Laptop or Desktop: Which is the Best Choice for Employees?

OCTOBER 28TH, 2015

A few weeks ago, I spent an afternoon at the elementary school two of my kids attend. During my visits with various teachers, I noticed all but one used a laptop. The one who had a desktop PC on her desk has been with the school for over 30 years, and her tenure allowed her to decline to use a laptop. She told me she was more comfortable on a desktop with a full keyboard and large monitors, and that she could never get used to a laptop keyboard. I also spent some time in the main office and noticed a mix of laptops and desktops. I hesitate to make a statement like this, but it seemed like most of the younger staff used laptops while the more senior staff used desktop PCs. Laptops have been outselling desktops for quite a while now. In 2014, IDC reported that just over 174 million laptops were sold compared to nearly 134 million desktops during that same period. IDC also forecasts that tablets will eat into laptop sales, curtailing laptop growth substantially over the next couple of years. I saw this at the school that some MacBook Air laptops had been replaced by iPads or even Chromebooks. Technology is transitioning faster than ever in schools. My kids have used desktops, laptops, and tablets at school on the same day, depending on the teacher and subject. Now, I fully understand that schools are often behind the technology curve when compared to businesses. But this got me thinking about how IT chooses to allocate laptops and desktops around their organization. I've worked at large companies that give everyone a laptop and small companies that issued desktops to every employee. This week I'd like to take a look at the pros and cons of selecting one option over the other. Those of you in IT will recognize that there are significant security, privacy and performance considerations. Cost of ownership and ability to upgrade should also play a role. There are also cultural implications, as we'll see.


When I talked to a couple of friends in IT, both mentioned that desktops were generally easier to secure and manage which will surprise absolutely nobody. While desktops remain on the domain at all times, laptops are carried around by users who jump from WiFi network to WiFi network, many of which are not secure. This requires perpetual software scans to make sure malware and viruses are not being brought back onto the domain. Both mentioned that the tools for keeping their networks safe have improved drastically over the past few years, but there's a cost and hassle factor when laptops spend more of their time in the wild.

Another security issue IT must deal with is the fact that laptops are lost and stolen, often with data that could compromise the company. This can be minimized by requiring employees to encrypt their laptop hard drives using a product such at BitLocker. This helps keep company information out of the wrong hands, but it only works if enabled. When I worked at Microsoft, BitLocker was required on all laptops. But there was a lot of confusion about the performance hit one took when it was enabled. So many employees simply disabled it. IT got around to patching this loophole, and most laptops utilize SSDs today and are fast enough so users don't notice a decline in performance. Helping employees understand these security issues can go a long way to ending confusion around encryption and performance. Securing each device is good for the company and employees, and helping each camp understand that might just fall to you in IT.


For years, we've heard that you'll need to spend nearly twice as much on a laptop to get equivalent performance of a desktop. I don't believe that's as true today as it might have been in the past, but it's no surprise that laptops tend to cost more, require more maintenance, and have a shorter lifespan. But we need to look at more than hardware costs. Desktops require employees to be sitting at a desk at work in order to be productive. That's what makes them a lot easier to manage. But it also limits how work gets done, especially at facilities with specific work hours. For years I commuted to work by bike and train. I rode my bike to the train station and then hopped on a train to Seattle where I'd then bike to my office to sit at a desk and work at a desktop computer. My total commute time for the day: 3 hours. I asked for a laptop to take advantage of the spare time and was told by the IT manager I didn't need one because I didn't travel often on work-related business. He was right, but missed my point. Software costs are another item to consider. Laptop users might need extra storage, security software and remote tools. These tend to be minimal, but should be considered when rolling out new hardware. Not everyone at your company travels for business or is expected to work from home. In these cases, a desktop might be all they need. You can always assign a laptop if their role changes. [caption id="attachment_21208" align="alignnone" width="619"]

Ultrabooks like the Acer Aspire are thin and light but have limitations[/caption] One major advantage of desktops is how easy they are to upgrade. A stick of RAM goes bad, a drive dies or your fans overheat? No problem. Most parts can be replaced with minimal effort by IT staff. But that might not be the case with laptops, where replacement parts have a much shorter shelf life. At Puget Systems, we have no problem offering a 3-year parts warranty on our desktop computers. But that's been nearly impossible to offer on our laptops because component suppliers don't maintain stock after about a year. Keep this in mind when you purchase a laptop. I strongly recommend purchasing a laptop that exceeds your performance needs today because you'll be stuck with that configuration for the life of the product. To make matters worse, a lot of Ultrabooks will have their components soldered to the motherboard, making upgrades impossible.


It used to be difficult to configure a laptop that would perform on par with a desktop. To be fair, there are some applications that simply run better on desktops such as video editing/encoding, CAD, and gaming to name a few. That doesn't mean you can't run these on a laptop, but a desktop/workstation can be outfitted with dual or even quad CPUs, multiple GPUs, and large amount of RAM and storage giving them a distinct advantage in these tasks that utilize a lot of computational or graphical performance. The fastest mobile CPU on the marketing right now is the Intel Core i7 4940MX running at 3.1 GHz. For a lot less money you can get a desktop i7 CPU running at 4 GHz for a fraction of the cost. That's just where the market is today, but at least Intel has been able to keep up with demand for fast mobile CPUs. For people running popular desktop applications, deciding on a laptop no longer means giving up substantial performance. Again, it's wise to understand how each computer is used. A marketing manager using Microsoft Office who does most work inside a browser should be perfectly happy with a mid-range laptop. But a designer rendering large projects on Adobe Creative Suite probably won't be thrilled with anything other than a powerful desktop.

Today's laptops can hold their own for most general purpose applications. That's great news for the developer who wants to write code while taking the bus or the photographer editing RAW files. If you look past all the thin and light Ultrabooks, you'll even find laptops with dedicated GPUs from NVIDIA and AMD. For example, NVIDIA offers both a mobile GeForce and Quadro line. The GeForce GTX 980m above is the fastest mobile GPU available today. They are priced at enthusiast and professionals, but they match up surprisingly well with their desktop counterparts.


This topic might seem out-of-place in a discussion about hardware, but it's something every company should consider. When you assign a desktop to an employee you are essentially saying, "Your work will take place in the office. I don't expect you to work from home." But give that same person a laptop and the message may as well be, "I expect you to be productive wherever you are." Work used to be defined by what one can accomplish in the office during business hours. My father reported to the office at 8 a.m. and returned home by 6 p.m. each evening. I don't recall his boss calling our home or clients stopping by to speak with him or interrupting our family. Had my father been assigned a laptop and a company phone, I can imagine our lives would have drastically changed. It's not uncommon for managers to expect their employees to answer urgent emails during all hours of the day. The work day has expanded, and the culture at your company is influenced by the type of tools offered to employees. It might sound great that your company allows you to expense your cell phone, but it probably comes with added expectations. It's best to be upfront with those expectations, if they exist. I'm not saying employees shouldn't be issued mobile products like laptops, phones or tablets. But you should be aware at how they impact your culture. Take time to set expectations. I once had a boss who gave me my first iPhone, but expected a reply to his texts within minutes. I quickly learned to dread that phone and eventually the job.


While laptops are still all the rage, it's wise to consider where they make sense and where a desktop might be a better fit. You might find an employee who works at a desktop today would rather have a laptop because she has a longer commute to work. And you might find employees who value performance over portability would benefit from working on a desktop. After many years of lugging a laptop around, I asked for a desktop at my last job. With the cost savings, I was able to add two large monitors, which I loved. No way would I have given that up for any laptop. It also forced me to focus on getting all my work done while at at my desk instead of taking it home. Having a desktop was a good move for me because I seldom traveled. Do you prefer the power of a desktop or the portability of a laptop at your job?