Introduction: Analyzing the Price of Mobility

Computers have been getting faster over the years, and with the increased performance we eventually passed the point where most systems were “fast enough” and the various features and use cases became more important. It used to be that to get similar performance to a desktop, a laptop would generally cost two or even three times as much – and even then, sometimes it was simply impossible to match desktop performance with a laptop. Has that changed with the era of “fast enough” computing? One of our readers suggested we take some time to investigate this topic to help enlighten the general public, so we pulled together results from recent laptop and desktop/CPU reviews to see how much of a premium we’re now paying to go mobile.

There’s a related topic that I’m not even going to get into right now: tablets. The short summary is that at the low-end of the price spectrum, tablets can actually fill quite a few requirements. They’re slower, but battery life and portability is also better. Typing on a screen is not something I really enjoy at all, though, so adding a keyboard would almost be a requirement, which means at a minimum we’d be looking at closer to $500 for a decent tablet with a keyboard (e.g. ASUS Transformer TF300T with the keyboard dock). Okay, I said I’m not getting into this subject; basically, it’s possible to get a $500 tablet with keyboard (perhaps even $400) but performance is a major step down from even a budget laptop. That’s changing but for now I’m going to focus on Windows laptops vs. desktops.

Naturally, when we talk about performance, there are many factors at play. CPU and GPU performance are usually the biggest items, but in some cases the performance from the storage subsystem can actually trump the other two. A modern desktop with the fastest CPU and GPU available will handle pretty much anything you want to throw at it, but if it’s using a hard drive (HDD) for storage even a moderate Ultrabook equipped with a solid state drive (SSD) can be faster at booting into Windows or launching several applications at the same time. That might seem like an odd performance metric, but if you’ve ever experienced the dreaded “turn on the PC and wait five minutes after Windows loads before the system is actually ready for use” scenario, you’re running into storage bottlenecks.

We’ve advocated the use of SSDs for the OS and applications for several years now and we’ll continue to do so. In terms of storage performance, a good SSD will be at least 2-3X as fast as the best HDD for sequential transfers, but more importantly it can be 50-100X (or more) faster in random accesses, which is similar to what happens during the Windows boot process or when you launch a bunch of applications simultaneously (or launch a browser with dozens of tabs).

The good news is that nearly all laptops can be easily upgrade with an SSD if you’re willing to pay the price and take the time to do the upgrade yourself; the laptops that can’t be upgraded with a typical SSD are usually Ultrabooks that already have SSDs. The only drawback for SSDs is capacity: a typical 1TB 5400RPM 2.5” HDD will cost around $80; Seagate’s hybrid 1TB HDDs (with a bit of solid state cache to improve performance) will set you back around $130. The least expensive 240GB SSD in contrast costs around $165, with “better” models (faster, more reputable, and/or larger) costing up to $230 (or more). That’s 2x to 3x the cost of a hard drive for 1/4 the capacity, but the performance benefits are tangible. We’ll stick with comparisons between SSD-equipped systems for this article, just to keep things easy.

CPU/General Performance Discussion
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  • puppies - Saturday, September 7, 2013 - link

    Second sentence should be used not uses.
  • brucek2 - Saturday, September 7, 2013 - link

    AnandTech, where user comments go much, much further. What a treat to get such a thorough reply to a few readers questions, and barely 24 hours later.

    My only quibble might be that I believe all these performance numbers are at stock speeds? A high end desktop could probably get another 10-30% from OC'ing, while a high end laptop would probably get either no or significantly less boost due to less cooling capacity (and less support from the BIOS, mobo, etc.)

    Even so I don't think that really changes the overall picture. I was surprised to see the single threaded performance range being so narrow (only ~2x), and agree that for most use cases, most of the time, even the bottom end is going to be fine. The much greater 6x+ range on the multi-threaded / gaming side is of course the big factor for those that need it. And its great to see a trusted source call out (even if gingerly) the practice of using the same price and same name for a mobile GTX 780 that is barely in the same league as the desktop counterpart, even at stock speeds.

    I also couldn't agree more on the SSD comments. Especially on budget laptops where the target audience is not likely to ask any questions about the storage subsystem, there is a real likelihood of getting the slowest possible hard drive, which can end up making bottlenecks even out of situations where SSD users long ago forgot that storage was even a factor. A situation usually made worse by the likely ton of bloatware that will consume the limited hdd bandwidth by loading and updating itself, downloading ads, etc. I remember my first high end gaming laptop, I thought the cpu was defective or being improperly throttled until I finally realized that yes the 2.5" 5400 rpm hd was really that bad and causing that much trouble.

    Anyway thanks for a great article, I know I'll be directing some shoppers to it over the coming months and I hope its helpful for other folks as well.
  • nerd1 - Saturday, September 7, 2013 - link

    Most high performance gaming laptops allow OC'ing for both CPU and GPU, and some are even factory overclocked. Also now pretty much ALL laptops (except for some fruit-labeled ones) has one or two empty mSATA slots for easy SSD upgrade.
  • JarredWalton - Saturday, September 7, 2013 - link

    My experience with overclocking notebooks is that, at best, you might get an extra 2 bins of CPU performance on the high-end CPUs before you run into thermal limits and the CPU starts to throttle. I saw this with the Mythlogic (Clevo P157SM), where the 4700MQ was able to run at max OC (2 bins) without any issues, but the 6 bin overclocking headroom of the 4900MQ basically didn't do much for performance. Desktops can definitely overclock more, and that's another factor for some, but on mobile systems I think the benefits of overclocking are usually outweighed by the increased heat/noise.
  • JarredWalton - Saturday, September 7, 2013 - link

    As for Bruce2K, I read your comment and thought, "Yeah, I could probably do that for the readers and it should prove interesting." Thanks for the idea!
  • nerd1 - Saturday, September 7, 2013 - link

    I heard haswell and new 780M is worse than previous-gen ones in terms OC'ing. Some people claim they OC'ed their 680M to the same performance as 780M. So OC is definitely possible and can be effective on some laptops. That said, personally I never do OC'ing myself.
  • WarrenSmith - Saturday, September 14, 2013 - link

    Love my job, since I've been bringing in $5600… I sit at home, music playing while I work in front of my new iMac that I got now that I'm making it online( Click on menu Home)
  • brucek2 - Saturday, September 7, 2013 - link

    I know the basic controls are often there, but can you really get the same results out of them at acceptable stability, noise, and chassis heat (ie where you place your hands) and without triggering throttling? That's great news if you can.
  • Watwatwat - Thursday, October 10, 2013 - link

    Yep but the thermal issues in a laptop just can't be avoided, theres no getting around having a tiny heatsink and basically almost no fan. Also overclocking on a gaming laptop is a great way to turn 2 hours of battery life into 1;) Last I checked overlocking doesn't result in linear increase in power consumption.
  • WinterCharm - Thursday, September 12, 2013 - link

    I did manage a 19% GPU overclock on my laptop... and while performance improved, it'll never be anywhere near what it is on a desktop.

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