The Laptop as a Desktop

For some of us computers are a big deal, and we tend to obsess over them. It's a product of growing up with computing as a hobby, a way of accessing entertainment, socialising and a means and subject of education. A new computer therefore is something I agonise over a little.

For approximately two years now (I think it's actually two years sometime in August) I have been using a laptop as my primary computer. It isn't my only computer, I use quite a few of them, but it is the computer that performs the greatest proportion of the role that the desktop PC has been traditionally used for. I've talked somewhat about my computing setup before, but I think it bears a brief review for context. Computers are an important part of my life — which to my mother would sound pretty horrific — but if you look at it objectively the world has invited computers into just about every facet of our day to day existence. My computer is central to home entertainment, having absorbed the role of audiovisual devices. It facilitates communication and has allowed me to make friends on almost every continent. It's a surrogate memory and helps me keep my schedule. It has enabled my greatest pastime, computer gaming (possibly also to the dismay of my mother) and facilitates innumerable other tasks and jobs. It is the gateway to the internet; something that I struggle to imagine life without now it has become so central to the way we communicate and access information.

What has changed about the computer? Well all but the most recent computers I owned were large tower style PCs that I built myself. Laptops were expensive tools of necessity that traded power for portability. The large, noisy static desktop PC was the dog's bollocks for really a good couple of decades. It was immensely capable and incredibly versatile in the functions it could perform. Recently computers have really undergone a surprisingly subtle metamorphosis; while the desktop is still as common as it has ever been it now has to share the limelight. Computers can be much smaller, much more communicative thanks to wireless technologies, and thanks to Moore's Law every smaller, cheaper and more able to specialise for a given use-case scenario.

Nothing epitomises this better than the smartphone, a tiny wireless-focused computer that lives in your pocket. Nobody wants to sit and type a novel on it (actually I know a guy who wrote a whole book on his but he's plainly an outlier), its too small, too rigid and narrow in it's interface (however amazing the multi touch paradigm is it isn't suitable for all purposes). The affordability and flexibility of modern hardware allows us to tailor devices to a purpose or circumstance that best makes use of it's compromises. That ability to find an ideal compromise is the new strength of the modern computer.

I have an iPhone that travels everywhere. I have an iPad that travels to some places and gets used around my home when I want to read, play some games, and generally be as comfortable as possible or need to be mobile and have a capable computer but not carry my MacBook. I have a Mac mini that lives under the TV alongside an Apple TV; they handle the job of media library, media streaming and internet access in the TV room which is great when we have guests. I also have (as just mentioned) my MacBook Pro. Ironically all of these together cost me less than the Alienware gaming PC I bought after finishing college.

The MacBook was the last major change to my setup. Prior to the MacBook I had a Windows PC that I had built myself (within the shell of that Alienware rig). The MacBook Pro, the first generation retina model, presented an interesting opportunity. While I'll admit to being swayed somewhat by it's amazing screen it was also the first time that I really felt that laptop hardware was close enough in power to desktop hardware for a laptop to fulfil both roles. My original intention was to just use the laptop, and as I was writing more I could take it places (even if it was just the sofa, as I'm writing right now) and work as easily as sit at my desk and play games. This has turned out to be pretty great, but I did have to alter my expectations.

In terms of performance the MacBook has been excellent. I could certainly get more graphical performance out of a desktop machine thanks to improved cooling and abundance of hardware choices but the gaming performance has been excellent none the less. In terms of productivity applications it's really getting pretty hard to buy a computer that underperforms. My favourite single feature of the MacBook is undeniably the screen, but it's also the aspect that forced me to alter my original plan. While it's awesome for most uses, I found using an external, larger display — even with a lower resolution — distinctly more comfortable for extended gaming. Games are also the one time that the retina display has the least impact; the often quite kinetic activity benefiting little from the improved sharpness. For a while I used the gorgeous Twelve South Book Arc and the MacBook really became a desktop computer while I was at my desk, coupled with a Thunderbolt Display. More recently I'm using a Rain Design mStand so that I can make use of both screens at once (or just the one when gaming).

The Thunderbolt Display is an expensive piece of kit, but it offers more than just a screen and may or may not be suitable for your individual setup. I'm yet to fully capitalise on it's features, but it really adds to the Laptop-as-a-desktop paradigm. It gives the MacBook a number of features that it's form factor would otherwise eschew for portability such as an ethernet port, additional thunderbolt and USB ports. It also adds a webcam, which I've made almost no use of but is at a much more useful level for FaceTime. Integrated speakers, while not the most amazing, are entirely adequate for my needs. There are other Thunderbolt hubs which might do the job for most people — I would consider one of them now if I didn't already have it. The Thunderbolt Display is nowhere near as sharp as the retina screen, and it's noticeable, but it is still a stunning display panel and a great size at 27".

A friend has suggested in the past that smartphones and tablets are too much compromise. I couldn't disagree more. I think those compromises are the primary factor in the versatility of modern computing and even more so as the severity of those compromises decreases. Certainly I've benefitted from having my iPhone with me and have never been frustrated by any significant shortcomings.