Monday, January 22, 2007

Laptops v. Desktops

Since they saw me constructing my marvel of technical beauty that is my computer "Ezmerelda" (don't ask), two coworkers have asked me about what new computer they should get. This spawned some interesting conversations on desktops versus laptops, and got me thinking whether there isn't a bigger divide in the choice beyond portability versus cost.

I think that people view laptops like consumer electronic devices. Like an iPod or cellphone, this is a piece of equipment that you take with you to fulfill specific functions, which I suppose is reinforced by the relatively limited number of things that "laptop people" put their computers to use. As one of my coworkers said, "What can you do on a desktop that you can't do on a laptop?"

Play Oblivion, for one. On a computer that's less than $1000 for another. Desktops to me seem to be "hubs:" devices that other devices hook-up to, which makes it a center for multimedia interaction rather than a single device among many. I think this is a fundamentally different type of experience than with laptops, and I suspect (though obviously can't prove) that any individual spends a lot more time on a desktop versus a laptop. We think "write papers," "games," or "work" on a desktop, things which require dedication, long periods of effort, and multifunctionality. We think "watch a movie on a plane when I have nothing else to do" on a laptop, or else do a quick check of e-mail, or bring the laptop to transport a presentation, things we associate with ephermerality, boredom, or obviously portability.

Of course, the advent of high powered, expensive laptops does blur the line a bit, but by and large, I think there is a fairly wide consumer divide between the two media. What do you all think? And by the way, I'm definitely a desktop person. If/when I go back to grad school, I'll get a laptop, but only to take notes during class. The desktop is where I'll be doing my work and interacting with others.


HoBs said...

That sounds like a dated view to me. About the only thing a desktop is good for nowadays is for the hard core gamer, and many of those are finally migrating to consoles, what with new consoles that can at least for a time out perform the higest end PCs, without the hassles.

Most undergrads I know wouldn't dream of buying a desktop. Price is no longer an issue, as Dell now sells sub-$500 laptops. Laptops have outsold desktops in the US since June 2005 and are growing nearly twice as fast, and desktops are increasingly only a corporate purchase.

I still use a desktop mostly as a ftp server, but aside from that, don't see much point in them.

Chengora said...

That's fair, but there are a couple problems. First, the people who purchase sub-$500 are not using their laptops for a wide variety of applications: they're just not powerful enough to, say, play games, and they're not all that comfortable to write long papers or do corporate work. For example, everyone I know who has a laptop at work has a docking station, which obviously conflates the two. But what I find most interesting is that those individuals often use the laptop for only one thing. If they need to do layout and design of a product, for example, they're at a desktop.

Second, laptops have definitely outsold desktops, but I suspect that the home computer market isn't so segregated. For students, no doubt, a laptop is better. But for families, that's a different issue. I don't know of any families that have a laptop as their "home computer", but that's only my limited experience. What's more compelling is the variety of uses that home computers are put to, which makes desktops more "family friendly" in ways.

I do accept that desktops are becoming more and more of niche product, but I still wonder if people treat the machines differently and purchase them differently based on their needs. I certainly do, but I'm not an average consumer when it comes to computer products. Students have certainly made their choice, but again, that fits very much into a particular lifestyle. Corporations as well, all of which makes me think there is a divide in the way these products are used and thought about.

HoBs said...

sure, desktops will always have their place for gaming, layout and design, programming (though my cousin's in an MFA program for graphic design and I think she and most of her classmates use laptops now).

your point about pc as hub is an important one. the holy grail that lots of companies have been seeking. but my feeling is that most people don't use it that way.

apple and microsoft tried hard to make the pc the media center, but I think it failed.

Now they're trying with XBox and iTV and PS3. That might work better, but not sure.

I could imagine people shifting back to PCs if a compelling enough hub application could be designed, but don't see it. I guess if i did, i'd be starting the company and becoming the next google.

i think part of shift will be as bluetooth and wifi et al finally catch on, and we finally liberate from all those damn wires. getting pretty close to that point.

hcduvall said...

A little too early to call iTV a gambit for the living room, I think. It's a signal of interest more than anything else. On the other hand, may'be they upgrade it like Microsoft is optimistically doing with the Zune. It's so weird to think that MS has a plan.

Anyway, I think an underestimated portion of all this, even from the private consumer end, is that the idea of a desktop as furniture, or household object. I completely understand the appeal of mobility, especially by age group et al, but I think the nesting factor, parental controls, the fact that my friend's dad has a laptop at work but doesn't tool around into starbuck to wifi in cafes (he has a blackberry for all that). The hip and young and not-Korean may take to dem flat computing machines, but households (and you think laptops are affordable now? desktops are even cheaper) still might like the desktop. Though Chengora's initial post underestimates the opposite, obviously.

Until the wii comes in the form of a robot pet, and we can talk to it and shit.

Mike said...

Duvall, I hate to break it to you, but (although it's a kit-bash) someone's already made the Wii a "man-portable" weapon of destruction:

I wonder how the smaller sensor bar (and thereby less parallax to work with) affects how it plays...

But I digress. I think I have to say that while desktops aren't going away, and that to this day you can always pack more computing power into one, a laptop would be more than adequate for what most people do on their computers (surfing the web, office suite type things, storing digital photos, mp3s, etc...). The only way they'll become ubiquitous though, is if they can somehow undercut the cost of desktops.

And considering how it's only been a few decades since computers took up whole rooms, I think laptops can, and will eventually, hit "furniture" status (my inner-geek wants to cite Star Trek, TNG or DS9, as an example). It might be a generation or two before that happens though.

That being said, while I sit here at my laptop typing this, sometimes I wish I still had my 10-bay full tower around.

Chengora said...

Upon further reflection, and asking around a bit more, it does seem like laptops are reaching the point where they can handle most of the tasks that people put them through in everyday life, with the exception of work (which is a pretty big exception).

However, the hub issue is one that I think deserves further thought, and again, the work exception, the family exception...all these point to a view, in mind at least, that we treat these machines like "furniture" or "appliances," rather than consumer electronics or toys, like we do moreso with laptops.

And I wonder if that's a reason why iTV and other versions of it has up till now sucked. It's putting two hubs together, the TV and the computer, and there are significant compatibility issues because of it. As someone recently wrote in Slate, with a TV you sit back, with a computer you lean forward. Now, I think this is a little too simple (for example, many people I know lean forward while watching sports, while many gamers lean back), there is something to it, in that the level of interactivity and engagement is consistently higher while using a computer than while using a TV. A computer, in some sense, asks for feedback (e-mail, forums, documents, etc.), while a TV obviously doesn't.

The people I know who have computers managing their TVs, for example, rarely use their TVs as computers. Instead, they type a couple quick things through the attached keyboard or mouse, then immediately switch to the remote. The computer component is mostly for DVR capability, and this could be because of poorer resolution on TVs versus monitors. Nevertheless, I think there's a significant issue here.

And of course, there's price. I am doubtful that laptops will ever become cheaper than desktops. When you consider the relatively inexpensive costs of building a computer (case, fans) versus the expensive ones (CPU, graphics, HDD, labor), the expensive ones are invariably easier to research, make, and install for desktops as opposed to laptops. And that cost is a pretty important factor in consumer decisions, particularly when portability is less of an issue or it can be replaced by other equipment (flash drives, for example, or certain PDAs) which, together, are still cheaper than purchasing a laptop, if people even take that into consideration.

HoBs said...

ah, but laptops are already cheaper than desktops in one important area: space. People think desktops are big and clunky. even the pretty ones that apple makes. so even if they never travel with it, they'd prefer the laptop.

I really think also the price differential is neglgible once space is taken into account.

i remember when i was at morgan stanley, when they replaced everyone's crt back in 2000, with flat screens (some people had 6 operated on a single graphics card). space on the trading floor (in midtown manhattan) was so valuable, that it was a nobrainer. flat screens meant smaller desks.

the dream of many like those at the mit media lab for many years have yearned for ubiquitous computing (protypes abound). where every surface of your house is a potential touch screen. actually the iPhone reminded me of that. with dynamically reconfigurable interfaces. (much like those panels in star trek).

not too far away, but not super close either.

hcduvall said...

This is getting circular, but space is really less of a concern in a house, and when you have no expectation of needing mobility with your computer, and that's still a lot of folks.

Chengora said...

Very interesting point, Hobs, I hadn't considered that. I am not convinced necessarily, although as Duvall says, this has the danger of getting circular:

There's a tradeoff between space and comfort when you get down to laptop size. People use docks because it's frankly uncomfortable to be looking at a laptop screen all the time, and having to cram your fingers into a laptop keyboard (and damn it! I like my number pad :) ). There is a limit to how small things can be and still allow for meaningful levels of productivity (the more "serious" concern) and comfort (the more common concern).

Likewise with the desk example. The CRT to flat panel switch is certainly understandable, since it saves a whole lot of space on a desk, which is prime real estate. But compare a micro-tower desktop to a laptop and the difference is far less noticeable. Compare a laptop to a tower that sits on the ground next to you or under your desk, and your desktop is vastly better than if you had a laptop. If your office is small enough that a tower becomes a space problem, you've got bigger concerns. :-)

And visiting the Japanese stock exchange (which was a bitterly disappointing trip, mind you), space was fully maximized: there were no people. All trades are done through an electronic network, and instead of a trading floor, you had a really large server. A really large server in a nice glass case, but a large server nevertheless.

As a result, there are some definite limits here to how far space can be a cost factor, and Duvall's right about the family home. If a desktop's size is really an issue, then you might not be able to afford a higher cost laptop anyway.

Now, I know other writers are reading this. I'm not posting a new topic until someone else does first. :-) Pass to Duvall for being sick.