Hardware

Buying a Laptop for Your Computer Science Degree

Francis Piche Student Software Engineer, McGill

24 August 2017

Is school or work forcing you to be more mobile with your tech? If you’re like me, you’ve been clinging desperately to your trusty old desktop for as long as possible, proudly pulling out your pen and paper in a sea of macbooks, chromebooks and tablets… Sadly, if you’re a computer science or software engineering student, a powerful portable computer might as well be mandatory.

Now, as a new semester approaches, you might be in the position of needing to buy yourself a shiny new laptop. But with so many to choose from, predator confusion can easily take over. This is a guide to buying a laptop that’s best fitted for your needs as a computer science student (or anyone for that matter).

Things to consider when buying a laptop:

1.) Do you do most of your studying at home or at school?

This one’s obvious.

If you do most of your studying and work at home, you probably don’t even need to be buying a laptop. I got through my entire first year with just a desktop PC at home, only using the library computers if I reaaally needed to. Granted, I lived within a 10-minute walk of the campus, which is not the case for a lot of people.

If you’re in a situation where you live far away and/or spend the majority of your day on campus, the library computers often won’t cut it. You’ll want your own workspace, and unrestricted access to all your files. You’ll want to be able to install (and keep) the apps you need, run virtual machines, etc. without dealing with the sluggish library computers that keep crashing. (never forgetting those sticky keyboards…ew)

 

2.) Do you do “code-along” in class?

If you’re in a computer science program, odds are there will be some in-class coding. In these classes it can be extremely useful to code-along with your teacher, so that you have an exact, working, annotated copy of what’s probably not in the slides.

However, if you’re a math major, a laptop will be basically useless during class while you scramble to keep up with the hieroglyphs on the chalkboard.

It’s a detail, but its worth thinking about.

 

3.) How much are you willing/able to invest?

I’m cheap. Just ask my girlfriend. I HATE spending more than I have to. But, sometimes you have to bite the bullet.

If you’re a computer science or software engineering student, you’ll be spending at least 4 years working on a computer. And unless you change careers to carpentry, or the apocalypse hits, probably your whole adult life.  Therefore, INVEST. Your computer is your sword. Don’t be swinging around a stick when you could have Valerian steel.

It may be wise to “future proof” your laptop by buying slightly higher specs than is currently required, just in case you need more later. These extra few bucks now could potentially save you from buying an entirely new machine later.

This doesn’t mean go blow all your cash on the $9000+ Predator 21 X, just ‘cause you can. I somehow doubt you’ll need two GTX 1080 SLI 16GB’s with eye tracking technology any time soon.

If you can afford the machine that fits all your current needs, with some extra room for the future, go for it. If not, it’s worth saving up to meet the minimum. Sell some old stuff you don’t need, make a few sacrifices to save money. This is your career, see it as an investment.

 

4.) Do you already have a desktop computer at home?

If you’re somewhere in the middle between working at school and at home, and already have a decent machine at home, you’re in a lucky spot. If you’ve already got, say, a mid-to high-tier gaming rig at home, odds are it covers all the specs you’ll need for work/school. This allows you to buy a cheaper, less powerful laptop for “on the go”, since if you really need lots of juice (say you’re rendering an HD video) you can just do that at home. Since desktop PC’s are much much cheaper for the same specs (or better) this is a great option if you don’t absolutely need “at-all-times” portability.

 

5.) Will you be running several virtual machines?

For the purposes of school, I really don’t know why you’d be running multiple VM’s at once, but hey, everyone has their fetishes.

Virtual machines are very RAM intensive, if you plan on running multiple at once, I’d recommend getting as much RAM as you can.

Personally, I like having an Ubuntu VM on my laptop for programming in C, since I have a course coming up in September that will be focusing on the UNIX OS.

It also gives me a little “playground” for testing new software that I don’t trust yet, or just playing around with a new OS.

 

6.) Will you be doing any video/picture processing? (Or other graphics work)

A lot of cheaper laptops don’t have much in terms of video cards. If you’ll be doing lots of graphics work, I’d recommend a mid-to-high tier card. Something in the range of the GTX 1060 or higher should do.

 

7.) Will you be doing any gaming on your laptop?

If you don’t already have a gaming rig at home, and you want to get into some heavy gaming and/or emulation, be prepared to pay the price. Gaming PC’s tend to have great specs, but in the laptop category, you pay a harsh cost for the portability. I’d recommend avoiding gaming laptops if you don’t absolutely need the power / have a gaming PC at home.

If you’re just playing Candy Crush, minesweeper and chess… a regular laptop will be just fine. Light gaming like League of Legends or Hearthstone should be fine with a low-tier graphics card.

However, if you want a powerful gaming machine on the go, it will most likely have everything you will ever need in terms of power for school and programming.

 

“It’s nice to have a lot of money, but you know, you don’t want to keep it around forever. I prefer buying things. Otherwise, it’s a little like saving sex for your old age.” -Warren Buffet

Tips for buying a laptop:

Used vs. Refurbished vs. New

This is a tough one for me.

As frugal as I am, I have a hard time buying used electronics from people I don’t know. This is just my opinion, and if you’re comfortable buying a laptop off Craigslist, go for it! You’ll most likely slash up to half the price from retail value. Of course, beware of stolen, broken, or otherwise suspicious offers. It might also be a good idea to format the hard-drive before you put any personal info on there.

Refurbished laptops are great, well, the CAN be great. You can easily shave 10-15% off your laptops retail price by buying refurbished. The problems I have with these is that, depending on the supplier, they don’t always come with a great warranty (look for 1 year or more). And since someone I don’t know was messing with the hardware before selling it to me, I’d want a safety net. Just in case. Again, I might just be paranoid, but when it comes to pricey electronics, I like to play it safe. Personally if I found a refurbished laptop that fit my budget and needs, and had a 1 year warranty, I’d be all in. I love saving money.

When buying a laptop new, online is generally a little cheaper. Keyword: generally. Online stores such as Newegg or  NCIX tend to have better deals than big retail stores like BestBuy or WalMart, and won’t try to sell you some absurdly priced services you don’t need, or a $200+ extended warranty. (I’m looking at you, GeekSquad.) Just beware of shady suppliers and extra cost from international tariffs or taxes.

My Personal Recommendation:

I recently picked up an Acer Aspire R 14’’ Convertible, and it’s exactly what I need. It’s currently running for about $800CAD on Acer’s website.

Contrary to my advice, I bought it in-store at BestBuy, only because it was on sale for 750$, which was comprable to the 725$ I found it for on DirectDial, but with international tariffs, would be similar. (Plus I can take it home right away 😉 )

For general usability I’m loving it so far. It’s super light, has great battery life (8+ hours), and fits nicely in my bag.

8GB or ram is enough that I can allocate more than enough to my VM, and the SSD is a MUST for programming and data transferring. Plus it has an empty DDR3 slot so I can add some extra juice later on if I need. (futureproofing!)

Something I never thought I’d care about was the touchscreen / convertible tablet mode. It’s surprisingly nice for propping up to watch movies, or just when you’re too lazy to use the trackpad.

If you’re a software engineering or computer science student, I’d recommend something of this tier.

If you’re looking to do some gaming or video editing, I’d look for something with a little more processing juice and a video card than this. It has no video card, and the processor is an i5 6200U which is okay, but not great.

To summarize:

-If you’re doing most of your work at home, and don’t need to take digital notes, you might just want a desktop PC.

-If you already have a beast of a machine at home, and will do about half your work on it, you might not need a super powerful laptop.

– Virtualization and programming requires lots of RAM and processor power (Recommend at least 8GB RAM and i5 processor or comparable).

– Media processing and graphics will require a good video card. (Recommend at least GTX 1050 or comparable)

-Even a low-mid tier gaming rig will be very well suited for almost anything else you need to do. Make sure you have a good processor, RAM and graphics card for heavy gaming. (At least GTX 1050, 8GB RAM, i5 processor(quad core if possible)).

-NOTE: I did not mention storage because an SSD is a MUST. Any size will do, 128GB or 256GB should be fine. Buy an external HDD for more room. This will force you to backup your files, and anSSD is essential for performance when programming (plus the super fast boot time is really nice).

Happy hunting!

Hope this helped you! If you have any questions, send me an email! On the contact page you’ll find links to my social media and email.

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