Notebook Fan or Desktop Diehard?


IDC reported this week that 2008’s third quarter saw U.S. domestic notebook shipments cruise past a 50 percent share of the personal computer market, not for the first time but reaching a convincing 55.2 percent. As usual, the broader market trails Apple in the trend line, in this instance by a wider-than-usual margin. Notebooks’ first exceeded a 50 percent share of Apple’s system sales back in 2004 when it sold some 1,665,000 laptops vs. 1,625,000 iMacs and Power Macs.

The only question I have about this is how come it took so long? For more than a decade I’ve been advocating notebooks as “the logical Mac” for most users, being a convert since it took me about half a day after unpacking my first PowerBook a dozen years ago to recognize that portables were the way I wanted to go with computing, and I’ve never really looked back except for a brief dalliance with a G4 Cube in 2001. Ever tried using a desktop computer in bed? I like computing while reclining, and keep one of my quiet, cool-running Pismo PowerBooks by my bed most of the time, parked on a Laptop Laidback stand — not a mode that lends itself to practicality with a desktop computer.

You can also convert your ‘Book into a virtual desktop Mac for workstation use. Just plug in an external monitor, keyboard and mouse, whatever Ethernet, USB or FireWire peripherals you need, and you’re set. I find that the laptops just give me a fantastic amount of flexibility, convenience, and versatility compared with desktops.

The Puzzler: Why don’t notebooks enjoy an even larger market share?

Back in ’96 I hadn’t expected the laptop to essentially replace my desktop Mac, but that’s what happened almost immediately, leaving me wondering ever since why so many computer users continue to use desktop machines even if they don’t require the greater power and expandability of a desktop machine. I suppose desktop advocates do have a point about ruggedness and reliability, although my Mac laptops have been gratifyingly robust. Price used to be another explanation, but is much less compelling than it used to be. Never say never, but I doubt I’ll ever buy another desktop Mac. I’m really not comfortable anymore using a machine that doesn’t support battery-powered, portable operation.

Don’t get me wrong. I can appreciate the strong points of a good desktop Mac. More power and power per dollar: greater expansion potential, easier to work on, more flexibility of configuration and upgrading. But once you’ve got the portable computer bug, desktops, nice as they can be, will just never do it for you again in the same way.

Strong Consumer Preference is for Notebooks

Apparently, at the consumer level, a healthy majority agrees with me. IDC’s U.S. Quarterly PC Tracker and Personal Systems research manager David Daoud noted in a press release that the consumer market has long favored notebooks, with mobile computer sales exceeding the 70 percent mark, so enterprise desktop work stations would account for keeping desktop market share higher than it otherwise would be, but Daoud observes that the enterprise and public sector buyers are beginning to perceive good value in mobility.

How about you? Have you switched to a laptop or considered doing so, or are you a desktop diehard?


Lonnie Beason

Wow, wonderful article and fantastic examples, Liam! You hit on a lot of great points here, this can be a resource I will return back to often.

Charles Moore

I’ll second Alister’s comment about your thoughtful and analytical summary, Patrick.

A couple of supplemental points. The mouse and external keyboard that I use by preference have a combined total MRSP of US$60, and can be found cheaper than that. Laptop stands sell for about $30 and up (the Laidback is $100), but can easily be improvised. A pile of books will do to get the machine up to comfortable viewing elevation.

Laptops can drive big external monitors too (the new MacBook Pro supports Apple’s 30-incher) and many also support extended display mode, using the built-in screen and an external unit as a larger combined work area.

The point about upgradability is definitely a laptop shortcoming, and one area where there has been negative progress in laptop design and engineering. I still use two old 2000 vintage Pismo PowerBooks that have both been upgraded from G3 to G4 processors, have dual-layer, 8x SuperDrive optical drives, and can accommodate various other devices in their expansion bays and PC CardBus slots. The MacBook Pro has an ExpressCard 34 slot, but that’s about it.

Coincidentally I expect, Gene Stenberg, The Mac Night Owl, who says that he personally prefers desktop computers, has weighed in on this topic tonight, asking rhetorically, “Is It Time To Ditch Desktops For Good?” (scroll down)

A few snippets:

“Portables also influence most of today’s Mac desktops…. The iMac more closely resembled the MacBook Pro, and will likely incorporate chipsets similar to the current model in the next revision…..

today’s notebook computer is a powerful beast, with performance that closely matches desktops. It’s more than enough for most of you…..

I would not be surprised to see the portable segment exceed 75% of the market and desktops become consigned more and more to specific niche functions….as quad-core processors become commonplace on notebooks, I expect that Mac Pro customers might similarly diminish in number….

the next great processor revision will perhaps eliminate my need for a desktop computer altogether……”

I can’t disagree with any of that!



Doh! My last sentence I meant to say “laptops” not “Macbooks”. I’ve already conceded that the Macbooks may, in their own right, be slightly ahead.


Nice summary Patrick. Spot on.

Though I would go a tad further on the portability aspect to say that whilst laptops have always been ‘fully’ portable, desktops are beginning to get a level of portability (as I noted). Using your computer in different places around your home is fairly easily achieved today with a desktop. As soon as you leave your home however, the laptop wins hands down.

To super-summarise: Capability x Portability = Value. Apple is currently delivering a good value range on that basis. Worst value is Mac Mini and best value, I suspect, is now the unibody Macbooks.

Charles, your central tenet was that the Macbooks are accelerating forward on this value scale. I believe they still a little way off first place, but yes, gaining ground.


Out of interest, I’ve attempted to round up the comments in this thread into a single post. Although I’m a PC user, I’m very interested in where the lines can be drawn between the different computer form factors (Where on earth did the term “form factor” come from?!)

Generally it seems to be recognised that the line separating the decision to get each of the different form factors changes as new models are released. Charles Moore noted that laptop displays have been improving and that the price difference between laptops and desktops has been narrowing for example. Galley has felt these changes personally, saying that if he the new MacBooks had been released when he’d upgraded his old one, then he probably wouldn’t have bought an iMac.

There seems to be four criteria that people use to choose a laptop or a desktop.

1. The user’s computing tasks require greater processing power, memory, harddrive space and/or graphics capability than a laptop can provide. MisterK said an example of a task requiring this was video editing and using Adobe After Effects.

2. The user experince of a desktop is better than a laptop. People focused mostly on the differences between the screens on desktops and laptops. Higher resolutions were possible on a desktop and MisterK noted that two “huge” screens were preferable to him than a 17″ laptop screen and a larger 30″ screen. SimonSharks noted that desktop screens are higher quality and brighter although as said before Charles Moore said that the difference is getting smaller. Allister liked how desktop monitors can be placed so to minimise having to bend the neck down to see the screen. Charles Moore said there is extra hardware that overcome this egonomic issue for laptops (external keyboard and mouse and a “Laptop Laidback” however this all costs money and either compromises portability if its taken with you or only works for using your laptop in one place.

3. Laptops can be used without a constant power supply by running off the battery [Dumitru, Charles Moore]. Examples that cropped up were power blackouts [Dumitru, Charles Moore], being able to use the computer in the car or in waiting rooms [Charles Moore]. What I found really surprising was that no one mentioned all the other places that people can lack power. University lecture theatres for example.

4. Laptops are portable [John Smith] and this can be important to some people [Charles Moore]. Laptops are easier to use in bed than desktops [Charles Moore]. The really surprising thing was that again, like for criteria 3, no one put a stamp on this, probably the most important, feature of laptops. Perhaps the benefit of portability is just taken for granted but when I would assume that portability is the winning reason to get a laptop over a desktop, it is surprising that no one played this card convincingly yet. Assumption is the mother of all f#$%-ups and this one could be having a whole litter in the clothes draw and no one would know! If anything this feature of laptops is under attack. On one side Allister has shown that iMacs can be moved in a single trip from one place to another although I doubt that he’s saying they could beat a laptop for portability. On the other side, mobile phones are able to achieve more of the tasks of laptops [Allister]. Cmfnyc thinks that the iPhone/iPod Touch style device can be more convenient than the laptop and may even replace the laptop form factor in the next decade. He says that continued innovation in the user experience of these smaller devices is important to this.

Other criteria:

Desktops are more upgradable

Laptops are usually more expensive than desktops except in some special cases such as Mac Mini’s [Allister].

So, after all of this, here are some obvious questions:

What tasks have users found fit into Criteria 1; i.e. require more processing power, memory, harddrive space and/or graphics capability than a laptop can provide?

For what tasks have users changed to using a desktop over a laptop in order to get a better user experience?

What are the explicit benefits of a laptop over a desktop in terms of portability? These may include social benefits like being able to work together in groups.


Perhaps pricing is significantly different in different parts of the world. But note that every time you address a shortcoming you do it by spending yet more money. A laptop stand, extra and extended-life batteries etc.

Re battery life, I was referring to running time.

I guess we do agree that it’s each to their own. If you’re happy to spend the extra money and suffer the downsides, then I guess it’s a better deal now than it has ever been. For myself I will take the advantages of the “portable-desktop” for the lower price point.

Charles Moore

Hi Allister;

We seem to be debating based on two very different price structures here. You didn’t mention the AUD$ price of the entry-level 2.1 GHz white MacBook (still an impressive machine that also supports FireWire) that I used in my comparison. The new unibody MacBook sells in the US for $1,299, which is $100 more than the base 20″ iMac, but it’s now essentially now a downsized version of the MacBook Pro, so I would deem the value still there – for those of us who prize portability.

Ten years ago, the cheapest Apple laptop you could buy was the 233 MHz WallStreet/PDQ LE at $2,200 with a 12.1″ 800 x 600 display, which went for a whopping CAN$3,295 here in Canada where I live. The teardrop iMac (which had much in common with the PowerBook under the hood/bonnet) was selling in the neighborhood of $1,299 or CAN$1,899 at the time. I bought one of the PowerBooks and still have it, currently on loan to my daughter after her ThinkPad broke.

Anyway, the proportional difference in price between desktop and laptop has shrunk radically in price since 1998. I thought the premium was with it for portability then, and so much more now that the difference is so minimal.

Battery life? The original battery in that old WallSreet lasted eight years, and my 2002 iBook and 2004 vintage PowerBook G4 still have their original batteries.

PowerBook keyboards have often been the best in the business, and the ones in my WallStreet and Pismos the best KBs in my estimation that I’ve ever used, period. Trackpads are not my fave, but a good one is not hard to live with, IMHO. My Laptop Laidback or an external keyboard and mouse and a laptop stand at my office desk solve the neck crick problem.

I won’t argue about the screen. The iMac’s is superior to any laptop, but that’s a tradeoff that’s always applied, and laptop displays are better than they ever were.



Well, yes if you spin the figures that way.

First of all, let’s leave out the concept of a separate monitor – assume you bought a laptop to use as a laptop and an extra monitor is an unnecessary luxury. I’m using AUD$ here.

A Macbook at 2.0GHz, 2Gb, 250Gb comes in at $2259.

An iMac at 2.4GHz, 2Gb, 250Gb comes in at $1719. Or, slightly over 3/4 the price of the laptop.

Now if you insist on using the Mac Mini as a comparator, it gets a little outrageous at 2.0GHz, 2Gb, 160Gb for $2237 with a 20″ cinema display (as for the other desktop config represented here). Almost the same price as the laptop! So we can see that specifying a Mac Mini as a competitor to a laptop is folly. It’s priced to sell at the cheap end of the market for those who already have the peripherals.

Don’t get me wrong, Mac Minis have their place (e.g. in cars!) but they are clearly a niche product that you will pay through the nose for if you want anything approaching “standard” desktop performance.

So yes, maybe the price points are getting closer but there is certainly no way I can justify a 33% premium on my desktop setup just because it is neat to be able to work away from power points. If money were no object I’d happily take and use a laptop and probably gain some benefit from the portability, whilst at the same time cursing the short battery life, smaller screen, having to use a trackpad (which I don’t like), dealing with a smaller keyboard and a crick in my neck.

On the subject of screen real estate, I’ve still never got used to the fact that my 20″ (last of the white) iMac’s 1680×1040 screen gives me less functional area than my previous 1600×1200 PC because (aside from the fact the PC did actually have a few more pixels) OS X makes things pretty by making them big. I know “white space” looks good but when space is at a premium I’d rather use my 20/20 vision to good effect and pack more in. Roll on resolution independence!

Charles Moore

Hi Allister;


Cheapest Mac laptop
2.1 GHz Core 2 Duo MacBook – $999

Cheapest Mac Desktop
Mac mini – $599
But no display, keyboard, or mouse yet and it’s only 1.83 GHz, has a combo drive as opposed to the MacBook’s SuperDrive, an 80 GB HD vs. 120 GB.

Apple’s cheapest display is the 20″ Cinema Display , which adds a whopping $599.00. Once you buy your keyboard and mouse it’s another $98, so you’re up to $1,296.

Optioning it up to come closer to the MacBook’s spec. you would need the 2 GHz SuperDrive model, which is $799 and bumps the total damages to $1,496.00

Going with a cheaper, non Apple display could take you down two or three hundred bucks, but you’d still be more expensive than the MacBook.

Your cheapest iMac is $1,199, and it’s definitely a more powerful machine with a much larger display and better specs. pretty much across the board, but it’s not portable and it’s not less expensive in up front cost.

All that notwithstanding, I never said laptops were cheaper on a cost/performance value equation. They’re not, but the gap has narrowed remarkably from what it used to be. It really depends on how much of a premium portability is worth to you. For me it’s worth a lot more than the current disparity in cost.

I use a laptop every day for 2-3 hours doing production work while relaxing in bed or on a couch with my Laptop Laidback stand. Much more comfortable than sitting at my office workstation or at a table. I also take a laptop with me on road trips so I can do work in the car or waiting rooms. Another huge factor for me is that I live in a rural area where power outages are common, and usuallly last several hours (we had a 19 hour one not long ago. With laptops and some spare batteries I can just keep working. I can get ten hours with two extended life batteries in a Pismo PowerBook.

I know people who lug their iMacs around. My daughter used to with hers (CRT model too). Not for me.



One more point. Laptop users, when was the last time you HAD to use your laptop where power was not available AND you used it productively (not just checking on emails which you could do with a phone). AND were you comfortable at the time?

I think many people have laptops because they CAN be used portably and not because they need them.


Uh, what? A laptop isn’t much more expensive than a desktop? You’ve already mentioned the presence of an extra screen, mouse and keyboard. There’s a few hundred bucks right there. Plus the laptop is *clearly* more expensive than the same specs on an iMac.

As for portability, my brother – a long time Mac user – talked me out of getting a laptop. We have four people and four iMacs in the house. Two in studies and two in bedrooms (kids). It’s not unheard of to have three iMacs sitting on the dining room table for mutliplayer gaming, or for me to grab mine (in a single trip, too) and take it up there to work on stuff with my wife (because the study is too small).

I believe there are also carry cases for iMacs if you’re really into it. They ARE portables.


The reason I got a desktop was screen real estate. I’ve got dual WSXGA+ screens and if I had the cash for new monitors and another top notch graphics card (Nvidia so that I could use it with CUDA), I’d swap out my current dual wide 22″ LCDs for four (yes, four!) 24″ wide LCDs. Screen real estate is such a help for productivity and I only wish I could get more of it for cheaper. I’d consider a laptop but only if it could connect two 1920×1200 (WUXGA) screens to it otherwise I’m just heading backwards.

Charles Moore

Hi Mike;

Well, I also have a 17″ PowerBook that serves as my main production machine, but runs a lot hotter than the old (but still cool) Pismos, which I use with a Laptop Laidback

I don’t dispute that it’s possible to use an iMac from bed (perhaps woth the keyboard and mouse on a Laptop Laidback or other stand), but it’s a lot slicker and easier with a laptop.




I need to respectfully rebut a few of your points:

First, Apple does listen to their customers, which is why they have feedback forms on their website. Can they do better? Sure. But they certainly understand the risk of not paying attention. Can you say “mid 1990s”? If you honestly believe that Apple doesn’t care, then I understand why you would not buy their products.

Second, for pros this is not a money issue, it’s a size issue, so your comment about saving up more money for a Macbook Pro is not valid. I want a 13.3″ Macbook Pro (or smaller) that’s basically the Macbook + FW + express card for $300 more. I don’t want to hear about whether or not there’s room for a FW port in the current model. This is a technical discussion about what Apple may or may not do in their next release. I am commenting in this thread as a technologist and not as a consumer.

Third, your rationale for not needing firewire suggests that you do not have an application requiring synchronous A/V recording and playback. You are correct that firewire is not needed for file transfers but that is a different issue. I am prepared to give up my firewire-only backup drives, but unfortunately there is no viable option for my firewire-based DAW.



I used to use both, but since I found myself using my ibook more and more I decided to get a Macbook Pro that was (last year) about as fast as my desktop G5.
I wrote an article about this choice on my website, click on my name to check it out.

Patrick Santana

Come on Mike Sanders …. I let my desktop at office.

favourite programmes > TV


mike sanders

Where have you been when you say you can’t use a desktop in bed?? Have you not seen the gorgeous imac 24in with remote control for watching your favourite programmes and the wireless keyboard and mouse for normal computing. Time for you to wake up and look beyond your one of my quiet, cool-running Pismo PowerBooks or should that be quaint?

Patrick Santana

I think if I use the computer for something more than internet, I would not do it at my bed… and I also would need more power.

But it is a great solution for simple-medium tasks. But not for very complex.


I love my 15inch macbook pro to bits, it’s awesome and quite powerful, and I love the ability to surf the internet while I’m in bed, if I wouldn’t rely on computers to do my work I’d settle by a laptop. ps: it’s great to have a computer in blackouts :)


I have switched from using notebooks for the 5 past years to an iMac 24″ desktop primary for performance reasons – a faster CPU, larger hard drive and most importantly a higher quality and brighter screen. Notebooks are good for most but for production they can’t quite complete with desktops and the margin is widening as desktops get 500GB+ drives and 4+ core CPUS that notebooks don’t have yet.


Several months ago I sold my trusty MacBook for a 24″iMac. If the new MacBooks were on the market, I probably would’ve gotten another MacBook, along with a 24″ Cinema Display.


I’m using a Macbook Pro right now, but my next computer will be a Mac Pro desktop. I work in an office with a PC, so I don’t need to carry it there. I tend to do all my computer stuff in my office at home, and I’d rather have two huge screens than my 17″ laptop screen and another larger screen (even though the larger screen is a 30″ one). I’m also going to be doing more video editing and After Effects, so the extra power won’t hurt. More upgradeable, too.

Patrick Santana

I agree with John Smith. I can not get the power that I need in a laptop. So when I really need power, I use my 8-core 2.8 with much more memory and HD; otherwise I use the laptop.


Here’s one vote for the desktop, because I create documents and media files in particular. If I was using a computer only for communication, then the laptop would be my first choice.


To me, laptops are a transitional device. I’ve found them to be a compromise on convenience and power, neither truly convenient nor sufficiently powerful. I think the iPhone/iPod Touch signals the beginning of the end of this era. I know it may seem out there to see a cliff where all signs point to a trend/surge. But I find my Touch infinitely more convenient for most of my laptop needs. It might take another decade for this form factor to become sufficiently powerful to replace laptops. But if Apple continues to innovate its user experience, I have little doubt it will. On the other end of the spectrum, I still wouldn’t trade my personal iMac or work MacPro for any laptop (though the new MacBook specs are sweet). For me, the user experience is just so much better on this more traditional machine. I also do fairly graphics/memory intensive work and am not a road warrior.

John Smith

I use both. I work day-to-day on a desktop. I simply cannot get enough power in a laptop — I have an 8-core 3 GHz Mac Pro, with 8 GB of RAM and a 750 GB boot disk (which I back up internally), as well as a pair of mirrored 1 TB drives (which is, fortunatley enough on OS X, a lot faster than a standalone drive). I have about 200 GB of photos (RAW files from Canon 1D Mark II and 1Ds Mark III), which I manage and tweak with Aperture and Photoshop, and with associated other files, have a total of about 350 GB of stuff on my data drive. Given you _really_ don’t want to let your HD get more than 75% full or it will start to slow down… this is just something I could not do on a laptop. I also have it hooked to a 30″ display.

The laptop I use when visiting customers, or when traveling when I need a portable laptop that I can do some quick and dirty photo editing on. I can easily sync the stuff I want using ChronoSync, so I do this before I go on the road.

Many people don’t need the same amount of power.. but there’s no way with a portable I could solve the HD issue.

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