If you’re in the market for a new computer, your mind may already be set on whether to go for a laptop or desktop. But in these unusual times, it could be worth taking a step back to reflect on the right choice.
With many meetings now happening remotely, for example, you may have less need for a device you can take out of the house. Conversely, if you’re sharing your home working space with other members of your household, having a computer you can easily move to another room might have become more important.
Of course, you’ll need to think longer term too, as the current restrictions won’t last forever, and you may have factors such as how much room you have at home to consider.
We’ve outlined five key considerations to bear in mind when picking your next computer.
1. Value for money
If you’re on a tight budget, desktops are typically the cheaper option, especially if you already have a computer monitor, keyboard and mouse.
Laptops are typically more expensive than desktops with similar specifications because they have extra features, including a keyboard, mousepad, battery and webcam. They also need more advanced (and expensive) cooling technology, because the small case of a laptop gives the tech inside – which generates a lot of heat – less room to cool off.
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Desktop vs laptop: what will £500 buy you?
To give you an idea of what your money will get you, we’ve compared two mid-range computers, a tower desktop and a similarly priced laptop, to illustrate some of the specification differences you’ll find between the two types.
Bear in mind that, if you don’t already have them, with the desktop option you’ll need to factor in the cost of a monitor, keyboard and mouse too – you should be able to get all three for as little as £120.
HP M01-F, £529
Microsoft Surface Laptop Go, £549
|Processor||AMD Ryzen 5 3400G (3.7-4.2GHz)||Intel Core i5-1035G1 (1.0-3.6GHz)|
|Storage||2TB hard disk||64GB eMMC SSD|
|Ports||Ethernet, 8x USB, headphone/microphone||1x USB, 1x USB-C, Surface Connect|
|Read our review||HP M01-F review||Microsoft Surface Laptop Go review|
Size and appearance aside, for the same money the HP tower desktop gives you a more powerful processor. It has a maximum speed of 4.2GHz and a minimum speed of 3.7GHz; whether you’re browsing the web or editing a feature-length video, this computer will feel fast.
The svelte, compact Microsoft Surface Go laptop will feel equally nippy when doing simple tasks, such as browsing the web and editing documents, but could slow down if presented with heavy tasks such as video editing. Its minimum speed is 1GHz.
You get twice the Ram for your money with the HP desktop, and more than 30 times the storage. The desktop has far more ports, too, with an impressive eight USB ports compared to just two for the laptop, plus an ethernet port for connecting to a wired router.
Of course, specifications aren’t the be all and end all of picking a computer. The Surface Go weighs an impressively light 1.123kg and can slip into a bag, while the HP most certainly cannot. And its internal battery means the Surface Go will keep going for hours when unplugged, while the desktop relies on mains power.
In the comparison above, you get more speed for the same money with the desktop – but speed alone doesn’t have to be a deciding factor for most people. While in the past desktops were usually much faster than laptops overall, that gap has narrowed.
We carry out in-depth computer speed analysis during tasks including web browsing, editing documents, tweaking photos and making videos. We’ve found that, while desktops still have a performance edge over laptops, it isn’t so big as to make a laptop a clearly inferior choice for a typical home computing task.
That said, if you edit a lot of videos, you should opt for a laptop with a higher-spec processor, or a desktop.
Take a look at our full range of desktop PC reviews to guarantee one with exceptional performance.
A cheap tower desktop computer is about the simplest computer you can buy, due to its lack of extra features. It’s just a box with a processor, motherboard, Ram and storage. That means there is less to go wrong with it.
A broken monitor, or a separate keyboard that’s had juice spilled all over it, can be switched out simply and fairly cheaply. An all-in-one desktop (with a built-in screen) won’t be quite so well protected, but at least an errant cup of coffee isn’t going to scramble the entire computer – perhaps just the separate keyboard and mouse.
Pouring liquid over the keyboard on a laptop, on the other hand, could write off the entire device – plus, because laptops are designed to be carried around, the chances of dropping one are obviously higher.
Hopefully laptop disaster won’t strike; if it does, use our laptop reviews to pick an outstanding replacement.
4. Portability (or lack of)
If you pick a desktop over a laptop, you have permanently eliminated any opportunity to take the device out and about, or even just easily move it around the house if you fancy a change of scene. This may sound obvious, but it’s worth considering your future needs as well as what you want right now.
And don’t feel tied to buying a desktop because you need a bigger screen than is available on even the largest laptop; you can have the best of both worlds by buying a laptop and an extra monitor to connect to it, allowing you to ‘double screen’. Our guide on how to choose a monitor is a great place to start if this is something you’re thinking about.
Most of us don’t have the luxury of choosing a device simply for how good it looks on a G-Plan desk or Eames bureau. But if budget allows, it is worth considering, especially if you will be using the computer in a room that serves other purposes, such as the living room.
A laptop can easily be hidden away and there are plenty of stylish, slimline models that look good even if you leave them out permanently. There’s always the issue of the charging cable trailing across the desk, though, which detracts from a laptop’s otherwise clean lines.
There’s no getting around the fact that desktops are bigger and bulkier, but a humble tower desktop can be hidden away under a desk and you can choose a wireless keyboard and mouse combo to reduce desk clutter even further.
What’s more, many monitors and all-in-one computers come with handy cable-routing holes that help keep wires together and tidy as they trail from the back of the device.
If a laptop’s looks matter to you, check out the selection of slim and light models we’ve put through our tests.