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

Associate Dean, College of Aviation, Science, and Technology at Lewis University Director, Master of Science in Information Security Lewis University,, You can find him on Google+.

18 thoughts on “Choosing the Right Laptop for a STEM Major

  1. March 21, 2023 at 4:15 am

    Most of the time I don’t make comments on websites, but I’d like to say that this article really forced me to do so. Really nice post!

  2. December 16, 2022 at 1:14 am

    Your article was very impressive to me. It was unexpected information, but after reading it like this, I found it very interesting.

  3. November 12, 2021 at 7:18 am

    very helpful. Keep posting articles like this

  4. October 18, 2021 at 3:10 am

    There are many companies manufactured the laptop every company difference in specification
    but I personally advised you to purchase dell laptops. There is little bit costly but affordable.

  5. October 18, 2021 at 3:06 am

    There are many companies manufactured the laptop every company difference in specification
    but I personally advised you to purchase dell laptops because Dell is currently the number one brand in the world for a reason. They have made some powerful laptops that last as long as possible.

  6. June 24, 2021 at 3:20 am

    This article is very helpful and very uniquely describe this category. I am very happy after read this great article about this category. I am very thankful to you.

  7. May 12, 2021 at 6:48 am

    Apple MacBook Pro 16-inch is an outstanding laptop that topped the list because of its outclass features and fantastic design best suited for researchers. Moreover, it comes with an 8-core i7 processor along with 16 GB built-in ddr4 memory, which makes it one of the best laptops for stem students. Interestingly, its retina display with 500 nits brightness is a feature to die for.

  8. May 12, 2021 at 6:45 am

    Thanks for taking the time to discuss this, I feel strongly about it and love learning more on this topic. If possible, as you gain expertise, would you mind updating your blog with more information? It is extremely helpful to the user to choose the right laptop for a STEM Major.

  9. March 26, 2021 at 7:10 am

    Great Information on selecting a right laptop for people.

  10. March 7, 2021 at 6:17 am

    Depending on what you’re studying and the software you use, your laptop has to be decently powerful. This doesn’t mean you require a gaming laptop, anything with a decent processor, ample amount of RAM, 256 and upwards GB of SSD space and a full HD screen is perfect for a student. If you can get a 2-in-1, that’s even better since you can switch between tablet and laptop on the fly. Just make sure that you buy a laptop that can run you throughout the college so futureproof your laptop for at least 4-5 years. Some of your best options are Dell XPS 13 2-in-1, Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon, LG Gram and others.

  11. Carol
    July 23, 2019 at 6:06 am

    Every laptop should be chosen as per it’s use and work load. Now, while choosing a laptop for Stem Major, you will have to keep various points in mind, like, where will you need your laptop during major? what type of use will be there? and so on…

    Now, for Stem Major, you need need a laptop with specs like Core i7 processor, dedicated graphics card with 4GB VRAM, 8GB or 16GB DDR4 RAM, 256GB SSD or 1TB HDD and a FHD/4K display. You can go with new Dell XPS 15, Razer Blade 15, MSI Stealth and similar options.


  12. July 21, 2019 at 11:17 pm

    thanks very much

  13. July 21, 2019 at 12:19 am

    Thanks for sharing this information regarding laptops. I really found this very helpful and your blog also helps me to chose the best laptops for my work. thank you.

  14. March 27, 2019 at 10:46 am

    something interesting to read. great article

  15. September 28, 2018 at 6:05 am

    Before buying anything while its laptop desktop or any devices check feature specification and reviews also.

  16. September 3, 2018 at 1:34 am

    Thanks for taking the time to discuss this, I feel strongly about it and love learning more on this topic. If possible, as you gain expertise, would you mind updating your blog with more information? It is extremely helpful to the user to choose a right laptop for a STEM Major.

  17. prismpeter
    April 20, 2018 at 5:08 pm

    A laptop can be used for a different purpose but choosing a correct laptop according to your need is a very challenging task so first, think what is your need and then list the requirement of the laptop and then do the research about laptop on their sites and do comparision on Apple Tech Support

  18. February 17, 2018 at 3:10 am

    very helpful. Keep posting articles like this

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