Should I update my laptop to a desktop?
January 3, 2020 3:16 AM   Subscribe

My venerable laptop just turned six, and due to a windfall, I'm going to treat myself to an upgrade. The thing is, my laptop has moved from the dining table maybe once or twice a year since I've had it.

A pc might be better value, and I'd like a bigger monitor as outside browsing I mostly use my computer for editing photos (and some very occasional gaming, like two games a year).

I still want something relatively small and relatively portable, as I'm moving overseas at the end of the month and may still need to move my computer set around every now and then.

I have been looking at NUCs, for example. This said, when I proposed the idea, my wife asked why i wouldn't just get a laptop and a bigger monitor to plug it in to. I'm not sure if a small pc will save me a lot of money over a decent laptop and would welcome thoughts from mefites. I am not interested in building a system myself.

Have you done this? How did it go?
posted by smoke to Technology (19 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
My laptop rarely leaves my desk at home and is hooked up to an external monitor and keyboard. Most times I’ve traveled with it involve a power/internet outage and a looming work deadline. So I’ve always been grateful for having that portability, even if I don’t use it often. Spending money on portability is not a bad thing, especially if you’re moving soon.
posted by melissa at 3:35 AM on January 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

I'd maybe start with a decent monitor & external keyboard, and plug those into the laptop you already have. Whether or not you ever upgrade your laptop - to another laptop or a NUC or whatever else - you'll already have a better user experience. If/when you upgrade, you already have a keyboard & monitor that you plug straight in.

If your six-year-old laptop already meets your image-editing needs, then pretty much any currently available machine will do the job. You can wait for a deal & shop purely on price.
posted by rd45 at 4:19 AM on January 3, 2020

A laptop + a monitor gets you the computer and two screen's worth of real estate and is not going to save much (if anything) over a similarly specced NUC + 2 monitors. Two screens is a vast improvement over a single screen (even a very large one), so I'd go with a laptop and monitor. An external keyboard is optional (I've got pretty large hands, and I actually prefer the more compact keyboard of a laptop), but they are pretty minimal in terms of cost as well, so go with your personal preference on that.
posted by Rock Steady at 5:37 AM on January 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

The overseas move does bring the risk of it being lost when being shipped, so a laptop that can stay in a backpack/carryon (with a lock) has an advantage. Get something that has a nvme drive, and can support 2 external monitors along with the built in one. Also get a clamp to table dual monitor stand, as 2 monitors is very helpful for photo editing, and ability to turn one vertical is nice for browsing. Monoprice and Amazon has them for $30ish
posted by Sophont at 6:26 AM on January 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

+1 getting an external monitor for your laptop. I recently got a new-ish Macbook Air and I was delighted to discover that since I have an Apple TV, I can just use my existing TV as a second monitor. I can also use my iPad as a second monitor, which is nice because the whole system is portable.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 6:28 AM on January 3, 2020

A dock lets you just plug the laptop right into it. I don't have one, but one HDMI cord and it has a little USB dongle always in that connects wirelessly to a mouse and keyboard. So I can go from couch to desk with only plugging in the HDMI (and power cable of course).

A desktop is fine, you can get really good deals on them these days. It's up to you if you think needing it to be portable every now and then is worth it.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 6:48 AM on January 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

I used to be a staunch opponent of laptop-plus-dock-as-desktop-replacement, but the company I'm currently at does this and it's fine for 99% of use-cases, even in my graphics-programming-heavy work. Desktops can still be more powerful for the same money, but it sounds like you don't need that kind of power.

One thing I've noticed is that the USB-C docking stations don't tend to support 60Hz 4k video. I'm unsure if this is true across the board or just in the particular hardware we have, though. I care about that, and my machine has a Mini DisplayPort that's connected to a discrete GPU (though I guess thunderbolt to an e-gpu is also an option). That's less sexy than "one cable for charging power, usb, and video" promised by USB-C, but if you're mostly using it on a desk anyway, you can plug in 3 cables (power, USB-C to a hub and DisplayPort, in my case) and it's only minimally inconvenient!
posted by Alterscape at 7:39 AM on January 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

As someone who has lived overseas on many occasions, I think a laptop is the way to go. It will make your relocation a lot easier if you can travel with your computer in your backpack/carryon bag. Plus, depending on how much space you have where you're living, you may find yourself moving the computer more often. I've relocated from the US to Paris, Berlin, and Oxford several times, and in every case I've had a much smaller living space in a European city than in my rural American home. If the electrical grid is unreliable where you'll be going, there's also the advantage of having a UPS built into the laptop.
posted by brianogilvie at 8:21 AM on January 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

A NUC is all the bad parts of a laptop (low power components, tight thermal constraints, limited reparability) without the good parts (integrated components like keyboard, display, and a battery with hours of run time). I mean, sure, if you've not been unhappy with the performance of a six-year-old laptop, you would be pleasantly surprised with the performance of a new computer regardless of whether it's a laptop or NUC. On the other hand I feel like the distinct use case for a NUC, as opposed to a laptop that infrequently moves, is somewhat narrow. I think if you don't know very specifically why you'd want a NUC (such as hiding it away somewhere so the only thing on your desk is a wireless keyboard and mouse, with displays on a stand mounted to the wall or desk) then you probably just want a laptop and an optional external display.
posted by fedward at 8:26 AM on January 3, 2020 [2 favorites]

Desktops are easier to work on, and easier to upgrade, ideal for companies that need that. But I love my laptop, and would not go back. Nice external monitor and maybe a better setup than a table that may be a poor height for using a keyboard.
posted by theora55 at 9:10 AM on January 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

NUCs don't tend to save money over laptops and I've had bad experiences with the small Lenovos that are the next size up from NUCs failing. With your impending move, I'd just get a laptop and an external monitor.
posted by Candleman at 9:10 AM on January 3, 2020

Nthing that NUCs and similar form factors are basically just laptops without a built-in screen or keyboard as far as components go. You *may* save some money if you go for a regular desktop that uses desktop components, but even the smallest slim-line desktops are going to take up a fair amount more space than a laptop does.

In your shoes, I'd probably look at another laptop with a dock, and an external monitor or two. Maybe a laptop stand and external keyboard as well if you're concerned about ergonomics.
posted by Aleyn at 10:15 AM on January 3, 2020

Another voice in the chorus saying "get a new lappy".

My setup: a succession of 13" Macs, an aging 22" monitor on a very nice Ergotron arm that lets me lift it up and rotate it to portrait orientation, an external Bluetooth keyboard, and a Wacom tablet. And an external drive for backup. And some decent speakers sitting in the same room. The monitor's got a USB hub so it's just a matter of plugging in one USB cable, power, and the speakers when I take it out of my bag and put it on the desktop.

Also I wonder how large your current laptop is? Different people have different needs but I find that a 13" is really the sweet spot between "fits in a bag next to my travel Wacom tablet without making me feel like I'm hauling around a couple of cinder blocks" and "has enough room for the palettes I like to have open in Illustrator and still see what I'm drawing". Smaller, lighter laptops are a lot easier to pick up and travel with, I get so much work done in cafes and in shady spots in parks.

I moved from Seattle to New Orleans last year and it was pretty easy to pack up the stuff that lived on my desk and ship it, and stick the laptop in my travel bag. Though honestly I'd advocate putting off getting the monitor until you've moved.

(This also has the advantage that I will never run the risk of losing all my data again like I nearly did the last time I moved back to NOLA three days before a hurricane; I was really glad I'd decided to pull the HD from my desktop computer. Which was the last desktop I ever owned.)
posted by egypturnash at 10:45 AM on January 3, 2020

I've never been happy with laptops. In your shoes I would wait until I had moved abroad and then buy a desktop.

To make a lap top work without frustration you'll end up having to buy almost all the parts that you need for a desktop anyway. You'll want a better keyboard, and a mouse, and some decent sized speakers and a better size monitor... and at that point you've got an equal number of components to having a PC, but fewer ports and more overheating problems. Laptops are more expensive for comparative computing power. Your windfall will go further with a PC. If you decide to upgrade in a three or so years, the PC will be easier to upgrade than the laptop, and this can save you having to buy an entirely new computer.

You can use a TV for a monitor and get something ginormous and enjoy being able to see your graphics easily.

There is one part you may want to buy for a desktop which comes integrated with a laptop, which is the battery. If the power goes on a PC you lose everything not saved. If the power goes on a laptop the internal battery keeps you from losing your work-in-progress. But you can buy a battery pack that plugs in externally to protect your data, if this is a concern.

The fact that a PC is desk bound can be seen as either a disadvantage or an advantage, depending on if you are trying to ensure you spend some time without a screen in front of you, or trying to ensure that you can have a screen in front of you as often and as much as possible.

All the plugging in and unplugging of components when you move the desktop is far too much work and trouble if you are going to move it every week, but can be accomplished in less than five minutes if you are moving the PC four times a year - the receptacles and the wires are usually colour coded. The cord with the pink end goes into the slot with the pink end. Light green matches with light green - You don't have to know what you are doing.
posted by Jane the Brown at 10:49 AM on January 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

After not having moved my last laptop from my desk for over a year, I switched to a full-tower desktop and haven't looked back. I customized my build for photo editing in Capture One: spending extra on an adobeRGB-capable monitor, an NVME drive for windows and my program files, and saving money and heat with a previous gen video card and one of the new Ryzen processors after comparing cost-to-performance with Intel for photo editing and light gaming.

A desktop is certainly a better value in terms of customization and bang-for-buck, but you'll start to lose those benefits quickly in the small-form-factor PC world—you'll likely be forced into a cooler-running processor and a physically smaller graphics card and storage drives. Upgradeability will also be limited by size and heat. I suggest double-checking things like the dimensions of the components you want and the cooling ability of the whole system, if you go that route.

First off, maybe have the computer or parts shipped to your new address when you move in? I know a month is a long time to wait, but it'll save you some risk and hassle and you can do more research in the meantime.

Once moved in, if you have the physical ability to lift and move a mini-tower or full-tower, I don't see any reason not to take one of those over a SFF PC. However, a laptop will be a big improvement in some situations; What is the context for moving it around more than once or twice?
*If you're carrying it up and down stairs or over long distances, a laptop is probably best.
*If you want to watch things in a second room, you could have a desktop PC in one room and a TV with wireless streaming options connected to it in the other room.
*If you want to game in multiple locations, a laptop will save you considerable trouble.

Best of luck with the move and decision!
posted by Grimp0teuthis at 11:05 AM on January 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

I'd like to add that my answer (to get a laptop) assumed you wanted to purchase now rather than waiting for after your move. If you know you're not going to be moving for a while after your move, then I'd agree with Jane the Brown and Grimp0teuthis that holding off and then getting a full-sized desktop after you move will get you the best bang for buck. It's the smallness and mobility you're paying for with laptops and NUCs. Given that you'll either have to hold off on external monitors and other peripherals anyway if you want your PC to be easy to move with, I feel like you might as well just hold off entirely if you can.
posted by Aleyn at 2:23 PM on January 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

I am of the laptop and external, maybe even double monitors camp. I rolled with a 13" MacBook pro that happily powered two monitors and a sweet speaker system in my old home office. I would also recommend that if you are planning to leave, then buy your posh new laptop and be sure to fill out the GST refund form. But for sheer move convenience buy your new monitors at final destination. Nothing like having electronics in transit in a container that can reach 120+ degrees fahrenheit, so bring your laptop on a carry-on for control purposes.

Good luck with the move.
posted by jadepearl at 11:38 PM on January 3, 2020

Laptop. Keyboard.(I use that Logitech illuminated bluetooth keyboard, been using it for years, each lasts maybe two years,or three, then buy it again.) Mouse. Sweet TV for a monitor, set up to swivel this way / that way. Mine also rotates, and it's a big honkin' screen. The monitor mount bracket cost $30 on Amazon, and an afternoon of hacking around to put it onto a rolling stand.

It can be a pretty cheesy laptop, just needs to be able to stream HD 1080.

But I'm with Aleyn. If you're moving soon, put all of this off until after you're settled in. Since it's a six year old lappy, make sure you back everything up before you travel with it, as it could die in moving it.
posted by dancestoblue at 12:57 AM on January 4, 2020

Response by poster: Thanks all, very worthwhile feedback, and the fact that Intel recently produced an oem laptop chassis that should hopefully have NUCish RMA rates - and the ridiculous pricing of the new Ghost Canyon NUC - persuaded me to go for a laptop!
posted by smoke at 1:22 AM on January 8, 2020

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