A Computer for College Part 1: Explanations and General Recommendations

If you’re coming to Wesleyan you’re likely getting a new computer of some kind. And if you don’t obsessively follow computer news and benchmarks you’re likely to be at least a bit out of date concerning what to get and why, so I’m going to try to help. I hope this guide can be helpful for both those coming to Wesleyan for the first time, and for those returning.

Since there’s so much to cover, I’m going to do it in three parts. The first (this one) is going to cover what the different parts are and what you’re likely to need, as well as choosing an operating system. In the second part I’m going to be going through and pricing different laptops from a variety of different manufacturers to see where the best deals may be found, as well as some general tips for keeping the price of your computer down. The third installment is going to be about things you can do to keep your current computer running longer, better if you can’t afford/don’t want to buy a new one when you come to Wes, as well as some general computing suggestions and software.

Part I:

The Parts:

  • Processor: The ‘brain’ of the computer, a processor is what does general calculations
  • Hard Drive: Long-term data storage. There are two types: mechanical hard drives and solid state drives (SSDs). SSDs are new technology and extremely expensive, but they’re also much more resistent to abuse. However, given prices, a normal mechanical hard drive is what you’ll likely be getting.
  • RAM/Memory (Random Access Memory): Short term memory for your computer, RAM access is much faster than hard drive access, and your computer will do its best to keep running programs in RAM.
  • Graphics Card: Handles the calculations that display things on your screen. These can be either integrated into the motherboard and sharing system memory or can be discrete–a separate card that’s plugged in.

Other Things to watch:

  • Screen Size: Laptop screens generally range in size from 11-19″. If you’re looking for any kind of portability get something with a 15.4″ screen or smaller. Size is measured along the diagonal. Computer screens are either in a 4:3 (standard) or 16:10 (widescreen) aspect ratio–widescreen offers slightly less screen space for the same diagonal size, but lots of people (me included) prefer it. Screens also come in different resolutions, as well, which denote the number of pixels on the screen (pixels being the little dots of color that form the picture you see). Dimensions are width * length. A common standard aspect ratio resolution is 1280×1024, common widescreen resolutions are 1440×900 and 1680×1050 (although there are many, many more). What you get is your preference and is based mostly on the size of screen you get. Higher resolutions mean smaller, clearer pictures.
  • Weight: Your preference. The lighter, the easier it’s going to be to carry around.
  • Battery Life: How much you want to focus on this is again your preference. But the more the better.
  • Warranty: this is pretty self explanatory. The longer, obviously the better, but it’s not necessarily worth it to spend extra on longer warranties. Accidental damage protection is also something you may want to get–some manufacturers (ASUS) offer this free for a while, which is very nice.

What to Get:

General User:
This is most people. If you do mostly web browsing and word documents, this is where you should be. If you play only older games (WoW, WCIII, Source engine games, etc.) something with these specs and one of the lower-end graphics cards I suggested here should be fine.

  • Processor: Any dual core mobile offering by Intel or AMD should be fine. These will generally range from 1.6 to 2.4GHz. Higher numbers will generally get you better performance, but if you’re just performing basic tasks, you’re not going to notice it. Note that Intel’s processor’s will outperform AMD’s processors in terms of performance, but AMD’s processors are usually cheaper and with any of today’s modern processors can handle basic applications like web browsing easily.
  • Hard Drive: Everyone’s needs are different. However, I’d recommend that you stick with a 5400RPM hard drive (rather than 7200RPM) to keep power consumption and heat down. Size is your choice. 80GB should be the absolute minimum in size, but that will fill up pretty quickly if you plan on storing much media.
  • RAM: If you’re going Windows Vista get 2gb. If you’re going XP, OS X, or any Linux distro you can make do with 1gb. More RAM is nicer, but again, if you’re doing basic tasks, you probably won’t see any benefit with more than 2gb, even on Vista. Note that you won’t be able to use more than 4gb with a 32-bit operating system, which is what you’ll almost certainly be getting (see section on OS’s below for more on this)
  • Graphics Card: Stay with integrated graphics unless you plan on playing games. In that case, I would recommend something like an NVidia 8400GS, 9300GS, or an AMD Mobility Radeon HD 3400, all of which should run older games acceptably (although not always on the highest settings). If you’re looking into more serious gaming, you’re in the wrong category.
  • Screen Size: Under NO circumstances should you go over 15.4″ in terms of screen size–there simply is no point based on what you’re putting into the computer.
  • Battery Life: I would try to buy something with at least 2.5-3 hours. If you’re really set on all-day computing without a cord, there are laptops that get 8 or more hours of battery life–although you’ll obviously pay a premium.

Prices you can expect:

  • You can find a typical basic laptop that will meet most people’s needs for $500-1000
  • Higher priced units will get you things like smaller size, better battery life, and better support


Power User:
If you’re playing newer games, doing photo or video manipulation and editing, rendering 3D scenes, or other computation-intensive work you’re going to want something more from a computer than a machine created from the specs above is going to give you.

  • Processor: get an Intel Core 2 Duo, Core 2 Extreme, or Core 2 Quad running at at least 2GHz. 2.4GHz is a good compromise between performance and cost in my opinion. AMD’s mobile processors are unfortunately don’t perform well enough for me to consider them for gaming or other heavy processor work. Note that getting a Core 2 Quad over a Core 2 Duo is probably going to take bad battery life and make it absolutely dismal–for the vast, vast majority of people, a Core 2 Duo (or dual core Core 2 Extreme) should be fine. Processor performance is especially important for picture and video work, although unless you’re doing some very serious editing, it’s still probably not worth it to take the jump to the much more expensive Core 2 Extreme processor line.
  • Hard Drive: You can go either 5400 or 7200RPM–higher hard drive speeds will generally get you faster loading (and booting) times, but will run hotter, be louder, and cost more. I do a decent amount of gaming and have run into no problems with a 5400RPM hard drive. Size is up to you here as well. If you have lots of large files you may want to look into an external hard drive with Firewire or eSATA (and buy a laptop with corresponding connections), both of which are much faster than USB 2.0.
  • RAM: 2GB is the minimum, more is good (although more than 4GB is probably excessive for most gaming use). Keep in mind that if you’re running a 32-bit OS, you’ll only be able to use 4GB (and this is COMBINED system memory AND graphics card memory). If you want to use more, you may want to look into a 64-bit OS. (If you have no idea what I’m talking about, see the ‘Operating Systems’ section below). If you’re doing graphics work, you’ll want lots–4GB or possibly more (which again, ties you into a 64-bit OS).
  • Graphics Card: This is the most important part of your computer if you’re looking at gaming performance, bar absolutely nothing. Models that will give at least decent performance on newer games are: NVidia GeForce 8600M GS < gt =" 9500M" gt =" 9650M"> 512mb GDDR2. If you’re doing other 3D work (AutoCAD, etc.) you’re probably going to want a workstation-level graphics card, either from NVidia’s Quadro line or AMD’s FireGL line. If you’re doing video/audio/graphics work, your applications are almost certainly not dependent on a graphics card for performance, and a lower end graphics card, such as an NVidia GeForce 8400M GS or 9300M GS should be fine.
  • Screen Size: You probably won’t be able to get a decent laptop with these kinds of specs in anything smaller than a 15.4″ package. I personally recommend very strongly you don’t go over 15.4″ either–anything larger and mobility will be very much at stake.
  • Battery Life: I wouldn’t go below 1.5 hours–more is obviously better, but not always feasible given what you’re putting into the computer.

Prices to expect:

  • $1300-1600: medium settings on newer games
  • $1600-$2000: high settings on most newer games
  • $2000+: high to very high settings on almost everything (I make no promises about Crysis)

Other Notes:

  • Since Macs now have Intel processors, gaming on Macs is now feasible. If you’re interested, you’ll want a MacBook Pro with a dedicated graphics card. To get games to run, you can use Boot Camp or VMWare Fusion or Parrallels Desktop–this will let you install Windows XP or Vista to play games on. You can also try using applications like Wine or Cider to let you play games straight from your OS X install.
  • Speaking as someone who has a 15.4″ notebook, I can say that if you live close enough that transportation isn’t much of a problem, getting both a desktop for gaming and a subnotebook (think EeePC or similar) for taking to class is something you should seriously consider. An $800-1000 desktop will get you gaming performance equivalent or better than a $2000+ notebook, and you can get an EeePC or something like it for ~$400. You’ll spend less money, get better gaming performance, and have a much more portable notebook. The only real disadvantages are space (which isn’t a huge issue in my opinion) and transportation. If you’re going to be flying, taking a desktop isn’t going to work. Getting desktops to the LAN parties we hold can be a bit of a pain too, although plenty of people do it.

Operating Systems:
Most people will be going with either Windows Vista, Windows XP, or Macintosh OS X 10.5. This is mostly a matter of personal preference. I personally prefer Vista over XP, but lots of people disagree with me. If you’re on a tight budget, you’ll get better performance with XP–although realize that the last day XP will be available to be sold is June 30th, 2008, so if you want XP, don’t wait too long. If you’re unsure, but buying a mid-high range laptop, I would say go with Vista.

Windows or OS X is most certainly a matter of preference–I use Windows, and I think the split is something like 50/50 on campus–both are fully supported by the ITS Helpdesk.

Linux, BSD, or something else is an option as well, but if you’re considering any of these, there are much better sources than me for the information–I will say that dual-booting one (or more) of these with either Windows or OS X would be best if you’re new to it.

If you’re looking at getting 4GB of RAM or more, you’re going to want to make sure you get a 64-bit version of whatever operating system you’re using. OS’s have until recently been built primarily on a 32-bit architecture. However, limitations on that architecture prevent the operating system from addressing more than 4GB of RAM total. To address this (and other issues) 64-bit versions of operating systems are now available and are becoming more widely used. Any modern processor should be capable of running either 32 or 64-bit versions of Windows or any other OS. 64-bit driver support has gotten pretty good lately, and so the only problems you’re likely to have are with very old hardware. (OS X is completely 64-bit, and so this is only something you need to worry about with Windows or GNU/Linux.)

If anyone has suggestions, questions, comments, or corrections, please post in the comments. Given the rapidly changing nature of the computer market, this will remain a work in progress!

As a final note, remember that these are simply recommendations and explanations, and neither I nor Wesleying are responsible for what you do with your money.

102 thoughts on “A Computer for College Part 1: Explanations and General Recommendations

  1. Anonymous

    elizabeth,if a music library, word, and a browser is all you need, no it wouldn’t be worth the extra $200. all you need to worry about is the size of your hard drive, which for 2000+ songs i don’t think you’ll need THAT much space… unless your songs are very high quality. i have 3000+ songs and it only takes up little over 14gigs on my ipod.as for dual graphic cards on laptop…. bad bad idea. dual cards are still inefficient on desktops.

  2. Anonymous

    elizabeth,
    if a music library, word, and a browser is all you need, no it wouldn’t be worth the extra $200. all you need to worry about is the size of your hard drive, which for 2000+ songs i don’t think you’ll need THAT much space… unless your songs are very high quality. i have 3000+ songs and it only takes up little over 14gigs on my ipod.
    as for dual graphic cards on laptop…. bad bad idea. dual cards are still inefficient on desktops.

  3. Sam

    10:15 and 10:46: There ARE laptops with 8700M’s SLI’d, but they’re large and very expensive (although they do perform well). A laptop with a single 8800M GTS or GTX is likely to be a much better idea.SLI is also generally a bad idea in a desktop because you can ususally get a card that performs at least twice as well for less than twice the price, and two cards don’t scale perfectly well.spazeboy: You actually do need to install Clean Access on Macs–it just doesn’t do much.

  4. Sam

    10:15 and 10:46: There ARE laptops with 8700M’s SLI’d, but they’re large and very expensive (although they do perform well). A laptop with a single 8800M GTS or GTX is likely to be a much better idea.

    SLI is also generally a bad idea in a desktop because you can ususally get a card that performs at least twice as well for less than twice the price, and two cards don’t scale perfectly well.

    spazeboy: You actually do need to install Clean Access on Macs–it just doesn’t do much.

  5. Anonymous

    I’ve never heard of dual graphics cards in a laptop and wouldn’t recommend it if you could for heat and performance reasons. A lot of people think it’s stupid even on a desktop

  6. Anonymous

    I’ve never heard of dual graphics cards in a laptop and wouldn’t recommend it if you could for heat and performance reasons. A lot of people think it’s stupid even on a desktop

  7. spazeboy

    Sam will probably address this in other posts, but one of the perks of having a computer running a non-Windows operating system (Linux or MacOS) is that you don’t have to install the Cisco Clean Access Agent to use campus wi-fi.Also, someone asked about wireless cards. Any new laptop ought to have wireless b/g/n (802.11b, 802.11g [which is backwards compatible with 802.11b], or 802.11n [which is backwards compatible with 802.11g and 802.11b]) built in, and that should be fine. If you’re going with a desktop only, IMO you shouldn’t bother with wireless because the wired ethernet connection will be faster and more reliable.Great post Sam.

  8. spazeboy

    Sam will probably address this in other posts, but one of the perks of having a computer running a non-Windows operating system (Linux or MacOS) is that you don’t have to install the Cisco Clean Access Agent to use campus wi-fi.

    Also, someone asked about wireless cards. Any new laptop ought to have wireless b/g/n (802.11b, 802.11g [which is backwards compatible with 802.11b], or 802.11n [which is backwards compatible with 802.11g and 802.11b]) built in, and that should be fine. If you’re going with a desktop only, IMO you shouldn’t bother with wireless because the wired ethernet connection will be faster and more reliable.

    Great post Sam.

  9. Anonymous

    can you get 2 graphics cards in the same laptop? what cards would you recommend for dual cards in the same laptop?

  10. Anonymous

    can you get 2 graphics cards in the same laptop? what cards would you recommend for dual cards in the same laptop?

  11. Elizabeth

    prefrosh here! thanks for the post.ok I’m computer-stupid so i have some questions. so …I think I’m going to get a MacBook. Is it worth the $200 to get a 2G instead of 1G version? I’m only going to go online and use Word, but I also want to be able to store 2000+ songs (maybe I should get a separate hard drive? agh).also, should i buy on my own or through wes?thanks!

  12. Elizabeth

    prefrosh here! thanks for the post.
    ok I’m computer-stupid so i have some questions. so …I think I’m going to get a MacBook. Is it worth the $200 to get a 2G instead of 1G version? I’m only going to go online and use Word, but I also want to be able to store 2000+ songs (maybe I should get a separate hard drive? agh).
    also, should i buy on my own or through wes?
    thanks!

  13. Anonymous

    Just thought I’d throw in a few things:your warranty can be the best part for your laptop you can buy.I really like my Lenovo laptop. It’s incredibly durable, heat efficient, small, featured and their service is great. Don’t buy a dell, ask any senior that kept theirs all four years: something went wrong and I bet they couldn’t get anybody to fix it.The computer store has Vista Ultimate for $20. Its list price is ~$170 at the cheapest (often MUCH MUCH higher) Needless to say it’s an incredible deal and if you’re buying a laptop at the beginning of the school year, consider shipping it without an operating system if it’s an option and it would save a few bucks.

  14. Anonymous

    Just thought I’d throw in a few things:

    your warranty can be the best part for your laptop you can buy.

    I really like my Lenovo laptop. It’s incredibly durable, heat efficient, small, featured and their service is great. Don’t buy a dell, ask any senior that kept theirs all four years: something went wrong and I bet they couldn’t get anybody to fix it.

    The computer store has Vista Ultimate for $20. Its list price is ~$170 at the cheapest (often MUCH MUCH higher) Needless to say it’s an incredible deal and if you’re buying a laptop at the beginning of the school year, consider shipping it without an operating system if it’s an option and it would save a few bucks.

  15. Anonymous

    For CompSci – unless you’re planning on programming in something like Visual Basic (ughhhh), which is tied to an operating system, linux would suit you just fine.mmmm, Unix systems… mmmmm

  16. Anonymous

    For CompSci – unless you’re planning on programming in something like Visual Basic (ughhhh), which is tied to an operating system, linux would suit you just fine.

    mmmm, Unix systems… mmmmm

  17. Anonymous

    If you are not going to do gaming all the time or are constantly doing video/audio/graphics editing (though for graphics there are definitely good programs like Gimp), you should go for Linux. Ubuntu is a good distro, and is, at least from my experience, the most user-friendly of them all. Dell sells laptops and desktops prepackaged with Ubuntu (and service to go with it). And remember it’s FREE!! Unlike Mac OS X or Windows. However, it might be useful to dual boot with Mac OS X or Windows as pointed out by Sam.

  18. Anonymous

    If you are not going to do gaming all the time or are constantly doing video/audio/graphics editing (though for graphics there are definitely good programs like Gimp), you should go for Linux. Ubuntu is a good distro, and is, at least from my experience, the most user-friendly of them all. Dell sells laptops and desktops prepackaged with Ubuntu (and service to go with it). And remember it’s FREE!! Unlike Mac OS X or Windows. However, it might be useful to dual boot with Mac OS X or Windows as pointed out by Sam.

  19. Sam

    All you need to be a comp sci major (I will be one) is to be able to run a text editor ;). If you prefer coding in an IDE like Eclipse (which is multiplatform, by the way), then you’ll want a computer that can handle Eclipse well–which should be basically anything new.

  20. Sam

    All you need to be a comp sci major (I will be one) is to be able to run a text editor ;). If you prefer coding in an IDE like Eclipse (which is multiplatform, by the way), then you’ll want a computer that can handle Eclipse well–which should be basically anything new.

  21. Sam

    Xue: it was fun, glad to!7:41: it shouldn’t really matter, I don’t think. Mac or PC is really should be your personal preference of operating systems in my opinion.

  22. Sam

    Xue: it was fun, glad to!

    7:41: it shouldn’t really matter, I don’t think. Mac or PC is really should be your personal preference of operating systems in my opinion.

  23. Sam

    5:39: Yes, you can get software discounts at the hardware store, and Wesleyan has some software available free on its internal network.I’m going to be talking more specifically about this in my third post, and I don’t have lists or prices (although the Wes computer store’s website might), but there is lots of software available for a lot less than elsewhere and in some cases (MS Office, for example) free–don’t bother buying anything you don’t have already. You can find a list of software available on the network linked from the ITS website.

  24. Sam

    5:39: Yes, you can get software discounts at the hardware store, and Wesleyan has some software available free on its internal network.

    I’m going to be talking more specifically about this in my third post, and I don’t have lists or prices (although the Wes computer store’s website might), but there is lots of software available for a lot less than elsewhere and in some cases (MS Office, for example) free–don’t bother buying anything you don’t have already. You can find a list of software available on the network linked from the ITS website.

  25. Anonymous

    @4:41 –Big screen also implies better movie viewing. I have a huge HP with a separate number pad included in the keyboard (should give you an idea of how big it is), and the wide 17″ screen is great for the avid movie pirate that I am. I don’t usually bring my laptop to class but it does fit into my backpack when I do, and yeah it’s kind of heavy but I need the workout anyway.

  26. Anonymous

    @4:41 —

    Big screen also implies better movie viewing. I have a huge HP with a separate number pad included in the keyboard (should give you an idea of how big it is), and the wide 17″ screen is great for the avid movie pirate that I am. I don’t usually bring my laptop to class but it does fit into my backpack when I do, and yeah it’s kind of heavy but I need the workout anyway.

  27. Anonymous

    can we get software at discount price from the wes computer store? if so, please post price and the list of software, thanks.

  28. Anonymous

    can we get software at discount price from the wes computer store? if so, please post price and the list of software, thanks.

  29. Anonymous

    my advice: if youre not doing gaming or maybe video editing, go for something very cheap, and get a warranty that covers accidents. besides the fact that youre likely to spill shit on your computer, with regular warranties youre never sure if you can get things repaired, but with an accident warranty everything will always be covered. also, laptop parts tend to go bad a lot faster than desktop parts.also, do not get a dell. they have the world’s worst customer service and i know a ton of people who have had problems with them.

  30. Anonymous

    my advice: if youre not doing gaming or maybe video editing, go for something very cheap, and get a warranty that covers accidents. besides the fact that youre likely to spill shit on your computer, with regular warranties youre never sure if you can get things repaired, but with an accident warranty everything will always be covered. also, laptop parts tend to go bad a lot faster than desktop parts.

    also, do not get a dell. they have the world’s worst customer service and i know a ton of people who have had problems with them.

  31. Sam

    4:27: Yeah, I meant MacBook Pro, thanks for the correction. Also thanks for the info about Cider–I had not heard of it.4:29: Mm, sorry, got a bit carried away :). You’ll want a good processor and a lot of RAM if you’re doing picture/video editing. Graphics card doesn’t matter all that much (although I’ve heard a rumor that Adobe is bringing video card acceleration to CS4, so take from that what you will…). I’ll update my post a bit.

  32. Sam

    4:27: Yeah, I meant MacBook Pro, thanks for the correction. Also thanks for the info about Cider–I had not heard of it.

    4:29: Mm, sorry, got a bit carried away :). You’ll want a good processor and a lot of RAM if you’re doing picture/video editing. Graphics card doesn’t matter all that much (although I’ve heard a rumor that Adobe is bringing video card acceleration to CS4, so take from that what you will…). I’ll update my post a bit.

  33. Anonymous

    *go for the smaller screen!! big screen implies heavy computer and pain in the ass portability.

  34. Anonymous

    *go for the smaller screen!! big screen implies heavy computer and pain in the ass portability.

  35. Anonymous

    uh… what about other considerations besides games such as graphic design, film, or music?

  36. Anonymous

    uh… what about other considerations besides games such as graphic design, film, or music?

  37. Anonymous

    if you want to game on a mac, DO NOT get a macbook. get a macbook pro. the macbook pro has a dedicated graphics card (8600M GT).you can use Boot Camp in leopard, or use parallels or vmware fusion software to run windows games on the mac. performance is pretty damn good for most games – you can run most with very high settings and get good frame rates. the very new, very latest games can be run well, just not on highest settings.also of note, EA has been using something called Cider to bring windows games to run “natively” on the mac, and at http://www.ea.com/platform_mac.jsp you can see recent games are available and play well, from what I’veh heard. -macbook pro owner

  38. Anonymous

    if you want to game on a mac, DO NOT get a macbook. get a macbook pro. the macbook pro has a dedicated graphics card (8600M GT).

    you can use Boot Camp in leopard, or use parallels or vmware fusion software to run windows games on the mac.

    performance is pretty damn good for most games – you can run most with very high settings and get good frame rates. the very new, very latest games can be run well, just not on highest settings.

    also of note, EA has been using something called Cider to bring windows games to run “natively” on the mac, and at http://www.ea.com/platform_mac.jsp you can see recent games are available and play well, from what I’veh heard.

    -macbook pro owner

  39. Sam

    Mac gaming compatibility for Intel-based Macs is the same as for any computer that can rune Wine (http://www.winehq.org/). However, it’s easy enough to dual boot XP or Vista with Boot Camp in Leapord, and you can run games that way as well. Gaming performance won’t be as good, since I believe the highest performing video card you can get a MacBook with is an 8600M GT, which isn’t especially great, although it’s adequate. Prices are also much higher–the cheapest MacBook with a dedicated graphics card starts at $2000, although educational discounts might help that price become a bit more palatable.

  40. Sam

    Mac gaming compatibility for Intel-based Macs is the same as for any computer that can rune Wine (http://www.winehq.org/). However, it’s easy enough to dual boot XP or Vista with Boot Camp in Leapord, and you can run games that way as well. Gaming performance won’t be as good, since I believe the highest performing video card you can get a MacBook with is an 8600M GT, which isn’t especially great, although it’s adequate. Prices are also much higher–the cheapest MacBook with a dedicated graphics card starts at $2000, although educational discounts might help that price become a bit more palatable.

  41. maxliving

    Can any Mac users shed light on what the current state of Mac gaming is, now that they have Intel processors? Can they run games made for windows, and if so, how well?

  42. maxliving

    Can any Mac users shed light on what the current state of Mac gaming is, now that they have Intel processors? Can they run games made for windows, and if so, how well?

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