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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  • WiSH2oo0 - Wednesday, September 11, 2013 - link

    Cheers Garrettino and have a good day!
  • carage - Saturday, September 7, 2013 - link

    If the laptop has an ExpressCard slot (hint: business laptops or mobile workstations) or Thunderbolt port you could settle for a high CPU model regardless of whatever GPU comes with the laptop and go the external route. There are some additional costs to this expansion, like you would likely need connectors and/or enclosures that run from $100 ~ $900 (Thunderbolt Enclosure), and the cost of whatever desktop card you want (nVidia recommended due to Optimus Compression technology). Even then there will still be performance penalties, because the external port bandwidth is nowhere near PCI-E 16X. But after these upgrades, a $1500 laptop with a GTX 670/680 can still take on a $3000+ monster gaming laptop.
  • nerd1 - Saturday, September 7, 2013 - link

    Sony vaio Z already tried the thunderbolt external GPU idea and it sucked.

    1. bandwidth is so limited so it's total waste of GPU power.
    2. Thunderbolt enclosures are terribly expensive, and it make more sense to just build another desktop than use them, unless you are forced to (like new mac pro)
  • mapurisa - Saturday, September 7, 2013 - link

    The Vaio Z used a midrange mobile GPU instead of a high performance desktop GPU which completely defeated the purpose.

    The technology isn't perfect by any stretch but for a significant portion of the market this would be a good solution but there's no incentives for the AMD/Nvidia to make it happen. Intel being the only non-GPU (in the traditional sense) manufacturer is happy with the current state of affairs ; it can play the same overcharging game for its Iris Pro chips without losing any marketshare or profits.
    Meanwhile Thunderbolt withers on the vine and consumers get the shaft.
  • nerd1 - Saturday, September 7, 2013 - link

    Yes it used midrange mobile GPU, and the performance drop was already like 50%.
    With higher performance GPU the performance drop due to bottleneck will get even higher.
  • digitalgalt - Saturday, September 7, 2013 - link

    I use a ViDock loaded with an EVGA 760 Ti tied to my Lenovo T520 (with only Intel HD3000 integrated graphics) and it basically demolishes all games at 1920x1200.
    I don't even want to try Crysis 3 on it, that is well past the Express Port choke point. But for a hard metric, I can run Fable 3 and the Witcher 2 at 1920x1200 with all settings to ultra, around 30-35 frames per second.
  • nerd1 - Saturday, September 7, 2013 - link

    If you can be satisfied at 765M performance (which can run most titles at 1080p with medium settings) actually laptops are cost effective. Also laptops are pretty much a must nowadays especially for university students, so it still is cheaper to have $1800 laptop than $800 ultrabook and $1200 desktop.
  • Impulses - Sunday, September 8, 2013 - link

    Not much cheaper tho, and the desktop is easier to upgrade... I think you can easily make an argument for going either way, it ultimately comes down to personal preference and other intangibles... i.e. Are you gonna game while on the go or would you rather have a lighter laptop? Do you even have space for a desktop or would you actually benefit from having two discrete systems? Etc etc.
  • purerice - Sunday, September 8, 2013 - link

    Agreed with impulses on it not being cheaper. That desktop is more like $1100, but if I had that, why would I need an ultrabook? I completed post-grad with a $1000 desktop and $400 laptop. An ultrabook would have been a tacky fashion statement.

    Getting a new CPU/GPU for Anand's reference PC would be $450. To get that same new CPU/GPU in that laptop, you'd need to spend $1800 again.
  • brucek2 - Saturday, September 7, 2013 - link

    I think this is my first time seeing the AMD Center branding on an article (I'm guessing because it has an AMD tag?) I've got no objections to the concept, but boy is that red text and red button background unattractive. On my monitor I'm not sure it even matches Radeon red branding (could be by monitor's lack of calibration of course)?

    Maybe there's a way AMD could could get some custom vertical elements or something while the site sticks with the standard colors for the main article text and controls?

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