Do I need a desktop PC?

Just putting this question in the room. I always had desktop PCs, just a year ago bought a 14" laptop because the 12" Android pads sort of disappeared from the market and iPad is too expensive, plus it has iOS.

Obviously 14" is a little bit small for darktable etc. So I thought maybe 15."?* - but then recently I plugged my 14" laptop to a 27" screen - and wow - a game changer! The 27" screen (plus a mouse and a keyboard) was perfect.

So I wonder if I actually need a desktop? I rather get a better laptop (I will stick to 14", got an i5 8th gen now), then with 16Gb RAM and possibly with Thunderbolt (external VGA potential).

Is there any benefit in a desktop? I know, it can upgrade, but I never really did that in the past. Just bought a new one every 3-5 years.

Should be cheaper than a laptop for similar spec?

1 Like

Certainly. But then it’s nice to watch a video in bed or read PDF magazines (that was the planned main purpose for the 14" 2-in-1 laptop, but the 16:9 screen ain’t that good for reading near A4 pages, so 16:10 is on my list too). So no matter what, I will keep having a laptop.

I don’t have a desktop any more. But I still have a big monitor, keyboard and mouse.
Pro: Syncing of data is not necessary.
Con: You don’t have a backup on the desktop.
Pro: You just need to by one device.
Con: Desktops are really much cheaper if you need power.

Need may not be a good word. Having one computer is enough and many of us already have at least two if we include the smartphone.

I am not a hardware connoisseur. I replace hardware when my old stuff is beyond repair.

If it is screen size, then I would invest in an awesome-r screen. Laptops can pretty much drive all sorts nowadays. Practically, the main problem with laptops is the thermals. They can get too hot for comfort, potentially wearing down the hardware or at least causing bottlenecks and throttling. It is easier to build a desktop that runs cooler and efficiently.

I did not own/use a desktop pc since 2004. Recently I realized that the greatest advantage of a laptop is that it’s more power saving than a desktop. I have a 14" laptop with a modest Nvidia graphics card + Intel, most of the time Nvidia is inactive, although its only an MX250 it’s still powerful enough for darktable. Yesterday I discovered that Hugin uses gpu acceleration as well and it’s lightning fast. Of course I also have a decent external screen. Well, btw I switched to laptops because I was studying and I needed a computer that I could carry around and use in libraries. I finished my studies and research years ago but I still stick to laptops somehow. But meanwhile I hardly ever actually need a computer to carry around. I write papers and articles on a regular basis and it’s kind of more comfortable and more healthy for the back to have the laptop on the lap than sitting at a desk.

I was running laptop-only for a number of years. These laptops were plenty fast, and not much worse than desktops for image processing.

But with the last couple of CPU generations, things changed. My 2017 XPS13 could not sustain high clock rates for more than a few seconds. Longer than that, its 15W power envelope would clock down to 2 GHz for longer, multi-threaded workloads (i.e. Darktable).

So in 2018 I opted for one of the bigger NUCs, with a 45W CPU that can actually run at its full 4 GHz reliably. Despite very little technological difference between these two processor generations, 2 cores at 2 GHz vs 4 cores at 4 GHz makes a massive difference.

So whatever you do, stay away from the ultra-low-power 15W CPUs. They look good in benchmarks that only run for a second or two, but they are turds for image processing.

I am facing a similar question for a while now. Especially, I do not want to move data around all the time (yes, I do use git-annex, but still …). At the moment I do own solely a lenovo x240 from 2013, but without gpu and only 8 GB ram darktable is not really fun. And accepting only a 9.5 mm hard disk limits to 2 TB space, which is not enough for photo and video stuff. Therefore I have to carry an external disk all the time, which is cumbersome. I am willing to upgrade but I do not see offers no matter the price tag unless it gets really expensive.

HDD: Since 10 years development of 2.5 in spinning disks is stuck. At the same time, even in large laptops I can not fit 9.5 mm disks anymore, not to think about 15 mm which could give me the 4…5 TB I require. SSD may be an option, but 5 TB would be extremely expensive.

Memory: 32 GB are available, so I do not complain here. However, the offers are rather limited.

Tactile touchpad: This is a must, but only lenovo seems to use it. At least dell is kicked out here.

GPU: I would prefer AMD since they offer a free driver, but there seem little options in the laptop market.

CPU: Here, AMD seems to have the better offers these days, but little offers for laptops so far.

Does that mean I should go with a desktop computer? Clueless since 3 years or so.

I am on a laptop (mac), but for accurate colour, need to upgrade to desktop for a better monitor. Some calibration tests showed I could not get optimal accuracy with this monitor:

That may not be a requirement for you, and hasn’t been for me for so many years, but my standards are lifting.

Edit: I see you have a 27" screen plugged into your laptop. So really you only need a desktop if the operations you are trying to run on laptop are too slow, or you are running out of storage space.

Thanks for all the feedback.

Right now I don’t have a real speed problem (Lenovo Flex 14, i5-8thGen, 8Mb) That runs fine and I will keep using it for the next few month.

I am thinking of those AMD Renoir CPUs (4000 something) which start to come to the market now. But I have time and I am not in a hurry.

The heat aspect is new to me. I need to look into that.

HDD space is not important, I usually buy SSD with 256Gb. Big enough to run plenty of programs - as long as you don’t store videos. In fact, I use darktable on a portable USB 1T HDD that I can hop from PC to PC and it works just fine in terms of speed.

I am not a friend of the trackpad when it comes to darktable. darktable without mouse wheel is not very convenient (specially the tone equalizer). External mouse would be a must, but that’s a very minor $10 issue.

Last year I was rendering the 45 minutes movie I produced over night with kdenlive, one day before deadline. It had taken 4 hours. I had a little mistake in the closing credits, and thought I would easily render it the next night again. In the morning I did find out that I was at about 60 %. The laptop was hot as hell and I just learned that the fan did stop working in the night, limiting all cores to < 800 MHz. I think it was because of dust. Unfortunately it is not too easy to clean the thermal system of a modern laptop, but it really should be done from time to time.

This is what I as well thought earlier. Of course, for editing I am using a dedicated mouse as well, but for culling/sorting and little edits, the tactile trackpad works extremely well. Before I tried it, I had only non-tactile trackpads and therefore always insisted on the little red joystick in the middle of the b, g and h key, but with the trackpad of the x240 I would easily go without this joystick and rely solely on the trackpad (and external mouse, of course). My work laptop is a 2020 dell model, fully equipped with everything (i7, 6 cores, 32 GB, etc.), but the lack of a decent trackpad makes me not considering dell for my private computer. And I would take the first opportunity to get a work thinkpad.

You may find a desktop is easier to keep dust-bunny free.
Bigger thermal solution(s) can be installed.
Internal GPU can be installed.
Internal HDDs or SDDs can be installed, RAID’ed together.

I have a 15-watt i5 ice-lake CPU, and I find it plenty fast. My needs may be different than yours, but RT takes around five seconds to process one of my (16 MP) raw files, even with noise reduction, sharpening, etc.

The only thing that is bothersome is the fans starting up and down all the time. After a few months of use, I know when the fans will turn on one second before they do, which is distracting.

Then maybe it was just that particular laptop? It’s possible.

Anyway, look at the base frequency, not the turbo frequency (Intel’s terms) if you’re shopping for image processing performance.

Last time I checked, there was a significant difference in base frequency between 15W and 45W CPUs.

Since I pointed out the question of thermals, does anyone on the forum know of any resources that evaluate this in laptops? How efficiently laptops dissipate heat (passively / actively and where) over a couple years of real life use, and how easy it is to clean the essential parts. I guess the latter would be how easy it is to disassemble them (e.g., iFixit). That would definitely inform my next purchase when my more than decade old laptop finally croaks).

I’m definitely old school…our house had 2 kids growing up in the computer age and needing portability, so we went through a number of laptops. Crappy battery life spans, hard to upgrade, fans quitting etc. all proved to be way more expensive than the desktops I’ve stuck with. Easily clear out dust, easily add new cards, memory etc. when needed. Plus massive drive that’s easily and quickly backed up to a portable drive - no cloud based stuff for me.

I always do my editing plus all the household computing stuff from a dedicated spot so portability was a limited need for me. I had an ipad from about 2012 that just died and I replaced it with one of the newer cheaper models just for reading, browsing etc.

All in all keeping a desktop worked well for me and saved me time and hassles. However, it always comes down to personal preferences - and lots of pros use only laptops for their work.


I use a desktop so I can have lots of storage and multiple 4k monitors.

You can get a lot more oomph per dollar for a desktop, and it’s upgradeable if you want—I upgraded my graphics card, then added a bunch of hard disks, then upgraded motherboard and CPU, over the course of several years.

Laptops are poor ergonomically; you want your keyboard low and your screen high.


Don’t listen to me I have six towers under my desk :stuck_out_tongue:


Your desk must be… towering.


If you aim for high specs, you should have enough budget to get a desktop plus a tablet for leisure activities at the same price as a similarly performing laptop …

Anyway if you are on the budget side desktop is the way to go :slight_smile:

1 Like