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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  • godrilla - Sunday, September 8, 2013 - link

    Desktop all the way, I love to upgrade my gpu every 2 years my 15 month gtx 690 will be replaced with a Maxwell gpu next year, as far as my 3 year old system it still a beast i7 980 xe at 4.3 ghz and a c300 256 ssd at sata 6!
  • killerclick - Sunday, September 8, 2013 - link

    Glad to see Anandtech put out this article. I saw that comment a few days ago and thought it was a good idea, and today I see this article.
    For me, the main advantage of desktops is the instant repairability/upgradability. If something dies on my computer, I simply can't ship it somewhere and wait for days or weeks to get it back while the techs go over the contents of my hard drive. If a hard drive dies on a laptop, it's not a big deal to replace, but what if the screen or keyboard die? Where can I buy replacement parts and how soon? I have two stores with every kind of PC hardware (even some server components) within walking distance. Unless something breaks down on a Saturday night, I can have my system up and running again within 24 hours (usually less than 2).
    There is also the pitiful performance of mobile GPUs, the dust buildup, the cooling noise of tiny fans and the small screens that ruin any kind of immersion in games. Can new laptops connect to multiple external displays?
    I can't see myself replacing my desktop with a laptop any time soon (but laptops do make more sense for most people).
  • coachingjoy - Sunday, September 8, 2013 - link

    With a desktop I think a 2560x1440 display would be warranted.
    It makes a desktop worthwhile.
    I mean, why not use a phone/notebook/laptop instead?
  • Joel Kleppinger - Sunday, September 8, 2013 - link

    This article is forgetting one of the biggest reasons to have a desktop... multiple monitors. With a laptop you are limited to one or maybe 2 external screens, and resolutions above 1920x1080 may not be supported. With a desktop, you can have as many as you want and the resolution can go as high as you want.

    As for the system hardware, I just upgraded my PC with 16GB RAM, an ivy bridge mobo + i5 3540 and took the old 80GB SSD out of my laptop (replaced with 250 GB for $150) and made it a boot drive for a grand total of $240.

    Now, I have 3 Asus PA248q monitors worth approx $900 which makes the total desktop bill a little higher... but you can't quite compare a 15-17" 1080p display to 3 24" 1920x1200 displays.
  • DanNeely - Sunday, September 8, 2013 - link

    if you really need a laptop only setup and multiple monitors; newer Dell Lattitudes with discrete GPUs can use both the DGPI and the IGO currently. With the dock I had 3 external monitors and the laptop screen on my 5420 running at once (didn't have a 4th to see if I could run 4 external)
  • nerd1 - Sunday, September 8, 2013 - link

    Most laptop with discrete graphics supports 3 external displays (eyefinity for example)
  • JlHADJOE - Sunday, September 8, 2013 - link

    I never really got the appeal of mobile gaming. You just end up with a big, heavy device that gets hot under use and has crap battery life. I'd much prefer to have a proper gaming desktop, and as light and portable a laptop as I can get by with when I'm mobile.
  • nunomoreira10 - Sunday, September 8, 2013 - link

    some people like colege students need a laptop but want to do some casual gaming and lan party.
    to them a midrange laptop is good enoughf.
  • Notmyusualid - Monday, September 9, 2013 - link

    I've said this a couple of times now;

    Some of us (whom are frequent travelers), simply cannot have a Desktop computer - and I've tried. No matter how well I packed the screen and SFF PC, the screen doesn't travel well (cracked case), and with hand carrying the PC, it has weighed as carry-on, which has a 7kg restriction on some airlines now. It is just not possible to do.

    So yes, my M18x R2 is heavy, but I'm a big guy too, so no problem for me. Battery life is wonderful if using the integrated HD4000 GPU, and if in the business lounge, I can always plug in, and change graphics if I need too.

    And when you say a 'proper gaming' Desktop, have you any idea how powerful my i7 3920XM is? I upped the CPU voltage a tad yesterday, and gamed at 4.5GHz for a couple of hours without issue.

    How is your memory performance? Winsat mem here is = 25357.21 MB/s.

    My dual GPUs are a powerhouse too. I hit nearly 11,000 in 3DMark11. Can your PC do that?

    Storage is not an issue anymore either, I have dual 240GB Patriot Wildfire SSDs in RAID0, providing a GB/s of storage performance, and also an internal 1TB Seagate 5400rpm for storage. (Yes 3 HDs in a laptop)

    Hot? Where? Out the back of the machine? - Who cares?
  • JarredWalton - Monday, September 9, 2013 - link

    In terms of performance, that's great... but in terms of price, you're basically willing to pay 3X the cost of a desktop for what you're getting in graphics scores. 11000 in 3DMark11, presumably on the Performance defaults, is something you can get with an overclocked GTX 760, or a single GTX 680 / GTX 770. Your notebook that cost $2500+ at the time of purchase (more with the dual SSDs I'd guess) is basically on par in performance with the $933 gaming desktop I listed.

    Which isn't to say that it's a bad notebook. If you need mobility, and you want maximum performance, you do what you have to do. That's sort of the point I was trying to make in the conclusion: do what's right for you. The M18x fits your wants/needs well, but for a lot of other people they would find it a horrible fit. Different strokes and all that....

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