There’s no substitute for a powerful desktop computer, but when the power goes out, it becomes a very expensive paperweight. As blackouts become more frequent and we move toward off-grid power, is there a case for buying high-end laptops instead?
Desktop “replacement” laptops are finally delivering on the promise
At the high end of the laptop world, whether it’s premium gaming laptops or portable workstations, the idea of a “desktop replacement” laptop has always been elusive. The dream is to have a single laptop that can do everything you need well enough that you don’t have to spend money on a second system.
In practice, for most of their history, laptops have not only lagged far behind desktop systems in performance, they’ve also lagged generationally. Today, that is no longer the case. Although they may not have the same raw performance, a modern laptop’s CPU and GPU have the same technology as their desktop counterpart. Computing technology has made tremendous progress with regard to power efficiency and scalability, so the same technology in a laptop can be scaled to a desktop where power and thermal limits aren’t much of an issue.
In other words, it’s now a question of the percentage of performance you can get out of a laptop, rather than the limit of what it can do.
When is performance “good enough”?
For professional users, this generally means you can do everything on a powerful laptop that you can on a powerful desktop. Your render may take 10 minutes longer to complete, or your game may run at a lower frame rate, but how much does that matter in practice?
Putting price issues aside and considering performance in isolation, is the absolute performance level of high-end desktop replacement laptops good enough? Obviously, there is a subset of users who really need every ounce of performance a desktop system can provide. That said, we suspect that even the vast majority of advanced users could get by just fine with 70% of the performance they would get from a desktop system.
Laptops are the queens of performance per watt
Laptops have to deal with complex power and thermal management issues. The largest laptop battery an airline will allow you to take on board is a 100Wh unit, so you’ll see many high-end laptops with a 99.9Wh battery. Even when speeds are significantly reduced to deplete battery power, there is still a small pool of reserve power to work with, so components need to be extremely efficient.
Even when plugged in, which is how desktop replacement laptops are supposed to be used, these laptops have a lot to accomplish using strict power limits. Typically, high-end laptop power bricks max out at around 250W to 300W, meaning total system power consumption can never exceed this number.
From a certain perspective, an RTX 3060 Ti desktop uses roughly 200W of power under load on its own. The mobile RTX 3070 Ti, which is in the same performance ballpark, tops out at 125 W for the most power-hungry variants of the chip. running the red dead redemption 2 Benchmarking at 1440p Ultra settings, our 105W 3070 Ti laptop had a total system draw of 150W, including the 240Hz 1440p internal display.
The off-grid mindset
You may not care how much power your computer uses when you can just plug it into the wall. The only difference you’ll notice is a higher power bill at the end of the month, but that extra power cost of a power-hungry desktop system is nothing compared to the prices that come with the life of a high-end laptop. high.
However, once you have to run your computer on a battery backup system or use solar power on an off-grid or grid-connected system, suddenly every watt counts. Typically, when adding off-grid power to a home, it’s cheaper to switch appliances to more energy-efficient models than it is to provide enough total capacity to meet your current usage. You need to find your off-grid power source halfway.
If you buy a portable power station to keep your desktop running, the power capacity needed to run your system through a multi-hour power outage may not come cheap. At the same time, running a laptop with desktop-class performance (albeit not a top-tier desktop) is entirely doable.
Take Anker’s massive 1229 Wh power plant as an example. A laptop with a maximum consumption of 200 W could run for six hours if you push the pedal all the way down. A modest desktop system with a total system consumption of 500W would drain it in just 2.5 hours. If you live somewhere where the power grid is becoming less and less reliable, higher-end laptops are starting to make more sense, and don’t forget you can easily grab that laptop and just go somewhere there’s still power. That’s not easy with a desktop PC.