This is an extremely common question. In fact, I’ll bet anyone who’s the tech in the family or neighborhood gets asked this same question more often than they would perhaps want.
The problem, of course, is that there’s no single answer.
It depends on your needs and your budget. And as technology is ever-changing, it even matters when you ask the question.
I typically ask myself this question about every few years as one computer or another needs replacing or simply comes to the end of its usable lifespan.
So rather than give you a definitive answer that doesn’t exist, let me instead walk you through some of the things you should consider when it’s time to get a new computer.
In this multi-post series, we’ll start with the most basic of questions…
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Laptop? Desktop? Tablet? Hybrid?
The most fundamental of decisions has become even more complicated in recent years. Laptops are getting more powerful, tablets are getting more useful and “the death of the desktop” seems to be a common, yet mistaken, news headline.
What you want will depend, of course, on how you’ll be using it.
Laptops are perfect for traveling when you need what I’ll call a “real” computer. Not to disparage tablets, which I’ll talk about in a moment, but sometimes you just need a real computer with a real keyboard and mouse and with a traditional operating system and applications. And sometimes you need that computer to travel with you on vacations or business trips, or trips to your local Starbucks.
A laptop can often be a very reasonable “only” computer. Particularly, if most of what you do is online, today’s laptops easily have more than enough power to do what you need. Even tasks needing more “horsepower” (i.e. RAM) – like photo and video editing, which I sometimes do – are often quite doable on a sufficiently powerful laptop.
Laptops fall a little short in two ways:
- Price: they’re typically pricier than a desktop of equivalent specifications.
- Expandability: they’re more limited in how far they can be upgraded. (Of course you can add things via USB, but that somewhat negates the portability.)
Desktops tend to have the latest and greatest technology. Since they don’t have to focus on things like extending battery life like a laptop does, desktops typically use more powerful and power-hungry CPUs, as well as other components that make for a faster machine.
Desktops are, of course, bigger. In exchange for the size, you get more flexibility when it comes time to upgrade. You can often upgrade the power supply, add additional disk drives, add-in cards and more with relative ease. RAM can usually only be upgraded to the limits of the main circuit board (or “motherboard“), but in many desktops even that can be replaced.
While their numbers might decrease overall, in my opinion desktops are here to stay for a number of reasons. While you can do things like photo and video editing on a laptop, there’s nothing like a big screen and a powerful desktop to get the job done, or to get more complex jobs done that you wouldn’t even consider on a portable machine. The same can be said for many office applications including bookkeeping, document management, presentations and more. Even as a window into online services, the less-expensive desktop machine is here to stay.
Tablets, like the iPad and Android-based equivalents, have become much more viable in recent years, both in price and functionality. I’ll lump in smartphones as well, since they share many of the characteristics of tablets; though I wouldn’t necessarily consider a smartphone as a replacement for a computer, whereas in some situations a tablet might be.
The important thing to realize with these smaller and more portable devices is that you’re often trading off things you can’t do for ease and portability. To begin with, for the most part, you’re selecting from a completely separate eco-system of applications. Your Windows or Mac programs won’t just work on your iOS or Android devices, so you’ll need to get versions or alternatives that do.
Perhaps more importantly, tablets may be fantastic content consumption devices – for reading email, surfing the web, even reading books and manuscripts – but they are more difficult content creation devices. I know I wouldn’t consider writing lengthy emails or Ask Leo! articles using my tablet.
Consider how you’ll use the devices carefully and recognize that they – like many laptops – are inherently limited in their expandability.
The power of a laptop and the utility of a tablet … that’s a hybrid, sometimes called a convertible among other things.
These are typically Windows1 devices that operate either as a laptop – with a full or nearly-full keyboard – and as a tablet with a touch screen. Typically, you use it as a tablet when the keyboard is detached or folded behind the screen.
While hybrids are even more expensive than equivalent dedicated tablets or laptops, I have to admit that if I were in the market for a Windows-based laptop today I’d seriously consider a hybrid.