Laptop vs desktop: which should you buy?

Laptop vs desktop: the battle of personal computers
(Image credit: Future)
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The laptop vs desktop conversation has been going on since the very first portable computers started being manufactured decades ago, and the arguments on either side for which is better haven't really changed much. 

The best computers sitting on or under a desk are often more powerful but less portable than even the best laptop you're going to be able to buy, which you'll be able to take just about anywhere, but what you can do with it will be more limited.

With the new school year kicking off shortly, a lot of students and families are having this very debate right now, weighing the pros and cons of each, and trying to decide which is the right choice to their educational needs.

Fortunately, we've been reviewing both laptops and desktops for a long time now, and we are very familiar with the benefits and drawbacks of each. So if you're trying to figure out which form factor is best for your needs and budget, we're here to break it down to help you make the right choice. And with so many back to school sales going on right now, we'll even help you find the best possible deal on whichever side you ultimately decide upon.

Differences between laptop vs desktop

A tower desktop is hardly portable.

(Image credit: Future)

A desktop PC is a static, stationary computer that will stay on a desk in an office or bedroom. It usually consists of various parts: a tower, a monitor, a keyboard, and a mouse. 

PCs are generally more customizable than laptops as well. You can put together top-of-the-line parts for every aspect of the PC when you choose a desktop computer, whereas your choices are more limited with a laptop.

Check out our pick of the best desktop PCs to see what this form factor has to offer.

A laptop (also called a notebook) is a portable, all-in-one device that usually has USB inputs on the sides for optional peripherals. Laptops have a built-in screen, a built-in keyboard, a trackpad that acts as a mouse, and can vary in size. 

Laptops are generally limited by their size but many modern batteries are big enough to provide 12 or more hours of power before needing to recharge.

We've collected together the best laptops as well.

The argument for a laptop

Woman using laptop

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A laptop is the best option for students who are going to school outside of the home every day, and need a computer for classes. 

While laptops are more delicate than desktop PCs, you can now find rugged laptops that will take a fall or two without being destroyed.

Laptops are best used for light work: reading, word processing, streaming videos, or using social media. If you or your child wants to have freedom to roam while using a computer, a fully charged laptop should last an entire day for working or learning.

We've put together a list of the best laptops for students, and the best laptops for kids.

The argument for a desktop PC

You can still have that bigger screen experience with laptops.

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If you want a computer with a lot of versatility, a desktop PC is for you. Desktops can store huge files and run games with high quality graphics easily. Desktops can also be changed to fit your needs. 

You can add more storage, RAM, and a better graphics card to improve your computing experience. Desktop PCs also do not run on a battery, so you can use them for longer without stopping to plug in and recharge.

You cannot easily transport a desktop computer to a school, and setting it up at your student's desk at school would be a nightmare. 

Desktop PCs are great for a home-schooled or distancing-learning scenario. A desktop computer can be used during the school day for learning and word processing, and during off-hours for gaming and entertainment.

There are also all-in-one PCs, which are stylish devices where their components are built behind the screen. This means they are easier to move and set up, as you don't need to connect as many wires, and they take up less space on the desk as well. However, they are also more expensive, and not as easy to upgrade as normal desktop PCs.

The best buy

If a desktop PC and a laptop have the same specifications, the general rule is the laptop will be more expensive. Top-of-the-line laptops generally have higher price points than desktop PCs and they also have all of the limitations listed above. High-end laptops are still a great investment because they can be used for gaming and streaming in addition to schoolwork.

A top-of-the-line desktop can be used more often by a distance-learning student, with a lower up-front cost for parents. Eventually, upgrading the PC can be a time-consuming and expensive process, but the initial out-of-pocket costs don't have to be sky-high.

Desktop PCs are easier to modify and upgrade.

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Upgrading an old desktop PC

If your current desktop computer is over three years old, it may be more work than it's worth to try to source the parts needed to upgrade. Regardless, the key things to upgrade are always going to be the memory, CPU, hard drive, and graphics card. If you upgrade the processor, you'll need to also upgrade the other parts so they'll be able to keep up.

Buying a pre-made desktop PC

One way to get around the expense and trouble of upgrading an old computer is to buy a new, pre-made desktop PC. 

High-end pre-made desktops are usually more expensive than buying the individual parts and putting them together yourself, but they usually also come with a generous warranty. Pre-made computers will also come with some software installed, like Windows 10, so you can just plug in the computer and begin using it right away.

That said, putting together a PC is fairly straightforward, and there are many guides to putting together a computer can be found online. Check out our guide on how to build a PC for more advice on building or upgrading your desktop PC.

If you still aren't sure you can put together the computer yourself, you can always hire someone to do it for you. You may still save money over buying a top-of-the-line pre-made PC or laptop.

Software

Laptops will usually come with an OS (operating system) already installed. Current generation laptops and pre-made desktops will have Windows 10 pre-installed. Some laptops and desktops may also have anti-virus applications, word processing applications and games installed as well.

Make sure you check out our picks for the best software for students as well.

In the end, buying a computer for your student isn't hard as long as you understand their needs. If they need to go to school every day and have a computer at their school desk, a laptop is sufficient. 

If they are studying at home and also want to be able to play games, stream, and edit YouTube videos, a desktop PC is your best bet. Both options come with their set of setbacks and advantages, but either one will work well for your student. 

Today's best desktop computer deals

Today's best laptop deals