Compare size vs. portability
Desktop computers usually come with a vertical chassis, referred to as a tower, which typically sits on the floor under a desk. A monitor, keyboard, mouse, and speakers are all attached to the tower separately.
Laptop computers, on the other hand, are small, battery-powered, lightweight (usually between five and seven pounds) and ideal for those who require portability, such as businesspeople who travel or university students who could then easily move from a dorm room to a library to a lecture hall to a café. With a DVD player, laptops can also be used as portable entertainment systems.
Unlike a desktop setup, all accessories are integrated into the laptop (mouse, keyboard, speakers, etc.) but external ones may be attached, as well. The prices for these accessories are about the same for both laptop and desktop PCs.
It should be mentioned that many of today's laptops come equipped with integrated wireless networking features (like IBM notebook PCs with ThinkVantage technologies) so that users can tap into a high-speed Internet connection. The PC user must be in the range of a compatible wireless network, known as a hotspot, which is available at some hotels, airport lounges, school campuses, cafés, and more. For more on hotspots, see Hook up to a wireless hotspot.
Desktop computers usually come with a wired network card, but wireless cards can be purchased for as low as $50.
Determine how much power and memory you need
A few years ago, there was no comparison between a desktop and laptop computer when it came to processing power—desktops won hands-down for speed and performance.
Because of advancements in processing technology, and an increase in the amount of RAM for mobile video cards, laptop computers now rival desktops in performance.
For example, Intel's Mobile Pentium 4 processor can power the latest computer games, while manufacturers like nVidia and ATI create high-end video cards for laptops.
Of course, laptops that can run sophisticated programs like PC games are considerably more expensive than regular laptops and are usually bigger and heavier. As such, souped-up laptops are often referred to as "desktop replacements" as they're less portable than other laptops.
Because there is little difference in performance between desktop and laptop computers, both should be able to handle common tasks such as checking e-mail, Web surfing, word processing, playing music, and photo editing. More powerful PCs can handle computer games and DVD movie playback (note: DVD-ROM drive required).
Factor in the price
Desktop computers are less expensive than laptop computers. For example, Dell has desktop PCs that begin at about $399, compared to its cheapest laptop at $599.
The price difference is because a laptop's components are much smaller, usually more expensive to manufacture, and more time-consuming to build into the final product.
Computer buyers on a budget should opt for an Intel Celeron processor, available for both desktop and laptop PCs. These CPUs take longer to process instructions, which results in slower performance than Pentium 4 chips, but are just fine for most tasks including e-mail, word processing, Web surfing, and using home finance and educational software.
Evaluate upgradeability and repair options
Components in a desktop computer are easier to upgrade than those in a laptop. Repairing a desktop PC is also a lot simpler.
Let's first address upgradeability. Until recently, laptop users were not able to upgrade any of the machine's components because it couldn't be opened—what you bought was what you bought. Some savvy users were able to add more RAM, but that was about it.
This remains true today except for higher-end gaming laptops that let users upgrade the video card whenever faster ones become available. Companies such as Alienware allow gamers to do this themselves, while Dell's XPS gaming laptops require a technician.
With desktop computers, users can easily swap components at the back of the tower (via the PCI or AGP slots), including sound cards and modems. More RAM, a bigger hard drive, or a new DVD drive are also easy to add to a desktop computer.
Another advantage to desktop computers is the ability to add a new monitor, like a 21-inch screen from a 15-inch screen, or a flat-panel LCD display from a bulky CRT monitor.
When it comes to repair, it normally costs more to fix a laptop than a desktop because, as previously mentioned, components are smaller and therefore tend to be more time-consuming. In fact, some repair shops will only work on desktop computers. That said, manufacturers usually offer similar warranties for laptops and desktops and will often handle the repairs themselves.
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