Laptops don’t last as long as desktop computers – here’s why

We investigate why laptop lifespans are considerably shorter than desktop computers, despite performing near-identical jobs.

Friday, 2 December, 2022

In these economically straitened times, it’s vitally important to extract the maximum value for money out of any new purchases.

We’re seeing car manufacturers who offer extensive warranties outselling supposedly premium brands who don’t, while value is replacing fashion in the minds of many furniture customers.

Consumer electronics has traditionally been an industry where fashion outweighs all other factors, but even here, people are putting greater thought into their purchasing decisions.

In the new age of permanent hybrid working, we’re increasingly reliant on personal computers once again.

Yet desktop computers generally last a lot longer than their laptop counterparts, despite being considerably cheaper to buy in first instance.

So why are laptop lifespans relatively short? And should this put you off purchasing one at a time when making your money go further is becoming a national obsession?

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Regardless of whether it’s a desktop or laptop device, PC or Mac, any computer incorporates the same key internal components.

Bolted to a motherboard will be a central processing unit and (usually) a graphics processing unit, a hard drive and a network card of some description.

The first reason why laptop lifespans are shorter is because these components need to be small and lightweight above all else.

Weight is a key selling feature among laptops, and despite the use of seriously strong materials, there’s always a compromise between weight and durability.

Because desktop computers aren’t mobile, they can afford to be heavier. This means they can use more robust components in sturdier packaging, which helps to extend their lifespans.

The second reason why desktops tend to last longer is because they’re usually set up once and left in perpetuity, rather than being swung around/bumped into train seats/stuffed in a bag.

The constant movement and vibration caused during transit can dislodge components, or weaken delicate cable connections.

It’s also worth noting that laptops have hinged touchscreens, which are both lighter and more prone to failing than solid desktop monitors which spend years untouched on a desk.

A laptop could be destroyed by the failure of any one component – its integral keyboard and monitor can’t be unplugged and replaced, as they could with a desktop device.

It’s also harder to keep those components cool in a confined space, whereas a gaming PC might have ten separate fans expelling life-shortening heat from its tower.

Finally, the rechargeable batteries in laptops will inevitably fail after a few years. Desktops use mains power, and thus don’t experience this issue.

How long is a typical laptop lifespan?

Let’s immediately caveat that question by pointing out there are no certainties.

Your correspondent once had a brand-new high-end laptop fail after just 48 hours. Its like-for-like successor is still running fairly well (albeit more slowly) after three years of daily use.

Three years is regarded as the typical life expectancy of a modern laptop, though many firms replace staff laptops after two years to prevent degraded performance affecting productivity.

Beyond its third birthday, a laptop is likely to exhibit distress in at least one aspect of its performance – perhaps an inability to retain battery charge, or a glitchy screen.

By contrast, there are plenty of stories of desktop computers still operating a decade or more after they were first set up.

Technically minded consumers can even unscrew the tower casing and replace/upgrade/augment worn-out components on the motherboard, to expand a desktop’s lifespan.

This isn’t possible with sealed-unit laptops, where components are usually welded onto the motherboard.

Are laptops worth the cost?

If you work from a desktop computer in the office three days a week, and have a dedicated space at home for a tower PC, the answer is no.

Conversely, if you need to hot-desk around the home and/or office, or regularly travel through work, a laptop is invaluable.

A laptop’s main benefit is its portability, so consider whether this is sufficiently valuable to outweigh the limited lifespan and greater fragility it necessitates.

Neil Cumins author picture


Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!