Why I prefer desktop computers over laptops

I have owned many personal computers over the past 30 years… but never a laptop. I’ve used others’ laptops from time to time, but only for short periods of time. Laptops are wonderful, but almost any time I have a choice, I prefer to use a desktop. I thought it might be interesting for others to read about this one user’s rare preference for desktops, particularly from the user experience point of view.

Basic ergonomics

Since most laptops’ screens are attached to the keyboard, I need to choose between either of two uncomfortable positions. If I place the laptop at elbow level, for comfortable typing, I need to bend my neck down to look at the screen. If I place the laptop on a stand for a comfortable viewing angle, I need to raise my arms to type. Barring the use of an external keyboard or screen, laptops force me to make this uncomfortable tradeoff.

The mouse

I much prefer using a mouse over a touch pad (or over the essentially-extinct pointing stick). Having a touch pad below the space bar on the keyboard is mildly annoying, but fortunately I can disable it and use an external mouse. I mildly dislike many users’ preference of a touchpad to the exclusion of a mouse, since that means I need to remember to bring my own mouse to plug in when providing them with tech support. A much greater annoyance stems from the placement of USB, audio, or power ports on various laptop models. If they’re placed on the right edge (and even worse, on the bottom, right-hand edge) they cause any cables I connect to obstruct the area through where I move my mouse. (A left-handed version of myself would likely complain about ports on the left edge.)

The keyboard

Probably the main reason why I’m significantly less comfortable using laptops has to do with the keyboard. I much prefer a desktop keyboard to a laptop keyboard. [1] I prefer the sturdy feel and action of full-height keys over that of the thin slivers of plastic on laptop keyboards. I like having a full set of keys and prefer the traditional location and arrangement of the arrow and navigation keys. Though I don’t use it as often, I also like having a numeric keypad. [2] I’ve also noticed that I much prefer typing on a cool or room-temperature keyboard than on the inevitably warm keyboard offered by a laptop. A warm keyboard feels a bit icky to my picky palms and fingers. Unfortunately, given current designs, a laptop’s keyboard can’t help but absorb the heat generated by the laptop’s internal electronics.

An additional, tactile consideration

For all their wonders, Mac laptops get a special mention for a particular annoyance. Current MacBook Air and MacBook Pro models have an anodized aluminum case. Its metal finish looks sleek and elegant… yet I really dislike its tactile feel. Yes, the keys on the keyboard are plastic (and pretty nice, actually) but the palm rest has an anodized aluminum surface–rough and uninviting to my palms. I don’t like how such an aluminum case feels in my hands or against my bare arm when I carry it, either. When I have to carry such a laptop, I prefer to move it as quickly as possible to its next resting place, or insert it into a case or sleeve for carrying. Older MacBooks with polycarbonate cases may not look as elegant but feel much better. If I ever own an aluminum-encased Mac laptop, I’d probably take steps to cover the aluminum with a more tactilely-appealing surface.

Price, performance, maintenance

I have also long preferred desktops due to price, performance, and maintenance considerations. An equivalent level of computing power has historically been cheaper to obtain in a desktop. Since components inside a desktop aren’t packed together as closely, they tend to last longer and perform more reliably. Also, it’s not as difficult to open, upgrade, or maintain a desktop. I’ve thus preferred desktops’ value propositions over laptops’. (My current impressions in this area are likely to become obsolete, though at present it’s a bit hard for me to imagine that hard drive and processor capacities and performance would ever become equivalent on desktops and laptops. I doubt that high-quality laptops would ever offer the same performance for the same price as high-quality desktops.)

Conclusion

For all the benefits I see in desktop computers, laptops’ portability is an extremely important feature, one that trumps other user-experience considerations for most users. The various design tradeoffs laptop makers have made in pursuit of portability are very reasonable and understandable. Yet I still haven’t found a laptop that would tempt me to give up my desktop. You probably won’t see me working on my computer at your local coffeehouse anytime soon.

 

 

 

Notes

[1] I actually use an ergonomic keyboard, which no laptop is ever likely to incorporate. In any case, even a standard, 104-key desktop keyboard beats a laptop keyboard hands down, in my opinion.

[2] I do wish a numeric keypad could be detached from the rest of the keyboard and placed elsewhere when not in use. For a right-hander like me, the keypad forces my mouse hand to travel much farther between the mouse and the letter keys. But that’s a topic for a different article.

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