library: Computer Selection - desktop, laptop, or tablet?
Choosing the right tool for the job
Author: Paul M. Allen

In recent years, the proliferation of computing devices has provided business users with an increasing number of hardware choices.

Current options include traditional desktop computers, laptops, tablets, and even smart phones in some cases.

When the question becomes, "Which one should I choose?", the answer requires asking another question.

That question is, "What do you really need to do?"

It all comes down to choosing the right tool for the job. Each type of device has its strengths and weaknesses.

in the office

Desktop computers are the workhorses of the computer world. They are invariably the best choice for an office environment. Their primary advantages are power, flexibility, price, and suitability for tasks that require spending long hours at the keyboard.

Selecting the right desktop computer can be a challenge. The options are seemingly endless.

The right choice will be the one that offers the best combination of performance, capabilities, and price. More powerful and more capable isn't always better.

The truth of the matter is that most office tasks only require only a small portion of the computing power that even the most inexpensive computers currently on the market provide.

That, however, doesn't mean that the cheapest computer available is the best choice. The least expensive computers on the market frequently have less powerful central processors originally intended for laptop computers, less memory, and smaller hard drives than far more capable computers costing only slightly more.

At the upper end of the price range, the most costly computers will be those designed for playing high end computer games and performing other graphics-intensive operations.

Close to - but not at - the low end of the price range can be the best overall choice.

In the case of office computers that function as network servers, IT professionals will frequently specify more expensive Dell or HP servers based on their perceived durability and the value of the support services those manufacturers can provide.

the central processor is the key

The computer's "brain" is it's central processor (CPU). It determines how fast, powerful, and capable the computer will be. Computer buyers will find a variety of processors to choose from, most of which are made by either AMD or Intel.

Is one brand better than the other? Not necessarily.

Virtually all full-size computers currently available - both desktops and laptops - have 64 bit processors. Think of the bit specification as the highway that carries the traffic in the computer. A 64 bit highway is 64 lanes wide. In a 32 bit processor, the highway would be 32 lanes wide. Interestingly, most business applications were created as and remain 32 bit products. They work on 64 bit computers but don't require the full 64 bit capability.

Processors are rated by their speed - the speed at which they do their work. Faster is better but at some point it all becomes academic. Low end processors and those in laptop computers will typically be in the 1.6 megahertz (MHz)range with better desktop computer processors claiming ratings of up to above 3 megahertz. 1 MHz is one million instruction cycles per second.

Processor specifications extend to the number of cores - single, dual, quad and even more. Each core can function as a separate processor. In practical terms that translates into the ability to perform multiple operations simultaneously. More cores can be better - if they are used on a regular basis. Ultimately, the question becomes, "How many things do you really have to do at the same time, and how quickly?"

For most business users, a single core processor will get the job done, a dual core processor is more desirable, and anything beyond that may be overkill. If an older computer is more than a few years old, as is the case with most Windows XP systems, it is almost certain to have a single core processor.

memory - an important consideration

A computer's memory specification refers to the amount of random access memory (RAM) the computer has. Whatever is being done typically takes place in the computer's RAM. More is better - if the additional RAM is utilized. Typically, programs and data are stored on the computer's hard drive and move into RAM as needed to improve performance.

As computers and the software they run have become both more sophisticated and more graphics-intensive over the years, the amount of memory needed has increased dramatically. Computers running current versions of Windows and other recent applications will typically require a minimum of 2 megabytes of RAM and are likely to be equipped with 4 megabytes. Some users may opt for 6 megabytes or more.

Frequently, the simple act of adding more memory will turn a computer that seems slow and sluggish into one that performs beautifully. From a practical standpoint, the amount of memory available can be even more important than the speed of the processor.

The memory provided with a given computer isn't necessarily the amount that the user has to live with. Most full-size computers - both desktop and laptop - make a provision for the installation of additional memory - a quick, inexpensive procedure that doesn't require the skills of a trained computer technician but can instead be performed by the computer's owner.

on the road

When users move out of the office, making the right choice can become a bit more difficult. The choice will likely be between a laptop computer and a tablet. There are always trade offs to be made.

Many users like the idea of tablets because of their small size and light weight. Tablets are best suited to relatively simple tasks. They are limited by their comparatively low power processors, small screens, and soft keyboards - keyboards that are built into the display and are more difficult to use than traditional keyboards.

A tablet might be ideal for a salesperson who wants to check the status of an order, for instance, but would be less than ideal for entering a large, complex order or building a proposal. They can be convenient for casually browsing the web or sending/reading email messages.

American Airlines has issued IPad tablets to its pilots to serve as electronic flight bags for aviation regulations, manuals and other paperwork they carry. They are being actively promoted in the academic community as replacements for paper textbooks, for note taking, and for other uses.

Tablets tend to rely heavily on the Internet and WiFi connections to access data. They may not contain a hard drive for data storage but will always include limited internal storage capabilities. Their small screens limit the amount of information that can be displayed and can be difficult to read outdoors in direct sunlight.

Apple IPads are the most popular tablets. Other choices are available including a variety of models from different manufacturers that use the Android operating system, one of which is Amazon's popular Kindle Fire.

Tablets do not use software intended for desktop and laptop computers but instead run applications (Apps) specifically designed for tablet use. Stripped down web versions of some popular business applications are often available and  utilize the tablet's built-in web browser.

The Apple store lists reportedly 375,000 IPad apps. Some are free while others cost only a few dollars. A disproportionate number are games and other non-business applications. There are fewer available for Android-based tablets but many of the most popular apps are offered for both types of tablets.

Tablet prices vary widely from slightly over $100 to nearly $600 with prices at the upper end continually creeping higher as manufacturers introduce new, more powerful models.

Laptops remain the most popular choice when business users step out of the office. They offer an alluring combination of power and capability at an attractive price. Low end models that will satisfy the requirements of many users are frequently available for $300 or slightly less. Virtually all current models have built-in WiFi capabilities.

The most commonly cited disadvantage of a standard laptop is its size and weight. A typical model will have a 15.6 inch (measured diagonally) screen and will weigh up to several pounds. Limited battery life can be a problem for some users.

In response to the criticism, many manufacturers offer smaller, lighter models including extremely thin, light ultra books. As the size and weight go down, the price increases significantly.

Netbook computers are small, lightweight, inexpensive products that have been available from various manufacturers for several years. They have never enjoyed great popularity and are most frequently criticized for their small screens, small keyboards, and limited capabilities. Long-time computer users will frequently offer the observation that Netbooks remind them of the first generation laptops they owned years ago but abandoned when newer, better alternatives became available.

apple or microsoft or android?

Any discussion as to which operating system is best will likely trigger a spirited debate among users.

In the desktop and laptop world, Microsoft continues to be the dominate force and the most popular choice for business users based on price and the number of available applications.

Apple desktop products, however, have always been favored by those involved in publishing and graphic design.

Apple is popular in the academic world as well and is the leader in the mobile world based on the popularity of its IPhone and IPad products.

Android products are beginning to seriously challenge Apple's position of mobile leadership. The Linux-based operating system is being used by an increasing number of smart phone and tablet suppliers offering leading edge designs and features.

While building its own mobile platform, Microsoft has yet to become truly competitive in the mobile market but continues to try. Few remember that Microsoft was a pioneer in the tablet field years ago but offered a product that, at the time, failed to capture the imagination of the consumer.

the bottom line

In the final analysis, the best choice of hardware and even an operating system for either office or mobile use is the one the user believes to be the best based on his or her requirements and budget. In cases in which the computer needs to double as both an office and mobile system, a full size laptop becomes the only realistic option.

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