Tablets and Laptops and Desktops, Oh My! Which to Choose?

It’s that time of year again - students are heading back to school, and those who are in the market for a new computer are wondering: what kind of computer should I buy?

Regardless of whether you choose Mac, PC, or Linux, whether you’re heading to school in a few weeks or looking to upgrade your home computer, here are the fundamentals to choosing:

The simple answer is this: if you’re going to be moving around a lot (i.e. working at the coffee shop, taking your computer to class, or meeting up with clients across town on a regular basis), get a laptop. If you’re not going anywhere or don’t want to lug your machine around with you, get a desktop.

But, my friends, the answer is not nearly that simple. The market has really transformed from just “laptops” and “desktops” to now include netbooks, tablets, desktop replacements, and mini towers. With so many options, how do you keep your head on straight?!

Let’s start from smallest to biggest:

Tablets: These are your iPads and iPad-like devices (i.e. Motorola Xoom, Samsung Galaxy Tab, etc.). They’re small, lightweight, and great for basics like email, light typing, and games. Tablets are not good for replacing your everyday machine - in many cases, you need to connect your tablet to a full-fledged computer to receive updates and move files over. If you have the money, use your tablet for little things in addition to your personal computer; otherwise, get something netb0ok-sized or larger. Expect to pay a lot of money for the novelty, ~$500-800.

Netbooks: Netbooks are full-fledged computers, just super tiny. At 2-3 lbs, these machines are amazingly easy to carry around. But - with a lower weight comes a smaller screen and likely no CD/DVD drive. Netbooks aren’t as fast as laptops or desktops, but they are great for 90% of the work you might want to do from a regular machine, just on a smaller scale. Netbooks are a relatively inexpensive way to enhance your mobile experience with a desktop at home (though I wouldn’t get a netbook if you have a tablet or laptop already and are not looking to replace said tablet or laptop). Prices range from $200-$1000, depending on the brand and functionality.

Laptops: These are your run-of-the-mill mobile machines. Perfect for college students, traveling business people, and writers who enjoy working from the comfort of the local coffee shop. Laptops aren’t desktop-quality, but they are plenty powerful for even the most demanding applications (i.e. video processing). Note, however, that you will pay for the convenience of the small size: expect to pay $500-$2500, depending on the brand and functionality.

Desktop Replacements: Think laptops, but BIG. These machines have 17”+ screens, weigh 10+ lbs, and although they are technically portable, moving around with them is a major pain. They’re sizeable for a reason: they are as powerful as desktops and need the tough hardware; they’re great for gaming, especially if your friends have LAN parties each weekend. They’re terrible for the local coffee shop, though. Expect to pay $1800+.

Mini Towers: These machines are tiny desktops (think of the Mac mini or the Dell Inspiron Zino HD). Like all desktops, you need to attach a monitor, keyboard, and mouse, but the machine itself has such a small footprint that you can leave it on your desk. To a lot of people, it looks like an external hard drive, except it has many cables sticking out of it. They’re lightweight and powerful, but nearly impossible to customize. Great for people who plan to move (e.g. change apartments) a lot (i.e. students moving from dorm to dorm) but who also need the power of a desktop. It’ll run you $400-800.

Desktops: The most power out there. Professionals who work from home or at an office generally need a desktop, especially if they’ll be doing a lot of data crunching, graphic designing, etc. Also, gamers would do best with the most powerful desktop they can afford. Strangely, all that power isn’t so expensive - decent desktops can be had for less than $600, though you could also easily pay $3000+ if you know what you want and are willing to pay for it. Remember that desktops need a monitor, keyboard, and mouse as well.

Aaand… that’s pretty much it. Keep in mind, though, that one of the greatest benefits of having a heavy desktop is that people are unlikely to walk away with it. Tablets, netbooks, and laptops are convenient for computing on the go, but are high on the target list for theft. Keep track of your computer like it’s a child! I’ll be sure to discuss computing safety and security in a more involved post later.

If you want the convenience of a laptop (i.e. hanging out at cafes, etc.) but you want the big screen of a desktop, consider getting an external monitor, keyboard, and mouse. And, while you’re at it, get a docking station (if available for your laptop). This setup will allow you to use your laptop like a desktop, and then quickly run off to the client’s office with all your data in hand. Without a docking station, you can easily achieve the same result, but you will have to get used to plugging all the cables in every time (docking stations keep your cables plugged in, allowing one connection from your cables to your laptop).

Next week, I’ll discuss the key accessories to any computer: monitors, optical drives, and more!

Questions? Leave a message in the comments!