August 21, 2008

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One computer or two?
Do you need a desktop anymore?
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

If there’s one area in which the laptop has never been quite up to snuff with its home desktop counterpart, it’s gaming.

Game developers constantly want more resolution, more effects, more raw power for each new title, so serious gamers would restrict themselves to the more easily upgradeable and still cheaper desktop. Why pay for a whole new system, including monitor and hard drive and everything else, when just your graphics card is out of date?

But what if you’ll only ever be using one computer at a time? What if you play your games on a console? Can a sad little laptop really fulfill all your needs?

It depends on your needs.

You knew that copout was coming. If you simply must play Crysis in the middle of a field on battery power alone, the answer is no. If you can get by restricting your games to the living room, maybe. So here’s the equation: can you buy a full-featured laptop for the same price as a full-featured desktop plus a minimal lappie?

Let’s examine a couple price points. For about $1000, you can snag an HP Pavilion dv5t with a 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo processor, 4GB RAM, a 250GB hard drive and quite respectable nVidia GeForce 9600M GT graphics. (You might need a coupon code, but those change frequently, so exercise your Google-fu.)

Assuming a basic $400 notebook will meet your mobile needs, that gives you $600 to spend on a decent desktop gaming rig to complement it. HP’s line of “entertainment powerhouse” PCs start at $700, and upgrading just the graphics card to something decent adds another $100 onto that. Oh, and there’s no monitor.

So at a grand, you’re probably better off throwing all your resources into a kick-ass laptop. What about 2K? Take a look at the Asus G2Sg-A1. The 17” screen makes it a little less portable, but it packs in a 2.5GHz processor, 4GB RAM, a 320GB hard drive and a 8700M GT graphics card — which, yes, due to nVidia’s confusing numbering scheme, is much, much nicer than the 9600M GT. For a few hundred more, you can even upgrade to a dual graphics card.

So can you get a significantly better desktop for around $1,600? Um ... yeah. Check this Dell XPS 630 out: quad-core 2.66GHz processor, 750GB hard drive, 4GB RAM and dual GeForce 9800 GT graphics. That also includes a 22-inch LCD monitor, dual DVD drives and, most importantly, a red chassis. Again, a coupon code is needed.

The lesson? If you really need only basic office and Web browsing in a notebook and have a lot to spend, invest your big money in your desktop. But you can still get a pretty good laptop for less if you forget about a desktop altogether.


The best graphics card?
Comparing laptop graphics cards is no easy task. They’re not usually listed in a notebook’s marketing specs, and the names are a confusing array of acronyms, model numbers and random letters. Fortunately, the folks at NotebookCheck.net maintain a list ranking more than 100 chipsets by performance. You can get everything from a general idea of where a card fits in the hierarchy to detailed specifications and benchmarks. Just Google “mobile graphics” and click the first link.