Off the Beaten Track - a Desktop Renaissance or Notebook Demise?

Notebooks have become a real drag recently - there's just nothing exciting out there that would really tickle my fancy. My enthusiasm for working with the devices has for the first time in many years hit an all-time low. While I have no reason to abandon notebooks entirely, or cease coverage here on lgpOnTheMove, this major downer IS heavily influencing my thoughts about my next big hardware purchase. A purchase which may just be a build-it-yourself desktop come Christmas 2013.

What would compel me to dump my Toshiba Qosmio X305 in favor of my own-assembled box? The arguments in favor are plenty. Yet as much as I've enjoyed my notebook, it's now time to look for something new. With nothing on the notebook landscape from manufacturers worthy as a replacement for my X305, my focus for a no-nonsense work tool has for the first time shifted back to the desktop.

DETAILS:

It's not that I don't like what Intel and nVidia are doing in the mobile space - the GTX780M and Core i7-4930MX are phenomenal parts (especially when the latter is overclocked and the former is offered in SLI). It's not even a matter of finding these parts in notebooks, as various manufacturers offer them as well as the less-expensive family variants.

No.

My problem has to do with how notebook manufacturers have chosen to furnish these parts, among other various criticisms with notebooks being offered today. So when I look at a notebook, it's not just the hardware under the hood that I need to take into consideration, it's how it performs, where it's weaknesses are, the design and build-quality, reliability and ease of maintenance. Then there's the issue of price and with that the price/performance ratio. As an audiophile, I need to look at speaker performance, driver support for recording capability and external connectivity. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it's the choice between operating systems - go with Windows 8/8.1 or stick with Windows 7?

I wrote very early on about the advantages desktops have over notebooks, arguments that still stand today. Yet there's been a driving force happening over the past 18 months or so in the desktop space that continues to develop. You see it in the products being offered by manufacturers - products that just a short two years ago simply didn't exist.

It's called innovation.

And you see it in all manner of desktop products ranging from monitors, cases, motherboards, power supplies, keyboards, graphics cards and aftermarket cooling options. I am continually impressed by what companies like Asus, Corsair, and Cooler Master (just to name three) not only release, but continue to develop and improve upon. These are the kinds of products that have the features and perks you will NEVER find on notebooks.

Breaking down these categories gives us the most details about the various innovations happening in the desktop space, and why certain particular products stand out above all others.

Monitors

I've always been envious of 30" 2560x1600 displays ever since first seeing the original Far Cry run on one with all the eye-candy turned up. Yet for over 10 years, my notebook experience has been stuck at a dismal 1680x1050. More recently, the 4K panels being shown offering a monster 3840x2160 resolution open up a single-screen multitasking scenario unlike a triple screen 1080p alternative, alongside new photo and video editing capabilities.

Sure, you can get 17" notebooks today with IPS panels, but very few options exist beyond 1080p. Maybe 2014 will be the year PC panel manufacturers finally get off the TV bandwagon and begin to offer higher-resolution options - Dell already has it with the new XPS 15 notebook.

Cases

Cases like the mini-ITX Bitfenix Prodigy, Cooler Master HAF XB and Corsair Air 540 stand out by a long shot. These push the limits of what users can do with a desktop, much the same way companies like Mountain Mods pioneered and Case Labs later improved upon and perfected. Most notable is that all of these modern cases accommodate water-cooling as standard.

While I myself probably would find a full-tower Corsair 900D overkill and a mini-ITX box limiting, I can definitely see me using a case like the Lian-Li PC-D600, especially for mounting multiple radiators, optical drives and graphics cards. The ability to freely mod, drill, cut and remove case parts and internals allows an almost unlimited flexibility, especially for those handy with a Dremel and who don't mind creating something that goes beyond stock.

Motherboards

You only need to look at products such as the Asus ROG Maximus VI Impact and Rampage IV Black Edition to see just what a feature-packed board can do today. The possibilities these platforms provide for performance, connectivity and audio alone outdo even the best notebook by a long mile. In the case of mini-ITX, it also allows a use case where a compact, low-power PSU system can replace a high-end notebook, especially if it is confined to desk use.

In my case, it's the multi-GPU systems that really excite me, since these can be used for not only gaming in SLI, but F@H, video transcoding and easily set up as many as 10 sata drives. Combined with easy overclocking on the CPU and 16GB or more of fast DDR3-3000 RAM, it's not hard to become addicted, and almost makes we want to question why I'm still using a notebook.

Power supplies

While not really a factor when purchasing a notebook, the power supply is a critical component when choosing parts for a desktop. It's here where features such as better-than-platinum efficiency, modular connectors, individually-braided cables and a 10-year warranty really come into their own.

The newest of power supplies even offer digital control through software, allowing you to monitor voltages, power usage and tailor the fan speed for silent operation. With CPU and GPU power consumption becoming more efficient and mechanical drives all but gone, the days of requiring a 1200W power supply to run a desktop system with acceptable performance are over. In fact, I could probably get away with a 450W power supply to run a mini-ITX box with more horsepower than even a $5000 notebook.

Keyboards

It's easy to get notebooks these days with backlit keyboards if that's your thing, since working in low light has become a common use-case. But as desktop users will attest, the advent of mechanical keyboards is making a much bigger impact, especially with the choice of switches some keyboard manufacturers offer.

I myself don't mind the checklet-style keys modern notebooks provide. My biggest beef has always been keyboard layout, especially the lack of isolated, inverted-T cursor keys along with useless number pads (think Clevo). Notebooks have to deal with cramped real-estate as well. Multimedia controls, macros and ergonomics are all areas where desktop keyboards excel. For folks that spend many hours at a keyboard, or simply need a bullet-proof typing solution, you simply won't get the benefits of a full-size 104-key backlit Cherry MX green switch keyboard on anything else but a desktop.

Graphics cards

Ever wanted to swap out your notebook's GPU for something next-gen and with a little more oomph? Ever wished you could crank those eye-candy settings on high and run that 3D title the way the game's designers intended? Does the thought of having four high-end GPU's crunching through F@H or running in SLI sound exciting? The fact is even ONE single desktop GPU can outperform the newest pair of mobile graphics processors in SLI.

Swapping cards, adding additional cards, overclocking and water-cooling are probably the biggest attractions of working with a desktop system. The vast selection of desktop graphics cards available today beats anything a notebook manufacturer can offer, and at a price that makes it far less expensive than going with a high-end notebook.

Aftermarket cooling

I've had my fair share of problems with notebooks where chassis design has left cooling a zero priority. From inadequate heat extraction, processor throttling, dust accumulation, complicated disassembly to shot bearings, expensive replacements and pathetic MTBF. You really cannot compare a $25 120mm Noctua with it's 5-year operating life to a $40 sleeve-bearing notebook blower that dies after 8000 hours.

But the biggest innovation comes from the all-in-one water-cooling options now replacing air-cooling on many enthusiast desktop platforms. The benefits are obvious, allowing better cooling  performance, higher overclocks, simplified installation and none of the risk or expense associated with a custom open-loop solution. In my case in particular where I have no AC in the summer, a water-cooled system would allow me to run both CPU and GPU at full load whereas the limited air cooling of a notebook would make it impossible.

Operating system

My biggest beef of all when it comes to today's notebooks, however, comes down to the choice of operating system, or lack thereof. I'm definitely not alone when it comes to my displeasure with Microsoft's Windows 8. Yet the manufacturers' insistence of pushing the one-size-fits-all OS down notebook consumers throats is merely one step forwards, two steps backwards. Even Microsoft has realized that the changes made simply don't fit well with a user-base that still depends on a keyboard and mouse for it's livelihood. When features go missing and PC users must now take time to learn to use their computers again, productivity goes down. I myself have key software that doesn't play well with the OS, so however much pundits may blow the legacy software horn, it's only a novelty solution.

The fact that I can still choose Windows 7 today when building my own desktop, without having to jump through hoops to get things done with Windows 8/8.1, is probably the key reason I will sideline any new notebook purchase for now.

CONCLUSION:

Build-it-yourself has always been around, yet for performance-oriented users and enthusiasts, it seems like there's never been a better time than now to open up your wallet. The amount of innovation happening is enough to even make enthusiasts of desktop-replacement notebooks such as myself take a long hard look, and possibly abandon the use of notebooks altogether when it comes to getting any serious work done.

Of course, for the most mobile work solution outside of a high-end netbook, there's little anybody could argue against a Surface Pro 2, save for perhaps the price. But that's a premium many would be happy to pay - no other slate offers 8GB of RAM and 512GB of SSD storage in a 10-inch form factor, never mind a backlit keyboard in a choice of 3 colors. Microsoft has certainly learned from Apple to create something the competition doesn't have, a product that does what nothing else on the market can, and charge for it accordingly.

Even with the original Surface RT, there were only a few instances when I would have really needed to resort to a notebook to get what I needed done - CPU/GPU intensive tasks, audio/video work and other uses where a desktop can outshine notebooks on a performance per dollar basis. That money saved would net me a Surface RT for free and more than likely fulfill all my mobility needs. There's just really very little point any more in spending $3000, $4000 or even $5000 on a top-shelf notebook when a $2800 box + Surface slate get's the same job done better, faster and more elegantly.

Those rocking a $10k Clevo with a Xeon inside will beg to differ, but realistically speaking, those folks are few and far between. My specific work uses and mobility needs in the past required a desktop-replacement notebook and a netbook - items that I could easily replace today with a mini-ITX desktop and a Surface RT slate. But a socket 2011 system paired with a Surface Pro 2? The possibilities become mind-boggling. And I haven't even explored the likelihood of a sub-8" Surface, making the mobility argument even more compelling.

I've been a happy camper with my Qosmio X305, but it's becoming long in the tooth for storage, RAM and cooling. Is it any wonder then, that notebooks like Toshiba's Qosmio X70 with all it's deficiencies leaves enthusiasts like me leaning towards the desktop and wanting for more?

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