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Introduction: Analyzing the Price of Mobility

Computers have been getting faster over the years, and with the increased performance we eventually passed the point where most systems were “fast enough” and the various features and use cases became more important. It used to be that to get similar performance to a desktop, a laptop would generally cost two or even three times as much – and even then, sometimes it was simply impossible to match desktop performance with a laptop. Has that changed with the era of “fast enough” computing? One of our readers suggested we take some time to investigate this topic to help enlighten the general public, so we pulled together results from recent laptop and desktop/CPU reviews to see how much of a premium we’re now paying to go mobile.

There’s a related topic that I’m not even going to get into right now: tablets. The short summary is that at the low-end of the price spectrum, tablets can actually fill quite a few requirements. They’re slower, but battery life and portability is also better. Typing on a screen is not something I really enjoy at all, though, so adding a keyboard would almost be a requirement, which means at a minimum we’d be looking at closer to $500 for a decent tablet with a keyboard (e.g. ASUS Transformer TF300T with the keyboard dock). Okay, I said I’m not getting into this subject; basically, it’s possible to get a $500 tablet with keyboard (perhaps even $400) but performance is a major step down from even a budget laptop. That’s changing but for now I’m going to focus on Windows laptops vs. desktops.

Naturally, when we talk about performance, there are many factors at play. CPU and GPU performance are usually the biggest items, but in some cases the performance from the storage subsystem can actually trump the other two. A modern desktop with the fastest CPU and GPU available will handle pretty much anything you want to throw at it, but if it’s using a hard drive (HDD) for storage even a moderate Ultrabook equipped with a solid state drive (SSD) can be faster at booting into Windows or launching several applications at the same time. That might seem like an odd performance metric, but if you’ve ever experienced the dreaded “turn on the PC and wait five minutes after Windows loads before the system is actually ready for use” scenario, you’re running into storage bottlenecks.

We’ve advocated the use of SSDs for the OS and applications for several years now and we’ll continue to do so. In terms of storage performance, a good SSD will be at least 2-3X as fast as the best HDD for sequential transfers, but more importantly it can be 50-100X (or more) faster in random accesses, which is similar to what happens during the Windows boot process or when you launch a bunch of applications simultaneously (or launch a browser with dozens of tabs).

The good news is that nearly all laptops can be easily upgrade with an SSD if you’re willing to pay the price and take the time to do the upgrade yourself; the laptops that can’t be upgraded with a typical SSD are usually Ultrabooks that already have SSDs. The only drawback for SSDs is capacity: a typical 1TB 5400RPM 2.5” HDD will cost around $80; Seagate’s hybrid 1TB HDDs (with a bit of solid state cache to improve performance) will set you back around $130. The least expensive 240GB SSD in contrast costs around $165, with “better” models (faster, more reputable, and/or larger) costing up to $230 (or more). That’s 2x to 3x the cost of a hard drive for 1/4 the capacity, but the performance benefits are tangible. We’ll stick with comparisons between SSD-equipped systems for this article, just to keep things easy.

CPU/General Performance Discussion
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  • JarredWalton - Saturday, September 07, 2013 - link

    Yeah, apparently anything tagged AMD gets the branding. Ah well... not my problem! Hahaha Reply
  • teiglin - Saturday, September 07, 2013 - link

    I might be torpedoing this workaround by mentioning it, but the print view uses the standard color scheme (and is way better in all other ways as well). Reply
  • b3nzint - Saturday, September 07, 2013 - link

    "it’s far better to have a decent gaming desktop and then to spend another $500-$1000 on a good laptop for when you need to go mobile"

    yes right.
    pc / laptop, its like comparing boys or girls. they r on diff "world". case closed.
    Reply
  • Roland00Address - Saturday, September 07, 2013 - link

    CPU performance does not scale well with power consumption. Architectures are design to hit a desired cpu clock speed and anything above that desired clock speed causes a massive increase of power consumption. The 2nd and 3rd generation core series have massive increase in power consumption to get higher performance at 3 ghz and massively increase in power consumption past 3.5 ghz. I am assuming this holds true to haswell as well. (This is probably why intel keeps the laptop cpu range in <3 ghz range using boost to go past 3.0 and the same logic with desktop cpus of 3.5 ghz using boost to get 3.5 ghz.)

    There is a great anandtech forum post i7-3770K vs. i7-2600K: Temperature, Voltage, GHz and Power-Consumption Analysis by Idontcare that demostrates this very nicely in graph format.

    You can't scale cpu usage very well by being more parallel for most software can't be made parallel past 4 cores very well (video rendering being an exception.) Thus the only way to increase cpu performance is better architecture with more transistors, or higher clock speed.

    Because of this you can get very similar cpu performance in laptops vs desktops.

    --------

    Graphics on the other hand scales very well increased parallelization. The only limiting factors with graphics is the cost of the silicon, and the thermal constraints. Thus you will always get massively better gpu performance in desktop vs laptops for you are not limited by thermal constraints. It is okay to run that gpu with a desktop at 300 watts while the desired power consumption for a laptop card is either less than 50 watts or 50 to 100 watts for a desktop replacement.

    This will probably never change with time.
    Reply
  • nerd1 - Saturday, September 07, 2013 - link

    The whole point here is that nowadays most games run just fine with 50W GPU at 1080p with pretty much everything turned on, as they are supposed to run on 8-year-old consoles as well. So for most people mainstream laptops are approaching the point that they are 'good enough' for gaming. Reply
  • Roland00Address - Saturday, September 07, 2013 - link

    Well that was not communicated very well then considering the choices made for testing (hint almost all of then are in desktop replacement where the gpu by itself takes more than 50W of energy)

    750m is about 38 W tdp
    760m is about 55 W tdp
    765m is about 75 W tdp
    770m is about 75 W tdp
    780m is about 122 W tdp

    Of the games tested the 765m is only above 30 fps in starcraft ii and skyrim (at 1080p) all the other games we need to turn down the settings to get above 30 fps. If you chosen instead a gtx 760 ($250 dollar desktop card) you can get those same games at 60fps in all the games except metro 2033. Tomb Raider would be close for it would be in the mid 50 fps.

    You can get an enjoyable "ultimate" performance out of a laptop if you go full desktop replacement such as a alienware 17", clevo, msi, asus rog, etc but as the chart shows you would get much better gpu performance out of a desktop. Remember these laptops would be a desktop replacement and thus weigh over 7 lbs and have a gpu that is using 75+ watt tdp.

    You can get "great" performance out of a geforce 760m or 765m but it won't be "ultimate" either the resolution has to go down or the settings (medium or high instead of ultra) has to go down to get current games at a 30+ fps.

    --------------------

    In a few years (a die shrink, maybe two) you can get a future gpu to run at 50w and do all these current games on 1080p with these settings at 60fps. Then again during that same time we will get xbox 360 and ps4 console ports for any new game thus you will be needing once again a desktop replacement to get similar performance to the console. You will not be getting a ps4 gaming performance in your ultrabook in the next 3 years. In your larger laptops it will be another matter.

    --------------------

    So I repeat my larger point, you can get similar cpu performance easily in a laptop. You can't get similar gpu performance in a laptop vs desktop for with a desktop you are not limited by thermals while with laptops you are trying to keep total thermals (cpu+gpu+screen+everything else) under 65w for normal laptops/ultrabooks, about 100w for things like the razer blade 14" / 15" retina display, 125w to 150w for beginner desktop replacements such as the gtx765m (msi dragon 17") and 200w for alienware 17" with a single gtx780m.
    Reply
  • nerd1 - Saturday, September 07, 2013 - link

    There is no ceiling for *ultimate* performance, you can spend $3K for tri-titan setup, add liquid cooling to OC them, another a few K for (multiple) 4K displays and so on. 60fps may not be enough for some *ultimate* gamers. I've been playing fps myself for years, and old quake 2 required 100+fps framerate for some techniques (like acceleration jump)

    What we're discussing now is *good enough* performance, which I can be achieved by 760M or 765M. 765M is reasonably cheap, can be fit into either 13 inch laptop or 18mm thin laptop, and can run most game. I've been using similarly powerful 6990M GPU for a while.
    Reply
  • MDX - Sunday, September 08, 2013 - link

    Well said Reply
  • Saint04 - Saturday, September 07, 2013 - link

    To the author,
    I just wanted to say that I had noticed the comment under the Alienware 17 review about the need for contrasting mobile GPUs from Desktop GPUs. You did just that and in a timely fashion too! I just wanted to say thank you for being responsive to your readers.
    Reply
  • jjj - Saturday, September 07, 2013 - link

    Ok so no OC in CPU perf,you include a 250$ GPU just to push the price way up and you fully miss the real issue.
    The question you have to ask is why? Why are we here?
    We pay 300$ for a small die and a large part of it is a GPU we don't use or need.
    We can't touch a 6 core CPU at 250mm2 ,it costs too much. not so long ago Intel would have had to sell it at 300$ ,hell they would most likely have 8 core dies with less cache if there was any damn competition.
    Things are not getting better in laptop ,they are just getting much much worse in desktop.and greed is killing the only PC segment that can be exciting. For short term gains Intel is killing the long term.
    And even in laptop they are pushing ultrabooks to try to reset performance to a lower level and shorten the refresh cycle while pushing prices up.
    All they'll achieve with this is speed up the transition away from Wintel and allow ARM to catch up in perf faster. They couldn't do worse than this if they would hire Elop as CEO.
    Why don't you compare die size (excluding GPU) and price over the last decade in desktop instead of doing this article.
    Reply

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