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My company is getting PC refreshes with a choice of to have a desktop or laptop. Each one seems to have its pros and cons. Would you want the flexibility and freedom of the laptop but take the risk of working extra hours at home? Or a desktop limited to one place, but not having to worry about taking work home and disrupting home time?

I'm not asking what would be better for coding, but more for convenience and productivity. I currently have a desktop and work about 8 to 9 hours a day, with only coming in on the weekends for when we get behind on major deadlines. I love developing but I also have quite a busy life after work. I feel that having a work laptop will only haze the line of work and home.

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If you get a laptop, make sure you get a SSD to go with it! –  mpeterson Oct 30 '10 at 14:03
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@ThorbjørnRavnAndersen: That is completely dependent on the laptop configuration. I work in Eclipse in a Linux VM on a Windows host all day - the laptop works fine. –  unholysampler Jan 30 '12 at 23:09

17 Answers 17

Despite my habit of using my desktop as a leg rest, both at home and at work, I'd have to go with laptop.

Get one that comes with a base station you can plug it into to connect 1+ monitors to it, and you've got a lot of screen space, possibly more than you could get with a desktop, since it has a monitor built-in already. You can also connect a keyboard & mouse to it, so it's indistinguishable from a desktop when being used.

Even if you're not planning to take it home, just having the portability in case you need to bring it to a meeting, go on site and have it with you, or anything else, can be a blessing.

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+1 for mentioning taking a laptop to meetings. I don't like laptops, but I picked one for just this reason. It's very convenient to hook your machine up to a projector and do a code review, or present some design diagrams. And even though I take my machine home every night, I rarely open the case at home. Very handy for those days when my daughter wakes up sick and I have to stay home with her, though -- no more having to take a sick day myself! –  TMN Oct 29 '10 at 15:51
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We've all got laptops at work. I've got a docking station with 2 x 28" monitors and a 19" in portrait. Specs on the 19", IDEs and various programs on the big monitors, Outlook on the laptop screen. Travelling between offices or occasionally working from home is impossible w/o a laptop. We also tend to move into war rooms to attack problems and that would be completely out of the question if we used desktops. –  Adrian J. Moreno Jan 30 '12 at 23:17
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@Carra: And I've been to meetings where having a laptop was the only reason it wasn't a complete waste of two hours. –  Zan Lynx Feb 3 '12 at 5:41

Definitely a desktop PC, with (and this is very important) a very large monitor.

If you want productivity, large screen is your best option. I don't think that's something a laptop can match..

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+1 Desktop AND larges monitors –  user2567 Oct 29 '10 at 14:50
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A laptop on a docking station connected to 1 or 2 large monitors of course can match it... –  Mantorok Oct 29 '10 at 15:11
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I currently have a 22" monitor plugged into the back of my laptop. Best of both worlds? –  TMN Oct 29 '10 at 15:44
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@drHannibalLecter A large screen is external anyway, and unrelated to the type of computer. A laptop can use the same screens as a desktop, and can also be easily relocated, which a desktop cannot. So why do you consider them seriously limited? –  Andres F. Jan 31 '12 at 2:03

A desktop PC with dual monitors is the best work configuration IMHO.

If you need to work from a distance, the possibility of connecting remotely (via a VPN) can be very useful and obviate the need for a laptop.

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I like to use a laptop that is docked to a large monitor with a real keyboard and mouse. My first year in graduate school I used a laptop without a monitor and ended up seriously hurting my neck, shoulders, and back.

The bottom line is that a laptop alone cannot be used for any extended period without causing major problems with your posture. Either your neck is bent, or your arms are in an awkward position. When I was young (high school and college), I could get away with only using a laptop. But things quickly caught up with me when I got older.

If you go with a laptop with a docking solution, then that's probably the best of both worlds.

However, be aware of your company's policies. You may have to install some draconian, no-name software company's encryption or anti-virus software that might render your machine useless for anything but Office.

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If you have a busy home/social life, don't get a laptop.

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I have always preferred a desktop, but not for any of the reasons you mention. I preferred a desktop because it used to be nearly impossible (or very cost-prohibitive) to match the performance of a desktop with a laptop. However, with solid state drives and the ability to get RAM amounts up to 8GB+ in laptops the lines have blurred.

At each place I have worked in the last few years, I have had the ability to remote in to my desktop. This negates what you describe as being "more tied to work" simply because of having a laptop.

However, another positive of a laptop would be having the option to easily code elsewhere without the need to remote into the desktop - like from a conference room, the couch, etc.

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If you can connect remotely, you probably don't need a laptop. I worked at a company where only company issued computers could connect to the VPN, so I went with a laptop.

A laptop is useful when commuting on public transportation.

Someone mentioned meetings. I'm amazed how often we revert to the paper-age when it comes to meetings. But having to print out the agenda is much better than a powerpoint presentation.

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Both

Don't be cheap. If you have to work away from your desk, a laptop is required. If you have serious work to do at your desk, a desktop (with dual monitors, if not three) is far faster for less money.

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What flexibility and freedom would a laptop give you at work? Most offices I know aren't going to let you go plop down with the laptop anyway so what would be the point? Taking work home with you would also not be a laptop/desktop issue as most companies can VPN anyway. If they want you to work from home they will tell you, "I need you to work from home."

If I am chained to a desk, I would go with the desktop; they are faster and can support bigger screens.

Also, people are wildly overstating the "serious" work aspect. I much prefer working on a laptop b/c I can switch positions and environments I couldn't switch sitting at a desk, but you wouldn't be able to do that at work anyway.

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If you work as a programmer (or do you have any other computing-intensive task) the only option is a powerful desktop (or let call it a workstation).

A laptop, even if powerful, is usually limited in the number of HDD it can mount, it will be slower, less ergonomic, will overheat... They are improving and reducing the gap to a good desktop, but for any serious work they aren't enough.

If you have mobility needs, the laptop should be an addition to the desktop, and not an alternative.

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I've just upgraded at work too, and went down the desktop route. I was (and still am to a degree) interested in getting a laptop, mostly so I can go somewhere quiet and do some coding, but decided on a desktop for the following reasons:

  • Speed of processors and number of cores - gives me the ability to stand up a couple of virtuals with no problems
  • RAM - you can get a load of ram in a laptop, but as above, if you're running virtuals the more the merrier
  • Multi monitor support - I've currently got 2 monitors, and don't think I could go to 1 monitor + laptop monitor - one of my colleagues has this, but it doesn't really cut it imo. Also, I'm hoping to get 3 monitors, which isn't really available on laptop (except if you've got a usb powered monitor)
  • Working from home - seems to be one of the great things about laptops, but if I had one I think I'd end up working from home too often, getting too immersed in work and feeling like I need to keep the habit up - it's nice to have home for hanging out with the family & friends, as well as getting to bed at a normal time.
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I recently underwent a refresh and opted to use a laptop, but only because I could have a docking station with an external mouse/keyboard and 2 monitors. The main benefit is that home working is simplified as I could only access my desktop from home by RDP, and we all know how dis-orientating developing over RDP can be...especially over a dog-slow connection!

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If there's a docking station that you can attach monitor(s) to, then either would work. Working at a laptop for any sufficiently long period of time will wrench the heck out of your neck.

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Desktop at work, desktop at home, Dropbox and/or GotoMyPC if you need to work remotely or share files. And perhaps a Netbook if you need to travel to meetings where you give presentations or take notes.

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To answer the direct question of convenience and productivity, plus the hidden question of extra work at home, I would go with the desktop. You find yourself looking at work email, continuing work problems and generally bleeding over into your personal life with a laptop.

I personally prefer the flexibility to catch up or take a work from home day, but it does interfere.

As for productivity the desktop for the same price will have more power and memory than the laptop and you still really need the same monitors which is assumed to be equal here, but if not could be a factor.

My old company had a policy of 1 19" monitor with your 14" laptop or two 19" monitors with a desktop. Pretty stingy on the monitors to be sure, but they did have separate rules.

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In general, I would favor the desktop. It'll give you better bang for the buck, and keep the lines between work and play clearly defined.

If you decide you want to try having a laptop and your company allows it, consider bringing in a personal one for a while. If it goes well, you have the choice to use both, and you can make a more informed decision for the next round of upgrades. I did this, and found I only use the laptop at a couple meetings per week - the rest of the time, the desktop is a nicer options (large multi-mon, more hardware).

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Your company and you are less likely to compromise on optimizing the ergonomics of a desktop setup (matched desk, chair, pointer, lighting, etc.) If you are coding hours per day, your body will thank you for making an ergo setup a higher priority than portability.

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