December 2009

Desktops Versus Laptops

Desktop vs Laptops: Which Will Survive?

By: Kristin Masters

Sleek, stylish, and convenient, laptop computers have become ubiquitous in libraries, airplanes, and even local diners. But will laptops ever completely replace their robust yet less glamorous desktop counterparts? Despite assertions that the desktop is obsolete, it continues to serve certain market segments much better than laptop computers. Furthermore it is possible that both laptop computers and desktop systems will eventually be edged out by new technology that blends the advantages of both devices.

Laptop Computers Gain Widespread Popularity

Also called notebooks, laptop computers made their modern debut in 1981. The first model weighed 24 pounds. Conceived as a tool for business executives, laptop computer technology evolved over the next three decades. In the last few years, laptop computer sales have steadily grown:

  • In 2001, Toshiba ceased production of desktop models, in anticipation of the laptop computer trend.
  • From 2006 to 2008 laptop sales grew 60%. Dubbed the “Year of the Notebook,” 2007 saw a 21% increase in laptop computer sales, while desktop sales decreased by 4%.
  • By 2011, the IDC predicts that laptop computers will represent 71% of consumer computer purchases.

Laptop computers have long been a logical choice in the business world: compact and streamlined, they are extremely easy to transport. While older laptop computers had short battery life and less powerful processors, innovations have improved both, making laptop computers a viable replacement for desktop PC’s. Now, the number of cores remains the only difference between laptop computers and desktop systems. For the majority of users, that has little impact on performance, since most software does not leverage multiple cores.

As technology has improved, so have the prices of laptop computers. While the average cost of laptop computers used to be at least double that of desktop systems, that gap is closing with remarkable speed. In June 2008, NPD calculated that the average Windows desktop cost $550, a $2 increase from the previous year. Meanwhile, the average cost of a Windows laptop computer was $700. That price represents a $92 drop from 2007, and a $177 decrease from the previous year.

Current trends indicate that laptop computers will continue to gain a greater share of the market. Multiple factors indicate that they will likely dominate the market in the near future:

  • Laptop computers have become a sort of accessory. Their appearance can be customized to express individual style, and certain brands have even become status symbols. This tendency toward individually tailored technology is expected to increase as portable electronics proliferate.
  • Laptop computers will likely remain the currency of the business world. According to Business Travel News, business travel hit an all-time high in 2008. Coupled with the growth in telecommuting and remote access options, business mobility will bolster laptop computer sales and popularity.
  • People have an ever-increasing number of methods for “plugging in.” Connectivity through WiFi and Bluetooth are already commonplace, and access to mobile broadband is on the rise.

Making a Case for Desktops

In the past, desktop PC manufacturers delivered significantly more memory and power. They were also much more affordable than laptop computers. Laptop computer users still battled short battery life. As technology marches forward, however, those gaps in performance and price are steadily closing. Accordingly, desktop systems have lost their definitive command of the market share.

Indeed, since the recession began, sales of laptop computers have remained strong, while those of desktop systems have mostly stagnated. Apple even saw a 20% decrease in sales of desktop systems since the start of 2009. Industry leaders speculate that part of the dip may be due to businesses’ holding off on corporate orders, which usually constitute a large percentage of desktop sales. While many predict that corporate entities will ultimately opt for laptop computers anyway, desktop systems still offer considerable advantages for both corporate and consumer use:

  • Desktop systems pose a significantly lower risk for theft. In April 2008, the Ponemon Institute found that laptop computer theft costs the average American company $49, 246 per year. That figure includes not only the cost of replacing the equipment itself, but also that of the data on the machines stolen.
  • As a corollary, desktop systems make more sense than laptop computers in fields where confidentiality is key. Medical practices and financial institutions often choose desktop systems, because it means employees cannot simply walk out with clients’ records and information. Similarly, desktop systems are preferable in retail environments.
  • Task-based workers, such as clerks, call center employees, accountants, and others who are tied to a workstation simply do not need a laptop computer. Many workers who fall into this category need only basic functionality, and can get away with a relatively low-performance machine.
  • For functions like computer programming and video editing, which require robust processing, desktop systems are still vastly preferable to laptops. Workers in these industries will undoubtedly continue to use desktop systems in the office.
  • Desktop systems can be built from the ground up, or easily upgraded, to include extra RAM, upgraded video cards, or additional CD/DVD drives. This feature is extremely attractive to consumers who heavily use multimedia or gaming functions.
  • For lower maintenance and replacement expenses, desktop systems are still the way to go. While the average laptop lasts three years, a desktop lasts five. Meanwhile, laptops tend to need more repairs, since frequent transport results in more wear and tear.

Desktop systems offer considerable advantages in specific industries and applications. In addition, they provide greater durability and cost effectiveness than laptops. While use of desktop systems may be more limited to specific market segments in the future, they are certainly in no danger of being rendered obsolete.

Hybrids Present Competitive Third Choice

As businesses continue to seek both portability and power, devices such as thin clients and virtual desktop systems will probably soon gain a greater share of the market. These devices are drive-less, and work by connecting to a central server for memory. They use less power and take up less space than traditional desktop systems, but provide the same level of functionality. Both compact and energy efficient, thin clients and virtual desktop systems represent an attractive alternative to both desktop systems and laptops, because they combine the best features of both.

As advancements in technology narrow the gaps in cost and power, it is likely that laptops succeed desktop systems in popularity. However, the niche applications of desktop systems will grant them continued relevance in the home and office.