Netbooks were popular for awhile. Tablet PC’s are the current fad and ultra light laptops are the next big exciting form factor for Windows computers. Then many wonder what will be the place for desktop PC’s in the future ?
Rather than view one form factor as some how superior to the other and the others obsolete, the reality is that all these forms factors have value and pros and cons. In this article I will discuss some of the pros and cons of each.
I personally have multiple desktop PC’s, a Netbook, a 11.6 inch screen netbook class which IMO has many of the features of an ultra light laptop (larger screen, light weight, decent thickness) and now a Windows 7 Tablet PC. So which one do I like best ?
As far as a primary computer for all my work, nothing can beat my desktop PC. I will explain this more as I discuss the different form factors. Yet I like each of the other devices for different reasons. My larger Netbook is probably my favorite mobile PC, since it has more power than my desktop computer, a good size screen (11.6 inch with 1366 x 768 resolution) and decent keyboard. Yet at times I really like the smaller footprint and weight of the small netbook (Acer Aspire One). The screen resolution is too small for me though (10 inch with 1024 x 600 resolution), but I like the size and weight and the keyboard is really nice.
The tablet PC with touch is a lot of fun, but I feel tablets for Windows have some limitations, which I will discuss too.
So what is the real deal when it comes to these different PC form factors ? First, nothing will beat a desktop for overall use. Why ? Because you never have to worry about power with a desktop. You can keep expanding a desktop with more devices (add cards) and power is not an issue. You don’t have to worry about whether your computer is fully charged, since you always have full power. A desktop is also far more expandable than a laptop or tablet. Because of the small form factor of mobile devices you are basically stuck with the features it comes with, except for possibly swapping out the harddrive or memory. Tablets are worse because you likely have less you can modify internally. Desktops will always provide you with more “bang for your buck”, meaning you get more power for your money. Because it costs more to make electronics smaller, mobile form factors will always be at a premium price. This means you have to spend more money and when times are difficult this can be an issue. For a business who needs to get the most for the money it spends desktop computers will always be a better choice. Also desktop computers will have a longer life span, because they are upgradeable in ways you could not do with a laptop or tablet. For example I recently upgraded a Vista desktop computer I have from 512 meg Ram to 2 gig ram and then put in a newer CPU so it now has a dual core Pentium and basically doubled its power. Later I want to installed a new video card to get more graphic power. As long as the upgrades are reasonably priced, a desktop computer provides more options for future growth. You won’t be swapping out the CPU in a laptop or tablet computer any time soon, so you are limited. Also because laptops usually don’t have extra memory slots, you waste money because you end up throwing away the old memory when you upgrade where with a desktop which is designed with extra memory slots, you can just add more memory. In the long run a desktop PC is the most cost effective form factor.
Now while you can connect an external keyboard to a laptop or a tablet PC, this tends to decrease its mobility because now you have to carry an extra keyboard around. Now while some laptops have decent keyboards, you will never have the same degree of quality from a laptop keyboard as you will from a quality desktop computer. Now I am talking about quality keyboards for a desktop mind you. For example, my desktop computers (I work with two) share the same keyboard using a KVM device and I use an old time IBM Model M keyboard. You can buy similiar keyboards today for about $100 with mechanical key switchs. The point is the you will never get the speed of typing from a laptop keyboard that you can get from a quality desktop keyboard. For data entry or programming, nothing can beat using a desktop computer, at least from my own perspective as a programmer.
Desktops also have the advantage of being expandable. For example, one made add a second hard drive to the computer (internal) or a second video card for a double monitor setup. While you can add an external monitor to a laptop to have a dual video setup, again this defeats the concept of a mobile device. I would venture to say that when on the road most people with a mobile computer want to carry as little extra baggage as possible. Now if you have a tablet or Netbook or Ultra Light laptop, this really comes to the fore, when you have to carry around an external power supply, external DVD drive or external hard drive (if you want a backup device). Now of course memory cards (ie. SD) or flash drives are perfect external devices for laptops or tablets, but they will never have the speed of a quality external harddrive. Trust me, I know. As a programmer I have to save thousands of files at a time and a flash drive is very slow in comparison to a decent external hard drive and neither can compared to backing up to a second internal hard drive (until USB 3.0 becomes more popular, USB 2.0 is very slow compared to an internal harddrive.
Now when it comes to portability, nothing beats a laptop or a tablet and thats why people use them. Portability is the name of the game. But even here there are issues. For example screen size makes a big difference. My larger netbook has a 1366 x 768 screen, compared to my smaller netbooks 1024 x 600 screen and that makes a big difference. My tablet is kind of on the large size at 11.6 inches, but the 1366 x 768 resolution makes it worth the extra weight. Now when it comes to keyboard and mouse input, the mobile world is different than the desktop world. True you can use an external keyboard or mouse with mobile devices, but again that tends to defeat their mobility. Once you add an external input device, you won’t be using the laptop or tablet in your hands or on your lap. You need a table to put it on now. So for all practical purposes these devices need to be viewed by their native input features and not external ones. A laptop or netbook touchpad just can’t compare to a good old mouse. Sorry, but this is a fact. Touch devices like tablets are even worse. a Touch screen is much worse than a laptop touchpad. Forget any degree of accuracy. Popular consumer tablet devices (IPad) are not the same thing as a Windows computer. Some software requires detailed input accuracy and touch just won’t cut it. Also your finger is actually in the way on a touch screen so you can’t see what you are touching if it is small. Thats why touch friendly software must have a totally different User Interface than mouse driven software. A touch screen keyboard (on the screen) also gets in the way. Even if it is well designed, like in Windows 8 (which is yet future), it still takes up too much screen realestate. A desktop never has this problem.
The moral of this story is view each computer form factor in relation to what you most require. If mobility is critical, then of course a netbook or laptop or tablet may do. If power and cost are primary issues then nothing beats a desktop. If mobility to you means very, very small form factor then a Netbook is an excellent choice or a Tablet. Personally I feel a Netbook is more practical for general use than a Tablet PC is. Now if you are working with software which is designed for touch and takes advantage of touch in ways that you can get from a touchpad, then a tablet PC is a good choice.
Ultra Lights are going to be a popular choice because you may get the best of both worlds, power, size, low weight and possibly touch. The only issue with ultra lights will be cost. They will be expensive and don’t expect to easily upgrade them. They won’t be a mass market item, because the cost is too high. Netbooks, despite all the criticism they get are a very viable choice for those that want mobile, but at a fair price. The Acer Aspire One Netbook sells at Walmart for only $248 and that is a deal. Thats cheaper than many mass market desktop PC’s. If a business wants to provide many employees with a mobile computer, but they are very limited in funds, then Netbooks are actually a very viable choice.
No one form factor has its all. So when deciding what form factor (or brand) computer to purchase, weigh all the factors, such as cost, expandability, maintainability (repair), power, screen size, mobility, weight, battery life, user input choices. Make a choice which best fits the usage of the computer, rather than simply chose based on what is the current fad. For example a company which is strapped for cash, would find it cheaper to purchase a decent mass market desktop PC, plus a Netbook together for less money than it may cost for just one of the new ultra light laptops. If an ultra light cost $1000 and you could buy a desktop for $400 and a netbook for $250 (total $650), which sounds like the better deal to you ? Weigh your choices carefully. Consider what your priorities are. Don’t go for the fad, just because everyone else does. Shop around carefully.
While the average programmer likely likes to buy the “bleeding edge” in computers, I have always been a bit more modest and thrifty in my purchases. Because I need to develop software for the newer form factors, I was in a position where I decided to go beyond just a desktop. Yet I balanced my choices with a thrifty view and I think I made some good choices. I wanted a Netbook, so I could do some testing on a minimal mobile computer with an Atom CPU, but I waited long enough where I got a nice Netbook with a dual core CPU, rather than a single core. My wife uses this Netbook mostly and she likes it and I like it too. For $248 at Walmart its a fair “bang for the buck”.
I also waited until I found very good deals for a larger Netbook and Tablet PC. Personally I think Tablet PC’s over $500 is just too much money to spend. I don’t plan on a ultra light any time soon, since they will definitelly be too high priced. Now if you really need one, thats may not be an issue, but cost should always be a consideration.
My Vista Desktop I got years ago for a great price (amazingly low price on sale) and I recently upgraded from 512 meg Ram to 2 gig and swapped out the celeron CPU for a Pentium D dual core CPU. I got both the memory and the CPU for less than $50 total, so I basically doubled the power of my desktop computer for a very low cost. Now that is cost efficient. You won’t be doing that with laptops or tablet PC’s.
So the people who suggest that one form factor or another will make all the others obsolete, simply doesn’t look at things realistically. Each form factor has its pros and cons. Weight your choice carefully then. Don’t let advertising or the latest fad determine your choices in computers. Just because everyone buys a tablet, doesn’t mean you should. Now if a tablet solves problems and its mobility is a plus for your business then surely get them. But weight the choice carefully.
Date: January 3, 2012