Buying guide: Desktop PC vs. laptop

Should you buy a desktop PC or a notebook computer? Our guide will help you decide

When buying a computer you will be faced with two options: a desktop PC or a laptop. Which one you end up buying will depend on your needs and, of course, your budget.

A desktop PC is one that will reside on a desk in your office or bedroom. It will come with separate parts — usually a tower, which contains the brains of the PC as well as the DVD drive. It will usually come with a monitor, keyboard and mouse.

On the other hand, a laptop (or notebook) is an all-in-one device that is portable. It can be carried with you from room to room, between home and work, or used while on the road (when travelling on a train, for example). Laptops have a battery that can last anywhere between one and a half hours to four hours, depending on the type of programs you use. Laptops have a built-in monitor, a built-in keyboard and a built-in mouse, and they can vary in size from 10 inches to 18 inches.

Speed

In the old days, if you wanted a fast computer, you had to buy a desktop PC. Currently the performance of a desktop PC and a laptop is similar and, in some cases, equal. The only area in which desktop PCs and laptops can differ greatly is in their ability to play games; although there are gaming laptops, they tend to be less powerful than desktop PCs. If you want a computer to play the latest games, then you should definitely consider a desktop PC. If you want to buy a computer just so that you can view photos, use the Internet or type up documents and spreadsheets, then a laptop is a good choice.

Specifications

The key specifications to look for when buying a desktop PC or a laptop are the CPU, RAM (memory), graphics adapter and hard drive. The CPU is the brains of the computer; the RAM is the space where all your programs will be loaded (the more RAM you have, the more programs you can load); the graphics adapter (also known as the graphics card or graphics controller) determines how well your computer will play games; and the hard drive determines how many programs, music files, documents, videos and e-mails you will be able to store on your computer.

Laptops will generally have lower specifications than desktop PCs, although there's not much in it these days. A typical laptop might have less RAM and a smaller hard drive than a similarly priced desktop PC, and it will also have a less powerful graphics adapter. The CPU, which makes a big difference in computer performance, is often the same between a laptop and a PC. For the best performance in a laptop or a desktop PC, look for a model with Intel's Core i3, Core i5 or Core i7 CPUs, or AMD's Phenom II CPUs.

Screen size

When buying a laptop, you will need to decide what size screen will be suitable for your needs. A 15in (measured diagonally) screen means the notebook will be heavy, but you will be able to view a lot more programs on the screen at once, and in some cases fit more windows on the screen. A 14.1in screen offers a good balance between size and portability. You should look for a 13in screen or a 12in screen if you want a laptop that will be easy to carry with you on the road. Opt for a 10in netbook if all you need is a small and light laptop for browsing the Web, accessing social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, and viewing your photos.

For a desktop PC, a 22in widescreen monitor offers the best value for money, and 24in and 27in models are also available if you want something larger. It's worth spending a bit more on the monitor, and even upsizing to a 24in model if you can afford it, because the monitor is the one device that you will have to look at every time you use your PC.

Burning CDs and DVDs

Nearly all desktop PCs and laptops now come with a DVD burner, even if you choose to buy a sub-$1000 laptop (provided it's not a netbook). Most laptops have a DVD burner built in, but smaller laptops, such as slimline models, may supply a DVD burner as an external unit that needs to be plugged into the laptop (in some cases it is an optional extra, so it's best to check); netbooks will not have a DVD burner at all. With a DVD burner you can burn CDs as well as DVDs. Blu-ray combo drives are also available for PCs and notebooks. These allow you to play Blu-ray movies, as well as burn CDs and DVDs. A Blu-ray writer is required if you want to burn your own Blu-ray discs.

Do new laptops and desktop PCs come with software?

Nearly all laptops and desktop PCs come with a version of Microsoft Windows 7 preinstalled. They should also come with software for burning CDs and DVDs and watching movies; the brand of laptop or desktop PC you buy will determine exactly what this software is. Some laptops and desktops may also include office application software, games or educational software. Many models may also come with software to protect your computer from viruses.

Why buy a laptop?

If you want a computer that you can use at home, as well as take to work, then you will need a laptop. Also, you may choose to buy a laptop if you want to have more freedom to roam when using your computer at home. A fully charged laptop can give you a few hours of use and will let you work from your living room, bedroom or even your backyard. On the other hand, a desktop PC will restrict you to working from the location where the PC is installed.

Why buy a desktop PC?

If you want a computer that can store a huge amount of music files or a computer that will let you play games, then a desktop PC is a good choice. A powerful desktop PC is generally less expensive than a powerful notebook with similar grunt, and a desktop PC also has an advantage in that it can be easily expanded if your needs change (you can add more storage, RAM or a better graphics card at a later date). A laptop cannot be expanded to the same extent that a desktop PC can, although you can change the hard drive and in most cases add more RAM.

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