The title of a recent Mac Night Owl column by Gene Steinberg grabbed me as a question that might have been more relevant 10 years ago. “Can You Survive Without a Desktop Mac?” Gene queries rhetorically. From my perspective, and I think that of many others […]

The title of a recent Mac Night Owl column by Gene Steinberg grabbed me as a question that might have been more relevant 10 years ago. “Can You Survive Without a Desktop Mac?” Gene queries rhetorically.

From my perspective, and I think that of many others these days, the operative would more aptly be, “can you survive without a laptop Mac?” After all, the New York Times first reported that laptop sales exceeded desktops in May 2003, Apple notebook sales surpassed its desktops sold in July 2005, have done so consistently since April 2006, and now represent roughly three-quarters of Mac systems sold, although from time to time desktops gain back some ground, such as with the hot-selling new iMacs. Industry-wide, laptops began outselling desktops globally in Q3 2008, nearly four years sooner than anticipated.

I was somewhat ahead of the curve, making the switch from desktop to laptop as my main production platform in October 1996, when I bought a PowerBook 5300. Aside from a brief dalliance with a G4 Cube in mid-2001, and purchasing a brand-new leftover SuperMac S-900 tower clone for $300 a year before that to use as a backup machine, it’s been all laptop, all the time for me now for more than a baker’s dozen years. I honestly can’t imagine myself trying to get along with just a desktop Mac anymore.

Not that there aren’t some enticing and compelling Mac desktops. I found that Cube difficult to resist, at least conceptually. I loved the design, but in practical use I found it less enchanting and myself pining for laptop virtues, so after six months I grabbed an opportunity to swap the barely broken-in Cube even-trade for a year-old PowerBook G3 Pismo. I’ve never regretted the decision, and now, more than eight years later, I still have that same old Pismo in regular service. I’ve still got the big S-900 as well, but it’s been quite a while since it was booted up.

Meanwhile, since that first PowerBook 5300, which is also still around and in working order, I’ve owned a PowerBook G3 Series WallStreet, two PowerBook 1400s, three Pismos, a dual USB iBook G3, a 17-inch PowerBook G4, and my present number-one machine — a late 2008 model unibody MacBook, purchased last March. Desktops simply haven’t been a significant part of the picture for me for nearly a decade, and I can’t say there’s anything I really miss about them.

There’s a bit of irony I suppose in that my MacBook serves mainly as a desktop workstation, perched on a laptop stand, connected to three USB hubs, an external keyboard, several pointing devices, a printer, a scanner, a USB microphone, and an Ethernet LAN. In many respects a desktop Mac would be a more logical and rational choice for my main home office production machine. I’ve seriously mused about a Mac mini (which I’ve always admired) for years, and the latest iMacs give you an awful lot of power and display real estate for your dollar.

Never say never, but even though I keep at least two other laptops in service as utility portable/road machines, I would still find it frustrating not to be able to unplug my main axe from its spaghetti-tangle of workstation peripheral cables, drop it in a computer case or backpack, and take it along elsewhere — whether elsewhere is just another part of the house or on a road trip, with full, untethered functionality intact.

If I ever feel the need for a larger display (it does appeal), that’s easy to arrange as well. On the other hand, with a desktop, you’re limited to the availability of 110V wall current or some equivalent, and an iMac, or even a Mac mini with monitor and pointing devices, would be a lot more cumbersome to take along. Also, if the power goes off, as it does fairly frequently in my neck of the woods, I can just keep on computing — for a long time if my emergency 12V battery pack is fully charged.

For me, getting along without a laptop would involve too much compromise. How about you?

  1. I move frequently between school, the homes of my parents, and I also travel often. Using a laptop is the most economically viable option for me.

  2. I can’t carry around a goddamn desktop.

  3. I don’t think I could ever go to using only a laptop, I feel cramped for space when not on a multi monitor setup. Plus since I do a lot of computer programing work I will often have a IDE with source code, a database management program and the interface design all on their own monitor and have been considering upgrading from 22 inch displays to 30 inch displays.

  4. I could never live without a laptop and I speak from experience. My friend needed a laptop for a business trip and I let her borrow mine. I almost died that week.

  5. I’ve never owned a Mac desktop until just recently. For years and even as early as this year I believed in portability as the deciding factor.

    I owned a 17″ Macbook Pro (3.06Ghz w/ SSD) and a 13″ MacBook Air (2.13Ghz w/ SSD). the 17″ stayed connected to a 24″ monitor at my desk and never left. I justified it because I could, if needed, take the 17″ with me but portability of the air won.

    So I sold the 17″ and got the Core i7 iMac and couldn’t be happier. It’s all in preference but I know for a fact that I could never survive without a portable Mac.

  6. I do the notebook-as-desktop thing. I have a 13″ MBP which goes everywhere with me, but when it is at home on the desk it’s on a stand, with an external (long) Apple keyboard and Mighty (Apple) Mouse, with a second 20″ display perched just to the left.

    Having switched down from a 15″ notebook, I notice the smaller screen, but I also notice the lighter weight and smaller package to haul around.

    I think the combination is the best reasonable compromise (owning a top-end Mac Pro with 3 or 4 screens AND a notebook would probably be better, but…).

  7. You can take a laptop anywhere. Try that with a desktop and you’ll look dumb.

    Laptops all the way!

    Even so I was thinking about getting a desktop, but it would also need to double as my television to be a worthwhile option. Translation = I need a pretty big screen. I’ll probably end up getting a Mac mini and a ginormous monitor (in the 30 something – 40 something or so inch range).

  8. For people like me who don’t move a lot, both of them are the same thing. I use my MacBook more or less like a desktop. But of course I have the added benefit that I can, whenever I need to, just unplug it and stuff it into my bag.

  9. Desktop all the way. Laptops are great when you’re on the road, but look what I get with my main production machine, a six-year-old Power Mac G5:

    • 6GB RAM (or more, if I so choose)
    • five internal hard drives in two mirrored RAIDs
    • three Firewire drives for backup
    • 2960×1024 pixels of screen space
    • Harmon Kardon SoundSticks II
    • plenty of Firewire and USB ports
    • full-sized keyboard and a real mouse
    • PCI-X slots for future expansion
    • completely reliability. In 5½ years, my iBook and MacBook have required service at least thirteen times (that I can think of). My G5, on the other hand, has never once had a hardware problem.

    Don’t get me wrong; my MacBook is nice, and I’m thrilled to have it when I have to work away from home (maybe 3-4×/year). But I just can’t imagine being without the raw power, expandability, and reliability of a desktop.

    1. I’m not sure that all of this makes sense. Attaching hubs means one can have lots of FireWire and USB ports on a laptop. Attaching an external full-sized keyboard and mouse and display is trivially easy; indeed, this ability is at the heart of the laptops-only camp’s argument.

  10. The i7 iMac ended up being too tempting for me and mine will be here Tuesday. It will be a long time before any laptop can match it’s power or that awesome screen.


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