Buying a Mac… should you buy a desktop or laptop?

If you’re looking to purchasing your first computer or looking to purchase one for specific tasks, you may be troubled with the decision between a desktop computer or a laptop.

In this case, we’ll look specifically at Mac computers by Apple, but the same principles can be applied to other brands.

Desktops
The definition is literally in it’s name, as desktop computers are designed to sit on your desk, and STAY there. They can either come as an all in one package (which include everything you need), or they can be sold separately which will require you to purchase a monitor, keyboard, and mouse.

Examples of Apple desktop computers are the iMac, the iMac Pro, the Mac Pro and the Mac Mini.

Laptops
Laptops have a key, distinctive difference from desktops. Laptops are portable. They are smaller in size, and you can carry the whole computer around with you because all of their their supporting devices (keyboard, trackpad, monitor) are all attached into one, lightweight foldable unit.

Examples of a laptop computers by Apple are the MacBook, the MacBook Air, and the MacBook Pro.

Deciding Factor: Portability
Since portability is one of the main differences between the two, if portability is a main requirement of yours then a laptop would be your obvious choice. If you’re a student, or your job or lifestyle require consistent travel and the use of a computer in various locations, portability is a huge beneficial feature that will suit your needs.

If portability is less of a requirement for you, there are other deciding factors to consider.

Deciding Factors: Requirements
Depending on what you intend to use your computer for, you will require different computing power specifications.

General Purpose
What will you be using your computer for? Do you want a computer for general purpose, personal use? If you intend to use your computer for the following activities, you will require less computing power:

  • Surfing the Internet
  • Email
  • Creating documents using various programs such as Microsoft Word, Excel, and Powerpoint, or Mac programs such as Pages, Numbers, and Keynote.
  • Listening to music through service providers such as Spotify, Soundcloud, Apple Music, and Google Play Music.
  • Storing and sharing personal, small image and video files of family and friends, such as photo’s taken from your cell phone.
  • Watching movies or tv shows through service providers such as Netflix or Amazon Prime.

If these are the things you intend to use your computer for, you could go with either a base model of a desktop or laptop.

Specific Purpose
Are you a serious hobbyist, professional photographer, videographer, graphic designer producer, musician, or avid gamer?

Do you want to manage and edit high resolution image files (images from a professional DSLR camera), manage large, high resolution video files, do any kind of video editing,  record/produce professional grade audio or music, or run computer games with cutting edge graphics?

If you intend to use your computer for any of the above, you will need higher computing power. The reason for this is because these tasks need specs and software programs that can require any or all of the following: advanced processors and increased RAM, incredible GPU, large amounts of storage, and high resolution displays.

Confused with these terms? Lets go through a glossary breakdown:

RAM – Random Access Memory: RAM is the physical hardware inside a computer that will temporarily store data. This “stored data” will serve as the computer’s working memory.  The more RAM your computer has, the more information the computer has to work with at the same time. Simply put, the more memory your computer has, and the faster that memory is, the better your computer will perform. It is important to recognize that RAM is not the same thing as hard drive space. Unlike hard drive space, your RAM data is erased and reset when the computer shuts down and restarts.

The amount of RAM you need entirely depends on what you want to use your computer for. For example, if you’re purchasing a computer for intense gaming or for video editing, you’ll want enough RAM available to support smooth gameplay and a smooth editing process. If you are trying to do these tasks with only 2GB of RAM available when it requires 4GB or even 8GB of RAM, the result will be very slow performance, and you may even be unable to perform these tasks at all.

CPU – Central Processing Unit: The CPU is the part of the computer that’s responsible for interpreting and executing most of the commands from the computer’s hardware and software. It’s like the “brain” of a computer.

The CPU performs millions of calculations that are required in order for your software and operating system (such as MacOS or Windows) to function properly.

When reading computer specs, you will see the speed of your processor (the number of instructions it can process in any given second) is measured in gigahertz (gHz). Ultimately, the faster your processor, the faster your computer will perform. For example, a CPU with a speed of 1.8 gHz, can process 1.8 billion instructions each second.

CPU’s also come with varying amounts of “cores”. For example, some devices have a single-core processor, while others can have a dual-core processor, a quad-core processor, and so on. If you have a single core processor, this means one processor is working at a time. Alternatively, if you have a dual-core processor, this means two processor units are simultaneously working side by side, managing twice the instructions every second. As you can imagine, this drastically improves speed and performance.

STORAGE – Hard drive space: Probably the easiest of terms to understand, your hard drive space is the amount documents, programs, applications, photos/videos, music/movies, and etc that you can store and use. Think of it as a storage locker. You are able to fill it up with as much stuff as you want and as many things as you can, but once it’s full, you can no longer put anything else in it. In order to add something new, you’ll need to remove something in order to create space.

Hard drive space is measured in GB, or TB. Generally, desktop computers provide much more hard drive space then laptop computers. For example, the base model of the newest MacBook Pro comes equipped with 128GB, while the iMac desktop comes equipped with 1TB. Huge difference. If one of your deciding factors is storage, but you also need the portability of a laptop, an alternative option is an external hard drive. External hard drives are great options that many people use to increase storage when using their laptops.

You can purchase an external hard drive with 1TB of space for as little as $99.95. An example of an external drive that is compatible with MacBooks is the LaCie USB-C Portable 1TB drive.
GPU – Graphics Processing Unit: This is the graphics chip. The graphics chip is a single chip processor specialized for display functions, as it converts video data into electronic signals and sends them to be displayed on your computer screen. The GPU is essential for smooth decoding and rendering, and it’s primary purpose is to manage and boost the performance of video and graphics. The more advanced the GPU, the higher the resolution and the faster/smoother the motion will be in games, video and other forms of media. All standard desktop and laptop computers now have a GPU, each with varying capabalities of course.

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Deciding Factors: Price
If you’re on a budget and your deciding factor is price, this will easily simplify your options. The cheapest, Mac computer on the market is the Mac Mini desktop (starting at $499 USD), followed by the MacBook Air 13-inch laptop (starting at $999 USD). If you have no specific need for high computing performance, these two options will more then get the job done.

As mentioned before there are 2 different types of desktop computers. The all in 1 desktop package, and the ones that are sold separately (independently from the keyboard, monitor, and mouse). Before you get too excited about the Mac Mini’s price point, it is important to know that it is sold separately from the keyboard, monitor, and mouse. You’ll have to dish out a couple extra bucks to complete the package, but you can still keep your costs relatively low by looking for deals or purchasing less expensive products, or if you’re lucky you can use these parts from an old computer.

To see a general comparison of all the Mac computers that Apple offers, see below.
This chart is based on the lowest base price of each model, and the standard model specs. Each computer is customizable and many individual computer components can be upgraded. For more information, please visit the Apple website.

Mac Computer Comparison Chart
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Hopefully you now have a better idea of whether to buy a desktop or a laptop computer. If you’re still on the fence, remember to carefully consider the key deciding factors; portability, usage/requirements, and price. Under usage/requirements, there are many components including CPU, hard drive space, RAM, GPU, and screen size/resolution. Keep each of these in mind when making a decision.

If you’re a user who needs high computing power, your (Mac) options are pretty much limited to computers that will provide top of the line performance. If this is the case, you’re looking at the most expensive/upgraded model of the iMac, the iMac Pro, the Mac Pro, or the MacBook Pro.

If you’re a user who needs an entry level computer or a computer to do general purpose tasks, the standard model iMac is a great choice. It not only fits a lower price budget, but it includes absolutely everything you need as an all-in-one package (built-in monitor, keyboard and mouse included). On the other hand, if you’re a general purpose user who also wants the benefit of portability, the standard MacBook laptop provides a huge bang for its buck.