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Think You Need a Laptop? No, You Need an iMac

© 2010 Lawrence I. Charters

Washington Apple Pi Journal, reprint information

In 2010, laptops are by far the most popular type of personal computers. The vast majority of users justify purchasing laptops by saying they don’t need the power of a desktop computer, don’t have the space for a desktop computer, or don’t want to deal with the hassles of a desktop computer.

The vast majority of these users are: wrong. They really do need a desktop computer, and for all the reasons they cite, plus more. This is especially true if they compare a laptop to an iMac. So let us look at the various aspects of such a choice.

Who needs that much power?

Desktop computers are more powerful than laptops, and the biggest reasons involve size and weight. A heavy laptop computer means more weight to lug around, and a larger machine means a more awkward burden to carry, so manufacturers make laptops ever smaller, and the price goes up as the size goes down. Desktop machines, obviously, are not designed to be carted everywhere, so size and weight are not that much of an issue.

However – the most common computer use in 2010 is Web browsing. “All I do is a little Web browsing, a little work with iPhoto or Photoshop to send photos to relatives, and I use E-mail.” E-mail, the oldest of these computer activities, dating back to the early 1970s, requires very little power. An Apple II from 1977, provided you can connect it to a network, has all the power you need to handle E-mail.

iPhoto, Adobe Photoshop Elements, and the full Adobe Photoshop are another matter. Each of these programs will cheerfully use all the power your computer has to offer, and often demand even more. A seemingly simple operation, such as cropping out unwanted relatives from a family photo, is computationally intensive. Creating a photomontage, or applying filters to sharpen, lighten, darken, or otherwise change an image, requires even more horsepower.

If you get ambitious and decide to edit a video clip taken with your pocket camera, things get definitely more complicated. Laptops have slower hard drives (to conserve energy and reduce heat), making video editing more of a chore and, in some cases, impossible. Desktop machines, with their faster drives, are a better choice.

Web browsing, the most common computer task in 2010, is also one of the most demanding. Looking at a Google Map, using Web-based mail, watching YouTube video clips, or reading the Washington Post are all tasks that involve vast amounts of memory, dozens or hundreds of files being passed back and forth, and significant amounts of network bandwidth.
Power translates to ease of use. Power means doing things that you never dreamed of doing before.

Most people need more power than a laptop can provide, and the lowest-priced 21.5-inch iMac, at $1199 (September 2010) will have no problem keeping up with even the highest-priced MacBook Pro 17-inch ($2,299 as of September 2010). If you need massive amounts of power, the new 27-inch iMac is frighteningly fast. If you need to run your own space program, there is always the Mac Pro…

But a desktop is so big

Another great fallacy is that desktop computers require more space than a laptop. If you are thinking of a Mac Pro – with a 50-pound aluminum case, multiple separate monitors, separate speakers, mouse and keyboard – you may well be correct. But a laptop, unless you put it on your lap, uses about the same amount of space on a desk or table as an iMac, even the glorious 27-inch model. If you prefer to use a separate mouse with the laptop (most people do), you’ll be hard pressed to find any differences. While a massive glass tube monitor may have crushed your desk or table in the past, you will discover a modern iMac is nothing if not elegantly svelte and demur.

Desktop computers are a hassle

Given the multiple separate pieces involved in a desktop computer, they’ve developed a reputation as more of a hassle: all those cables! All those power cords! Again, if you compare a laptop with a Mac Pro – two or more monitors, two or more speakers, one or more keyboards, one or more mice, plus the giant Mac Pro itself – this might be true. But an iMac has one power cord, requires one network cable (or none, if you go wireless), one keyboard cable (or none, if you go wireless), one mouse cable (or none, if you go wireless), no speaker cables…

A laptop will frequently require a power cable, a network cable, and a mouse cable (most users still prefer a mouse to the built-in trackpad), which gives it almost no competitive advantage to the iMac. If you then start adding in external speakers to take over from the tiny, tinny built-in speakers, an external drive to handle Time Machine backups, and other external components, the iMac starts to look remarkably hassle free, compared to a laptop.

But sometimes I need to travel

Without question, a Mac Pro is not very portable, unless you have a touring bus or a large yacht, and an iMac isn’t much better. But portability has a cost.

If you look at the cost of the lowest-priced, least capable MacBook ($999) and the lowest-priced, least capable iMac ($1199), the price differences are pretty much a wash. The iMac is delivered complete and ready to go, but the MacBook requires a case, at the least, and possibly a travel power supply, narrowing the differences.

Yet, even fully configured with a case and accessories, a laptop may not be the best choice. It is no longer a question of “desktop or laptop.” You now have a third option: iPad. Even if you use your laptop as a stationary “desktop,” you may well find an iPad a less expensive, lighter, and more capable “travel” computer than a laptop. Take an iMac and pair it with an iPad, and you have a combination that is less expensive than many MacBooks alone, yet far more powerful – and far more portable.

Using an iPad as the traveling version of your desktop computer makes taking a computer on travel more likely, not less. You want proof? Think about going through security. For the iPad, just put it in a bin and then pick it up after it is X-rayed. No fumbling with a case and snaps and zippers, and no trying to pack it all back up again while hopping around, trying to put your shoes back on.

Is this really just an article about the iPad?

The best computer today, for both those who never move their computers as well as those who travel, may be two computers: an iMac and an iPad. The iMac offers a far better screen and keyboard than any laptop, as well as power and expansion not possible with a laptop. The iPad, on the other hand, offers the ability to interact with the rest of the world using a highly portable, highly flexible device that weighs less than half that of any MacBook, and you can get the combination – iMac and iPad – for less than the cost of many MacBooks alone.

You can have your cake and eat it, too. It simply requires two forks.