Using a laptop as a desktop replacement.
October 12, 2005 11:41 PM   Subscribe

I would like some general information, advice, and opinions about using a laptop almost exclusively as a desktop replacement.

A month and a half ago my desktop blew away and/or was submerged in water. (Maybe you heard about it; it was on the news.)

So I’m looking for a new machine and I’m currently in the grips of laptop-lust. I’m sure part of this is that I’m just finishing up an eight-week nomadic evacuation during which a laptop would have been very nice to have. But in general, I just don’t travel that much and I work from home…the laptop would have a monitor, mouse, and keyboard plugged into it probably 29 days a month, and only unplugged and taken somewhere else, say, a couple of days.

ME: So I’m thinking about getting a laptop.
MY GIRLFRIEND: Why? You never go anywhere.
ME: You know, if I ever travel…
MY GIRLFRIEND: You don’t travel! You always make fun of people who travel!
ME: But if I wanted to go down to the coffeehouse…
MY GIRLFRIEND: What? You hate people who take their laptops to the coffeehouse and then wear their headphones. You’re like ‘if it’s so loud, why don’t they just stay home!’

This last bit is done in Eeyore-voice, a frequent gambit she uses when impersonating me in arguments. My only rebuttal to all of this is “but I want a laptop”…much like how our iPod arguments ended with “but I want an iPod.”

However, and I can't stress this part of the question enough, I should point out that like everyone else returning to New Orleans, my future is decidedly shaky, and a laptop is easier to move (especially since I ride a motorcycle) should I find that the city can't support life.

Is it worth it to buy a laptop that will rarely be lucky enough to grace the top of my lap?
I realize this is a question that I have to answer for myself, but: those of you who use your laptop mostly as a desktop replacement…is it worth it? Is it a pain in the ass? Any tips you’d recommend? Anything different you’d look for in a laptop if you were doing it again?

Are there any longevity issues I should worry about with a laptop that will be on about twelve hours a day?
I know that laptops run incredibly hot (and seem to be much more prone to expensive and inevitable repairs) but is this a factor I should worry about? A side-question, which—in true Metafilter fashion—will end up derailing my entire thread: should I leave the lid up? I read something on here about heat needing to vent through the keys.

Are there any specific performance issues I should worry about?
I’m pretty sure that plugging a mouse and keyboard into the back of my laptop won’t task the performance of my machine, but what about a monitor? Are there any specific video issues on a desktop replacement?

My budget for this tops out at about a thousand bucks. Should it be higher?
I, uh, have a lot more things I need to buy these days. I’m not a gamer or anything, I just need to use Word, Firefox, Dreamweaver, and (in a very limited and decidedly non-hardcore way) Photoshop. I know there are some decent under-$1000 laptops out there for people like me, but should I raise my budget for any issues specifically tied to using the machine as a desktop? (I’ve seen this earlier thread, but I’m less concerned with specific product recommendations than just basic benchmarks I should aspire to.)

Apologies all around for the length of this post, but I wanted this thread to hopefully be as useful as possible to Googlers Of The Future. Oh, and it just occurred to me that my Katrina references might be interpreted as “somebody please send me a laptop!”, which I assure you is not the case.
posted by Ian A.T. to Computers & Internet (21 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
i got a laptop last year. i'm really glad i bought it and i hardly use my desktop anymore (only for games and recording TV, for the most part).

i hardly take the laptop anywhere, but with wifi in the house, it's nice to be able to surf the internet from wherever i am instead of having to go sit at my desk. that's really the #1 reason i like it. it's also nice that i *can* take it with me when i visit friends or family.

the battery life will gradually get shorter and shorter and shorter and tick you off.

it's nice in the winter when the house is cold and the laptop is warm.

if you play games a lot, a laptop probably won't have as much power as a desktop and it's harder to upgrade the video card and such.
posted by clarahamster at 11:55 PM on October 12, 2005

Is it worth it to buy a laptop that will rarely be lucky enough to grace the top of my lap?
I don't really know, and I suspect that's something you'll have to decide. Though I would caution that if your motivation for this is that "it's easier to move" and/or "it takes up less space" then using a standard full-size monitor, keyboard, and mouse will probably detract from that property somewhat. If you're going to pile on those extras, you might as well consider a desktop in a small form factor (SFF) such as a Mac Mini.
Are there any longevity issues I should worry about with a laptop that will be on about twelve hours a day?
If you leave it stationary most of the time then it sounds like you'll probably avoid the common laptop killers - dropping it, tripping over its power cord as you get up, etc. But yes you still do need to be concerned with heat. You should aim for a flat surface on which to place it; and be sure to use the feet in the back to keep it elevated so that air can flow underneath. I don't know about whether it must be kept open or not, but I would guess that may be true since they aren't really designed to be used when closed.

They also sell special laptop mats that are designed to conduct the heat away. You might also run into problems with the fan and/or vents becoming clogged up with dust, with it running that much. That's easily cured with a can of compressed air though.
Are there any specific performance issues I should worry about?
I don't think that using an external keyboard and monitor will really have any effect on performance at all. In fact if the laptop is smart enough to turn off its LCD and backlight when an external monitor is plugged in then that will help a great deal with the heat problem and prolong the life of those components. You might consider one with a docking station, but if you plan to rarely move it from its nest you can probably do without.

Performance wise, you should realize that laptop hard drives are slower than those in desktops. It won't be a huge difference, but it will be somewhat slower. Since you mentioned that you're not interested in gaming that cuts out the other major performance question which is the video card.
My budget for this tops out at about a thousand bucks. Should it be higher?
I don't really know the answer to that. But, I do think you should reconsider your motivations for this. If your primary goal is to have something that is small and compact, then dollar for dollar you can probably buy a lot more oomph in a small form factor PC or Mac, than a laptop. Especially when you factor in the external KB, monitor, mouse, etc. the space savings of a laptop start to make less sense. You will also be paying for things you hardly use, such as the LCD display. In a sense you will be buying two displays and not using one of them.

You will really have to decide how often you actually plan to take the laptop with you. If you think that it is a rare event, then you might just be causing yourself more trouble than necessary. Also, you should realize that most laptops designed as desktop replacements are (relatively) big, bulky, and heavy, and have poor battery life. As with everything you have to strike a compromise, and those small sexy laptops do so by sacrificing some performance. On the other hand since you said that performance is not a top priority you might not be aiming at a "desktop replacement" style laptop.
posted by Rhomboid at 12:12 AM on October 13, 2005

I have very similar usage patterns to you -- basically, I like having, essentially, a "desktop" that I can move if needed. I'm a college student, so it is useful being able to take it home some weekends or into the hall if my roommate needs to be alone, etc. Even so, I rarely do this. But I am glad I am able to.

Of course, your situation is different, but even so, I think you'll be glad when you want to move it that you could -- especially if the post-flood world is as unstable as it could be.

Are there any longevity issues I should worry about with a laptop that will be on about twelve hours a day?
Man, I hope not! Mine is typically "on" (with lid open) for, give or take, 10-15 hours per day, and in "standby" (with lid closed) the rest of the time. I have had my machine for about 15 months now, using it this way without problems.

I had not heard that about venting keys, though a friend's laptop where the lid was often left closed even while "on" felt very, very hot when opened.

Are there any specific performance issues I should worry about?
It's true laptops aren't as good bang for your buck as desktops, but if you're not being overly demanding you should be fine -- I've run all the programs you list (save Photoshop) without issue, and even some intensive games. (FYI, my processor is Pentium-4, i.e. desktop-grade... the video card is my Achilles heel, though.)

My budget for this tops out at about a thousand bucks. Should it be higher?
I'm terrible with pricing computers -- I'm cheap and don't demand much, but wish I had more. However, I've been mostly happy with my Toshiba Satellite A45-250 that I bought for about $1100, as I said, about a year ago. I would guess, though I don't know, that my same computer would go for much less today and not be far behind the curve. I would not buy a "bargain basement" model unless you know the inside parts are good quality; but a slightly out of date, just below top of the line model is usually a good computer buying choice. I could be wrong here. I got a good deal on mine, but not (I don't think) a steal. Make that $1000 a soft/ballpark limit and I think you'll do fine.

Bottom line: Go for it. I love my laptop, even if it is more of a desktop. (BTW -- I use a USB wireless mouse, built-in keyboard and built-in monitor -- though if I had the cash, I'd buy a real monitor. The laptop LCD is not bad at all though.)

Here's the (obvious) thing -- a laptop can be a desktop, but not vice-versa. So if you buy a laptop and it sits on your desk, maybe you overpaid a little. If you buy a desktop and want to go to a Wi-Fi spot or carry it on an unplanned cross-country bike ride? Too bad. And even if you don't want to do those now, you'll all of a sudden develop the desire the day the bill for your desktop clears.

Go laptop. No regrets.
posted by SuperNova at 12:14 AM on October 13, 2005

Mine was a little higher than your budget (PowerBook at $2500) but I've had it for a year and a half now and I can't imagine life without it. I don't even use my desktop machine anymore, and in fact threw the monitor away (it's Linux, I remote in).

First things first, at home I use my laptop primarily to surf the web, check email, and watch movies. I also use it at work a ton to program, network trouble shoot, etc. Really, it's become indispensable to me, and even through most days I don't go more than five miles from my house I take my laptop everywhere with me.

I find the 15" screen more than adequate for my normal usage. Unless you are completely addicted to 17"-21" monitors then I wouldn't worry about plugging it in all the time (edit: I see you're doing graphics work, in which case you probably need that larger monitor. n/m). Also, the keyboard took a little getting used to but now I use it just as well as any other.

PowerBooks are known to run hot, but I only have problems with it when I'm doing something intensive, like playing a movie. During normal web surfing, word processing, and programming it only gets warm, not really hot. I wouldn't, however, leave it running with the screen closed: it blocks the PowerBook's vents. That being said, most times I don't need to keep it running all the time and I just close the screen and let it sleep (a minimal state where it uses hardly any power at all).

As far as price... if you plan on using this for work purposes then I'd estimate $1700 for a Windows laptop, $2500 for a Mac. Buy a little more than you think you'll need because there's not much you can upgrade on most of these systems. Also, think about getting the extended warranty. Apple gave me a year to decide, and I came to the conclusion that I depend on the little sucker so much now that I couldn't be without it for long if something happened. Plus, it's transferable if I decide to sell the machine, and I can get a pro rata refund if I ever decide to cancel the AppleCare plan.

I could never have guessed how I'd end up using my laptop before I bought it. I'm always on the lookout for free access points now. It's so nice to catch up on some news articles during lunch, or reply to the days email at the coffee house. I think you'll be surprised.

Note: I'm not really trying to sell you on the PowerBook. It's just that's where my experience lies. Get whatever you are comfortable with.
posted by sbutler at 12:15 AM on October 13, 2005

To add to what Rhomboid said, another drawback of laptops is that if something breaks, then repairs are much more costly. This is on top of the fact that you sacrifice performance across the board by going with a laptop.

Also, I used to have a laptop, and I used it almost exclusively as a desktop. The next time I bought a computer, I went with a desktop. I've never regretted that decision.
posted by epimorph at 12:26 AM on October 13, 2005

I've been using my PowerBook as my primary compter for almost three years now. I leave it on 24 hours a day for days on end, and it's still going like a champ.

Like yours will, mine spends most of its time on my desk. But even though it only goes mobile for maybe 5-10% of its time, it's worth it for the flexibility it provides. I love that I can pack up my machine for a meeting or a demo, and not have to think about whether I've copied across all the files I need, or whether I've forgotten some important bit of software.

If I had a cheaper laptop, I would probably be a bit worried about leaving it on for so long. Particularly if you get one that has a desktop chip crammed into it and runs with a lot of fans on -- I can see those things crapping out pretty quickly. I've got no data to back this up though, just my opinion.

Finally, if you're going to use it with an external monitor, you might as well use the laptop's screen as well, and give yourself a neat little dual monitor setup. Even if you don't do it all the time, it's a neat capability, and is also very handy for things like giving presentations. But you should check that your laptop's video is beefy enough to support this -- again, I think some of the cheaper models don't.
posted by chrismear at 12:27 AM on October 13, 2005

Response by poster: Wow! Only an hour and I half since I posted this (and in the middle of the night, too) and I already have a screen full of long, well-written, and generous responses. Thanks to everyone who's responded so far; I'd mark best answers, but the whole page would be gray.

As a thank you for the amount of time you guys have spent on my question already, here's a link to a hilariously upsetting Napoleon Dynamite costume.

"You'll be a hilarious hit at your Halloween costume party with the ultimate nerd costume!"

Yikes! It totally looks so much like Leatherface!
posted by Ian A.T. at 2:22 AM on October 13, 2005

Using it on your lap is not a good idea.

There are some advantages to a laptop: not losing your work every time to power goes out, easier to fix in case of software issues (although hardware issues become more complicated), way less power consumption, takes less space, etc.
posted by Sharcho at 3:14 AM on October 13, 2005

Although it cost a little more than $1000 (about $1200 once configured the way I wanted it, actually) I bought one of these (HP dv1000 series) as a desktop-replacement machine and am utterly delighted with it.

It's got all the standard laptop-stuff-you-want these days... low-power "mobile" processor, decent battery life, built-in wireless, etc.

A few key features that appealed to me:

-- The bright, wide screen obviates the need for any kind of external monitor. Consider going with a widescreen format; you can never be too rich, too thin, or have enough screen real estate when using a graphical OS.

-- The built-in speakers actually sound halfway decent.

One final note... a laptop is one of the few appliances that you should seriously consider buying an extended warranty and/or replacement insurance for, in my opinion. I popped for a 3-year warranty/repair plan from HP, having had good experience with their support and repair at a previous job; since I rely on this computer as a primary work machine, it's worth it to me.
posted by enrevanche at 3:23 AM on October 13, 2005

One problem with the laptop-as-desktop: ergonomics. You really need to have the laptop on your desk on a riser of some sort, so that when you're sitting up straight you can see the screen fine without looking downwards and hunching over - you can buy special riser thingies to do this, but a pile of books does the job for me. Also, budget for a proper keyboard (Bluetooth if possible, so you don't have to bother unplugging it) again so that you're not hunching over the laptop.

Other than that, since I switched from desktop to laptop five years ago, being able to grab the computer and take it with me has made my life easier, with no downside, though I second the recommendation above to get an extended warranty (you don't want to shell out for a replacement screen, believe me!)
posted by jack_mo at 4:48 AM on October 13, 2005

I'll add my voice to the pro-laptop choir. Two years ago I switched to an HP zd7000 "desknote," and it's one of the few situations in my life where a major purchase has been free of buyer's remorse. It's big, and heavy, and the battery life isn't exactly spectacular, but when I travel I now have all my stuff -- software, mail archives, photos -- with me.

If you go this route, then by all means get an extended warranty. I had the backlight transformer doohickey go out after a year, and it would have been $1000 repair without that contract.

Also, I suggest getting a combination cooling pad/USB hub and leaving it on your desk. It will help keep the machine's temperature down, and also allows you to leave your keyboard, mouse, and some peripherals plugged in all the time. Trust me, plugging and unplugging all that crap gets old fast.
posted by mkhall at 5:43 AM on October 13, 2005

I replaced my desktop with a laptop last summer and can't imagine going back. Just make sure you get enough power to last you until you can afford to upgrade. And pay attention to the screen as well, they are not all the same.

Another thing I have not regretted is paying a little more to get something stylish (a Sony).
posted by teleskiving at 6:08 AM on October 13, 2005

I have a laptop that I've used steadily for 10 hours/daily for the last 4 1/2 years, no problems (knock on wood). Since I finished my thesis it mostly stays in my flat, but I like to be able to use it in various places, my room, the kitchen, living room, the balcony, watch tv while surfing...

Since I don't play much games or use lots of heavy programs I have been perfectly content with my laptop, and since it's mostly stationary (or at least close to electricity) the almost dead battery doesn't bother me either.

So I join the laptop-loving chorus; get one, you will not regret it.
posted by mummimamma at 7:11 AM on October 13, 2005

We use exclusively laptops in our household. I went with a sub $1000 iBook [plus applecare, which made it slightly over $1K] and the bf has a powerbook which cost more than that, with no applecare which was a pain when he dropped it. You can still get a decent older iBook for that price, or a Dell laptop if you're a PC fan. You may have seen talk of them in the "help me buy a laptop" thread from a few days ago. People seem to have answered most of your main questions, let me tell you why I like having a laptop

1. I travel. Your g'friend says you never travel but where the heck have you been for the past two months? Things happen that you don't plan and having all of your personal info/access able to come with you is great.
2. I like working a lot of different places in the house. Using the laptop means I can work from anyplace in the house which can be helpful if I'm cooking somethign complicated I found online, or just if me and the bf want to work in different rooms for a while. You can have a setup like b1tr0t describes and then have desktop-like functionality and still a little portable number to go someplace else with.
3. Sharcho's point is a good one. Laptops are portable which means if something does happen to them, you can mail them away in a box [or bring them in to a repair shop] quickly and easily. I teach basic computer classes and when my elderly students think about getting a computer I encourage them to get one they can carry. Then they can bring it in to me if they have questions and I don't have to go to their house.
4. you have no idea if the coffeeshop thing would be for you or not unless you tried it. Being able to use the Internet away from home without having to borrow a computer is pretty great. Using wireless out in the wild is pretty great. I am sorry your girlfriend is giving you a hard time about this. You may want to take your laptop to the coffeehouse to give yourself some time away from her Eeyore impersonations of you. You can do this with a laptop!

At the end of the day if you want one, you want one. I'd say go for it, especially since you don't need a bleeding edge processor for gaming or very high end video editing stuff.
posted by jessamyn at 7:24 AM on October 13, 2005

Just to play devil's desktop's advocate here...

My wife just bought a Mac mini and a Dell 19" LCD for just a bit over your budget. It's a nice rig. This isn't exactly portable, but it is "luggable," and with bluetooth and wifi, the only inconvenient cables you need to deal with are power and video. And if you needed to make a quick exit to, say, stay ahead of rising floodwaters, it would only take a few seconds to unscrew the monitor and throw the mini in a backpack.

This is a better computer for the 90% of the time that you'll be using it as a desktop, but obviously much, much worse for the 10% you'd want to be footloose. But if you absolutely insist, there is the iMove.
posted by adamrice at 7:29 AM on October 13, 2005

Given your stated priorities, I recommend getting a dirt cheap Dell (get on their coupon mailing list; cruise & to track specials and coupons -- they come around all the time), an extra hard drive and an external hard drive enclosure. You could do all this for under $500 (monitor will add more, but they're bundled on the cheap sometimes, too.) Keep all your personal files on the external hard drive. If you need to flee, just take the external hard drive. (Or, if you want to go over to the Mac side of the force, you could do all the same with a Mac Mini.)

Given that you make fun of people who travel, or use laptops in coffehouses, getting a laptop will only be buying you less bang (and worse ergonomics) for the buck, until such time as you have to flee, when it's undeniably superior. But with the desktop and external hard drive, at least you've got all your files and are only out a few hundred. You just won't be able to get to them until you're someplace with a computer.

(None of which may be able to compete with the cutting "but I want a laptop" argument, I understand.)
posted by Zed_Lopez at 10:21 AM on October 13, 2005

FWIW, I will probably never be without a laptop machine, and may never again own a desktop machine.

There are some compromises when one chooses to go with a laptop, but I guess I haven't found them to be nearly as onerous as the compromises imposed by a desktop.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:42 AM on October 13, 2005

I've used a laptop on my desk for about four years now. I'm a teacher, and when I needed a new computer a few months before I started teaching, I figured that I'd be able to take a laptop to school and use it in classes. This does in fact happen from time to time, but mostly I use the laptop at home.

On my desk, I use an external usb keyboard with a mouse plugged into that, but no external monitor, so it's only one cable (plus the power cord) that I have to (dis)connect. I also use an iCurve in order to raise the screen to a comfortable height and to help with the cooling, but my laptop (a 12" iBook) doesn't get very warm at all except if you watch DVDs.

Besides doing all my work, photo editing, e-mailing etc. with it at my desk, I also like to take the laptop into the living room or out on the balcony to do some websurfing (wifi is great!) and occasionally watch DVDs; I didn't foresee these things when I bought it but found it nice afterwards. I've also come to like that I can take all my data, including photos and music, everywhere (hey, instant vacation photo slideshow for friends and family) and that I'm able to work or watch a DVD on long train or plane trips.

The only problem I ran into was that the first battery died very suddenly after less than two years. It provided almost the full four hours of power one day, then only ten to twenty minutes the next. I tried to find out how to make your battery last the longest, but you get different opinions everywhere.

I've never regretted buying a laptop instead of a desktop - in fact, I sold the first iBook after three years for about EUR 500 on Ebay and bought a new one for less than EUR 1,000 when I needed that new battery, a bigger hard drive and wifi. With the educational discount and a special rebate they had at the time, the iBook was a great deal for me; I also bought the three-year warranty (aka Apple Care protection plan) just in case.

The laptop has all the advantages that I foresaw, and more that I discovered afterwards, but it really doesn't have any disadvantages for me.
posted by amf at 11:39 AM on October 13, 2005

I'm a little late to the party, but in re: the longevity question - my current laptop has been on pretty much 100% of the time, barring reboots, since June of last year. By "on" I mean powered on; it is in standby/hibernate mode when I am on an airplane, but other than that it's on and doing stuff the whole time, and it's fine. Compressed air works wonders for any dust issues you may encounter.
posted by bedhead at 3:22 PM on October 13, 2005

I've had a Powerbook for 4 years. It rarely leaves my desktop. But when I want it to, it can. I also have a big clunky PC. I often want to take it places, but can't.
posted by neuron at 7:37 PM on October 13, 2005

Response by poster: Once more, I want to thank everyone who took the time to read my ridiculously long question, not to mention those of you who took the time to post their own ridiculously long answer.

As I said, I won't be marking Best Answer because so many people wrote so many long thoughtful answers that I'd end up turning the page grey.

Thanks again!
posted by Ian A.T. at 9:30 PM on October 14, 2005

« Older What do I need as proof of stock ownership in a...   |   Recommend happy songs for me! Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.