Like many (most) people I have been working from home for the last couple of years. However, unlike most, this was my plan, as when I started at BIM Track in January 2020 I was hired as a full-time remote worker. Now the other side of that plan back in January 2020 was that I would be doing lots of travel to conferences and tradeshows worldwide to talk about BIM, AEC workflows and of course BIM Track…well that didn’t really play out as expected. Nevertheless, this combination of full-time WFH and travel was why I was given a laptop as my work computer, but in hindsight maybe a desktop would have been a better call?
In the Beginning
Let’s start with what I do with my computer on a day-to-day basis. This will give a baseline for what would be required of a laptop or desktop that I use daily.
However even before the what, I want to say that this post has been made possible by the fine people at Dell and their partners AMD & Intel who provided me with the desktop I will be testing. Thanks, Dell 🖥👍
What I do, fair question. On a typical day, I will spend time in BIM programs like Revit, Navisworks, Archicad, Solibri, Tekla, Enscape and Dynamo among others. I will also on occasion be in VR programs like VREX, VRCollab, VR in Enscape and maybe a little after-hours Beat Saber from time to time 😁. Outside of those programs I might also be doing some video editing in Camtasia, audio editing in Audacity, coding in VS Code, or a little API testing in Postman. All of these go with the typical office things like Microsoft 365, Google Workspace, Slack and Zoom…oh so much Zoom.
Now to be clear when I’m in the BIM or VR software I’m not doing hardcore BIM or VR stuff all day, my production days are far behind me. I’m typically using them in conjunction with a BIM Track Demo. This means I would be in 2 or 3 of the software for 5 – 10 minutes each during a 60-minute demo. Sometimes I’m doing some R&D or testing a new integration or product version when I will be in the software for a couple hours at a time but that’s not the norm. I should also mention that use an Oculus Rift S as my current VR Headset of choice
The other side of my role includes travelling to conferences and AECO Industry events to speak and help in the BIM Track booth. This has been a slow part of my role in the last couple of years as travel has not been a thing (20 months between trips), but it’s now picking up again. This means that I will need a laptop when on the road, but the power requirements are much less than when working from home. Typically I will only need email, Microsoft 365 or Google suite access. Even when at the booth most demos are done via Video as wifi in conference halls is questionable at best. This means little to no access to BIM software is required, and no VR software access is needed while on the road.
- 2020 – 2 Trips, both in February
- 2021 – 2 Trips, 1 in November and 1 in December
- 2022 – 2 Trips so far with 7 or 8 more before years end
In this Corner
Now that we know what I do, let’s meet the competitors. We will get to the “Tale of the Tape” shortly, but first, a few things that are not covered there. The laptop is my company-provided machine that’s been used daily since January 2020. The desktop came from Dell, as mentioned above and I have been testing it since May 2022. I didn’t add monitors as I use the same two ACER 27’s with the laptop or desktop. The video camera for all those Zoom calls is also the same Logitech C920s, I don’t use the “up the nose” camera on the laptop. If I’m not travelling I have the laptop docked and use 2 monitors, a keyboard and a mouse. I also didn’t bring battery life into the equation because desktops need to always be plugged in. Also as a general rule gaming or workstation laptops, all have poor battery performance and are plugged in 90%+ of the time to allow for peak performance.
Tale of the Tape
The laptop was bought with a budget of $2,000 back in 2020 from Amazon. I added an extra 16GB of ram (it comes with 16GB by default) and was still a few dollars under budget all said and done. The laptop is no longer available in my specific configuration unless you find one on clearance. The current version is very similar and still around $2,000 MSRP.
The desktop was built on a budget of $3,500 and it was put together for that amount. If you build it on the Dell.com website today it is around $5,000 MSRP but at the time of this post currently on sale with free shipping for $3,507.
Winner: Laptop 💻
Price is a very fluid, and user-specific category and really depends on the users, the supply that is available to them, and if they are doing an actual “apples to apples” price comparison, which this is not. As a general rule, a laptop will be more expensive than a desktop when they are using the same components and are bought at the same time. The other thing that is different about this comparison is that the laptop is a mass-produced gaming laptop, not a custom build AEC workstation, which would add significant cost to the laptop.
The laptop is definitely portable, the 15.4″ form-factor fits in my backpack easily. It is listed at ~5.5 lbs which feels about right. The part they never take into account with gaming or workstation laptops is the weight of the power “brick” that comes with it. The brick that comes with my laptop adds another ~1.75 lbs, bringing the total to over 7 lbs.
The desktop is not portable, which is the nature of a desktop. It is a full-sized tower, but it does still fit nicely under my desk and is out of the way of my feet. I did buy a tower stand from Amazon that has 4 wheels so it’s super easy to move around now if I need to access the cords in the back.
Winner: Laptop 💻
Surprised is no one that the laptop was more portable than the desktop. laptops are meant to be portable and desktops are not. Just keep in mind that portable is a relative term. Any time you are lugging a gaming or workstation laptop around that 7+lbs start to feel pretty heavy compared to an Apple Macbook Air or Dell XPS 13, both a feather-light 2.8 lbs.
The laptop is like most other laptops, pretty quiet while you are doing normal laptop things. However, as soon as you do anything that uses the dedicated GPU, no matter how brief the fan kicks into overdrive and it sounds like a plane taking off. The fan takes around 3 – 5 minutes to quiet down after the task is complete. If I use Enscape during a demo, for example, all of the clients on Zoom can hear “the plane taking off”. But it’s not just when the GPU is being used, the fan can randomly kick off anytime when a process happens in the background, like a windows update for example. These noisy periods seem to be limited to the length of the activity, but can happen several times in a short period, very annoying.
The desktop is like any desktop, a short burst of fan noise when it starts then it’s pretty quiet after that. Even when in VR I have not had the fan come on as aggressively or for so long after the task is done as the laptop.
Winner: Desktop 🖥
I think in this “case” pun intended it is the form factor that makes all the difference. The desktop is in a big tower with lots of room for air circulation and has a GPU with big fans that can work more efficiently. Unlike the laptop’s cramped little fans that need to go all out to try and make any difference. The desktop is also under the desk and can be moved further away if noise becomes an issue. The laptop is on top of the desk, making it much hard to control the noise.
The laptop has the following ports:
- 1 x 3.5mm Combo Audio Jack
- 1 x HDMI 2.0
- 1 x Mini DisplayPort
- 1 x USB 3.2 Gen 2 Type-C
- 2 x USB 3.2 Gen 1 Type-A
- 1 x USB 3.2 Gen 2 Type-A
- 1 x 2-in-1 card reader (SD / MMC)
- 1 x Ethernet port
The desktop has the following ports:
- 1 x SD card slot
- 5 x Mini DisplayPort 1.4 (GPU Ports)
- 1 x USB-C (GPU Port)
- 7 x USB 3.1 Gen 1 ports (2 on the front)
- 1 x USB 3.1 Gen 1 port (supports smart Power-On)
- 1 x USB 3.1 Gen 1 Type-C port with PowerShare (1 on the front)
- 1 x USB 3.1 Gen 1 Type-C port (1 on the front)
- 1 x Headset port
- 1 x Microphone/Line-in port
- 1 x Line-out port
- 1 x PS/2 Mouse port
- 1 x PS/2 Keyboard port
- 1 x Serial port
- 1 x Ethernet port
Winner: Desktop 🖥
In this category, it really is a case of more is more. I currently have 5 USB things I need to plug into my laptop and only 3 USB ports. So I’m living the dongle life to make it work. What are the 5 things you ask? Keyboard, Mouse, Portable HD, Web Camera, Headset. I also have a printer that I need to connect via USB from time to time too. On the desktop, there are 8 USB ports and 2 USB C, which gives me ports to spare. They also make sure that there are ports on the front for easy access when you need to plug in a thumb drive or something, no need to go to the back of the tower.
The laptop has its own built-in monitor, which is a 15.4″ 1080p HD screen. However, as mentioned before most of the time I’m connecting to two 27″ Acers, as well as having the laptop screen open to make it 3 screens in total. I’m so used to having more than one screen that I even travel with a portable 2nd monitor these days. You can connect an HDMI and Mini DisplayPort if you want to have extra monitors on this laptop.
The desktop has ports for up to six, yes 6 monitors. Now I have not hooked up 6 monitors yet, but I will, and when it happens I will write another post about it. To use these 6 monitors you need to be living the dongle life as 5 of them are Mini DisplayPorts and the 6th is USB-C. Now Dell does provide 5 Mini DisplayPort dongles with the tower, however, they are for regular Displayport cables. When is the last time you hooked up to a monitor via Displayport?
Winner: Desktop 🖥
I’m once again siding with more is more here, even though I likely would not use 6 monitors on a regular basis. For me, the ability to have 3 full-sized external monitors would be a benefit. 2 in landscape mode and 1 in portrait mode would be awesome.
The laptop is slow. Now in all fairness, it is 2.5 years old, gets used daily and has had so much software installed, re-installed, removed, and updated, that it’s giving me all she’s got I’m sure. Another issue I believe is storage space, my operating system SSD is always 3/4 full which doesn’t help. I believe my laptop was faster when it was new, but that seems so long ago now.
The desktop is fast, like really fast! And it should be, it’s newer, has a faster processor, has faster RAM and Double the RAM, has a faster operating system SSD with double that space, and it’s running Windows 11. So this one was not a fair fight, not even close.
Winner: Desktop 🖥
While this one was always going to be a landslide win for the desktop, I’m still blown away by just how fast it is! All the things I’ve been told about buying a good computer for the AEC industry are now confirmed!
Those things are, in order:
- Get the fastest processor you can afford
- Get an SSD for your operating system drive, the more space the better to help future-proof it
- Get the most RAM you can afford, lots of RAM is good, but high-quality (fast) RAM is better
The laptop is maxed out for expansion at this time. This includes 2 RAM slots, a PCIe M.2 SSD slot and a 2.5″ SATA HDD slot. Of course, the drives and RAM in these slots could be updated with newer, faster, and higher-capacity replacements. However, at 2.5 years old It’s not worth the hassle or investment as the laptop nears the end of its 3-year replacement cycle.
The desktop, as can be expected has lots of room left for expansion. There are slots for up to six, 2.5″, or five 3.5″ storage drives on top of the boot drive, which means you could have 68 TB of storage on this rig. Now that would cost a small fortune and is not practical at all. There are also 8 slots for RAM to allow for up to 256 GB of RAM, also likely not a practical need, but possible nevertheless. You can also have dual GPUs on this rig if you want, again not common but might happen before 68 TB or storage or 256 GB of RAM.
Winner: Desktop 🖥
As expected the desktop wins in the expansion category, which is kind of what desktops are built for, growth. I don’t think I would ever take full advantage of all the space available, but it’s there, and that’s the point. A nice feature that I could see coming in handy if a drive goes down is the hot-swapping, which can be accessed right from the front of the tower.
With the hot-swap feature on the M.2 and U.2 PCIe NVMe SSDs, you can remove drives without shutting down the workstation.Dell.com
Virtual Reality (VR)
The laptop works for what I need in VR, with that being said it’s still on the entry-level side for AEC/BIM/VDC Virtual Reality requirements for the GPU (NIVIDA GeForce RTX 2060 Mobile). The biggest issue is the noise when I’m in VR on the laptop, the fan is just so loud for so long. Noise aside I’m able to do what I need, which is a short demo of the VR functionality of a BIM VR software as it relates to a BIM Track integration or workflow. If I was required to be using VR daily and for more than 15 – 30 minutes at a time an upgrade would be needed.
The desktop also works for what I need in VR, and similar to the laptop when it comes to AEC/BIM/VDC Virtual Reality requirements it is the GPU that is the bottleneck (AMD Radeon Pro W5700). This does not mean that either GPU is poor, in fact, they are both grouped in “High End” on the benchmark site. It just means of all the requirements to run AEC/BIM/VDC level VR, on my rigs (laptop or desktop) their GPUs are the closest to the minimum required specs (or is the minimum when it comes to the laptop GPU). My need for VR would be the same on the desktop as on the laptop, and the desktop does all that is asked without any issue and with far less noise. I do get a warning about not meeting minimum specs when logging into my Oculus account, but there has never been an issue. My guess is the Radeon Pro W5700 is just not on the list as a gamer VR GPU. This could be because it is a professional workstation graphics card, not a gaming graphics card. It could also be that I’m running Windows 11 and not 10, either way, never been an issue.
Winner: Desktop 🖥
Once again the desktop comes out on top for this round. In “reality”, pun intended, they both handle my VR requirements. The desktop just does it a little quicker and a lot quieter. Both GPUs are a little older (early 2019) and we all know technology changes very rapidly these days, so expectations in 2022 can be different than in 2019. The other thing to take into account is a “gaming” GPU vs a “professional” GPU, the laptop is gaming and the desktop is professional in this case. This typically means higher performance, quality, longevity and also cost when moving from a gaming GPU to a professional GPU.
And the Winner is…
As part of this post, I looked at 8 different categories to compare my laptop and desktop to see which one would be the best (for me) when working from home. Not all categories would be weighted equally in my choice, and there could have easily been more categories that went into my decision. You will also notice as you review the tale of the tape that it wasn’t really a fair fight as far as specs went between the two computers. If we do some quick math this becomes clear with desktop winning six of the eight categories.
The real question I’m asking is can the “Desktop”, once King of the office, take the crown back from the upstart “Laptop”, which has for years been overshadowing the King with falling prices and improving in performance. For me, for my current role, the answer is yes!
So without further ado…
Does this mean I’m now team desktop for life? Of course not! What it does mean is that if I could use the Dell desktop I tested for this post as my daily work rig I would be happy with a faster and quieter machine with more storage space. It would also mean that I could have a smaller more battery-friendly laptop for travel that I could actually use during a long flight. I still might need to do a quick demo so being able to open and run Revit would still be a requirement for this smaller laptop.
As someone that does travel for work, the laptop is still required, which means that in most cases the desktop + laptop model is going to cost more than just a good AEC workstation laptop (or gaming laptop as I currently have). And if you are a constant traveller, not just every 4 – 6 weeks as I am, then the just laptop model might again become the winner?
With that said there are many remote and cloud computing options that could mean a 3rd hybrid option of desktop for the power and a less powerful laptop that connects remotely to your desktop or cloud computer. This of course brings more cost into the equation with a laptop, desktop and remote or cloud computing service.
So for different people in different roles in the AEC/BIM/VDC world, I can see a case for all 3 of the above models. For now, though, I’m team Desktop 🖥.
What do you think? Let me know if you are team “Laptop” or team “Desktop” and why in the comments.
Until next time,
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