Laptops vs desktops: Which one is better for the office?

A close up photo of a laptop split diagonally by another image of a PC motherboard

When it comes to the consumer, the choice over whether to buy a laptop or a desktop is a simple one. It's down to personal preference and there isn't really a way to highlight a clear winner to everyone.

However, from a business perspective, your choice can have much wider ramifications. Kitting the workforce out with business laptops is generally more friendly to a hybrid work model, with flexibility being at the heart of every decision. Desktops are very much stationary machines, and may seem a tad old fashioned in a modern business context, but they may, in fact, be the best solution open to you.

Laptops vs desktops: What's the difference?

Although it's pretty obvious from a consumer perspective, the difference between a desktop and a laptop will be more nuanced for businesses, particularly as any decision will have a knock-on effect for other considerations down the line.

The desktop is a stationary computer that will sit next to, on top of, or under one desk in the office, and will likely not be moved until it's broken or replaced. The whole setup will be spread across multiple devices and peripherals, including a dedicated business-class monitor, webcam, keyboard, and mouse. As such, desk type and size are a big consideration if you're rolling out desktop PCs.

Laptops, on the other hand, are all-in-one computers that have the screen, keyboard, processing hardware, and mouse functions bundled into a single device. Offices that allow staff to use laptops usually have bare desks and more choices around seating plans and hotdesking practices. People can usually take their laptops anywhere in the building, rather than sticking to a specific seat and cubicle. Docking stations are now commonplace in offices, allowing staff to plug in their laptops to access additional functionality, whether that's ethernet internet connections or external monitors.

Price is also a factor as the cost of a laptop is generally higher than what you would pay for a similarly-specced desktop, at least initially. For example, a 24in iMac with 8GB of RAM and a Magic Keyboard will start at £1,249, whereas a Macbook Pro (13in) is roughly £100 more. Of course, the decision to provide workstations with external monitors can drive up the overall investment.

Where a desktop might incur more cost is its capacity for an upgrade, but these might not be necessary depending on your business needs. You can increase GPU and CPU specs and customise most components at will, but, regardless of how much investment you feed into a desktop, it will remain a stationary machine that may limit your office in terms of seating and remote working.

Laptops vs desktops: Is a laptop better than a desktop?

For the average business, the additional flexibility, ease of use, and capacity to support remote working make laptops by far the most common choice. In terms of logistics, they're by far the most sensible option, as you can easily ship a pre-configured laptop to an employee, while still having the option of supplying additional hardware if necessary.

However, from a performance perspective, desktops offer the best return on investment, typically allowing you to access far more powerful components at a cheaper price. For example, when similarly specced, a laptop will almost always be more expensive than a PC - you're essentially paying for the extra flexibility.

The same is true for external hardware, such as monitors. A laptop is limited by its size to weight ratio, and so ultra-portable laptops generally favour smaller screens with less advanced display technology. However, moving to a dedicated monitor opens up a much wider choice of technology, whether that's larger screen sizes, higher resolutions, or faster refresh rates. You may even be able to push your luck and source some pretty powerful display tech - as those who use a gaming monitor for work can attest.

Easier access to components makes desktop PCs an ideal choice for any employee involved with demanding tasks, such as creating projects using the Adobe software suite. These tend to place huge strain on system RAM and CPUs, something which you can easily compensate for by upgrading a desktop PC on the fly. Laptops are comparatively limited in their flexibility, and if a laptop is not powerful enough for a task, it will typically mean refreshing the device for something newer.

The wider availability of cheaper and smaller components may eventually make desktop PCs entirely obsolete in the workplace. However, it's fair to say you'll be powering your business on both types of machine for the foreseeable future.

Bobby Hellard

Bobby Hellard is ITPro's Reviews Editor and has worked on CloudPro and ChannelPro since 2018. In his time at ITPro, Bobby has covered stories for all the major technology companies, such as Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook, and regularly attends industry-leading events such as AWS Re:Invent and Google Cloud Next.

Bobby mainly covers hardware reviews, but you will also recognize him as the face of many of our video reviews of laptops and smartphones.