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Laptop, desktop, or the best of both worlds? How to decide

If you need to upgrade your computer, the factors you consider have expanded since the pandemic began. In this article, we'll help you choose an option that will provide you the most flexibility and will best meet your needs.

Up through 2019, working from home -- either always or occasionally -- was relatively rare. Only about 16% of Americans worked remotely. Even that was a lot compared to the previous decade, where less than 8% worked remotely.

But the pandemic changed everything. As of October 2020, 58% of Americans either sometimes or always work from home. For employers and employees who switched to work-from-home, it's been a seismic shift.

Even though many workplaces are reopening or planning to, there's still tremendous uncertainty. Businesses that bring workers back on-site may wind up sending them back home in a seasonal cycle, depending on how and whether the virus mutates.

All of this relates to your computer purchasing strategy. Before the pandemic, it was relatively easy to predict your working environment. Some folks worked from home. Others in the office. Many took laptops on trips, to client meetings, and to coffee shops. If that was how you worked, you shopped for a computer or computers that fit your style. But now, computer choices need to be able to accommodate rapid changes in work mode and environment.

As you decide on your computer purchases, you'll need to keep those challenges in mind. 

Tower computers offer maximum configuration flexibility. You can swap out RAM, storage, and add all manner of specialty cards and capabilities. The price for this is a lack of portability. A tower PC usually lives below or beside the desk, connected to a monitor and keyboard.

Laptops offer situational flexibility. While you may not be able to change out every component, you can change your work location and the set of peripherals you use.

Tower desktop PCs

These always use an external monitor (or monitors), a separate keyboard and mouse, and possibly other external devices, like a standalone mic and webcam. The tower itself is often extremely configurable, both before and after purchase. Let's use the Dell XPS Tower machines as an example.

In this sponsored column, Dell has commissioned us to spotlight their products. Since I have used many excellent Dell products over the years, and since the general guidelines in this article apply to almost all PC purchases, I'm happy to use Dell gear to illustrate my recommendations.

The Dell XPS Tower and its snazzy brother, the Dell XPS Tower Special Edition can be configured with anything from an entry-level Intel Core i3, all the way up to a beefy i9 processor. You can choose onboard graphics or load your tower with a powerful gaming video card. You can start out with 8GB of RAM (although we recommend starting with at least 16GB) and expand all the way to 64GB. You can include an optical drive in one of the bays. There are also PCI slots, which allow for the addition of sound cards, and even dual video cards. And the XPS machines come with a bunch of USB ports, which should be enough for almost any work environment.

The key point with tower machines is that you have a wide range of configuration options, can configure it for your current needs, and can upgrade it as your requirements grow. There's also more than enough room inside the case for good airflow, so if you equip it with a high-end processor, you can be pretty confident that the CPU won't overheat. 

In fact, the availability of excellent cooling options can be one of the most compelling reasons to buy a tower, particularly if you subject it to performance loads like complex video editing, scientific modeling, CAD/CAM, and editing large multi-layer photos.

All-in-one PCs

All-in-one machines have all the disadvantages of both tower machines and laptops. They're difficult to lug, and they are limited in configuration flexibility and thermal performance. Plus, you are forever stuck with that model's monitor.

That said, some folks love all-in-one machines, like this Dell Optiplex 7780. There's no big tower to take up space. The entire PC takes up no more space than a single monitor. There are fewer cables. If you use a Bluetooth mouse and keyboard, the only cable you absolutely need is a power cord.

An all-in-one PC like the Dell Optiplex 3280 might be a great choice for you because it provides a larger monitor and lower space utilization (plus they just look cool). Just keep in mind that they're neither conveniently portable nor conveniently upgradeable.

Laptops

Laptops may offer the best of all worlds, especially when we're equally likely to be back in offices or locked down at home.

Let's first choose and configure a laptop, then build one or more desktop ecosystems around it. Dell offers an abundance of options, with lines including Vostro and Latitude business laptops, stylish and affordable  Inspiron laptops, media-centric XPS laptops, and high-end Precision workstation laptops. (My upcoming "How to decide" article will provide a deeper dive into the key features of each.)

Right now, let's provide some general guidelines. Dell laptops in a variety of screen sizes that are convenient to carry. Some of the more powerful machines offer dual fans and dual heat pipes for thermal management. Some models also offer EyeSafe blue-light defeating screen technology.

Dell offers some laptops that can't be upgraded after purchase, and many more that allow you to upgrade both RAM and storage. If you're looking for a best-of-both-worlds laptop, consider getting one that's fully upgradeable (RAM and storage), because you'll have more upgrade options and you'll be able to better approximate desktop performance. 

Once you've chosen your laptop, it's time to configure your desk setup. I like to connect my laptop to a dock, like the Dell Universal Dock. This allows you to connect your laptop with up to three 4K displays, Ethernet, keyboard, mouse, mic, and more. Just connect one USB-C cable between the laptop and the dock, and you're up and running.

Consider installing a dock at both the office and at home, and equipping both with monitors, keyboards, and so on. That way all you have to do is unplug the laptop from its USB port at work, move to your home office location, plug it in, and you're ready to go. 

Expect the unexpected

When you buy your laptop, don't make the mistake I made. I bought a laptop expecting to do little more than write my columns on it. I put in a relatively low-end processor, not much storage, and relatively basic RAM. It would have been perfect for sitting and sipping an espresso while writing. But. 

What I didn't expect was that I'd want to press it into service as a live video hub, that I'd live off it for months after evacuating from a hurricane, and that I'd want to use it for both 3D modeling and video editing. I saved a few hundred bucks, but I bought a laptop that's just not very well-suited to the work I do now.

So don't skimp on the things you can't upgrade. While you might be able to add more RAM, you can't upgrade your processor. So get one strong enough to last four or five years. It will pay for itself in ways you can't predict now.

How to decide

Okay, it's time for our decision tree. Let's look at some of your choices.

  • If you only work from home and need maximum configuration flexibility: Consider a tower you can improve over time.

  • If you want maximum situational flexibility: Get an upgradeable laptop and equip your desk with one or more monitors, a keyboard, a mouse, and a dock.

  • If you want something super-portable: Get a thin-and-light ultrabook, but max out the processor and RAM, since you won't be able to upgrade them. You might still want a dock and monitor for your desk.

  • If you want comfort on the couch and you want power at your desk: Consider a two-in-one Latitude laptop that doubles as a tablet, and possibly a tower at your desk, if you have the budget.

As always, thanks for reading!