What’s the best rig?
A common question I see asked if “what laptop should I get for starting out with interactive work?” This can be a tough question to answer when it comes to TouchDesigner systems since you’re able to program content in so many different ways.
I always recommend desktop computers. Desktops come in all shapes and sizes and many of the small form factor cases fit in a backpack and in overhead on an airplane. Laptops are portable and convenient, so why choose a desktop?
The most common reason is that desktops are upgradable. Technology is constantly changing in the interactive industry. New protocols, new ports, new memory upgrades on graphics cards, new CPUs promising speed and power, new PCIe cards, etc. We’ve never got enough CUDA cores or GPU memory or CPU cycles. Every upgrade is welcome and we’re hungry for them.
You’re stuck when you buy a laptop. Parts can’t be swapped out and you have to buy a whole new laptop to get the one upgrade you want/need. You can try to sell your laptop, but laptops don’t hold their value that well. With a desktop, you can upgrade critical components yearly, and then use the spare parts to create in-house production machines or backup machines.
One thing I like about desktops is their ability to scale. A lot of new TouchDesigner users are worried about getting the perfect computer right off the bat. You’d want to try to get as much bang for buck when you have to use all your money at once to buy a laptop.
With a desktop you can plan to scale your system up over a year or two as your skill level increases. You can start out with a cheap motherboard, 8GB of RAM, an SSD, a mid-level graphics card like a GeForce 1050 or 1060, an Intel i3 or i5, and get working on interactive stuff immediately without breaking the bank. The system can be upgrade piece by piece in an affordable manner as you encounter bottlenecks and start working on larger projects.
I find this much more practical than trying to get the ultimate best gaming laptop for less than $1500 and hoping it can do everything and last a while.
Laptop hardware are generally more expensive that their higher grade desktop components. Some of the components being released on laptops (like the recent GeForce GPUs) have been more akin to their higher performance desktop counterparts, but it is still currently easier and more affordable to get the desktop versions.
When you consider that the price of a laptop is based on form factor and build quality, you’ll almost always get a faster desktop machine for the same price as an equivalent laptop.
In a professional setting you’ll want to use nVidia Quadro graphics cards. These aren’t popular on laptops and any laptop with a Quadro seems to be absurdly expensive and less available to customization in any form.
Ease of repair
I think most people can relate to that moment when they first broke their phone or laptop screen (I’m looking at you MacBooks…) and realized the price to repair it was edging close to the price of a whole new computer. Miniaturization has it’s downsides in that repairs become more difficult and costly. Repairs can even be impossible in a pinch with laptops.
Desktops have the benefit of being able to repair and replace individual parts easily. You’ll be able to source parts at local computer shops and swap them out with a screwdriver or two. Last time I had to open a laptop, I need a Torx screwdriver set, a plastic equivalent of a crowbar, and a magnifying glass to see the smallest screws I’d ever seen.
Is it really a laptop?
My biggest gripe is the form factor. To truly get a laptop near the equivalent power of a desktop, you’re going to end up lugging around a 10 lb laptop with a 4lb charger and a bunch of cables and mice, whose battery will probably only last about 30 minutes. At that point would it not be the same to carry a small form factor desktop with a small monitor, keyboard, and mouse? I think it is even easier and more reliable on a gig than a laptop.
With all that said, there’s still room in the world for workstation laptops. You’ll never know where you’ll need to fix a network in an airport terminal or in a dusty hotel room. We’ve got a number of them and some have lasted longer than others but I still almost always recommend a desktop to anyone.