Ars Technica reports that Global notebook shipments [have] finally overtake[n] desktops, making the issue all the more salient (Slashdot’s coverage is here). Of course, many of those notebooks are probably netbooks that supplement rather than supplant desktops, and the inflated notebook total is probably in part due to the disposable nature and limited longevity of notebooks. Still, the legitimate question remains, and my short answer for most people in most circumstances in “desktop.”
My work demands sustained concentration (see, for example, “Disconnecting Distraction”) and being in spot for a time helps that; I sold my PowerBook and used the proceeds for a 24″ aluminum iMac. It’s a vastly faster machine that’ll probably last longer than an equivalent laptop will and cost less. Those who want mobility pay for it, and I suspect most people overestimate their mobility and underestimate the benefits of a desktop.
But the question is one that an individual is better suited to answer, as it depends on that person’s needs, and I can only enumerate the trade-offs inherent in the laptop/desktop decision. The question becomes almost philosophical concerning the nature of the person you are: more peripatetic or less? Working for longer at a computer or not as long? Used to a large screen or not (becoming accustomed to space and then having it removed it difficult)? Annoyed by cable creep or not? To be sure, some groups of people are well-suited to notebooks: people who move often, have to travel frequently, and students scurrying between dorm and home all probably fit that category. I suspect there are fewer of them than the laptop numbers indicate and that many people don’t consider the detriments, especially ergonomically. I’ve heard the complaint too many times: my wrists hurt, or my back hurts, or my eyes are tired, and they almost always come from laptop users. I recently gave a friend an a Griffin iCurve for her laptop, which seemed to improve the problem. ICurves are no longer made, but the new version is called an Elevator.
An Elevator, external keyboard, monitor, and mouse improves the laptop, but they’re expensive. Comparing Mac equipment makes this delta particularly obvious—even if one buys third-party monitors—as various pricing specials and what not don’t obscure the underlying prices. One person in an Ars thread said, “I’ve found that if you don’t need mobility, paying for it is a bad idea.” Indeed: and the question becomes “need,” which I can’t answer. A Slashdot commenter said that “the lack of replaceable parts is one other reason why laptop sales are ‘higher’ than desktop sales.” Combined with a) the inherent jostling laptops experience and b) the compactness of the parts, raising the temperature inside the machine and increasing the likelihood that subtle manufacturing flaws will do things like pinch video cords or dislodge logic boards, this means laptops are likely to need to be replaced more often, in addition to their higher upfront costs.
I have an iMac, which has some of a laptop’s drawbacks, including no user-serviceable parts aside from RAM. But it’s also relatively easy to move and more likely to last than a ceaselessly mobile laptop. It remains in one place, making it easier to get in the zone, as described by Rands in Repose at the link. Books, mostly fiction but still a few technical ones too, surround my desk, and, like Malcolm Gladwell, I’m more likely to turn to them for quotes, inspiration, and sounding in many circumstances than to the much-scattered Internet:
[Gladwell ….] still prefers to do most of his research at the NYU library. Google is something of a personal hobbyhorse: “Google is the answer to the problem we didn’t have. It doesn’t tell you what’s interesting or what’s important. There’s still more in the library than there is on Google.”
He’s overstating his case but I take his point. Then again, the article also says that Gladwell likes to work in coffeeshops, which is anathema to me: I look every time someone walks by or the espresso machine goes off like a whistle, and at the end of three hours I’ve written as many sentences. There’s even a picture of him sitting at a laptop, perhaps contradicting some of my overall point.
Nonetheless, like most philosophy problems, this one has no perfect answer and is more an expression of underlying value than anything else. Granted, this decision has a greater economic aspect given the continued cost disparity between laptops and desktops, which seems unlikely to disappear in the immediate future. But I think that, if most people weigh what they value, the money and advantages of a desktop more often than not make them better machines. If you’re writing, or coding, or editing movies, or doing any number of other things for a sustained period of time on a somewhat regular basis, a desktop or laptop + external peripherals seems an improvement over a laptop. If you’re chiefly using a computer to read e-mail, check Facebook, and the like, the computer choice probably doesn’t matter. Either way, I’d rather the save money, although many others obviously prefer the mobility. To me, and presumably many others who like to write and to read, and the “deep thought” stage is, to my mind, more important than shallower activities that demand less cognitive attention. That’s not to say you can’t get in the zone or produce useful work on a laptop—millions of people obviously do—but I still think a desktop a more satisfying overall choice.
I can guarantee nothing, of course, and Lord of the Rings speaks to this issue, as it does to so many:
“… The choice is yours: to go or wait.” [Gildor said.]
“And it is also said,” answered Frodo, “Go not to the Elves for counsel, for they will say both no and yes.”
“Is it indeed?” laughed Gildor. “Elves seldom give unguarded advice, for advice is a dangerous gift, even from the wise to the wise, and all courses may run ill. But what would you? You have not told me all concerning yourself; how should I choose better than you? But if you demand advice, I will for friendship’s sake give it.”
EDIT: A recent NPD survey on netbooks found that “60 percent of buyers said they never even took their netbooks out of the house” (hat tip Salon.com). If your laptop never travels, why bother having one?
EDIT 2: I posted a follow-up regarding the relative reliability of desktops versus laptops. The former win according to the best data I’ve seen.
EDIT 3: Marco Arment has a post on why he’s now using a MacBook Pro instead of a Mac Pro. The reason: Solid State Drives (SSDs). The limiting factor on laptop performance for most people used to be the hard drive. With an SSD, it’s not. If you have enough money for a large-capacity SSD and are willing to put a conventional hard drive in the CD / DVD bay, you’re not giving up any substantial performance in day-to-day tasks. More than anything else, the growing power of SSDs make me think the days of desktop computers are limited.