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What kind of computer should you buy? (2024 version) (#1293)

Topics/tags: For prospective students, Grinnell, revised

Every so often, I receive an email from an incoming student or a parent of an incoming student asking a simple question.

What kind of computer should I buy for my Grinnell career? [1]

Why do people ask me this question? Presumably, because I’m a professor in the computer science department and computer scientists should know about computers. But here’s the thing; I pay little attention to computer hardware. I know what works for me. I know what I find easier to help students with. But everyone has different needs and resources.

In any case, one of my first musings was an attempt to answer the question. I wrote that nearly eight years ago [2]. Perhaps it’s time to try again. However, my answer is only slightly different.

In short [3]: Almost any reasonably powered laptop will likely suffice, even for a student planning a CS major. I use a Mac.

There are five or so major choices to make when considering what kind of computer to buy for college, whether at Grinnell or elsewhere.

  • What operating system should you use? There are currently three major operating systems: Microsoft Windows, macOS, and Linux. There are also tablet operating systems.
  • Should you get a desktop, a laptop, or a tablet? At this point, most students are best served by a laptop, in spite of the higher cost, because they can bring their work wherever they go. At some point, tablets may suffice; I don’t think we’ve reached that point. Most students will find Chromebooks underpowered.
  • Should you buy a new computer or a used computer?
  • What resources should your computer have? You’ll need to think about processor speed and number of cores (something I know little about). Also RAM and disk space.
  • What additional software do you need? Grinnell has a site license to the Microsoft Office suite, so there’s no reason to buy that. The computer science department primarily uses free, libre, and open-source software, so there’s nothing to buy for your CS courses. Some courses in other departments will require you to use particular statistical software, but the College generally provides access to such software [4].

Many of these decisions depend on your major and what your major currently looks like. A few years ago, I would have said that someone in the sciences needs more processing power than someone in the humanities. However, with the advent of digital humanities, humanists might also need processing power.

Since I’m a faculty member in computer science, I feel most qualified to answer questions about what will best serve computer science students.

The CS department is a Linux shop. We teach our classes on Linux workstations. We also encourage students to do their work on our workstations since there’s value in working near other people. You can ask them questions. You can commiserate on hard assignments together. You can develop friendships. And there’s often coffee in the CS commons. We also have evening tutors available in our labs on most evenings from 7 to 10 pm. We also provide remote access to our workstations for those who don’t want to hang out in our labs.

We use Linux for various reasons that reflect our general views on technology and software development. Historically, the department has promoted the use of free, libre, and open-source software. We believe that students (and everyone) are better off in an environment in which the tools they use are available to all and the source code for those tools is available for perusal. Linux also tends to better support students switching computers; no matter which Grinnell Linux workstation you log in to, you’ll have the same access to your files.

In terms of software development, we think that developers should know how to work from the command line and write small scripts to manage their workload. We also embrace the model that you can build more powerful systems by combining a variety of small tools.

Does that mean that CS majors need a Linux laptop? Nope. As I noted, we provide both in-person and remote access to Linux desktops. Since we embrace FLOSS [5], the tools we use in class run on Windows, macOS, and Linux. For example, this past spring, I taught CSC-151, our first course, using DrRacket, which is available on all three platforms, and I taught CSC-207, our third course, using Microsoft VSCode with Java plugins, also available on all three platforms. In addition, macOS has a Unix system under the hood, and Windows now provides a Windows Subsystem for Linux. This fall, CSC-151 will be taught in the cloud [6]. And I’ll still use VSCode in 207. CSC-161 uses Emacs (and the C programming language); Linux is the best platform for such programming, but macOS and even Windows should work.

That said, I must admit that I found myself much better able to support students with VSCode problems on Macs than students with VSCode problems on Windows devices. I realize that’s a bit strange, given that Microsoft wrote VSCode; it’s more an issue of my knowledge. I’ll also generalize that observation; I’d rather help students with Mac problems than Windows problems.

On the other hand, I’m pretty sure that ITS [7] much prefers supporting Windows machines. Perhaps it’s a tossup. If you (or your student) plays video games, Windows is likely better.

That’s about all I have to say about operating systems right now. I’ve already noted that students are generally better served by laptops than desktops. I’m not as sure about the new vs. used choice. I’m writing this musing on a 2019 16-inch MacBook Pro that I bought for $500 about five months ago, which serves as my primary computer [8]. Eldest son works on a Dell portable workstation monstrosity that he also bought used [9]. Buying a used computer every-other year or so may end up being cheaper than buying a new one at the start of college. And, given what I see students do to their computers [10], it may be good to buy used to make replacement less onerous [11]. On the other hand, buying used requires sufficient knowledge to assess what might be reasonable.

What about resources? I tend to recommend putting as much memory (RAM) as possible on a machine, but I’m also not the average user. In my experience, computers with more memory remain usable for longer. As I noted earlier [12], my 16 gig MacBook ended up being nearly unusable, but my 32 gig MacBook of the same vintage works fine. I’d generally recommend at least 500 gigs of hard drive space; my son who likes to store movies locally prefers more. I suppose my gamer does, too.

What’s left? Oh, that’s right. Software. I generally recommend that you wait until you get to Grinnell to decide what software to buy. As I said, Grinnell provides some for free. And you don’t know what you will need for most classes. Anything you’ll need for CS classes, we’ll tell you how to obtain.

And one more piece of advice: Make backups! I do my best to plug my laptop into my Time Machine backup daily. I also keep some of my more critical data in the cloud.

In my prior post on this topic, I wrote that ,

I don’t know what’s right for you. I buy Macs. I tell my family members to buy Macs. I know that my colleagues (mostly) buy Macs.

I still don’t know what’s right for you. Almost any reasonably powered computer should work for most students.

I still buy Macs for myself. And I ask the College to provide a MacBook as my main computer? Why? Because I generally find that the Mac graphical user interface is more uniform and more sensible; that may reflect forty years of using Macs. I’m also one of the few who knows UI guidelines like the ellipses in a menu item mean that you’ll be prompted for information. In any case, I find Microsoft UIs clunky. I also like that I can quickly drop into a Unix-like shell on my MacBook, where I spend most of my time. The rest of the time? I’m generally on the Web or reading email [14].

I still tell my family members to buy Macs. They don’t listen. My children in CS decided to buy Windows laptops (with lots of RAM), although I’m pretty sure that one of them generally boots that laptop into Linux.

My tenure-line colleagues? Five of us primarily use Macs. Two seem to be system-agnostic; at least one of those still uses a Mac. I’m not sure about the eighth.

I also asked an opinionated alum for their recommendations. They used to tell me that they thought the best approach was to buy a two-year old used high-end Windows laptop and install Linux on it (they prefer Ubuntu). But they were smart about finding deals; businesses regularly clear out these kinds of machines. Now they tell me that like LG Gram laptops, which they say go on sale regularly. But there are lots of LG Gram models; I have no idea which one is best. Perhaps I’ll ask them when I see them next.

Additional Questions

Can my student get by with a Chromebook?

I wouldn’t recommend it, but I haven’t tried it. Even when things run on the Web, you still need local processing power. And I worry that we have too many instances in which wireless drops on campus.

Do you really need 32 gig of RAM?

I do. I tend to have too many open tabs in my Web browsers [15]. I have 100,000 messages in my inbox. I usually have more than a dozen applications running on my computer, including a few different development environments. ITS likes to install all sorts of security software, all of which takes memory. My laptop would lock up with 16 gigs. Your mileage may vary.

If I ask a question, will you add it here?


[1] Parents ask, What kind of computer should I buy for my student’s Grinnell career?

[2] Ouch!

[3] a.k.a. tl;dr

[4] I also have almost no idea what statistical software different classes use.

[5] You should be able to figure out the acronym.

[6] I used the passive voice because I’m not teaching 151 in the fall.

[7] Information Technology Services.

[8] The College provides me with a laptop. The one I had was about the same vintage as the one I currently use, but with only 16 gig of RAM. I upgraded to a 32-gig machine while waiting for ITS to get me a new laptop. ITS got me the new machine relatively quickly, but it’s hard to switch computers in the middle of the semester, particularly when ITS disables Time Machine restores.

[9] I bought mine on eBay. He purchased his from Dell. One advantage of the latter choice is that you can also buy a Dell warranty. I love the high-end Dell warranties; they often lead to us getting a newer computer toward the end of the lifecycle of the previous ones since they tend to wear out after 2.9 years.

[10] The phrase held together by bailing wire and duct tape comes to mind.

[11] Good warranties can also help.

[12] Perhaps in an endnote.

[14] Apple Mail is much better than Outlook, at least in my experience. If I looked hard enough, I’d find even better commercial mail readers.

[15] I usually run two or three separate Web browsers.

Version 1.0 released 2024-06-22.

Version 1.1 of 2024-06-22.