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What is a Desktop Computer?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 16, 2024
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A desktop computer is a personal computer built to be used at a desk. This is in contrast both to large mainframe computers, which are not meant to be used at a desk, and to portable computers, or laptops, meant to be taken around from one location to another easily. Originally, this type of computer was be seen as a very small version of a computer, as the majority of computers required a great deal of space. These days, it is looked at as the larger end of the computer spectrum, with computers having become incredibly small.

The desktop computer was traditionally be assumed to be a fairly specific layout. This type of computer would contain most of the computer components, such as the CPU, the hard disk, and the RAM, within a single case that would sit horizontally on a desktop. A monitor would then sit on top of the computer case, and an external mouse and keyboard would attach to it.

Later, the tower became the dominant form of desktop computer. This sort of case sits horizontally, and is usually either placed under a desk, or up on the desk next to the monitor, rather than underneath the monitor. Towers usually have more space, allowing for many bays to hold things like hard drives and multiple media drives.

The all-in-one desktop computer has also been popular to varying degrees over the decades. Many of Apple’s original computers were all-in-one, with the monitor included as a part of the component case, but the mouse and keyboard still being external. The later iMac series, also by Apple, continued the all-in-one tradition. All-in-one computers have a number of advantages over towers or the basic desktop, including a smaller desktop footprint, a more attractive form factor, and greater portability. In fact, many older all-in-one computers actually incorporate a carrying handle, so that they are a sort of intermediary step between a truly portable laptop and a totally static desktop computer. The trade-off is that all-in-one computers tend to be much less upgradable than other desktops, since their components are carefully sized to fit in the smallest possible area, and in some cases may even be soldered directly to other components.

Historically, the desktop computer has been desirable over the laptop computer for a number of reasons. For one, since the parts can be much larger, these computers are usually cheaper than a similarly-powerful laptop. This price difference has shrunk in the past few years, however, making laptops become a much more popular choice. A desktop computer is still, however, able to integrate more powerful components than a laptop of the same generation, making them preferable for high-performance tasks such as video and sound editing, design, and games.

Generally, a desktop computer at its peak can be seen as about a year and a half ahead of a laptop computer at its peak. The desktop is also much easier to customize than a laptop, since parts are generally not made to such specific sizes, so many people who like to build their own computers or modify their computers over time still find desktops preferable to laptops.

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Discussion Comments
By abiane — On Sep 28, 2010

@bbpuff - As far as buying a desktop computer goes, you can find plenty of affordable deals with a refurbished desktop computer at any local store. Some of the bigger chains don't recommend them, but the thing is that if you can't afford the top of the line model and only need the computer for specific purposes then why not?

By bbpuff — On Sep 28, 2010

@gameaddicted - Well said and I agree. It seems like everyone is after the instant gratification thing, whether that comes through being able to instantly see your emails or finding a cheap desktop computer that suits your needs.

By gameaddicted — On Sep 28, 2010

@win199 - The price differentiation between Desktop, or PC, computers and laptops is a simple aspect of convenience. A laptop was created to be portable and convenient; it was made in order for businessmen and women to be able to both travel and work without having to worry about missing email messages that could be essential to their job. It's much like the iPhone or Blackberry phones you find now. Everything in this technological age thrives on instant gratification.

By win199 — On Sep 28, 2010

Desktop computers typically have more add ons as well. Meaning a desktop computer PC has things like additional speakers, keyboard, and a mouse. Possibly, as well, a printer, scanner, or other item will be in the mix.

Laptop computers are just that - pretty much an all in one sort of thing with everything you need right in your lap. Typically the price discrepancy between the two is quite different, though.

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