The biggest differences appear obvious: A laptop is smaller and portable, while a desktop PC is larger and more customizable. Both are excellent options, but both also have strengths and weaknesses that need to be considered when choosing the form factor that will best support your PC experience.
The primary strength of a laptop is portability. For a long time that meant settling for less capable hardware than what you’d find in a desktop PC, but modern laptops are remarkably powerful, with far fewer performance concessions when compared to their older counterparts.
Laptops run on a battery and have a built-in display, along with an onboard keyboard and trackpad. Recent laptops are more compact than ever, so you can use them in places you wouldn't (or shouldn’t) normally bring a desktop, like on an airplane, or your favorite coffee shop.
Gaming laptops often have high-end hardware that allows competitive and AAA gaming wherever you are. That portability is a huge advantage, but you can also have a desktop-like experience at home with the right peripherals. Additional equipment like docking stations, mice, keyboards, and external gaming displays can further increase the versatility of a laptop, though it does add cost beyond the initial purchase.
With the right laptop, you’ll have the ability to do most of what you’d be able to do with a desktop, just about anywhere. If you’re someone who is often away from home, this flexibility can be hugely beneficial.
Desktops, on the other hand, are much larger, and not nearly as portable. Even the smallest form factor desktop will still require an outlet and a monitor, and though there are some who don’t mind transporting a full tower for special occasions like LAN parties, most people limit their desktop experience to one place.
The tradeoff for that lack of portability is the ability to make use of the highest performance hardware. Modern laptops can be incredibly efficient and powerful, but if you want the most cutting-edge PC hardware, a desktop is usually the best option, especially if you’re looking for a workstation.
Desktops also allow for extensive I/O support, generally available through the motherboard or expansion slot devices connected via PCIe*, such as a discrete graphics card. That means support for multiple monitors, non-standard peripherals, additional USB connectivity options, and a more dynamic and flexible work or gaming station.
Though you can get laptops with components that rival desktop hardware, they are substantially more difficult to upgrade. Some laptops might allow you to upgrade your RAM or storage, but upgrading the CPU or GPU is almost never a practical option for the average user. When you purchase a laptop, consider that you'll be using more or less the same system hardware for the entire life cycle of the machine.
Most desktop computers, on the other hand, are designed to be upgrade-friendly. Because of the modular layout, components can be replaced with relative ease, and this allows you to upgrade your hardware as necessary. Instead of buying a new machine when your PC starts to show its age, you’re able to incrementally update as necessary, keeping your desktop up-to-date with the latest hardware.
Pre-built machines also tend to be upgrade-friendly, though you will always want to confirm with the manufacturer if working on the system will violate your warranty.
When you purchase a laptop, you’ll usually be able to choose from a selection of core components, including the storage and RAM, the CPU and GPU, and sometimes the display. There might be some flexibility as far as fine-tuning performance, but for the most part, you’ll be using the same hardware from the date of purchase until you replace the machine.
The same is true for the visual design of your laptop as well. There is a more diverse selection than ever before, but you’re still choosing from pre-existing form factors with a fairly limited amount of customization options.
With desktops, customization is one of the biggest selling points. Because you can swap out hardware so easily, you can make sure you have exactly what you need, and nothing you don’t. Whether you’re looking to overclock your CPU and want to ensure optimal temperatures with a custom liquid cooling loop, or you’re more interested in putting together the smallest gaming desktop around, just about anything is possible when you have such precise control over what does or doesn’t go in your system.
This also allows you to ensure your hardware is operating at peak performance. The available surface area in a desktop when compared to a laptop means more space for robust cooling solutions. In a desktop, you can install fans, All-in-One (AIO) CPU coolers, or complex custom cooling loops that provide you a precisely engineered thermal solution for your specific hardware demands.
Desktops allow for more aesthetic variation as well. Beyond simply the color of your case, you’ll be able to choose from different sizes, brands, specifications, and visual designs for every component of your PC. Not only can you customize your machine’s performance with carefully selected hardware and cooling solutions, but you can also bring your creative vision to life with a visually unique machine.
If you prefer to go the pre-built route, you can still benefit from this high degree of customizability. Some vendors allow you to choose what goes in your new PC before the system is assembled, meaning you get all the advantages of a desktop, even if you didn’t have to build it.
Which Is Right for You?
The biggest strength of a laptop is that it’s an All-in-One (AIO) machine you can use anywhere, ideal for those who want to play games or work in more than one place. Desktop PCs allow for extensive customization and have an upgrade-friendly design that’s perfect for anyone who wants to build a PC, or wants one tailored to their specific hardware needs.
When it comes to buying a laptop or a desktop, there is no right answer. One is not better than the other; it comes down to what’s important to you, and how you are going to use your new computer.