Laptop vs desktop gaming PC

Which is better Laptop or Desktop?

Buying Guide

For hardcore FPS driven gaming, and intense workloads, a Desktop is better. For casual gaming and average usage, a laptop is better. However, with how technology is progressing, we’re left with a hair’s breadth of a difference on what makes computing on one platform better than another. The question still lingers on the internet’s mind, which is better, laptop or desktop? We can try and answer that.

1. Desktops are more customizable

First, I must air some personal grievances. I have switched to a Desktop from the decaying husk of a gaming laptop in a Lenovo Legion Y545, which was a replacement for an Alienware I lost to some damage by an orange beverage that will go unnamed. Right now I use a desktop PC for gaming and a relatively older laptop as a daily driver that has been going strong for 5 years without fail.

A screenshot of a google image search showing old systems converted into new ones
Desktop customization popularity – re: this quick google search.

Desktop

You can install any combination of compatible hardware on your desktop.

You can turn a desktop computer into pretty much anything from an entry-level system for the kids to a workstation that’s practically a compact supercomputer. The average user with some basic technical understanding can upgrade a desktop. You can upgrade your processor, RAM, Keyboard, monitor, or anything else with almost the same ease.

If you had the war chest, you can get your hands on a 100″ 8K TV coupled with an RTX 3090 GPU, hook it up to a Ryzen 5950X ready to overclock, install 256GB of 5000MHz RAM, Petabytes of storage, have it liquid cooled into a mini ice-age with a sound system straight out of an audiophile’s wildest fantasy, and defeat Odin to become the new King of Asgard (because everything else is equally fantastic on account of the current product shortage). Assuming you source all that, it is still practically possible.

The advantage of that is if something fails on a desktop, you can swap that part out (after pressing F to pay respects) and get back up and running in no time without losing the whole rig.

If you are concerned about preserving your work during power outages, you’ll need to spring for a backup power supply though.

Laptop

You can’t even change to a different keyboard on a laptop once it reaches you.

On a laptop, what you purchase is what you get. That’s it. Some laptops allow you the ability to upgrade RAM and Storage, and perhaps manually replace the battery, while others can’t do even that. You can use external peripherals, but it would be cumbersome to move around with a mess of wires following you around.

The highest specs available for a laptop are 4K@120Hz with an RTX 3080 Laptop, 128 GB RAM (assuming you can find enough 32 GB SODIMMs/chips) on a Ryzen 5980HX. You are still expected to pay a fortune while get nerfed performance and mobility, because that much hardware will need a series of car batteries just to power on.

Some Laptops, usually the thinner ultrabooks have compnents soldered right onto the board and the battery buried deep beneath the catacombs of the chassis. So it is ususally one enormous husk that is not serviceable by users.

Because of this, no matter what fails on a laptop, it is likely to take the whole thing with it, which will put you at the mercy of your warranty.

This also limits laptop upgrades past cooling pads, carrying cases, or an eGPU to boost gaming performance.

Alienware took some initiative in this direction, by putting out a laptop in which you could upgrade the parts, but it failed to catch on.

Note: I’ve personally had 2 high-end gaming laptops fail on me while my now 5-year old daily driver laptop is working just fine. However, laptop failure is more frequent than desktop failure. Check this conversation for more insight into the matter.

2. Laptops are built for portability

That’s how you transport a Desktop (Screenshot from Death Stranding)

Desktop

This short entry will be codenamed, “duh”. If you so much as plan to take a desktop from one room to another, you’ll have to clear out your entire day. People don’t travel with desktops strapped to their backs, that’s not what they’re built for. Even if you could carry it somehow, you’d need to make room for a monitor and backup battery.

The only way a desktop is at all portable is if you perform a risky surgery, followed by splaying every wire (some of which will inevitably get lost) across the crime scene that used to be your room. Drag your chassis, risking the health of every part inside. With enough attempts, something will go wrong. For these reasons, despite however much power your desktop can churn out, you can’t take it with you anywhere.

Some professionals have hybrid setups where they do the work on a laptop and let the processing go to the desktop remotely.

Laptop

Laptops are portable (even this monstrosity). A significantly souped-up laptop will not perform as well as a desktop (more on that in a bit), because all the parts are designed to consume less electricity, output less heat, and consume as little space as possible.

A laptop with a 10th Generation Core i7 with 16GB of LPDDR4 RAM (which is crazy fast) with a light GPU might not be able to post record-breaking benchmarks, but it will ensure that you have access to considerable computational power without having to lug a power plant wherever you go.

If your usage is more work-centric than gaming, then you are better off with a mid-range laptop with a Full-HD display, touch screen – something desktops aren’t that hot and heavy on – 9+ hours of battery life (which might as well be infinite to most use-cases) and you won’t want for another machine for years. If you require high-end processing, we recommend you look into workstation laptops. They are highly capable workhorses with considerable processing power.

Some gaming laptops are built to look sleek while being quite functional like the Razer Blade Pro, ASUS ROG Zephyrus Line, Legion Slim 7i, and we could go on and on. They take up about as much space as a regular laptop, but rarely give more than 3 hours of battery on even average usage and maybe 10-15 minutes on intense usage.

If there is even a 5% chance that your computing needs are going to be mobile, then you are better off with a laptop.

3. Desktops are superpowered

Desktop

A high-end desktop delivers sheer monolithic incomparable standalone power. If you are concerned about maxing out the FPS count in Doom Eternal, then that is exclusively possible on a desktop. Check the video above.

Desktops perform one task above all others. For example, a tricked-out gaming rig with enough RGB to land a plane is optimized for gaming, a rendering PC is optimized for rendering. While they could both likely play our selection of 9 Modern Classic PC Games To Play Under Quarantine reasonably well, the gaming rig will churn more FPS than the rendering rig. Vice versa for Cinema 4D.

Something interesting: As of writing this article, adding multiple GPUs via NVLink will improve rendering performance while adding almost no boost to gaming performance.

A gaming desktop can be powered by anything from a 500 Watt PSU all the way to 1800 Watts (some desktops can go as low as 200Watts). The most powerful PSU ever on a laptop was the one on the Acer Predator 21x that required two 240 Watt power bricks, totaling 480 Watts, which was still 20 Watts below a desktop’s weakest. Suffice to say, a desktop will always perform better simply because it has access to more power.

Laptop

If you go by performance alone, the RTX 3080 (laptop) performs weaker than the last generation’s RTX 2080 Super (Desktop). Whereas the 3060Ti has comparable performance to the RTX 2080 (assuming you can source them).

A high-end laptop could game quite well, and it could even be used to render Superman’s moustache back onto his face, but you will have to find balance between extreme power and battery life. The more you put into a gaming laptop, the further you are limiting your mobility. As we discussed in our article 9 things to consider before buying a gaming laptop, Airline regulations restrict a laptop’s battery to 99Whr. A modern high-end gaming laptop will eat through that in no time (especially with a G-Sync/FreeSync display). 1 hour of usage will be nothing short of a miracle. If your laptop’s display is 4K@120Hz on a Core i9 processor and an RTX 3080, you’ll be lucky to see the bootscreen before you discharge.

The average laptop will cost between $500-$600 (as low as $300 if you opt for Chromebooks or hybrids) and it will meet the average user’s expectations. It might even play some 10-year-old games. On this level desktops and laptops offer identical performance.

Even the most powerful laptop will be a few generations behind a desktop.

4. Laptops are thermally efficient, Desktops are nuclear reactors

Liquid cooled PC
Image Courtesy: Dario Morelli

Desktop

Because of all that power in a desktop, it will put our much more heat. You will need to ensure it remains cool, lest it melt. This becomes even more imperative if you are overclocking.

Most CPUs come with a heatsink/fan combination that helps dissipate heat for the average use case. If you start cranking up the GHz, you get more heat. Any one of the following cooling solutions can address your cooling needs to varying degrees of efficacy.

  • Reapplying thermal paste (improves conductivity)
  • Liquid metal (Improves conductivity more)
  • Peltier (thermoelectric) cooling (decent cooling)
  • Liquid immersion cooling (highly technical, quite dangerous, risks water damaging your parts, but efficient)
  • Liquid cooling (very efficient)
  • Undervolting (reducing the voltage consumed by the CPU to deliver the same performance as always)
  • Phase-change cooling (uses electricity to take away heat, can go to sub-zero temps)
  • Liquid nitrogen (only for extreme overclocking)
  • Liquid helium (for even more extreme overclocking).

Going into detail about each type of cooling will take us off-topic, but know that some of these ideas might sound ludicrous, but they get results.

Each solution has its risks and advantages, but know that if you have a desktop in a small space, it will get really warm really quickly.

Laptop

Laptops nowadays firmly rely on a combination of fans for passive cooling (as needed) and heat pipes for active cooling (always working). They might be thick heat pipes and the fans might be massive, but they are great for cooling.

Advanced laptops of today are designed with a fair bit of thermal efficiency in mind as on top of keeping everything cool on the inside, it also has to remain cool enough on the outside. There have been cases where laptop users developed Erythema through prolonged and repeated exposure of one’s skin to mild heat in the range of 43-47°C (that’s 109.4°F- 116.6°F in freedom units). Anything above 48°C (118.4°F) can do some damage.

There are only a handful of sustainable cooling solutions for laptops that go beyond factory configurations. Most of them involve a series of really loud fans.

The now-defunct water-cooled laptop from ASUS was innovative on that front, but made the machine too bulky to move around, defeating the purpose of a laptop.

The reason laptop burns aren’t common is because laptops are rarely on actual laps and that they can be thermally efficient enough to not get that warm.

If you are going to put the pedal to the metal on your laptop, you should keep something between it and your skin, like a table, or a solid surface, and make sure that the laptop’s fans aren’t interrupted (e.g. on a sofa, or a mattress), you are unlikely to have any issues.

A desktop running hot is managed through costly cooling solutions. A laptop is designed to avoid running hotter than tolerance levels, so if it does run hot, give it a break and it will cool fairly quickly and you’re good to go again.

Make sure you don’t come into contact with a super hot laptop’s base as it could hurt you.

5. Display Technology is a level playing field

You could install any display available for desktop and laptop alike with the right wiring. Some higher end laptops come with an array of display options, but with laptop displays between 15.4″ and 17.1″, 1080p or 4K they don’t look different enough to warrant the upgrade. Higher resolutions matter on larger displays. You could save the money with a light display on your laptop and then get a separate one that you can plug into.

If you want a higher resolution display, you’ll need a larger screen. As long as your system supports output to FHD, 4K, or even 8K it won’t matter if it’s a laptop or a desktop, you just need a compliant port and you’re good to go.

Running Hitman 2 and YouTube in parallel
it appears congested on a 15.6″ screen, but it’s not unbearable.

Which is better suited for what kind of jobs?

FieldsRecommended Platform
Programming/Web DevelopmentMid-Range Laptop
AnimationHigh-End Desktop
Data Mining/Big Data ProcessingHigh-End Desktop
WritingEntry-Level Laptop
Office JobMid-Range Desktop
Cloud ComputingHigh-End Laptop
Blogger/VloggerMid-Range Laptop
Hardcore/Competitve GamingHigh-End Desktop
SimulationHigh-End Desktop
AIHigh-End Desktop
Attending ClassEntry-Level Laptop
Crypto MiningGulag
and an ancient Wizard’s curse

Resource-intensive jobs that rarely require mobility are all Desktop centric jobs. Having a souped up machine for these purposes is both necessary and critical. For anything that doesn’t require immense power, you need a laptop.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *