RECOMMENDED COMPUTER GUIDELINES
One common question nearly all incoming transfer and first-year students ask is what kind of computer is recommended. However this question, as it applies to the students in the Computer Science & Engineering programs, is trickier to answer than one would suspect. Even though the department and the University have established adequate facilities to allow students to successfully complete their chosen program without the need for a personal machine, most students find it helpful to have a personal computer, or two, as the established resources may not always be ideal or convenient. While one can find computer recommendations on the University’s website, these recommendations are directed to the student population as a whole and are tailored to meet the needs of most students.
In addition, students in the various CS&E programs often find that they require more, or just something different, in their personal machines than your average student. This is the point where providing an accurate recommendation becomes difficult as the best solution is very individualized. I have been told that the majority of people who ask this question want a simple answer and if that is all you are looking for, the only additions I would make to the University’s recommendations, as it relates to CS&E courses, are:
- Make sure the computer has 8GB of memory installed or can at least be upgraded to 8GB of memory at a later date. A machine which supports more memory would be useful if you are leaning towards any of the engineering programs.
- If interested in CE, EE, ME or advanced graphics processing, a machine with a dedicated GPU will free up memory and CPU resources at the expense of a shorter battery life.
- A modern Intel i5 or comparable CPU should meet the needs of most of your coursework.
- For more guidelines, please consider the steps below.
For those of you want the more complicated answer, please continue reading as there are a large number of factors which should be considered when answering this question, many of which are based off an individual’s personal preferences and abilities. The complexity of this question is the primary reason it has been so difficult to create this page. Below is a list of questions which would need to be answered before an accurate recommendation could be given for a specific individual:
- What exactly do you need/plan to do with the computer? Nearly any computer can be configured to meet the needs of our students during their first year. In addition, with certain software packages installed on their machines, students can take advantage of departmental resources to meet the requirements of nearly all of our classes. But if the student wants to get involved with various extra activities such game development, VR development or perform advanced graphics manipulation, they would need a more robust machine in order to be able to work outside our labs.
- What is the proposed life-cycle of the machine? Are you looking for a machine that will only last a few years or is this a purchase which will need to last your entire academic career and possibly longer? The answer to this question is significantly impacted by the answers to the next few items.
- What is your comfort level dealing with hardware? Would you be willing to open the machine to upgrade components such as the hard drive or system memory? It is typical that manufacturers charge more to customize a machine with a larger hard drive than it would cost to simply buy an after-market one and install it yourself. This needs to be considered because some models have all the parts soldered into place and are not replaceable – even in the event of a component failure.
- What is your comfort level installing and/or reconfiguring operating systems? Would you feel comfortable doing a clean install of an operating system in the event that you installed a new hard drive? Would you feel comfortable installing a Linux distribution or configuring the machine to dual-boot multiple operating systems?
- Do you need the computer to be new with a full warranty or would you be willing to work with used or refurbished equipment? Quite often an older machine, reconfigured with a few upgrades, can outperform a new machine at the same price point.
- Are there specific features and/or software requirements which need to be considered? Is a touch-screen needed, preferred or not wanted? Is long battery life more important than system performance? Is portability more important than features or expandability? Is portability even required, or would a nice desktop be a more appropriate solution?
- Are you willing to entertain the idea of multiple specialized machines? I personally use an older laptop in tandem with a high powered desktop which I can remotely access for the times I need to get real work done.
And the hardest part of all is your answers to these questions today will rarely be the same answers you will give a year or two from now.
- Identify your budget
- If you have an existing system, review how its used. For example:
- If it has a 1TB hard drive which is 90% empty, you most likely don’t need a 1TB drive in your new machine.
- When you are using your computer and it feels slow, look at the performance monitor to identify the potential bottleneck and use this information when defining requirements for your next system.
- Prioritize what is important to you: size, weight, features, battery life, performance, etc…..
- Desktops almost always outperform a laptop of the same generation at the same price point, but you have limited to no portability.
- High performance computers typically require a better cooling solution which results in a larger, heavier, more power hungry machine. For example, ultrabook-style laptops, such as the Macbook Air, Dell XPS, and Lenovo Yoga weigh in around 2.5 to 3 pounds and advertise battery lives in the range of 10 to 13 hours. At the same time, hard-core performance laptops which support multiple GPUs and RAID configurations, such as MSI’s GT series, the Alienware M18x or Origin Eon17-SLX, can weigh up to 14 pounds and don’t even mention battery life on their product pages.
- Find a few machines which best meets your needs within your budget regardless of manufacturer. Most people don’t realize that many of the key components in laptops are made by the same company regardless of whether the machine is branded a Dell, HP, Lenovo, etc…
- Once you have found a few machines which meet your needs, compare warranty policies, check which components can be upgraded, and if possible, find a store where you can actually touch the machines you are considering.
- A few final points to consider:
- For machines where no components are upgradeable, such as Macbooks and Surfaces, avoid anything with less than 8GB of memory for a primary computer or 4GB of memory for a secondary computer and anything that does not have adequate storage for your applications & files.
- In most machines the processor is often the key component because it is one component which is rarely upgradeable, but remember a nice CPU in a machine with a slow hard drive will always feel slow. (But also consider that the same machine can see a huge performance increase by upgrading the drive at a later date as your budget permits.)
- One should remember that as a student in our programs, you will have access to network file servers and cloud storage provided by Google to supplement whatever internal storage your machine has – but this storage is typically slower to access and requires an active network connection in order to access files.
- Additional research never hurts. For example, understanding CPU technologies as the processor with the highest clock speed is not always the fastest. A newer processor with more cores and more cache running at 2.0GHz can often get more work done than an older processor which runs at 3.0GHz. Unless of course, the program you are using was not written to support multi-threading or is not able to take advantage of newer processor technologies.
- Be aware that just because a computer is new doesn’t mean that all its components are. I have seen newer low end computers, and a few high end computers, being sold with processors which were approaching the manufacturer’s end-of-life date and outdated support chips in order to clear out old stock.
- AND FINALLY…. remember that every feature comes at a cost.
- Ultra-high performance often means more weight and shorter battery life
- High performance with good battery life often means, significantly more expensive
- When a machine is cheaper than another, most likely some feature or performance spec was sacrificed