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 And if you don’t obsessively follow computer news and benchmarks you’re likely to be at least a bit out of date concerning what to get and why, so I’m going to try to help.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.
- 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.
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
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)
- 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.
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.