About 80 percent of all computers sold today are laptops. Ten years ago, power users wouldn't consider them for their primary computer because they were expensive, fragile and underpowered. That's all changed now. Some of the cool kids at LAN parties (that's computer talk for local area network) still build their own LED-encrusted big boxes, but everyone else is staring into their MacBooks. Geoffrey Fowler of the Wall Street Journal thinks we laptoppers are wrong. He gets asked for advice a lot:

The most frequent question is: “Which laptop should I buy?” To me, that’s like asking which Lunchable to feed your first-grader. I like to answer by challenging the assumption that that’s all there is. Forget the laptop, have you considered a desktop?

In fact, there are a lot of good reasons to follow his suggestion these days, and I will probably follow his advice for my next computer. Here are some of his points, and some of mine:

big screen appleMy, what a big screen you have. (Photo: Apple computers)

The screen real estate

Perhaps the biggest change of the last few years is the availability of relatively affordable high-resolution monitors. These 4K and 5K monitors from Dell, Apple and others change the way you work; if you are a copy and paster researcher and writer, it's so easy to have documents side by side, and still have room for Skype, Slack and Twitter. Studies (conveniently paid for by monitor manufacturers) have shown that people with big screens or multiple monitors are more productive, and I suspect having a single big one is better than two smaller ones. At $1,200, the 34-inch Dell is expensive, but if it's your livelihood, it's worth it.

The cloud

This is the other big recent change. It used to be, when your work was in your computer, it was more convenient to take the computer with you. Now you can store your work in the cloud, and you can easily open your work anywhere on any machine. I don't even carry a USB key around anymore when I'm taking a lecture to school.

Lloyd officeMy office, with a fancy MacBook acting like a cheap mini. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

The standing desk and the ergonomics

Using a notebook computer at a regular desk was always an ergonomic problem, but with a standing desk it's a disaster. You just can't hunch over your notebook computer, so most people have an external monitor and keyboard so that they can get the monitor at eye level and the keyboard at the right level. I do most of my work like that now, and feel awfully silly having a top-of-the-line 15-inch MacBook Pro sitting to the side as my second monitor. I might as well have a cheap little mini sitting there.

chromebookA Chromebook and a cup of coffee may be all you need to be productive. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

The Chromebook

I bought the 15-inch MacBook because I wanted the Retina display and thought I could use it all the time for everything, but in fact it's too small for real efficiency in my daily work at home and too large for when I am traveling, so I often just take my iPhone and a folding keyboard on short trips. That's fine for just taking notes and writing, but it's no good for doing newsletters and posts in a content management system. (I've tried.) But the combined cost of a high-quality desktop and a Chromebook is significantly less than a high-end notebook computer, whether Mac or Ultrabook. I've learned that traveling with a $2,500 MacBook is really a dumb idea — I'm always worried about it and it doesn't fit in an airplane tray. The Chromebook costs a 10th as much and really, if you work in a browser like I do, it's almost as good.

The modularity and the future

The other day my son spilled a little coffee on his Acer notebook. Not a cup, just a slosh of a few drops. Half the keyboard is dead now. With a desktop, every component is separate and replaceable. And I think I could pour a jug of coffee over my indestructible Das Keyboard and then stick it in the dishwasher. With a desktop I could also add more memory and more drives; when I used to build my own machines, I was constantly upgrading components. This is hard on most notebooks and impossible on an Apple.

phone and keyboardWriting a story on my phone, in a tent, on a glacier in Iceland. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)


Three years ago on TreeHugger I wrote that the desk was dead, your office was where you are. (I even went so far as to say that your office is in your pants):

It seems now that the notebook is the new desktop and the phone is the new notebook and the cloud is the new file cabinet and everything is just smaller, lighter more portable and easier to use.

I thought I could get rid of everything and do it all on my fancy expensive MacBook Pro notebook plus my phone. I was wrong. For my day job at a standing desk, I wanted something bigger; for traveling I wanted something smaller. Everything was a compromise. If I were shopping today (which I am not, this MacBook is as good as it was the day I bought it) I would get the big 27-inch iMac desktop for my desk (although everything I do is in the browser, so I might as well build a box and run Ubuntu) and an 11-inch Dell or 13-inch Toshiba Chromebook for everything else. I have learned that really, one size rarely fits all.

Lloyd Alter ( @lloydalter ) writes about smart (and dumb) tech with a side of design and a dash of boomer angst.