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Laptop or Desktop: Which Would You Find It Harder Surviving Without?

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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?

45 Responses to “Laptop or Desktop: Which Would You Find It Harder Surviving Without?”

  1. Laptop plus external monitor is plenty for anyone bar those editing/rendering/encoding video, which is still cpu-dependent and drives the mac pro tower market. I tried to stay 17 mpb powered and its hard, I’m going to go tower as well soon.

  2. The need for a laptop is far less now I have my iPhone and all the apps I need to do day to day stuff, from twitter to email, from pdfs to web browsing. I can even access my desktop computer from my iphone! So no more laptop for me! Too heavy – yes I’m lazy

  3. I bought a Macbook (2008 aluminum model) thinking I’d need the portability. But shuttling it back and forth between work and home quickly proved tiresome. Nowadays, I leave the Macbook at the office and use an iMac at home. Synchronization of documents works fuss-free and seamlessly thanks to Dropbox and Sugarsync running in the background.

  4. Bruce Mitchell

    The only ‘desktop’ Mac I’ve ever had was the MacPlus, for which I got a carry case which made it portable and allowed me to travel with it all over the world. Travel is a constant in my life and work. I got the very first Mac Portable, which at the time we called the “barely portable” because it was big and heavy, about the size of an electronic typewriter, much bigger than the then-competing laptops. But it had the very best screen of it’s day, which made all the difference to me. Plus I hate PCs and MS, etc. I’ve had numerous PowerBooks, only buying a new one when needing greater power or capacity than the old one. Macs are amazingly resilient and durable; every Mac I’ve ever owned is still in use somewhere, including that MacPlus from 1988. Now I have a 5yo iBook, and an iPhone. The iPhone has made carrying about the iBook almost completely unnecessary and makes all forms of communication vastly better for a person on the go. But I can’t wait for the Mac tablet… ;)

  5. I generally prefer my MacBook Pro, but I also have a Mac Mini, which I generally use to create a wireless connection from my dorm’s ethernet cable, as well as handle media related items (iTunes TV Shows).

  6. Joe Mamma

    Being mobile is more important to me than real estate because when I needed more screen I just got an external monitor. They are getting more affordable by the minute. I haven’t had a desktop since my G4 iMac 17″, but it’s still going strong at my dad’s house. The power on my 2 year old MacBook is still more than enough for most folks with heavy video editing about the only time I notice it needing more processing muscle.

  7. If I could only have one… i would keep my 27″ iMac. I enjoy using my 13″ MBP around the house and on the occasion I travel with it, but with the iPhone being able to keep me in touch on the go, the laptop is not what it used to be for me. The surfing, email, staying in touch can be dealt with via iPhone, the video editing/photo work at home simply doesn’t happen on a 13″ screen. It seems like for years everyone was looking to buy the biggest screen they could, 21 CRTs were huge, then the 13″, 15″ LCD’s… and now with the 27″ iMac I just don’t see trying to use a small LCD screen when all this screen real estate is available on the iMac.

  8. It would suck to lose either, honestly.

    I’m a developer, so I like lots of screen real estate, so I really use my work 15″ mbp like a desktop since I use it closed connected to an external 24″ ACD display. At home, I usually camp out in front of a 24″ iMac punctuated with sessions on the mbp when I need to leave the home office (and, well, be semi-social and stuff).

    If I *had* to cut one, I suppose it would be the desktop, though – as long I as also had a large external display for use with the laptop, that is.

  9. Two years ago I cut down my equipment from a three screen PC workstation setup to a sole Mac laptop with Time Capsule, first a 17″, now a 13″. I don’t regret it, it’s a real relief, calm, the tech aspect has almost vanished and I concentrate on the work. The only price I pay are some additional key strokes.

  10. I am a sole macbook (13″ aluminum) user. But it didn’t start out that way. I bought mine in april and used it as it was, a laptop. I use it at school mostly. When I got home, I used my good ol’ PC desktop with XP. Then right before school began in late august, my desktop PC got infected and I couldn’t do anything. Since then, I have been using my macbook as my desktop at home. USB hub for mouse, apple keyboard, printer; external speaker, external monitor. I have to say I love how everything is now! Since I am only using my MB, there is no need to transfer data from a desktop to a laptop, which was a pain in the butt before.

  11. I would rather die than to give up my iMac. I have an MBP-15″ as well, but I use that more for light web browsing than running heavy apps. I just don’t enjoy typing on a laptop as the keys are a little too small for my taste.

  12. I was a notebook user from the days of the Compaq model 1 (early 1980’s) until this past June. Now I have BOTH a 24″ iMac and a Macbook Air, and I could not be happier. With today’s effortless synch options (I use both Dropbox and Sugarsync), all my key files migrate between the two machines automatically. Now I have the power of a desktop and the many advantages of a super-sleek notebook. I maximize my computing experience depending on what environment I’m in. I realize what I have is a more expensive solution than one computer, but modern database synching through the cloud opens up a world of possibilities to have the best computer solution for the job at hand at any time. And I also use my iPhone and can get at all the synched files as well.

  13. Donald Townsend

    I couldn’t do without a laptop. It’s my main machine. I only use my 24″ iMac to do the heavy lifting and when I need a big screen. My MBP is with me most of the day. I only use it less for mail now then I used to since I’ve got an iPhone.

    For me a laptop is much better when it comes to ergonomics. I can use it without a mouse and I can look down which at a desk seems to be more natural to me..

  14. 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.

    • rickdude

      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.

  15. 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).

  16. Evan Robinson

    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…).

  17. Adam Jackson

    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.

  18. 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.