When choosing between a gaming laptop vs desktop, there are a few important factors to keep in mind. While a gaming laptop is smaller and portable, a gaming desktop is larger and more customizable. Both are excellent options, but both also have their strengths and weaknesses.
Which form factor will best support your PC experience? Let’s take a look at the distinct attributes and use cases for each.
Though it might seem counterintuitive when shopping for a PC, performance probably shouldn’t be a huge factor in your decision. While laptop systems once had the reputation of being underpowered compared to their desktop counterparts, that is no longer always the case.
Modern gaming laptops can be incredibly efficient and powerful. Though desktops can still have a performance edge when it comes to high-end components and thermal considerations, the difference is much less pronounced than it used to be.
Performance is mostly comparable, so let’s look at the other factors you’ll want to consider.
When comparing a gaming laptop vs desktop, the first question to ask yourself is whether you prefer a computer you can use anywhere, or one that is larger and heavier but provides more ports and customization options.
The primary strength of a laptop is portability. With the right laptop, you’ll have the ability to do most of what you can do with a desktop, just about anywhere.
If you’re someone who is often away from home, this flexibility can be hugely beneficial. Recent laptops are more compact than ever, so you can use them in places you wouldn't (or shouldn’t) normally bring a desktop, like on an airplane, or your favorite coffee shop.
Gaming laptops, meanwhile, often have high-end hardware that allows for competitive and AAA gaming wherever you are.
Laptops run on a battery and have a built-in display, along with an onboard keyboard and trackpad, but you can also have a desktop-like experience at home with the right peripherals. Additional equipment like docking stations, mice, keyboards, and external gaming displays can further increase the versatility of a laptop, though it does add cost beyond the initial purchase.
Desktops, on the other hand, are much larger, and not nearly as portable. Even the smallest form factor desktop will still require a power outlet and a monitor. Although some don’t mind transporting a full tower for special occasions like LAN parties, most people limit their desktop experience to one place.
Desktops also allow for extensive I/O support—or the ability to connect external devices—generally available through the motherboard or expansion slot devices connected via PCIe*, such as a discrete graphics card. The case may also offer more connectivity options like front-facing USB and audio ports. That means support for multiple monitors, non-standard peripherals, additional USB connectivity options, and a more dynamic and flexible work or gaming station.
The portability of laptops has its downsides—namely, the compact form factor makes it difficult to upgrade. On many laptops the processor and graphics card are soldered onto the motherboard, or are prohibitively difficult to access. Desktops have the upper hand in this regard, with easily accessible internal components.
Because of the compact design of laptops, they are substantially more difficult to upgrade. Some laptops might allow you to upgrade your RAM or storage, but upgrading the CPU or GPU is almost never a practical option for the average user. When you purchase a laptop, consider that you'll be using more or less the same internal components for as long as you have the machine.
Most desktop computers, on the other hand, are upgrade-friendly. Because of the modular layout, components can be replaced with relative ease, which allows you to upgrade your hardware as necessary. Instead of buying a new machine when your PC starts to show its age, you’re able to incrementally update as necessary, keeping your desktop up-to-date with the latest hardware.
Even pre-built PCs tend to be upgradable, though you will always want to confirm with the manufacturer that working on the system won’t violate the terms of warranty.
By the same token, the physical size of desktops opens them up to customization options beyond what laptops provide.
When you purchase a laptop, you’ll usually be able to choose from a selection of core components, including the storage and RAM, the CPU and GPU, and sometimes the display.
There might be some flexibility as far as fine-tuning performance, but for the most part, you’ll be using the same hardware from the date of purchase until you replace the machine.
The same holds true for the visual design of your laptop as well. There is a more diverse selection than ever before, but you’re still choosing from pre-existing form factors with a fairly limited amount of customization options, like custom paint jobs and keyboard backlighting.
With desktops, customization is one of the largest draws. Because you can swap out hardware so easily, you can make sure you have exactly what you need, and nothing you don’t want. A desktop provides:
- A diversity of custom hardware options. Whether you’re looking to overclock your CPU2 and want to ensure optimal temperatures with a custom liquid cooling loop, or you’re more interested in putting together the smallest gaming desktop around, just about anything is possible when you have such precise control over what goes in your system.
- Highly regulated performance. Customized hardware allows you to ensure that your PC is operating at peak performance. The available surface area in a desktop when compared to a laptop means more space for things like robust cooling solutions. You can install fans, All-in-One (AIO) CPU coolers, or complex custom cooling loops that provide you with precisely engineered thermal solutions for your specific hardware demands.
- More aesthetic choices. Desktops allow for greater aesthetic variation as well. Beyond simply the color of your case, you’ll be able to choose from different sizes, brands, specifications, and visual designs for every component of your PC. Not only can you customize your machine’s performance with carefully selected hardware and cooling solutions, but you can also bring your creative vision to life with a visually unique machine.
If you prefer to go the pre-built route, you can still benefit from the high degree of customizability. Some vendors allow you to choose what goes in your new PC before the system is assembled, meaning you get the advantages of a home-built desktop, even if you didn’t build it yourself.
When it comes to buying a gaming laptop vs desktop, there is no right answer. One is not better than the other.
It comes down to what’s important to you, whether you’re looking for the portability of a gaming laptop, or prefer desktop gaming PCs for their extensive customization options, including the option to build your own PC.