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4 Reasons Why Desktop Computers Are Better Than Mobile Devices in ICT4D

By Wayan Vota on April 16, 2012

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“Should we abandon desktop computers in ICT4D programs?” That is the question we asked ourselves at a recent Inveneo hardware strategy session. Should we move fully into mobile solutions – laptops, tablets, mobile phones – and stop testing, recommending, and installing our desktop computing solutions?

After strong deliberations on all sides, we came to agreement that desktop computers still have a strong demand and real role to play in ICT4D interventions for humanitarian organizations in international development programs for many reasons.

4 Reasons Why Desktop Computers Can be Better than Mobile Solutions in ICT4D

Desktops Are Rugged

Regardless of how rugged a Classmate PC laptop or an iPad tablet is, they are both inherently fragile. They can be dropped or broken through carelessness, and when that happens, the entire laptop or tablet must be sent back for repair – if that’s even possible. Yet a desktop’s main point of failures are $5 mice and $10 keyboards, which if broken are easy and cheap to replace.

Desktops Are Secure

An iPad can be slipped into a newspaper and removed from an office, school, or community center in a blink of an eye. A laptop can walk off in a bag or backpack. A desktop computer? Not so much. Yes, you could steal one, it happens, but a big monitor is hard to hide under a coat.

Desktops Can be Multi-user

That big monitor allows 4 or more people to see the screen, allowing for a much greater collaboration between users and more users to share the experience at the same time. Desktops, and many laptops, can also have multiple user accounts, not usually possible with tablets.

Desktops are Versatile

The tablet may be ultra-mobile, the laptop may be convenient, but neither have the processing power, the storage capacity, and the software functionality of a desktop computer. When you absolutely, positively, need to compute, a desktop is the best solution.

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Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of his employer, any of its entities, or any ICTWorks sponsor.
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11 Comments to “4 Reasons Why Desktop Computers Are Better Than Mobile Devices in ICT4D”

  1. Anonymous says:

    This article is totally devoid of facts. Let me comment on your 4 reasons that you gave:

    Class Mate PC are very rugged and can be dropped from almost a meter high and absolutely nothing will happen to them. Thus in terms of ruggedness your point does not stand. They also are water proof and anti bacterial.

    Class Mate PC’s come with Hardware based security that can alert the admin when taken outside the peripheral. They also are include Anti-Theft Technology that will render them useless if taken out of the pereiphery of the school. This is determined by the admin. They do nt require heavy security infrstructure that come with Desktop labs and can safely be locked in a secure place.

    Multi User:
    Agreed to a limited extent that a large screen can be viewed by many. Nothing stops users from attaching classmates to external screens. However that is not the point. The key point to consider is quality time for each student to spend with the computer rather than have many on one and not all get to experience the usage. With classmates they can be wheeled from one class to the other easily where the Desktops are stationery. So the computers get to every student and thye get to interact with it at least once or twice a week. Tha is not possible with a Desktop lab. You do the math.

    unless the students are doing number crunching and heavy content creation then you would need heavy processing power. Otherwise the classmates are very much capable of handilng education requirements and are dseigned for that. So your argument does not hold water.

    I would have thought that you would consider issues such as power, student ineteraction, mobility 1:1 computing in arriving at your recommendation. These are issues that are impacting use of computers in Emerging markets rather than the feeble arguments that were put forward.

    Thank you.

  2. Interesting comments from the last poster –

    I would add that affordability is a consideration. In many of our projects, we source and buy our computers from local markets. Often you get more bang for the buck on a desktop PC – more RAM, HD space, screen size, speed etc. The classic Dell desktop is also much easier to repair when it comes to replacing the inevitably damaged components from day to day use.

    I will say that having a laptop that can continue to operate between intermittent power cuts is a bonus when comparing with a desktop – but it all depends on who will be using the laptop and what they will be doing with it.

    I find that viruses are a reoccurring problem and I know they are a operating system issue and not hardware related, but I would love to see an article done about the pros and cons of using windows vs a linux based O/S or even strategies for keeping viruses at bay. I cant count how many computers I’ve found rendered useless, not from power or dust or managed components – but simply from total virus overload.

  3. Wayan Vota says:

    Classmate PC laptops are a good option in many circumstances, however they do have drawbacks. I know they can be broken from falls less than 1 meter – I’ve done it myself. They can be stolen regardless of the anti-theft – I’ve seen it happen. I’ve also seen 4 kids crowded around a Classmate, where the two on the outside kept saying “let me see! Let me see!” last but not least, I’ve seen the Classmate sloooow way down on basic video playback, mainly because buyers opt for the cheapest machine when doing 1:1 to keep costs down. Penny smart, pound foolish gets you a underpowered laptop that frustrates everyone.

    Smart deployments of ClassmatePC’s can be amazing. We are leading a deployment of Classmates in 900+ educational locations in Tanzania where desktops would’ve been the wrong hardware. So don’t confuse the title – its not saying ONLY desktops, just don’t count them out.

  4. Quite strong feelings from the first poster . . . no need for the name calling.

    I’ll add a few more reasons why I prefer working with computer labs full of desktops. And for the sake of background, I have been administering ICT programs in sub-Saharan Africa for seven years running, primarily with high school students and their teachers:

    * Reparable *
    With desktops, you can teach your stakeholders how to do semi-advanced computer maintenance. You can teach them to add RAM from old machines into newer ones, how to clean the computer interior and how to swap parts around. This builds confidence and will remain relevant for as long as old desktops continue to be dumped on Africa.

    * Prevalent *
    Accumulating desktop experience prepares people for entry level jobs where the vast majority of those people will be using similar, standard desktops. Familiarity with a boutique laptop may be of less use in such situations.

    * Unbranded *
    Call me old fashioned, but equipment-donation partnerships still worry me. When I see that I have to work with a school in that situation, I worry that they won’t be able to maintain and protect their machines and I find the branding and self-congratulation of some donor companies to be off-putting. Yes, private-public-partnerships are highly regarded and can be of much use; but are your stakeholders really well served, for example, by using computers four generations ahead of the ones in their area.

    And, really, *Secure* has to be underscored again. Even with the GPS/lockdown features of some boutique-rugged-laptops, people are going to try to try removing them from the premises. If the computer renders itself unusable after the theft it isn’t going to make anyone return the machine.

  5. Wayan Vota says:

    Power is certainly a consideration in laptop vs. desktop. A laptop has a built in APS (the battery) and some laptops run on 12 volts and recharge on 19 volts (like the Classmate to the commenter above). There are certain laptops and desktops (including monitor) that can even run on 12v / 20watt straight DC power systems, making solar a deployment significantly cheaper and less complicated. So the power situation is very nuanced now – each hardware option has a power advantage/disadvantage.

  6. Bob Jolliffe says:

    Well said Nathaniel!

    Maintainability is surely the key and this is best served with grey-box machines which can be easily assembled/disassembled/reassembled using parts from the open market (often locally available directly from far east suppliers) rather than over-priced custom parts from branded pc suppliers.

    Mind you the context of “ICT4D” is far from a uniform one. It seems the assumption behind this post is a meaning of “ICT interventions in international development” and more specifically focused on schools and training. Different contexts and understandings of ICT4D might throw up a different set of factors.

  7. Wayan Vota says:

    Indeed, I did write this focused on ICT4D but not on education or training specifically. I am thinking broadly to include health, relief, government, and economic development in addition to education.

    In these situations, mobile is not always the answer – especially in shared use environments where multiple people will be using the same device or in high-traffic areas where things could walk away. Patient check in at hospitals, government offices, and any public use situation, desktops can take the beating that laptops cannot.

  8. Kariuki says:

    Locally assembled clone desk-tops are about 25 % cheaper. There are no clone laptops, tablets, iPads and so on. So desktops win on cost-effectiveness.

    The entire Nyumbani village Kitui (see http://www.shadaonline.co.ke) was designed entirely on a US $ 350 clone desktop. It’s hard to imagine doing that kind of work on a laptop, much less a tablet.

  9. Tim Denny says:

    when I saw the title of this essay the first thing that came to mind… what is a desktop? sure a few years ago that was an easy question to answer but today the lines between computer types are far less clear. The picture attached to this article is a good example… it shows a mini PC – basically a laptop without a battery, keyboard and mousepad; bolted to an LCD monitor with wired keyboard and mouse. It is sort of a hybrid machine… looks like a desktop but is built on laptop technology… open the machine and you should see laptop internals.

    So to improve the discussion I really think we must define a desktop… what is a desktop and what is not a desktop. What is it that we are really referring to as there seems to be a great deal of loose speculation.

    Ok now my bias… I am just getting ready to deploy some 500 14″ screen laptops for university labs in Laos.

    Why did we go with laptops?

    compact, generally made to consume lower energy, battery backup, connectivity built-in (wifi, bluetooth, LAN, etc…)

    What are we doing to ensure their longevity?

    Each laptop will be secured to the table by standard cable lock, extra cooling will be provided by a USB type cooling fan, external keyboard and mouse attached by USB

    Price differential – not much… When you consider that we would have needed to buy wifi dongles and UPS … on top of that possibly spend more on electric costs, I think we are coming out about even if not ahead in the long run.

    For the aforementioned reasons and more we decided to go with laptops in our computer labs. Happy to discuss this decision further…


  10. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for this very interesting and good post.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Ah yeah and it is also intelligent researched.