Introduction: Analyzing the Price of Mobility

Computers have been getting faster over the years, and with the increased performance we eventually passed the point where most systems were “fast enough” and the various features and use cases became more important. It used to be that to get similar performance to a desktop, a laptop would generally cost two or even three times as much – and even then, sometimes it was simply impossible to match desktop performance with a laptop. Has that changed with the era of “fast enough” computing? One of our readers suggested we take some time to investigate this topic to help enlighten the general public, so we pulled together results from recent laptop and desktop/CPU reviews to see how much of a premium we’re now paying to go mobile.

There’s a related topic that I’m not even going to get into right now: tablets. The short summary is that at the low-end of the price spectrum, tablets can actually fill quite a few requirements. They’re slower, but battery life and portability is also better. Typing on a screen is not something I really enjoy at all, though, so adding a keyboard would almost be a requirement, which means at a minimum we’d be looking at closer to $500 for a decent tablet with a keyboard (e.g. ASUS Transformer TF300T with the keyboard dock). Okay, I said I’m not getting into this subject; basically, it’s possible to get a $500 tablet with keyboard (perhaps even $400) but performance is a major step down from even a budget laptop. That’s changing but for now I’m going to focus on Windows laptops vs. desktops.

Naturally, when we talk about performance, there are many factors at play. CPU and GPU performance are usually the biggest items, but in some cases the performance from the storage subsystem can actually trump the other two. A modern desktop with the fastest CPU and GPU available will handle pretty much anything you want to throw at it, but if it’s using a hard drive (HDD) for storage even a moderate Ultrabook equipped with a solid state drive (SSD) can be faster at booting into Windows or launching several applications at the same time. That might seem like an odd performance metric, but if you’ve ever experienced the dreaded “turn on the PC and wait five minutes after Windows loads before the system is actually ready for use” scenario, you’re running into storage bottlenecks.

We’ve advocated the use of SSDs for the OS and applications for several years now and we’ll continue to do so. In terms of storage performance, a good SSD will be at least 2-3X as fast as the best HDD for sequential transfers, but more importantly it can be 50-100X (or more) faster in random accesses, which is similar to what happens during the Windows boot process or when you launch a bunch of applications simultaneously (or launch a browser with dozens of tabs).

The good news is that nearly all laptops can be easily upgrade with an SSD if you’re willing to pay the price and take the time to do the upgrade yourself; the laptops that can’t be upgraded with a typical SSD are usually Ultrabooks that already have SSDs. The only drawback for SSDs is capacity: a typical 1TB 5400RPM 2.5” HDD will cost around $80; Seagate’s hybrid 1TB HDDs (with a bit of solid state cache to improve performance) will set you back around $130. The least expensive 240GB SSD in contrast costs around $165, with “better” models (faster, more reputable, and/or larger) costing up to $230 (or more). That’s 2x to 3x the cost of a hard drive for 1/4 the capacity, but the performance benefits are tangible. We’ll stick with comparisons between SSD-equipped systems for this article, just to keep things easy.

CPU/General Performance Discussion
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  • BlakKW - Sunday, September 08, 2013 - link

    Thanks for the article...it was interesting, and results were not entirely what I expected them to be. Reply
  • Selbatrim - Sunday, September 08, 2013 - link

    This has partially been picked up but I think this article is a bit of old rubbish myself. The laptop in question firstly uses a 5400rpm HDD and does not include an optical drive. Additionally the desktop system is a custom build with plenty of room to shave off cost. Case and PSU easily reduced by $50, motherboard too. I'd say (including dropping the GPU) you would reduce the price of the desktop by about $400 and still have a higher performing device.

    And this is still a custom build, not an OEM build.

    I've just priced up a laptop vs desktop replacement for our fleet and the desktop (including peripherals) come in at about 60%-75% of the cost of a laptop (depending on portability). Add to that you mostly need to factor in a port replicator for the laptop the desktop wins hands down.

    Can you get a reasonably priced laptop these days that will do general computing for less then $1000? Sure. Can the same money buy you a much better desktop? You betcha.
    Reply
  • wintermute000 - Sunday, September 08, 2013 - link

    Yeah around 1/3rd cheaper sounds around right (+ expandability, repair, upgrade path etc.) Reply
  • JarredWalton - Monday, September 09, 2013 - link

    I looked at pre-built OEM PCs and none of them really came in much cheaper than the custom build without serious compromises on some areas. Getting a cheap $25 case and $25 PSU is also a bad idea, so I specifically went against that and included a decent case and a good quality 80 Plus Bronze PSU -- even the OEMs are avoiding crap PSUs these days.

    Except... crap, my tables on the desktop are screwed up. There are supposed to be two different builds, one for gaming, one for "standard" use (no GPU). Let me fix that, because the mainstream desktop isn't all that different but costs $200 or so less.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Monday, September 09, 2013 - link

    Okay, fixed the table. Sorry about that -- funny that you're the first to notice. I had the text right (it mentioned the $672 price), but somehow copied the same table into the document from my spreadsheet. Reply
  • Selbatrim - Monday, September 09, 2013 - link

    I'd not recommend a rubbish psu either but Seasonic is a high end brand. As is the Z87 chipset. If quality and durability is part of your desktop build then you should chose the same in your laptop. A HP Envy is not a high quality laptop. It is pretty much a mid-lower end in terms of build quality.

    The issue of the HDD speed comparing a desktop 7200 rpm to a laptop 5400 rpm will also have a major impact on performance (or drop the price on the desktop). But even still, your results point to a laptop of SIMILAR specs being comparable if not competitive with a desktop and this is simply not true.

    Asrock H81M-HDS motherboard for $52 (save $63)
    COUGAR Solution Black Steel ATX Mid Tower (INC 400W 80+ PSU) $80 (save $24)
    No Optical drive (Envy does not have this. Save $18)

    Total now of $567 and you still have a better CPU and HDD.

    Again, yes, you get better laptops now than you used to and you can easily replace your desktop with a laptop but it will cost more (and you still need extra monitor, keys etc to use it full time or suffer the consequences)
    Reply
  • ChuckEX - Sunday, September 08, 2013 - link

    I will always browse through and appreciate articles on computer performance, but for me, they will only serve as guides. It amazes me how people fail to take into account "real world performance". Of course, on the bench, the numbers say anything other than the most bleeding edge hardware and you are missing out.
    I'm rock'in an extremely humble laptop with an AMD A6 4400m chip. I paid $300 open box for it, removed all the bloatware, maxed out the RAM (from 4GB to 8GB) and got a quality Thermaltake cooling pad. I've played through Skyrim, Tomb Raider (2013), Dishonoured, Bioshock Infinity and tons of other "demanding" games. I'm currently playing Splinter Cell: Blacklist no problem. Granted, my graphics settings are low/medium, however, these games still look and play great.
    I guess it's just down to personal preference. If you're gonna chase the numbers, you'll never be satisfied. If you tone it down and have realistic expectations, you can have just as much fun as everyone else. I think computer graphics have reached a plateau. Everyone goes on about how beautiful a game looks on the PS3/XBox 360 to this day - 7 year old technology! And tablet games are looking better and better.
    Don't get me wrong. I've had many PC builds and I aspire to get the most bang for my buck. I'm just blown away at what I'm able to do with this humble little laptop.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Monday, September 09, 2013 - link

    I get what you're saying, and certainly turning down details can help, but some of the games you mention I have trouble believing they run well at all on an A6-4400M iGPU (HD 7520G). That's half the performance of the 7660G, which struggles with several of the games on our list (Tomb Raider at Low detail is 48FPS average, so I suppose it might get >30FPS at 1024x768 at Low, Bioshock is a similar story, and even Skyrim is going to be borderline at best -- Notebookcheck shows <30 FPS for Skyrim for instance (http://www.notebookcheck.net/AMD-Radeon-HD-7520G.7...

    The thing is, while I have no trouble saying "Medium 1366x768" is usually fine for quality -- it's the gameplay, right? -- there are many cases where "Low 1366x768" does not even compare. GRID 2, StarCraft II, Skyrim, and others look really bad at "Low" as opposed to "Medium". You might be okay with those setting, and they're going to be necessary on an A6-4400M, but I would not be happy with the overall experience.
    Reply
  • KalTorak - Monday, September 09, 2013 - link

    "Part of the problem is power requirements, as high-end desktop GPUs can draw up to 300W under load, which is three times what the most powerful mobile GPUs are rated to draw. The form factor also comes into play, but really I think power is the far more limiting factor."

    I don't see the distinction you're drawing in that last sentence; isn't it the form factor that determines the power constraints?
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Monday, September 09, 2013 - link

    Perhaps somewhat, but a desktop GPU can suck down 300W (sometimes more for the dual-GPU on a PCB models), and the largest power brick I know of for laptops is rated at 300W. So form factor is part of the issue, yes -- you can only cool so much heat in a notebook -- but without 450W power bricks for notebooks you're never going to touch the performance of a desktop that draws 450W. Reply

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