Laptops vs. Desktops

Standardization can save you 26%.

By Roman H. Kepczyk
Quantum of Paperless: Technology Guide & Checklist

Getting the right mix of mobility is critical for firms today. The accounting professional’s Rule of Thumb is that everyone who works out of the office one day per week or more and needs to be self-contained should have a laptop as their only machine. Thanks to COVID-19, those numbers grew by leaps and bounds in 2020.

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The obvious exception to this is for tax or administrative personnel who would never work from remote client sites and have a computer at home that they can use to connect to the firm via a secure remote access solution. However, this is changing. The string of natural disasters over the past two decades – along with the promotion of remote work opportunities to retain staff as well as the transition to more cloud-based applications – has led some firms toward making the decision that ALL professional staff will utilize a laptop as their only workstation.

Laptops should be scheduled for replacement every three years, whereas desktops are often functional for a fourth year. In cloud-based firms that utilize workstations primarily as “dumb terminals” via tools such as Citrix and Microsoft Remote Desktop Server (formerly Windows Terminal Server), the functioning life of a desktop computer can be five or more years.

Today, there is little benefit in purchasing off-brand computers, and most firms buy workstations from Dell, HP, and Lenovo. One of the keys to a stable environment is to buy the business versions rather than consumer units and to standardize on as few models as possible within the firm.

Studies done in the past found that such standardization could reduce the total cost of ownership by 26 percent or more. Firms have also found that buying, rather than leasing makes more sense, as the firm can roll out replacement computers at their convenience, instead of being forced to complete a transition by a specific date to return the leased laptops.

Cloud-based firms are also finding that the life of their workstations can often be extended one to two years as the bulk of computer processing is being done on the cloud-based servers.

The key components firms should be concerned about when evaluating workstations are

  • RAM,
  • processor and
  • solid-state drives (SSDs).

The firm standard should be a minimum of 8Gb RAM, with tax personnel having 16Gb to handle the increased number of applications loaded simultaneously in today’s digital environment. For traditional computer networks where much of the work is processed on the workstation, the minimum processor used by accountants should be an Intel Core i5 whereas, for new computers, an i7 processor would be recommended.

For firms moving to the cloud, an i5 processor and 8Gb RAM is the recommended minimum, but some cloud tax applications have “fat” local applications that need 16Gb RAM so it is important to verify vendor feedback with peers, as these devices will probably need to be utilized for five or more years.

One of the significant changes in laptop design that occurred in 2012 was the rollout of Ultrabooks that are less than 1” thin, weigh less than three pounds, and have a battery life of more than five hours. These highly mobile devices were designed to provide an alternative to the proliferation of tablets, which many desktop users were acquiring to do work when away from their desks. While tablets (Apple iPad, Android) have become valuable tools for “consuming” information, the vast majority of work performed by CPAs is still done on traditional desktop and laptop computers that have access to multiple screens and full-size keyboards.

An interesting trend from the CPAFMA 2018 IT Survey was the noticeable increase in firms that were piloting Microsoft Surface and other hybrid “2 in 1” devices. Microsoft’s Surface Pro units are a fully functioning hybrid between laptops and tablets, but the overall cost has been traditionally higher than laptops and peripherals, so adoption in CPA firms continues to be cautious as evidenced by the CPAFMA 2020 IT Survey.


  1. Maintain laptop and desktop inventory to identify annual replacement requirements.
  2. Purchase name brand business-class workstations in as large a lot as possible to promote standardization.