Can You Use A Laptop As A Desktop?

The obvious answer to this question is yes, you can. Before explaining the modern way to use a laptop as a desktop, let’s take an amusing stroll down memory lane on how this was done years ago.

In the beginning…

(Note before continuing: I’m concentrating on late 1990s-to-present tech. Obviously what’s listed below doesn’t cover things like the GRiD Compass.)

We had these absolutely huge unwieldy docking stations, like this:

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The laptop went into that huge slot you see above. A monitor would be placed on top of the station. You would attach your keyboard and mouse into ports in the back.

Rarely did home users use this because it was ridiculously expensive and furthermore didn’t work half the time. The infamous Windows "docked" and "undocked" modes would wreak havoc with the OS; the hot-swap introduced later on was lukewarm at best. Oh, you didn’t know? Most of these were cold-swap. You couldn’t just yank the laptop out whenever you wanted. You had to shut down before doing it.

Worst of all, it was bigger and slower than a standard desktop PC.

After that…

The computer industry wised up and realized those beasty docking stations had to go. What came after that was the docking bay.

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It wasn’t all too much different than the station, but this was a step in the right direction. Even so, it was still just a weird bit of technology. Some allowed the laptop LCD screen to be used while others had a detachable "bench" that sat on top in predefined indentations or holes. This was used when the laptop lid was closed, docked, the bench placed over the laptop, and a monitor sitting on top of that.

The problem here is that it didn’t serve any advantage over simply plugging in your laptop while on the desk. Network connectivity could easily be had with a 3Com PCMCIA card with RJ-45 dongle, so there was literally no point to this putty or charcoal-colored monstrosity.

If you ever asked an LAN Administrator, "Um.. why is this thing necessary?", the answer would always be, "Because the VP of Sales wanted one", because he or she knew there was absolutely no real reason to have it. Gotta spend that budget somehow, right?

And yes this had the same clunky operation with Windows docked/undocked modes.

It goes smaller but is still bulky..

Realizing the docking bay was still too frickin’ big, then came the port replicator.

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This was the smallest of the breed. It does exactly what its name suggests; it replicates ports. You click in your laptop, open up the screen and use as you would normally with attached keyboard and mouse plugged into the side or back of the replicator.

This is yet another one of those, "What’s the point of this thing?" bits of tech.

Port replicators are still in use today; they never went away.

In the present..

This is the modern version of a laptop dock:

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Example setup:

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Here’s another:

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The only people interested in these things are corporate users. Home users know better than to use a setup like this because you really don’t get your money’s worth unless you buy docking setups used (some of which can be had at fire sale prices.)

If you are so inclined to purchase a setup like the above, shop any OEM manufacturer’s (such as Dell) "business" section and you’ll see them. Will you want to buy? Probably not after you see the price tag.

A cost-effective home user’s way to use a laptop as a desktop

Any laptop can be used to serve as a desktop – even a netbook. And you can do so without any of that docked/undocked Windows crapola.

What you will need is the following:

1. A ventilated laptop stand.

Your laptop will most likely spend most of its time plugged in and in heavy use. As such she’ll get hot under the collar real quick. There are many stands to choose from. Shop carefully, smartly and always read the customer reviews.

It is absolutely worth it to spend a few extra bucks on a stand that will do the job properly.

It is not recommended to run your laptop as a desktop unventilated because it will decrease the life span of your laptop – particularly with the hard drive.

Tip: Don’t run your laptop without the battery just to decrease heat while the unit is in use. This may render your battery useless in less than a year. You must keep it in the laptop in order to maximize its life span.

2. A USB hub.

You may or may not need this as the stand may have some port replicator options on it. But if it doesn’t, you’ll need your ports in a convenient place and that’s where the hub comes in. You should buy a dedicated small hub for your external keyboard, mouse and other things like USB sticks, external drives and so on.

Using a dedicated hub is convenient as well because you never have to unplug the keyboard or mouse when you take the laptop off its stand, should you decide to bring the laptop elsewhere.

Tip: If you have the option, plug the hub into the port on the laptop that is furthest away from its hottest spot when running. You’ll know this by touch.

3. An understanding of how to use presentation settings in your operating system.

This varies from laptop to laptop. It is usually accessible via a function key in combination with Fn, such as Fn+F1 or Fn+F7. One of the function keys on your laptop will have a small label of a monitor. That in combination with Fn will allow you to switch between the laptop screen and the connected monitor, similar to ALT+TAB’ing between apps, except that you’re switching monitor settings.

For Windows XP users: You have the choice between using the laptop screen, connected monitor screen, or both activated at once (called "duplicate" mode) using the lowest native resolution of the two monitors (but not as a monitor extension as far as I’m aware – although I could be wrong there).

For Windows 7 (and maybe Vista) users: Use Presentation Settings via Win+P (as in "Windows flag" key + P):

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With this you can use a secondary as an extension of the primary, keeping the native resolution on both screens. Very cool, very useful. I do not know if this exists in XP as I no longer run that as my primary OS. If anybody out there with XP wants to test this, feel free and post a comment.

4. An understanding of controlling what the lid does.

This is done on a software level. In Windows 7 it looks like this:

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This is available in Power Options via Control Panel in Windows and has basically been the same ever since Windows 95. Some of you will probably want to run your laptop with the screen lid closed when using as a desktop connected to an external monitor. If that’s your goal, what you don’t want to happen is the laptop "hibernating", "sleeping" or shutting down when you shut the lid. What you do want is the "plugged in" or "on AC power" setting to be "Do nothing."

Remember to only change this for "plugged in" and not "on battery."

5. (Optional) An external USB optical drive.

You may not need this as your laptop may have one of these already installed. But even if it does, I suggest getting one anyway because you can place it much closer to you via your USB hub, and furthermore will keep any extra heat out of your laptop from optical drive use.

6. USB keyboard and USB mouse.

You’ll obviously need these for "true" laptop-as-desktop use. These can plug in directly into your USB hub.

Quick question answered: Is it a problem to use both the laptop and desktop keyboard and/or mouse and the same time? No. Windows will activate both of them. If you want to switch between them, that’s fine. You won’t have to enable/disable anything to do that.

Drawbacks using laptop-as-desktop

1. Limited video memory.

Your laptop most likely uses shared memory for video and does not have a dedicated graphics card. In addition, the external monitor you use probably has a higher native resolution than your laptop LCD screen does. This means your laptop will have to "work harder" to render video on a higher resolution.

In plain English: Choppy/stuttering video may occur from time to time. As long as you’re aware of this, then you’re fine. You’ll notice this most with Flash video (of course).

2. Slower

Laptops are by nature slower than desktops because they house mobile processors, slower RPM hard drives (5400 compared to 7200), and are designed to emit the least heat possible so they don’t literally burn up.

You will notice the slowness most when you have a lot of programs open. Psychologically you will be fooled into thinking, "this is a regular desktop" because you have a regular monitor, keyboard and mouse in front of you. It’s not. It’s a laptop. You know this is true, but it’s easy to forget. Remember what you’re using and what it was designed for.

3. Potentially unplugging a bunch of stuff every time you have to go mobile.

The best possible situation with a laptop-as-desktop setup is to only unplug three things when going mobile, that being your USB hub, monitor connector and power cord. You have a spare AC adapter in your laptop bag, so you don’t need to unplug that from the wall – and then off you go.

However most people don’t have a spare AC adapter as they are expensive (usually at least $50). And some of you won’t use a USB hub. This means every time you want to go mobile, you have to unplug all the USB stuff, disconnect the power cord, unplug that from the wall or power strip, wrap up the power cord cable, chuck it in the laptop bag, etc. You get the idea. It can turn into a tangled mess in short order. And you’ll have to do it all over again when you want to use the laptop as a desktop again.

Using a laptop as a desktop will require you to spend a few bucks to do it right, make no mistake.

Advantages of using a laptop as a desktop

1. Quiet.

Nobody likes a loud desktop PC. Laptops are built to be quiet. And most modern laptops (with the exception of gamer laptop rigs like Alienware) are whisper quiet. The only thing you want to hear is the click-clacking of your keyboard and clicky-clicky’s of your mouse. With a laptop, that’s what you get.

2. You are not chained to your desk.

You are using a portable medium, so whenever the mood strikes you, go mobile. Everything will go with you in a usable compact form.

3. Eliminates bulk, and a lot of it.

If you took a brand new $300 Dell mini netbook and outfitted it as outlined above, you’ve got a super-small way of computing that can more or less do everything save for high-def video editing and gaming. It is the ultra-compact setup that completely eliminates the traditional PC tower. Is it as good as a tower? Obviously not. But it does do the job surprisingly well for what it’s capable of.

By attaching a regular-sized monitor and traditional keyboard and mouse, it feels just like a regular desktop computer when using it, save for the hardware limitations as noted above.

Do you (or have you) run a laptop as a desktop?

If so, does it work for you? Did you feel it was a good decision? What recommendations (and/or warnings) would you give about computing in this fashion?

Comments

  1. I haven’t used my laptop as a desktop nor do I ever plan to. A laptop is simply for me when I go away for a bit while my desktop is at home when I get back. I use my laptop at home when I want to lay on the floor in front of the TV.

  2. Great article, Rich. Since you opened the floor for input, I do have some perspective on the topic…

    I am employed as a desktop support technician by an institution that provides laptops and docking stations to the employees. The concept is great on paper; however, most of the employees elect to not take advantage of the portability function of laptops. What they choose to do instead is to connect to their laptop using a VPN client provided by the employer and the Remote Desktop client built into Windows from their home system. This means the laptops are running 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The problem with this is that the power supplies and hard drives in laptops aren’t designed for the duty and stress the constant-on state imposes, unlike desktops and especially servers. Because of this constant-on state several laptops need to be repaired each year due to failed power supplies or hard drives. If I had any influence over the IT policy where I work, I would consider a guideline that states that the inbound Remote Desktop connection on laptops will not be permitted. It would reduce the amount of down time for the employees who are waiting for a repair on the laptop due to stress of the constant-on state and would encourage them to take advantage of the portability feature of the laptop. And thus, will help ensure that the files are saved to the work laptop and not the home system by mistake.

    • You definitely can’t leave a laptop on 24/7, that will inevitably wreck a 2.5-inch drive as it just can’t handle that kind of heat stress in a compact laptop chassis. The heat will simply kill that thing. Same goes for the power brick. It has no fan to cool itself so of course it will bust if kept plugged in and charging the laptop 24/7.

      • You certainly *can* use your laptop as a desktop replacement providing you purchase a laptop which is designed to do so. I purchased an HP nw9440 workstation class laptop a couple of years back and I leave it on 24 hours a day, several days in a row. I run it mostly plugged into its HP Advanced docking station, which sits on an HP adjustable laptop tilt table setup. I plan to attach an external PCI/PCIe 1x chassis to my setup to give me 2 x PCI and 2 x PCIe lanes for desktop plugging cards. I use my laptop for mission critical broadcast video editing and it has never let me down once. It all depends on the grade of laptop you are using.

  3. Floyd Bufkin says:

    A word about USB hubs. Most USB devices get their power from the USB port. If using several devices on one port through a USB hub, this gets to be a problem, especially devices such as hard drives and external CD devices which want a lot of power. So if you are getting a USB hub, get one with its own power source.

    • This is true, but only to devices that don’t have power supplies of their own that have significant power draw. Most external drive enclosures have power bricks as do most external optical drives. The only exceptions are items like WD’s MyPassport or barebones optical units like this one that don’t even have burning capability. Ones that do like this one have their own power supply provided.

      Generally speaking, hubs are fine for just about anything you plug into it (keyboards, mice, USB sticks, printers, etc.) The worst than can happen is that certain devices may simply not work, and if that’s case you switch over to a port on the laptop directly, or do like you said and purposely use a powered USB hub.

  4. Jason Faulkner says:

    An additional advantage is a laptop uses much less power than a desktop.

  5. I use the dell port replicator you have pictured for work. Why?

    1. The company paid for it.
    2. One connection vs. 5 to make. (Power, external drive, monitor, keyboard, network.) I use my Bluetooth mouse either way. The Dell replicator comes with a beefier power supply than the laptop, too. I may be getting my own laser printer in my office, too, to offload off of the main office one. That will make six connections.

    I think they work well for a corporate user. Especially for me. I have a laptop so I can work at home, not for travel (I am a GM for a specialty installation/construction contractor). So my laptop’s routine is to be on my desk all day at work, then in the bag in my car at night. Unless something comes up and I need to fire it up.

    I think in about three or four years when multicore netbooks are common, we will switch to those. I still use too many apps at once for a netbook to be effective, but no hard core apps (Outlook, Excel, Firefox, Access are open most of the time).

  6. Larry Thompson says:

    If its sitting on a desk it is a desktop if its sitting on my lap its a laptop . My tower is sitting on the floor what does that make it . If I sit my tower on my lap does it become a laptop?

  7. I use a laptop as a desktop at home. I use a stand and for the most part just deal with the plugs. A big plus to go with this setup is getting a laptop with built in bluetooth, then getting a bluetooth keyboard/mouse. Now you don’t have to worry about as many cords, and when you’re traveling just grab the mouse and off you go.

    Overall, though, it was a mistake. I don’t end up using it in “laptop mode” near as much as I thought I would. Of course it lacks horsepower I could’ve had in a desktop. It’s nowhere near as reliable either…already, the graphics card has been replaced. Part of that is because it’s one of a bad crop of Dells. And upgrading it is pretty much out of the question.

    I’ve gotten a few good years out of this setup, but hope to build a replacement desktop within the next year, and use the machine for what it was meant for = a laptop.

    • Larry Thompson says:

      This may be a dumb question but why would someone need to add a Keyboard to Laptop when it already has one built in . I can see adding a mouse but to me a keyboard is a keyboard .

      • It may just be a matter of preference, more often than not. People with bigger hands or longer fingers tend to opt for a standard keyboard especially if the laptop is 13″ or smaller making the keyboard compact and thus difficult for the metacarpus endowed people to use. Also, some people do not care to be as close to the screen of the laptop as the built-in keyboard would bring them.

      • Ergonomics. At least if you’re taller (I’m 6’2″). My stand brings the laptop display up higher, which means the keyboard is on an incline and hard for me to use. The Bluetooth keyboard stores on a keyboard trey where I’m in a more natural position. Either that, or I will sometimes pull the keyboard off into my lap, when “kicking back”. And I can then push the laptop back farther on the desk.

        Never mind the fact that I hate laptop keyboards. They are compressed, and the Insert/Delete/Home, etc keys are in odd places. I can go much faster on a standard keyboard.

  8. About the topic on slower. Not all laptops are slow. My Compaq Presario laptop is actually way faster than my desktop even running on vista, and when I used to have XP. I also have had several applications open while I’m playing some of my favorite games with high end graphics. Ever since I had this notebook last year. I do not recall any slow activities. So I’m sorry to say that I do not agree with that topic.

  9. Every 3 or 4 years when my company upgrades my ThinkPad, I go out to eBay and buy 2 port replicators, 1 for work and 1 for home. I have a desktop style keyboard, mouse, and monitor plugged into each replicator. This makes setup at home & office quicker and more convenient, and I’m told it puts much less mechanical strain on the connectors, reducing service costs.

    With WinXP, I do use the external monitor to extend the screen, and each LCD (laptop & external) is set at it’s best resolution – the 19″ external screen runs 1440 X 900, and the laptop is set at 1024 X 768. This mode is called dualview by MicroSoft:
    (http://www.microsoft.com/windowsxp/using/setup/hwandprograms/monitors.mspx#3)

    Currently I’m running a ThinkPad T42 and I’m expecting an upgrade soon. With this upgrade, I probably won’t buy any port replicators as I can now work at home full time. I will however continue to use an external keyboard for comfort, along with the external mouse and 2nd monitor.

    My personal (not work) laptop is almost never used with a port replicator, because it is almost always used on a lap or out and about. If we’re at home, we have desktops PCs setup with big displays and ergonomic desks for more comfort. I have considered getting laptops to replace desktops a t home as an energy saving measure, but for now turning the systems off when not in use is serving us well.

  10. Synapse Syndrome says:

    Yeah, I had several ThinkPads with Ultrabays, Media Slices or Port Replicators. They are best used in combination with KVMs. But I do not bother with docks anymore, now that wi-fi is so fast. I just Remote Desktop into the laptop now, and with domain accunts, there is no problem is accessing any files I need.

  11. I bought a new macbook in January and I use that as my everday laptop. I have a 4 year old Dell laptop that I now use as a desktop. I have a monitor, speakers, mouse and keyboard, and printer all plugged into my laptop which is on the desktop closed next to my monitor. I need to get a cooling fan for it tho. I saw some at Best Buy for about 25 bucks. I’m sure they are well worth it. But I can testify that it is very easy to forget that it is a laptop. Often, I think I’m working with a desktop myself and leave it on for a couple of days. Not very good. But it does what I need to do.

  12. I was wondering if there’s any way that I can access my desktop screen through the internet or local network.

    What I was thinking of doing is buying a laptop and a desktop. The laptop would be a slow $300 or so type (perhaps even a netbook) and then I would use the rest of the money to buy the fastest desktop I could afford.

    I would leave my desktop upstairs on and use my netbook or laptop. Even though the laptop would be slow it would seem to be fast because I am really using my desktop but seeing it through my laptop.

    Anyway that’s the idea. Is that even possible?

  13. I have worked in Iraq as a corporate contractor for the past 5 years. While using a laptop as a desktop is not the optimal experience. It does have it’s uses. 1000′s of corporate users do this in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, ect…

    We use the port replicators too, they are the life saver in these conditions. Extreme heat, I seen a week of 150 degree days. And biblical dust storms that last for hours.

    The replicator allowed me to unplug the PC in a moment, never turn it off. Then drive across base to conference room and plug it in to a projector to teach classes or brief superiors.

    It would be impossible to load a desktop onto a Blackhawk chopper twice a week while conducting audits or site visits.

    My outlook was the first thing I opened and the last thing I turned off. And only stopped Outlook when I was actually traveling. I left everything open moving between my office, classroom, or living quaters (even internet, webpages rarely stumbled). I ran multiple excel spreadsheet and multiple pivot tables, 40,000+ rows & 40+ columns.

    We used HP business 6910 series, not the top of the line fully loaded laptop. My personal Toshiba can eat it’s lunch, but the HP was fully functional with multple databases, excel sheets, outlook, power point apps open.

    The key was to MAX out the RAM.

    By no means is this the ideal HOME solution, but it does have its niche.

  14. Super easy… just go to logmein.com on the computer you want to control remotely, sign up for a free account and install the client software. Then you can log in to logmein.com from anywhere in the world, on any machine, and see/control your desktop remotely.

  15. Cookinalong says:

    I have aSony vaio nr-220e laptop running as a desktop.I have a 4 port usb hub with a jump drive for pic/1g and a jump drive for documents/512mb. I’m using a micro inventions wireless mouse and keyboard with a 18″ compaq flatscreen monitor,dell all in one prenter scanner, Altec Lansing amplified sub/speakers I have hooked up remote power to the laptop and a aux 12volt fan running sidways across the heat sinks. Ihav also downloaded Speed fan so i can monitor the tempature and i have increaced the sonys fan with it. It satys at a nice coll 120F. I have all of it all installed in a roll away metal tool cart.

  16. I turned my powerful laptop into a desktop computer mainly because, despite it being powerful, the display was crappy and cramped. So I bought myself a 23″ ProArt Full HD Monitor + wireless keyboard and mouse and voila: a desktop computer. Nonetheless, someone told me that turning my laptop into a desktop for day-to-day heavy use is not a good idea, because, so he said, that’s what desktops are meant for. Is this true? I honestly doubt that.
    A few years ago, desktops were a lot cheaper than laptops with the same specs, if not even cheaper than laptops with inferior specs, but nowadays the prices are the same. So I prefer a powerful laptop equipped with the latest generation Core i7 that uses only 35W of power instead of a desktop that eats 75W. I think this makes perfect sense.

  17. Dallas Bourg says:

    Personally, I love having multiple screens. I was using my set up as I used this because I am trying to figure out if there is a way to connect a laptop to a tower that does not have a working graphics card.

  18. The laptops with dual graphics cards in them are very good with an i5 chip these days. The onboard cards are very stable for when your working on cpu intensive programs like 3Dmax and photoshop [intel HD3000] as the drivers rarely crash. Then the dedicated graphics card usually an Nvidia or ATI that you switch over to can be used for GPU intensive programs like most games and because publishers have been catering to consoles it means the laptop take longer to become obsolete. For me this is a god send because with older laptops I was scared to death of working too quickly on photoshop as it was stuck with usually unstable graphics cards that manufactures wouldn’t update after a year. I’ve got it hooked up to a good monitor with a keyboard and mouse along all the benefit of being able to take it anywhere and at 2 years old it can still handle new games on medium setting which is great. Just dont forget to switch between each card for work and play :D

  19. I certainly use a laptop as a computer. I used to have a normal tower computer but it died. Luckily I had a second-hand laptop I purchased off my brother for only $100. I plugged this to the monitor, speakers, and wireless keyboard and mouse and had myself a desktop computer. I never take the laptop off and carried it around because it is a Dell Latitude that is fairly bulky. If I want to go mobile I bring my smartphone or (rarely) my Nexus 7. The benefit of using a laptop as a computer is that it is quiet, it saves space, and laptops tend to be very cheap, especially if you buy a second-hand one or a Chromebook.

  20. I use my alienware 14 as a mobile desktop, hooking up a monitor, mouse, keyboard, and printer to it. Does this damage my computer at all? thanks

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