Making the Case for Desktop Computers

In the March 19 issue of Connected Home EXPRESS (see the URL below), I discussed the possibility of using a notebook computer as your primary (or sole) PC and suggested that today's portable computers are powerful enough, versatile enough, and even inexpensive enough to replace desktop PCs. Connected Home EXPRESS readers agreed by a wide margin--virtually all the responses I received described recent decisions to go mobile. However, notebook computers aren't the perfect choice for many people. In a perfect world, we would all have at least one desktop and one notebook computer, connected through a wireless network, but that possibility isn't viable for most people. So when you consider your options for purchasing that new PC, considering a desktop PC is also wise. Here are some of the advantages that desktop PCs have over notebook PCs.

Notebook computer prices have come down, but desktop PCs are so inexpensive that manufacturers are almost giving them away with a full tank of gas. OK, they're not that inexpensive, but I'm amazed at how much PC you can get for relatively little money. In the past year, I've purchased two 1.8GHz Dell Dimension desktop PCs for about $450 each. These devices didn't have monitors and needed more RAM, but RAM is inexpensive, and I just wanted a place to house hard disks. Major PC makers such as Dell and Gateway are constantly changing the special deals you get when you purchase a new PC, but a quick look at Dell's Web site today reveals the following (note that the deals change regularly, so this information could be different by the time you check): Shopping for Dell's midline Dell Dimension 4550 system online (see the URL at the end of this article), I note that the company is offering a $150 mail-in rebate, a free second-bay CD burner, a free upgrade to 256MB of RAM, and a free 60GB hard disk. Folks, those special offers are Crazy Eddie tactics; you can configure a complete, modern PC for less than $1000. Saying no to that kind of deal is difficult.

You'll find deals in retail stores such as Best Buy, as well, although you'll generally see machines from second-tier PC makers such as Alienware, eMachines, and vpr Matrix; lower-end systems from companies such as Compaq, Hewlett-Packard (HP), and Sony; and fewer configuration options than you'll find online. Still, retail has two advantages: First, you can find a physical location nearby at which you can return your item if you aren't satisfied (although you should beware of restocking fees) and get support. Second, actually getting your hands on a machine before buying is nice. In any event, retail stores such as Best Buy offer interesting deals, too. In this week's circular, the company offered a variety of incitements, including numerous mail-in rebates (often three or more per system) and bundled printers.

The reason I still use a desktop PC as my primary workhorse is expandability. I have a Dell tower system that's stocked with four hard disks, offering me a total of almost 450GB of storage inside one box. To add an internal DVD burner, I simply purchased a secondary ATAPI controller card for less than $50. The system also contains 1GB of RAM, a 128MB GeForce Ti video card, a combination USB 2.0/FireWire card, a surround-sound sound card, and a variety of externally connected peripherals (e.g., printer, scanner, Sony PDA, audio/video--A/V-- equipment); the system is completely maxed out. This 1.8GHz Dell is also connected to a huge flat-panel monitor, and I miss the screen size and real estate when I'm using a notebook PC.

My system is probably an exaggerated example of what you can do with a desktop PC, but that's the point: Basically, your expansion possibilities are unlimited with a desktop system. When you purchase a notebook PC, you need to be careful that you've considered all your needs in advance, because adding components later can be difficult or impossible.

Useful Lifespan
One item in my PC example above is worth noting: My system includes only a 1.8GHz Pentium 4 CPU, a far cry from the 3.06GHz screamers (complete with Hyper-Threading and faster bus speeds) that are available today. The reason I'm OK with what is apparently a mid-level CPU these days is that desktop systems have a longer usable lifespan than notebooks. Unlike the situation a decade ago, when people basically threw out old systems when they purchased new PCs, today's PCs are usable for a much longer time because the leading-edge PCs of 2 or 3 years ago are still obscenely fast for most people and for most average computing tasks. I use my supposedly over-the-hill desktop system for just about everything--including the latest games--and I'm never disappointed. Part of the reason, of course, is the expandability factor I mentioned: I've bought newer video cards, more RAM, and bigger hard disks since I purchased my desktop system, something that is difficult, expensive, or even impossible on a notebook system.

When I look at the notebooks I used 2 or 3 years ago, I shudder at the thought of using them now. Back in early 2001, notebooks featured 500MHz processors, small amounts of RAM, and no integrated wireless capabilities. Such a system would indeed be fine for today's basic computing tasks--email, Web browsing, and light word processing--but I wouldn't want to take it on the road with me. Will today's 1.6GHz Pentium M and 2.4GHz Pentium 4 Processor - M notebooks fare better in 2 years? We'll have to wait and see. But the history of these devices suggests otherwise.

Your Decision
When it comes to selecting a new computer, a variety of factors--your needs, your financial situation, and even where you live--will determine your decision to buy notebook or desktop PC. Some people have the benefit of numerous local establishments and can take the time to compare prices and features locally, whereas other people might choose (or be forced) to do so online. Whatever you end up buying, today's desktop PCs and notebook computers are much more powerful than what was available several months ago. However, the reverse is also true. Today's top-of-the-line PC has always been tomorrow's also-ran, so you need to go into your purchase understanding that something bigger, better, and less expensive is always coming down the pike. Ultimately, you should buy the PC you need today, balanced against the features you think you'll need tomorrow.



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