Choosing the Right Laptop for a STEM Major

It’s back-to-school time, otherwise known as the credit card companies’ Christmas in August. This is an expensive time of year for parents who are trying to help their students get off to a good start by buying them all sorts of things they’ll need as they start or continue their college years.

One of the most common and expensive purchases, of course, is a computer. While most universities provide students access to a computer lab they can use to do their homework, students usually find it more convenient to work on assignments on their own laptop computers without being tied down to a particular location. With a laptop, students have the opportunity to work on their assignments on the same device they use to keep up with social media and play games, all from the comfort of their dorm room, the quad, or their favorite coffee house.

Because buying a computer can be a major expense, it’s important to get it right. Ideally, you’d choose a laptop that can serve you well for all four years of college. That can definitely be more challenging for majors that require heftier computing requirements, like majors in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields.

Here we present a few recommendations to help you choose a computer that will serve your needs in these computationally demanding fields for the next several years.

Mac or PC? Should you get a Mac, PC, or Chromebook? Most STEM majors will require more computing power than the typical Chromebook was designed to provide, and the range of applications available for Chromebooks is limited, too. That leaves us with the Mac vs. PC decision. If your academic department indicates that you need to run software that runs only on a Mac, then the decision is easy. Otherwise, it comes down to cost, personal preference, and whether you need or want to use a touchscreen. PCs usually run Windows 10, but you can also install Linux on them. PCs cannot run the Mac operating system or applications that run only on a Mac, whereas you can install Windows and LInux on a Mac. Many PCs come with touch screens, whereas no Mac model does. Low-end PCs cost significantly less than the least expensive Macs, but you can find PCs that cost as much as the most expensive Mac. So, if you want a touchscreen, you want a lower cost option, and you don’t need to run something specifically designed for a Mac, a PC will be your better bet. If you need to run software available only for a Mac, or if you simply love all things Apple, and cost is not as much of a concern, then a Mac is for you.

Memory: The more memory your computer has, the faster computationally intensive applications will run, and the greater the number of applications you can run at once. You should get a computer with at least 8 gigabytes (8 GB) of memory. If you can afford it, spring for 16 GB instead. In fact, having 8GB to 16GB of memory means that you can, if you wish, install and run what are called virtual machines, which enable your computer to run multiple operating systems at once. For example, on your mac, using a virtual machine platform like VMWare or VirtualBox, you could simultaneously run a Windows environment and a Linux environment on top of your computer’s native Mac operating system, provided you have enough memory. So, you could have three machines in one. The same is true for a Windows PC running VMWare or Virtual Box. Remember, however, that a Windows machine cannot run the Mac operating system or software designed specifically for Macs. Regardless, if you can afford it, opt for 16GB of memory, but don’t feel bad about settling for 8GB.

Hard Drive: Do not get a mechanical hard drive. Insist on a solid-state drive, or SSD. SSDs are more expensive, but the difference it makes in terms of your computer’s performance is incredible. If you can’t afford a computer with a large SSD, then a computer with an SSD with a limited capacity of 128GB is better than getting one with a large mechanical hard drive. You can always expand storage by using flash drives or the cloud, and you can install a larger SSD later as your budget allows, anyway. Ideally, get a computer with an SSD having a capacity of 256 GB or greater.

USB Ports and Flash Drives: A USB port enables you to plug additional devices into your computer. This includes flash drives, which allow you to store additional data and applications. Opt for a computer that has at least one USB 3.0 port. USB 3.0 is ten times faster than USB 2.0, which means you’ll be able not only to load in data from flash drives you connect to your USB 3.0 port more quickly, but you’ll also be able to run some applications from that flash drive with acceptable performance. Of course, to take advantage of the USB 3.0 port, you should purchase at least one 3.0 USB flash drive. I recommend a USB flash drive of at least 32 GB in size, such as this one.

Display: Computers display pictures and text as a grid of colored squares called pixels. The greater the number of individually colorable pixels, the higher the computer’s resolution, and the better the quality of the images you’ll see. The resolution of a display indicates how many pixels fit horizontally and vertically across it. Macs have excellent high-resolution displays, and that is part of what adds to their premium cost. The world of PCs is far more diverse, which is why the price range for Windows laptops is so wide. If you are purchasing a PC, make sure you get one that can support a resolution of at least 1366×768, which will enable you to view SD video. If you want to be able to display full HD video on your computer, then opt for a minimum resolution of 1920×1080. Also, make sure that your computer has at least a micro-HDMI port so that you can connect to an HDMI-equipped external monitor, TV, or projector with a cable like this.

Unless you are a gamer, you don’t need to worry about the quality of the video card. If you are a gamer, of course, the video card is a critical factor, and you’ll probably want to focus on getting a desktop Windows PC instead of a Windows or mac laptop to get the most bang for the buck. However, we do not consider gaming computers in this article.

CD/DVD: Unless you want to play movies from a physical medium rather than stream then, you don’t need to get a computer with a built-in CD or DVD player. Even if you think you do need to use physical media, perhaps to install software, you can do so using an external drive. You could plug the external drive into your USB 3.0 port. Here is an affordable external DVD drive that works with Mac, Windows, and Linux.

Software: The most popular kind of software any college student needs is office productivity software, also called an office suite. Office suites consist of a word processor, a spreadsheet, a presentation tool, and perhaps additional software such as an email client and note-taking application. You don’t need to purchase an office suite. You may find that using Google Docs or a free office platform like LibreOffice will suffice. If, however, you want to ensure that your papers are 100% compatible with what most professors will use when they grade your work, you can use Microsoft Office 365, which is free for students, too.

You’ll also want to install a Web browser. I recommend Google Chrome because I find it to be faster and more consistent than Mac’s default, Safari, and Window’s default, Edge.

STEM majors will also at least eventually need mathematics and programming tools to do their assignments. GNU Octave is a great, free computational programming and analysis platform, particularly for simulating systems using linear algebra. The Anaconda 4.4 for Python 3 suite is an outstanding computing environment for writing scientific and mathematics software. Desmos is a full-featured online data computation and visualization platform. And LucidChart is a free online tool for creating basic diagrams.

Backup and Cloud: Computers fail. You don’t want to lose your data when they do. It also would be nice to access your document from your phone or tablet or from another computer when you leave your laptop behind. A cloud storage solution can give you persistent, ubiquitous access to your data and ensure that it is always backed up. I recommend Dropbox because I’ve personally found it to be the simplest, most unobtrusive, and most reliable cloud storage platform across all my devices, but others prefer Google Drive and OneDrive. Regardless of which one you choose, install the corresponding software on your devices, and you’ll then have access to your documents on all of them.

To summarize, the best laptop for a STEM major is either a Mac or a PC with these minimum specifications:

  • 8GB RAM
  • 128GB SSD
  • 1366×768 resolution
  • An HDMI or micro-HDMI port
  • One USB 3.0 port
  • A USB 3.0 flash drive with at least 32GB of capacity
  • Access to a cloud service such as Dropbox, Google Drive, or OneDrive
  • Installed software including an office suite, Octave, Anaconda, Chrome, and a cloud client specific to your cloud service

About Ray Klump

Professor and chair of Mathematics and Computer Science Director, Master of Science in Information Security Lewis University http://online.lewisu.edu/ms-information-security.asp, http://online.lewisu.edu/resource/engineering-technology/articles.asp, http://cs.lewisu.edu. You can find him on Google+.

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