Computer Advice for College-Bound Students

June 25, 2010, 11:37 p.m.

I wrote this as a facebook note for some friends of mine, but people of the internet may find it handy, so here you go:

Quite a few people have been asking around about what kind of computer they should get for college, what it should have, etc. So here are my recommendations as of now. Feel free to ask questions, and offer any suggestions you might have as well.

(look too long? scroll to the bottom, then go back and read the details relevant to you)

Mac vs. PC

The first big question is whether to get a mac or a PC. If you already know what you want, skip this section.

While I vastly prefer PCs personally, I recognize that many people are much more comfortable with a Mac, either because that's what they're used to or they've been brainwashed or they're superior or whatever. First, check if your college requires one kind or the other. If they don't, then either should be fine, so choose based on which you personally prefer better, and which is within your price zone. Macs are expensive, but some people claim it's worthwhile. If you do decide to waste your money buy a mac, you can still install Windows 7 in a virtual machine (virtualbox works well and is free) and run windows apps that way if your classes require them. Some schools (like OSU engineering) mandate that you do this if you have a mac. If you prefer OS X to windows, that's the best of both worlds. And if you prefer Windows, then you don't have to worry about it in the first place.

What to actually get

Generally speaking...

Cost: Keep in mind academic discounts. Apple will cut off about $200 from the price of their laptops for students, and throw in a free iPod touch. Dell has an education store partnered with most large universities. I've been told HP does too, but haven't checked it out personally.

Form factor: Get a laptop. While desktops are easier to upgrade and more powerful per dollar, you will want portability in college. Netbooks are nice and light, and some are tempted to get a powerful desktop and light netbook. While this can work, it is actively discouraged by the college I'm attending due to powerful software which must be used in class. Also, keeping things synced can be a pain.

In terms of size, I wouldn't get anything larger than 15". I find that a lot of people (myself included) like the 14" size - it's a nice balance of screen real estate and portability. Thickness is also a consideration - try looking for laptops under an inch thick if possible.

Keep in mind that you can get an external monitor for as little as $100, and a rather nice external monitor for under $200. Dell outlet has awesome deals on nice refurbished monitors (that's where I got mine). An external keyboard and mouse are dirt cheap (check out freegeek). If you get a small laptop but want space to work, I highly recommend getting an external monitor, mouse and keyboard, and setting yourself up with dual displays and a sort of desktop replacement station. Then when it's time to go to class, you grab your nice light laptop, disconnect it, and off you go. Best of both worlds.

Processor: Most any laptop on the market today will have a good enough processor for most stuff. If possible though, get a Core ix processor - an i3 or i5 should be enough for most people, very few need the power of an i7. The older Core 2 Duo series works fine, but is previous generation technology. Look for a processor with at least a 2.0 GHz clock speed, and at least 2 MB of cache. More is better.

A note regarding processors: a lot of people have been asking me about a Core i3 vs a Core i5; specifically, the i3-370m vs the i5-450m. Don't waste your money on the i5 - the only difference between these two is that the i5 has turbo-boost and a slightly higher integrated graphics speed. The performance gain would be minimal, especially if you have dedicated graphics. See Intel's specfinder comparison if you don't believe me.

Memory: You will need at least 2 GB of RAM. I would recommend 3 or 4 if you want this computer to last you through college. More than 4 is really overkill for now, and memory can be easily upgraded later. One thing to consider is that it's sometimes cheaper to buy memory aftermarket and install it yourself than to buy an upgrade when you get your laptop.

Hard drive: I'm a power user, with multiple virtual machines, lots of disk images and other large files. I also have a lot of music and video. My 320 GB HDD is more than enough for all that. You don't need any more. Do try to get a faster hard drive though - I would choose a 7200RPM 320GB drive over a 5400RPM 500GB drive.

Graphics: There are two types of graphics - integrated and dedicated. Integrated take less power, leading to longer battery life, but they're also weaker for 3D applications like CAD modeling, games, etc. They might be good enough if you don't intend to do any intensive 3D stuff. Dedicated graphics take much more power, but can handle much more. If you're doing engineering, you'll likely want dedicated graphics. Nvidia has an awesome new technology called Nvidia Optimus, which switches dynamically between integrated and dedicated graphics. That optimizes battery life while giving graphics power when you need it. I highly recommend laptops with optimus. Asus has lots of them right now, other manufacturers are still catching on.

Other stuff: Most laptops have a webcam these days, but check just in case. If you have a choice between 2 different battery sizes, I'd advocate for the larger/longer-lasting option. Get an external hard drive to back up your data. They're usually cheaper if you buy them separately from the laptop. You shouldn't need to spend more than $100 on an external drive; less, really. Screen resolution is another consideration - higher resolutions have smaller text, but you can fit way more on the screen. I'd recommend upgrading the resolution if you can. Sadly, most manufacturers stick you with 1366x768 these days, which sucks. Your computer will almost certainly have wireless. If your college has a Wireless-N network, it may be worth upgrading to an N card, but it won't make a huge difference for most people.

Specific recommendations

Macs
If you insist...
The cheapest mac laptop is the 13" MacBook at $950. It's not as nice as the MacBook Pro, and is only available in the 13" size, but the specs are sufficient. It does have an older generation Core 2 Duo processor though.
The MacBook Pros are more expensive, from $1100. The 13 inch models are a bit faster than the 13" MacBook, but still are stuck with a Core 2 Duo. The 15" and 17" have Core i5's and above. There's little need to upgrade to one of the faster processor editions for most people. I would recommend getting the high res screen on the MBP 15" though.

 

PCs
The PC environment is much more dynamic and varied than the Apple environment. At the time of this writing, I'm a bit of a fan of ASUS. They don't sell directly through their website, but you can find their laptops in stores, and online retailers like Newegg and Amazon. I would highly recommend the Asus U45JC at $879. It's fast, light, small and has optimus, and the battery lasts as long as 8 hours (in real life, advertised 10 hours).

The HP Envy 14 is also a nice looking laptop, starting from $999 ($899 for students). Its battery life isn't as good as some others, but it's high quality, and most importantly, has a high-resolution (1600x900) display. It uses ATI's switchable graphics, which aren't as smooth as Optimus, but just as powerful. This is also a very configurable model with lots of options. Make sure to get the education discount if you get this laptop. Unfortunately they've jacked the price up (screen upgrade is $200 now), so I would no longer say that this laptop is really worth it unless you have a pretty generous budget.

If you have a ton of money to blow and aren't a mac fan, the Sony Vaio Z is an amazing laptop which I wish I could afford. If you get one, let me know so I can play with it, pretty please. Fast processor, switchable graphics, backlit keyboard, high resolution 13" screen, thin, light, awesome.

For more middle of the road, cheaper laptops, Dell isn't a bad choice. These links are for their regular prices, check for an education discount for sure. The dell Studio series is nice - perhaps check out the Studio 14 (starting at $700). On the less expensive side of dell, the Inspiron 14 starts at $500 (although sometimes is discounted lower) and is a solid computer, although without a processor upgrade, won't have spectacular performance. Dells are very customizable, so keep in mind your needs, and just add the things you need - if you need dedicated graphics, you can add that, but you may not need to.

A note on software

DO NOT buy Microsoft Office or an upgrade to a better version of Windows when you get your computer! Students can get massive discounts on software through their university. Many offer the MSDNAA program to students in Comp Sci or Engineering classes, giving you free access to a lot of MS software. And, ANY student can get office really cheap through the Office Ultimate Steal, as well as Windows 7 Pro.

 

Overview/recap

  • Check if your school has computer requirements
  • Processor: Intel Core ix, 2.0GHz or higher
  • Memory: 2GB, preferably more
  • Hard drive: 250GB 7200RPM or more
  • Get a dedicated graphics card (ATI or Nvidia graphics, not Intel) if you will be doing games, 3D modeling, CAD, etc.
  • 14" is a good size
  • Don't buy software upgrades with your computer
  • PCs are usually cheaper. Macs are preferred by some. Use what works for you
  • Ask questions, esp. if you want a specific recommendation for your situation
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