The Bottom Line
Laptop vs. Desktop
As a small business owner, if you don’t watch the bottom line, you can end up at the bottom of the barrel. The challenge is to find news, reviews, and even commentary that has the small business perspective in mind and its interests at heart. According to the government, a company with 250 employees is small. If you ask me, 250 employees and millions in revenue is pretty @!$#% big!
Far too often we’ve seen that big business and small business do not have the same interests. The truth is, neither do small businesses and tiny businesses. Sole practitioners and offices with two, three, even ten employees don’t have in-house IT personnel. Often they support, maintain, upgrade, and even repair their own equipment.
I know. I’ve been in business out of my home office (in one way or another) for about a decade. From shareware developer to Web design and development and on into technical journalism, I know what it’s like to fly solo. So if you own or are considering a home-based business, or if you have a tiny office with only a few computers, I’m talking to you.
When I first set up my office, it wasn’t SOHO, it was TOHO—tiny office, home office. I didn’t even have a room of my own, just a desk about two feet from my bed. There wasn’t much choice in affordable computer equipment then. The Mac I bought in college was as good as it got. These days the choices and configurations are nearly endless. I’ll assume that you’ve already resisted the temptation of a cheap Windows PC and are looking for a trusty Mac.
It used to be that laptops were financially out of reach for most tiny businesses, but with the advent of the iBook, that’s changed. You can get a very capable laptop for about $1000. For another grand, you can get a top-of-the-line computer, or what would have been considered a supercomputer a decade ago. The fact that laptops are affordable just makes the decision all the more difficult.
So let’s talk money first, since most TOHOs are on a budget tighter than Scarlett O’Hara’s corset laces. Desktops win in two out of three price ranges. On the low end, you’re going to get a lot more bang for your buck with a desktop. The $1299 iBook can’t hold a candle to the 15" iMac, also $1299. And for five hundred bucks less, you can have a competitive eMac. You can also have a great eMac for $1299. If you really want it, and have money to burn, the dual G5 clobbers the tricked out 17" PowerBook, and for several hundred less. But do remember you have to buy or otherwise own a monitor for use with the G5. If you’re like me, you’re in the $1800 range. The 12" PowerBook and the 17" iMac are closely comparable, both at $1799. The iMac has more screen and a few more megahertz. The PowerBook weighs about four and a half pounds and can be toted hither and yon.
If you often travel to Hither or Yon (get your super-saver flight on MAC Airlines), you’ll want something portable. The iMac and eMac are luggable if you’re going on a road trip to Rhode Island for a couple weeks. G5s are not portable, even with a big trunk. Last time I took a tower on vacation, I blew a PCI slot and my vacation got $3000 more expensive. To take back and forth to client meetings, vacations, business trips, or just to your second office (mine is at McDonald’s Playland), you can’t beat a laptop with a crowbar and two goodfellas.
Now while the good news is that laptops travel well, the bad news is that if you want a full sized keyboard, mouse, and screen, you have to carry them too. And of course, Apple makes a snazzy-looking power supply, but they never make it compact and easy to carry. Neither cord retracts and your toddlers will tread on it if you try to mix your authoring (CD/DVD) with your Arnold (daily on Nickelodeon). If you’re not careful, you can pull it out of the wall or out of the machine, potentially breaking the connector.
In a laptop’s integrated keyboard, a Coke will cause a lot more damage than if you just dumped it in your desktop’s keyboard. This brings up the whole topic of parts and repair. Laptops generally have to be sent away for repair, if they can be repaired at all. If your desktop monitor breaks, worse comes to worse, you can replace it. If your laptop monitor breaks and it’s not under warranty or AppleCare, fuhgeddaboutit. Laptop parts and upgrades are more expensive, even on eBay. While you can get away with not having AppleCare on your desktop, it is an absolute necessity for a laptop. Laptops are more delicate, more prone to being damaged, and, due to their wandering ways, are more likely to have mishaps. Laptops walk—that is they’re easier to steal than the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, and Ford Taurus put together.
Thankfully, laptops are also easier to hide. That’s because (duh) desktop machines and their various peripherals take up more space than the final frontier. A large monitor can completely obscure your desk, not to mention the laser printer in the corner, an inkjet for color, and the tower underneath. Add a cable modem and router and forget about actually working at your desk. You could end up needing to buy one of those unsightly office desks just so you can work. A laptop, by definition fits on your lap, even the 17" PowerBook. Instead of being at arm’s length, you can have a warm relationship with your faithful companion.
Unfortunately, with some of the new G4 PowerBooks, it can be a very warm relationship indeed. Depending on the processor, a laptop may put out a significant amount of heat. Certainly enough to be uncomfortable, but probably not enough to burn. You want your technology hot, but not that hot!
Once you have a laptop, like all hot technology, it cools fast. What was young and frisky this year is ancient and pokey next year. With a desktop, you can swap your mostly useless DVD-RAM (some Sawtooth G4’s) for a SuperDrive off eBay. Try replacing the pathetic 6 GB drive in your clamshell design iBook SE; it takes something like 22 steps and about four hours of delicate tinkering.
Now whether that’s a pleasant afternoon or not depends on who you are. The biggest factor in what to choose is what you want to do with the machine now and maybe in the future. People who need high-powered computation, graphics, and video and don’t need to go anywhere should have a G5 on their desk. If you’re doing Nisus Writer Express, Excel, Keynote, Eudora, and Safari and you want to use the computer in your recliner while your kids watch the Wild Thornberrys Movie, then that 12" PowerBook with an AirPort base station looks awfully attractive. If you’re a graphics professional, you’ll be more concerned with color quality than mobility and should get a CRT rather than an LCD screen. You have to choose the computer that fits your needs and only you can assess those needs.
All in all, it really sounds like the laptop got the worst of it in this shoot out. But that’s not the case at all, because while there are drawbacks, for people who have laptops, portability trumps them all. What’s really most clear is that the people who choose a desktop love the extra screen real estate and processor power. They love the desktop. People who buy a laptop love the flexibility and portability. They’d never trade their laptop and don’t regret buying it. When it came down to making my choice, I thought, “Since I’m borrowing anyway, what’s an extra two grand?”
I bought both.