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Laptop vs desktop: which should you buy?

Laptop vs desktop; a photo of an Apple iMac M1
The Apple iMac M1 offers a superior desktop experience (Image credit: Future)

The issue of laptop vs desktop has been raging pretty much since the first carryable computer was launched in 1984 (in case you're wondering, it was the IBM 5155 Portable, which weighed just over 11kg). 

In the decades since, we've seen most people move from the desktop – a large, static computer designed to stay in one place – to the laptop: a lightweight, portable computer that can be easily carried about, and used via a battery when you're away from a wall socket.

The portability and space-saving nature of a laptop offer clear advantages. So why would you choose a desktop computer instead? What is it about having a stationary computer that appeals? And why would you go completely portable? Let's take a look…

Laptop vs desktop: advantages of a desktop

Well firstly, because a desktop doesn't have to be so light and thin, this type of computer can potentially pack in more powerful processors and greater storage. Also, it can offer more possibilities for customisation than laptops, such as upgrading or overclocking your graphics card. (We explore these in our workstation vs consumer PC guide.)

For both these reasons, desktops are typically favoured by keen gamers, as well as creatives working with resource-intensive software, such as photo and video editors, film-makers, VFX professionals and 3D animators – read more in our best computer for video editing feature. They may also like the option to swap over a different monitor, mouse or keyboard too. 

Futhermore, desktops tend to have more ports for connecting peripherals, whereas recently laptops have been getting thinner and thinner, and now feature fewer and fewer ports as a result. Plus, as a general rule of thumb, a desktop tends to be cheaper than a laptop with the same specs. (Though you'll need to pay extra for one of the best 4K monitors.)

At a more basic level, a laptop is easy to damage, especially if you're the clumsy type, and is more likely to get lost or stolen, too. Plus, the more defined office space that surrounds a desktop helps you get more in the mood for work, while being able to carry a laptop around the house can lead to easy distractions.

Laptop vs desktop: advantages of a laptop

Laptop vs desktop; a photo of a MacBook Pro 13-inch (M2, 2022)

The MacBook Pro 13-inch is so light, you can take it anywhere (Image credit: Future)

The obvious benefits of using a laptop is being able to move it around the house, take it away from your home or office, and essentially use it wherever and whenever you like, whether that's doing some work on the train or watching a movie in a hotel bedroom. 

Today's extended battery power means you don't have to worry about being near a power socket. You don't have to spend time setting it up: just open up the lid and you're away. Powering up is usually quicker. There are no annoying cables to get in your way. And it's easy to angle the web cam to make yourself look good on Zoom calls, just by tilting the lid and placing the laptop on, say, a pile of books.

Is it okay to use a laptop as a desktop computer?

There's no reason you can't install your laptop as a desktop computer, and many do. This allows you to connect it to a larger, external monitor, a more advanced keyboard, and a proper mouse, which you may find easier to use than your laptop's trackpad.

Your setup will depend on the type of device you have and your specific needs. But typically, you'd need to buy a laptop dock, which will supply your laptop with power and provide extra ports for connecting up your peripherals. Some laptop docks also double as a laptop stand, if that's what you're looking for. Alternatively, if your laptop has Bluetooth, you may be able to connect your monitor, keyboard and mouse wirelessly instead.

Which lasts longer, a laptop or desktop computer?

Desktop computers generally last longer than laptops. A laptop’s lifespan is generally reckoned to be around three to five years, compared to a desktop computer's lifespan of around five to eight years. However, in practice, how long either type lasts will vary hugely, depending on specific factors. 

One will be the build quality of the original machine. Apple computers, for example, are broadly thought to be more robust and long-lasting than most, although you will pay more for them too. Another is how well you maintain your machine. Keeping computers free from dust and debris is vital, as well as regular cleaning and software upgrades. 

If you tend to be clumsy, consider whether a laptop or desktop computer is more likely to get damaged in your presence. Laptops that you carry from place to place are likely to get dropped, of course, but if you habitually eat and drink at your desktop, that too may end up frazzled due to accidental spillages. 

Either way, be aware that because of their compact design, laptops are generally more difficult to open up and repair when damaged than desktop computers.

Which is the best value, a laptop or desktop computer?

If you're short of cash, desktop computers generally offer better value than laptops with similar specs. That's because laptops are more expensive to produce, given – for example – the extra cooling technology they require to support their most compact design.

This is even more the case if you already have a computer monitor, keyboard and mouse to connect to a desktop computer, meaning you only need to buy the base unit. 

Be aware, though, that desktop computers don't always offer better value than a laptop: it's very much a case-by-case basis. 

To that point, let's get specific. In the remainder of this article, I'll compare Apple's MacBook Pro with its desktop cousin, the iMac. For a quick overview of the main specs for each, see the table below. Then read on, as I compare the most obvious differences between the two computers.

MacBook Pro vs iMac comparison
LaptopDesktop
DeviceMacBook Pro 13-inch (M2, 2022)iMac 24-inch (M1, 2021)
Display13.3-inch, 2,560 x 1,600 Retina23.5-inch, 4.5K Retina
ProcessorApple M2 (8-core CPU/10-core GPU)Apple M1 (8-core CPU, 7/8-core GPU)
RAM8GB, configurable to 16-24GB8GB, configurable to 16GB
Storage256GB-512GB, configurable to 1TB or 2TB256GB-512GB, configurable to 1TB or 2TB
Weight1.4kg4.46kg
Dimensions30.41 x 21.24 x 1.56cm54.7 x 46.1 x 14.7cm‎
Connections2 x Thunderbolt / USB 4 ports, 3.5mm headphone jack 2 x Thunderbolt / USB 4 ports, 3.5mm headphone jack, Ethernet port + (512GB model only) 2 x USB 3 ports
Camera720p FaceTime HD camera1080p FaceTime HD camera

 Laptop vs desktop: MacBook Pro 13-inch M2

Laptop vs desktop; a photo of a MacBook Pro 13-inch (M2, 2022)

The MacBook Pro 13-inch benefits from the latest M2 chip (Image credit: Future)

Released this summer, the MacBook Pro 13-inch M2 boasts Apple’s latest M2 processor. That means it offers the highest speeds and best graphic performance in the brand's current range; a fact confirmed in our benchmark tests. 

In our full MacBook Pro 13-inch M2 review we found this laptop also has a beautiful 13.3-inch Retina display, with its 2,560 x 1,600 resolution far exceeding HD quality. On the downside, it only has a 720p webcam and connectivity is limited to just two Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C) ports and a 3.5mm headphone jack.

Laptop vs desktop: iMac 24-inch M1 2021

Laptop vs desktop; a photo of an Apple iMac M1 review

The Apple iMac M1 has a screen to die for (Image credit: Future)

The most up-to-date desktop computer offered by Apple is 2021's iMac 24-inch M1. As the name suggests, this features the M1 processor, which isn't as recent or powerful as the M2 chip inside the latest MacBook Pro. 

This is still blisteringly fast, though, and the screen is to die for: a 23.5-inch, 4K display that makes both your creative work and your entertainment look amazing. Moreover, the webcam offers 1080p, and you get up to four USB ports, a headphone jack and an Ethernet port. Read our iMac 24-inch M1 review for the full details on this excellent desktop

Laptop vs desktop: portability

Forgive us for stating the obvious. But the most important difference between the MacBook and the iMac is that one is portable and the other isn't. Sure, it sounds obvious, but this is the reason why you may opt for one over the other (or buy both).

The MacBook is an ultra-thin laptop that weighs just 1.4kg and comes with a charging cable and power adapter. It can easily be carried, and if you're not near a wall socket, you can run it on a fully-charged battery for up to 15 and a half hours. That makes it ideal for working on the move, or enjoying entertainment outside the home. 

The iMac, meanwhile, is a desktop all-in-one computer. Supplied with a Magic Mouse and Magic Keyboard, it's designed to stay in one place, and you need to plug it into a wall socket to use it. 

That makes it the perfect choice for anyone who seeking a clean separation between their work and personal lives. You won't be tempted to scan new emails, for instance, while on the sofa, or sat at the breakfast bar in your kitchen.

Personally, I prefer the portability combined with power offered by the MacBook. Only buy an iMac if you don't want a computer you can easily move from place to place.

Laptop vs desktop: screen

The iMac 2021 features a 24-inch Retina display that offers 4.5K resolution (4480 x 2520 pixels). The display is able to reach 500 nits of brightness, covered in an anti-reflective coating, offers a P3 wide colour gamut, and supports Apple’s True Tone technology. In our testing, we found the picture incredibly crisp, the colours vibrant and realistic, the brightness impressive, and overall, a quality, pro-worthy display. 

Despite the name, the 13-inch MacBook actually features a 13.3-inch Retina display. Resolution is close to QHD, at 2,560 x 1,600 pixels. You also get the same 500 nits of brightness, P3 wide colour gamut, and support for True Tone as in the iMac 2021.

iMac 2021, for me, wins when it comes to screen performance. While both displays are impressive, the larger screen size and resolution of the iMac offers a much better experience for both creative work and enjoying entertainment.

Laptop vs desktop: performance

Laptop vs desktop; a photo of a MacBook Pro 13-inch (M2, 2022)

The MacBook Pro was a great performer in our tests (Image credit: Future)

All being equal, you'd expect desktop computers to have superior specs to those of laptops. The larger form factor means you can fit in more RAM, more storage space, better graphics cards and superior processors. 

However, in the case of our MacBook vs iMac comparison, that's more or less turned on its head – largely because Apple has only just launched its latest MacBook, but hasn't brought out a new iMac since 2021.

Consequently, the MacBook Pro boasts an M2 chip, which is superior to the older M1 processor used in the iMac. The iMac also has fewer graphics cores, and maxes out at 16GB RAM, while the MacBook Pro is configurable up to 24GB. 

These things suggest the iMac won't be quite as fast or capable when running resource-hungry games or creative software. And indeed, while it performed well in our tests, doing intensive work such as 4K video editing, we did spot some limitations and slowdown when it came to tasks like exporting.

For me, the MacBook Pro wins when it comes to performance. Going against the grain when it comes to laptop vs desktop comparisons, the MacBook's newer and faster processor, extra graphics core and potential for added RAM means the 2022 MacBook Pro is more powerful than the 2021 iMac.

Laptop vs desktop: connectivity

Laptop vs desktop; a photo of an Apple iMac M1

The Apple iMac M1 has more slots for your peripherals (Image credit: Apple)

When it comes to connectivity, the MacBook Pro 2022 is as limited as most of the ultra-thin laptops to hit the shops in recent years. You get two Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C) ports, 3.5mm headphone jack, and that's your lot. So to connect a lot of peripherals, you'll need one of the best docks for MacBook Pro.

The cheaper version of the iMac isn't a whole heap better, with just two USB Type-C/Thunderbolt 4 ports, a headphone jack and Ethernet port on the power brick. With the more expensive 512GB model, though, you do get an extra two USB 3 ports, so that's something.

The iMac 2021 comes with more slots than the MacBook 2022, although not a great deal more, especially on the standard model, so for me the desktop judges edges it here.

Laptop vs desktop: price

So which is cheaper, the iMac 2021 or the MacBook Pro 2022? That's kind of a tricky question to answer, as there are a number of configurations of both models to choose from. Below are the standard prices for the 13-inch MacBook Pro 2022, depending on configuration:

  • 8-core CPU, 10-core GPU, 256GB: $1,299 / £1,349 / AU$1,999
  • 8-core CPU, 10-core GPU, 512GB: $1,499 / £1,549 / AU$2,299

Here are the standard prices for the iMac M1, depending on configuration:

  • 8-core CPU, 7-core GPU, 256GB: $1,299 / £1,249 / AU$1,899
  • 8-core CPU, 8-core GPU, 256GB: $1,499 / £1,449 / AU$2,199
  • 8-core CPU, 8-core GPU, 512GB SSD: $1,699 / £1,649 / AU$2,499

When it comes to price, and taking into account configurations, I call this laptop vs desktop dilemma a draw. There's not much price difference between the MacBook Pro 2022 and the iMac, with the cheapest configuration being the same in the US and only £100 / AU$100 cheaper in the UK and Australia.

Laptop vs desktop: which should you buy?

Laptop vs desktop; a photo of a MacBook Pro 13-inch (M2, 2022)

The MacBook Pro 13-inch (M2, 2022) is our overall winner (Image credit: Future)

Overall, my comparison of iMac vs MacBook in the war of laptop vs desktop shows that the choice between desktop and laptop computers isn't always clear-cut. In some aspects one is always better than the other, when it comes to Apple at least.

While desktop computers are normally more powerful than their laptop cousins, that's not the case here, due largely to the inclusion of the M2 processor in the 2022 MacBook. That may well change once Apple brings out another iMac, but for now, the MacBook wins out in terms of power and performance.

The iMac does score more highly in terms of its superior screen and greater connectivity. However, you can always use a USB dock if you need ports that badly. And the MacBook M2's display is pretty attractive too (and if you need more screen space, there are also 14-inch and 16-inch versions).

Still, if a large, beautiful screen is what you're looking for, the iMac is probably your best bet. Otherwise, though, given that the prices of the two computers aren't that different, and that the MacBook offers the benefits of space saving and portability, I'd say it's the slam-dunk winner of this particular laptop vs desktop contest.

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Tom May is an award-winning journalist and editor specialising in design, photography and technology. Author of the Amazon #1 bestseller Great TED Talks: Creativity (opens in new tab), published by Pavilion Books, Tom was previously editor of Professional Photography magazine, associate editor at Creative Bloq, and deputy editor at net magazine. Today, he is a regular contributor to Creative Bloq and its sister sites Digital Camera World, T3.com and Tech Radar. He also writes for Creative Boom and works on content marketing projects. 

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