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Desktop or Portable?

There’s no question that portable computers trump desktops in the sexiness stakes, but do they represent the best investment for the business user? If you need a machine capable of being carried about so you can give presentations or demonstrate projects on business trips, clearly a notebook computer is what you need. But for other types of work, a desktop machine can be a much better investment.

The chief advantage of a desktop Mac, compared with a portable one, is performance: per dollar, you get more speed and storage with the desktop. This has been a constant throughout the evolution of Apple’s lineup of Macintosh computers and is unlikely to change any time soon.

Component miniaturization and the need for a high-performance battery stacks the bang-for-your-buck equation against the portable computer when it comes to value for money. To take a real-world example, the 1.83GHz iMac and 1.83GHz MacBook perform very similarly in terms of overall speed, but the iMac comes with a hard drive twice the size of the one the MacBook has and costs a full $100 less.

Looking at the high end of the market, the difference in performance becomes even more pronounced. For the price of a MacBook Pro with a single 2GHz processor and 120GB hard drive, you can get a Mac Pro with two 2.66GHz dual-core Intel processors and 250GB of storage. The Mac Pro also has buckets more space for expansion, a much better graphics card, and a dual layer (instead of a single layer) DVD burner. Going by the numbers, at least, there’s really no comparison: the Mac Pro blows the MacBook Pro right out the water.

The flip side, of course, is that portable computers are just that: portable. Even if your MacBook or MacBook Pro doesn’t offer as much performance as a similarly priced desktop machine, it’s difficult to overestimate the value of being able to work wherever and whenever you want. Portable computers retain their value in this regard almost irrespective of their age: the author owns and uses a 10-year-old PowerBook 3400 that earns its keep by accessing wireless networks, checking e-mail, and browsing web pages. A 10-year-old desktop, by contrast would be something of a liability—it couldn’t run any of the modern office, graphics, or page layout programs.

One important factor when comparing notebooks with desktops is durability. Desktops are generally set up where required and rarely moved, whereas notebook computers are constantly being carried about and having cables plugged in and pulled out. The net result is that notebooks tend to wear out more quickly unless diligently cared for, and even under the best of circumstances the main system battery will likely need to be replaced after two or three years.

Desktop machines are also intrinsically more robust, being larger and built with heavier and stronger materials. Even after many years of use, they tend to remain in good shape.

The bottom line when it comes to choosing between desktop Macs and their notebook cousins is really quite simple. Unless you need the benefits of portability, you’ll get more processing power and better value for your money with a desktop.

Figure 3

Figure 3 Notebook computers are go-anywhere/do-anything machines, but that flexibility comes at a premium.

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