link

    If that is you.
  • Garrettino - Tuesday, September 10, 2013 - link

    Ha! That is me.
  • Garrettino - Tuesday, September 10, 2013 - link

    I'm sorry. I didn't see that you corrected yourself. It was on the second page.
  • WiSH2oo0 - Wednesday, September 11, 2013 - link

    I have to say I laughed for 5 mins after reading your post Garrettino. At first when I seen that you had posted again, I was like oh great hear it comes. But to my surprise you had made light of my remark, straight up owned the BF3 link(I myself would've been like oh heck No that ain't me) and that is when I just busted out laughing! Don't ask me why but it did make my day for some weird reason.

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