How to choose the right laptop or desktop computer

One of the most frequently asked questions by people looking to buy a laptop or desktop computer is, what is the best computer or laptop to buy? The answer to this question can be very complicated as there are endless desktop and laptop models in the market.

That said, there are a few things that prospective laptop and desktop shoppers can consider to find the best laptop or desktop for their unique situation.

Desktops vs. Laptops

A lot of people, especially those who use computers at home, often wonder which of the two is best for them. Each of these computer types is unique in its own way. In this way, each of them fits in different use cases and requirements with some of these overlapping. In the same breath, it is important to note that each of them has their unique strengths and weaknesses.

When it comes to people looking for a portable option, a laptop wins hands down. It is rather obvious that it is impossible to carry a desktop around. Even if it were possible, you still need a power source to operate it. Therefore, the laptop wins by virtue of having a battery. However, desktops have traditionally had better performance than most laptop models.

One of the main reasons for this is heat. You see, high-end and higher-performing components use more power and therefore dissipate more heat. Laptops have maybe 2-3 fans to help with the heat. Desktops can have as many as the owner wishes, keeping in mind the configuration of the case they may be using. Therefore, desktops have a leeway of using the best components, and although laptop parts are no slouch either, they are usually not a match for desktop components.

Another reason desktops get better components is size. You see, parts like high-end, high-performance graphics cards and the higher wattage power supplies needed to power them are big and bulky.

It is important to mention here the Max-Q design that some laptop companies have started embracing in 2017. Here, they seek to use desktop components inside laptops, lowering the performance somewhat. This gives the laptops comparable, but noticeable lower, performance than desktop computers. This design pattern also helps keep heat and noise to a minimum.

Consider your unique situation

In most cases, selecting a laptop or desktop(both categorized as computers from now on) depends on what you want to use it for. Take a traditional office worker whose primary use of a computer is working with documents and doing a bit of web browsing. For this use case, the computer can have a 2-core CPU, about 4GB of RAM and does not need to have a dedicated graphics card.

Stepping up a bit, we have a student who works with documents, surf the web and does some light gaming. Here, a 4-core CPU, 8GB of RAM and a low-end to mid-range dedicated graphics card might be required.

The computer you buy will depend very much on your unique use case

Going up a notch, we have professionals doing things like 3D modeling, Video production, rendering and other intensive tasks. In this category, we also have casual gamers who use their computers primarily for gaming. Here, a balance between CPU and GPU(the graphics card) is critical. The reason for this is that the software and games can strain the computer a bit when rendering the graphics on the screen.

It has also emerged that some games and software utilize the CPU and GPU differently. Some of them favor the processor while others favor the video card. It is most people’s opinion therefore that you get the highest performing components you can. A CPU with 4 cores and above, with a high clock speed, paired with a high-end GPU with a lot of VRAM(video memory) should be enough. Remember that in this category you need quite a bit of RAM too. 16GB of memory and above should suffice.

Selecting the right components and parts

There is a sea of processors, graphics cards, memory and storage options in the market. The question that arises then is, how do I choose the best ones? After you have decided between a laptop and desktop and know what your use case is, selecting the parts you need is relatively easy. But not quite as easy as you may think because not all components are created equal.

CPUs (processors)

Take CPUs, sometimes referred to as the brains of your computer, for example. We have different core counts paired with different core speeds. To further complicate the issue, some of them have inbuilt video memory for when you do not have a dedicated video card installed. We are going to take a simplistic approach here. Discussing all the CPU generations and types are out of the scope of this discussion.

The simple rule of thumb is this, select the latest generation or the one that came before it, that has the number of cores you need and a higher frequency. Usually, 4 to 8 cores for mid- to high-range computers with frequencies of above 2.7 GHz should suffice for most use cases. Of course, if you game or render videos a lot, you might need a frequency above 3.0 GHz but most people would not. If you have a budget for it, it certainly doesn’t hurt.

GPUs (graphics cards)

This one is a bit complicated too but we will again take the simpler route. If you go with an AMD card, go for one on the RX 5XX family, for example the RX580, and on the Nvidia side, go with one in the GTX 1xxx family, for example the GTX 1050, 1060 or 1070. Another thing to consider is the video memory, also known as VRAM. VRAM affect the amount of information the card can hold. It, therefore, can impact the rendering of games and other media types. Higher VRAM is always best but for most cases, 4GB of video memory is enough. As with CPUs, try to go with the latest generation or the previous one, keeping your budget in mind.

You have a wide array of GPUs to choose from

Do remember that the card you go with impacts the price of the computer you select so choose wisely. Another tip is to check online for the best processor and video card pairings as some pairings work better than others, of course keeping your unique use case in mind.

RAM (memory)

RAM is relatively easy to select. Baring the need for RGB components, anything above 8GB should suffice for most use cases. That said, those playing heavier games and doing video production, rendering or other more cumbersome tasks might need 16 or even 32GB of memory. To future proof your computer, or if you think you might change your use case in the future, go for at least 16GB.


Here, you usually have two choices, an SSD or a mechanical drive. SSDs are almost always faster than mechanical drives. They do come in lower capacities and are a bit more expensive. That said, if you are looking for a snappy computer, do go with an SSD. Desktop owners can go with an SSD for their boot drive, the drive that you install your operating system in, and a higher capacity mechanical drive for the storage drive.

It is important to mention NVMe and M.2 SATA storage drives. There are much more expensive than both SSDs and mechanical drives but have the highest speeds. If waiting to open an application or load a game irks you, this might be the option to go with. Most laptops released in the last year or so have them installed. Some desktop and laptop motherboards might have the slots but the drive might not be installed.

Other components

Other components are equally important as other parts but might not be deal breakers for most people. Here, we have USB ports, display ports, HDMI, sound jacks and speakers as well as the display panel. Try to get a computer with USB 3 ports, at least two of them if you wish to use an external mouse if on a laptop. You might also need a USB type c port if you would like to connect some high-end displays from Dell and other manufacturers.

Of course, the HDMI, mini HDMI, display, mini display and VGA ports will help you connect to most monitors although VGA is not too common in this day and age.

Select a computer with all the ports and outputs you need.

The display can sometimes be as important as other components. Try to go with at least 1080p and do check that the display has a matte finish to avoid reflections. It is true that you have more display options if you decide to go with a desktop. This is mopstly because you can connect a desktop to almost any display monitor. On a laptop, you might have to look around to find just the right one.

The size of the display will depend on your use case too. For laptops, 13 inches will suffice for office work and web browsing, 15.6 inches will do for media consumption and gaming and 17 inches and above will serve any need you have. On the desktop end, 19 inches and above should do. Remember to get an ultrawide monitor if you are going to be using your desktop mostly for productivity.

In conclusion

While it may seem like choosing a laptop or desktop is challenging, here is what it boils down to

  • Portability – desktop vs. laptop
  • Choice of CPU – core count and core frequency; the higher, the better for both
  • Graphics card – AMD vs. Nvidia, the latest or the previous generation with the highest VRAM within your budget
  • Storage – SSD, mechanical hard drive, NVMe or M.2 SATA depending on whether you need speed, higher capacity or are on a budget
  • Connectivity – At least two USB 3 ports, USB-c for external displays. HDMI, display ports or VGA
  • Display – At least 1080p

It is true that we have taken a simplistic view of most components here but for most people, this guide should be enough to buy the best desktop or laptop for their use case.


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