Secondly: check out the CERTIFIED refurbished markets. The “big box” stores have impressive displays, but you can often get a better deal/more powerful machine online, with less hassle.
Here are some specific aspects of machines to be looked at, and some thoughts:
1) Operating System: the big four are Mac, Windows, Chromebook, and Linux.
The MaconMacGuy prefers Mac [obviously!], but he uses Windows AND several versions of Linux daily. You’ll see “interesting” arguments for all fo those online – for some, it’s almost a religious thing.
For me, Macs last longer – their hardware is generally higher quality, unless you are comparing Windows laptops in the same price range [in the over $1000 price range].
Many people [obviously] prefer Windows.
The bottom line: use what helps you get your work done.
Stay away from the el cheapo machines UNLESS you want to have a “throwaway machine” because you break stuff a lot. The more expensive laptops generally have better quality components.
ChromeOS [used in Chromebooks] is workable in many situations, but ONLY if you will not be using it to run separate apps [AutoCAD, for instance]. If you are doing everything in a web browser [like writing papers with Google Docs, creating spreadsheets with Google Sheets, etc], then it should work OK.
STAY AWAY from real cheap Chromebooks – they break easily.
Linux has come a long way in terms of usability. I like it for a variety of reasons – but most people are going to go with Mac or Windows, and there is better organized official support for them on campus. I will say that Linux can seriously extend the useful life of old hardware, and [with a bit of effort] you can make a Linux box do more than a Mac or Windows can.
2) Screen size: generally, bigger is better. Then again, bigger means a bigger gizmo to carry around, and less battery life.
3) RAM: get as much as your pocketbook can afford. At a minimum get 8 gig – 16gig would be better. 32gig is probably overkill – unless you find a real good deal.
The one exception: The Apple Silicon Machines [with the Apple M1 chip]. You will only have a couple of options when buying one – for most people it will not matter much. Apple Silicon handles memory radically different than other platforms, so it isn’t as much of an issue.
4) Processor: IN GENERAL later/faster is better. You’ll see references – in the Intel world – of the generation [10th gen, 11th, gen, 12th gen, etc.] and and the product line [i3 vs i5 vs i7].
I’d stay away from i3 unless you abolutely have to go that route. It isn’t as powerful, and you will grow out of it soon. i5 is a goodbalance between price and performance – i7 is more powerful, but tends to be more expensive.
For practical purposes you probably won’t see much of a speed difference between successive generations [10th vs. 11th, for example.] 10th gen to 12th gen IS a bigger difference in terms of practical speed.
Generally the latest generation of chips is the most expensive.
There are also subcategories within those designations – you’ll see letters like “m” and “U” and such. They also refer to how powerful the processor is and how fast they drain the battery – but in the interest of keeping things simple let’s just ignore that part.
If you really want to compare using a simple “power rating”, surf to www.cpubenchmark.net
and type in the exact processor. The site gives a number that is useful for comparing different processors.
5) Storage – aka Hard Drive or SSD. To use an analogy – the hard drive or SSD is your filing cabinet. As in real life, the bigger the better. [Bigger also means more room to lose things, though.]
SSDs are MUCH faster than hard drives – but also more expensive. MDS Tech prefers an SSD, but you can get a MUCH larger hard drive [“filing cabinet”] for a much smaller amount of money. Most machines now come with SSDs
6) Backup – MDS Tech also suggests setting up a backup system. This usually involves some software and an external hard drive, OR you can use an online setup [Google Drive **CAN** be used like this, but there are a ton of other options]. You basically want to have a backup of documents that is accessible so when [not if] the thing dies or the computer hamsters go on strike, you aren’t stuck.
On the Mac side the iPad guy uses Carbon Copy Cloner and an external set of hard drives. There are similar backup schemes available for the Windows side as well.
7) Printing – Wait until at least 2nd semester to get a printer. Generally colleges have printers available on the network.
Yes, having one in your room means convenience – but it ALSO means more headaches [YOU have to keep it running, stocked, and fend off dorm-mates who want to to do a quick printout – really, I’ll pay you later for the ink and paper……]
Updated May 2022