This page is currently being updated for Summer 2014
The best computer for any person is a computer that they are comfortable using and which is capable of doing the things that they need it to do. For example, a person interested in digital art has a different "best" computer than someone who plans to spend four years writing English essays or someone who loves to analyze statistics.
Comfort with a computer covers familiarity with and preference for the operating system and software. For example, do you prefer Windows or Mac OS?. Comfort also refers to the physical size and style of the machine. The size will impact weight (will you be carrying it a lot?), the space dedicated to the keyboard (including wrist space) and, perhaps most importantly, the size of the screen (how good is your eyesight?).
For most students, a good mid-range machine will be flexible enough to cover the majority of their academic (and residential) needs. If you truly want the best fit, you need to take the time to think through the ways in which you intend to use the computer, the needs that it's going to fulfill, and then find something that meets these specific needs. You may also want to spend some hands-on time with store display models to get an idea for the size, feel, and style of machine.
Specs and Suggestions
Below, you will find our recommended specs for three levels of price/performance. Additionally, there are a few examples of specific machines that meet the specifications in all three categories (please see our disclaimer). This can be a little tricky because manufacturers revise their product lines with surprising regularity, but we try to stay on top of these changes and keep our recommendations and links updated. Below the specs we’ve provided information on a few additional things that may factor in to your decision.
Baseline Model (Mid-Tier)
For our baseline, we've tried to describe a reasonable specification that we believe will be useful and supportable through a four year college career. This takes into consideration the progressively increasing demands of the operating systems and commonly used software, as well as the variety of uses the machine will be put to (such as school work, music, entertainment, etc.). This specification matches the equipment that Carleton’s ITS department is purchasing this year with similar expectations.
Note: Mid-tier is not meant to imply mid-range with respect to price. Pricing at this level may vary significantly (especially between manufacturers), with the likelihood that it will be on the higher side
Intel Dual Core i5
8 - 16GB
256GB Solid State Drive
Economy Model (Lower-Tier)
Our approach to the Economy Model has less to do with specification, and more to do with expected price and longevity.
In today's market, it's not easy to distinguish a low-end machine from a mid-range machine in terms of specification or performance. The difference tends to revolve around discrete versus integrated graphics (see below), the size of the hard drive, and the size of the computer screen. While the these factors can affect cost, there are others which will have a greater impact on the price tag.
For our Economy Model recommendation, we have provided a specification that will certainly cost less than those of our Baseline model. We have also offered some other buying options that will likely have a greater impact on the overall cost of the machine.
Intel Core i3 1.7GHz
Intel Dual Code i5 1.4GHz
|Most computer manufacturers offer refurbished models at a significantly reduced price, often with full warranties. These machines tend to be a year or two old, so the specifications may be a little lower but not so low as to take them out of the running. |
Apple offer a link to “Refurbished and Clearance” equipment at the bottom of their main Store page.
Both Dell and Lenovo have “Outlet” stores online.
You may also be able to find refurbished equipment at your local computer retail or repair store
|On Sale This Week!|
Most electronics retail stores offer weekly or monthly deals featuring extremely affordable computers. These machines will typically be lower spec and, quite likely, manufactured with cheaper, “consumer grade” components. Such machines might not last as long or perform quite as well as a better-built machine, but often mean spending just a few hundred dollars versus perhaps over a thousand. Even if you find yourself having to buy a replacement part way through your college career, it may still prove more economica. And some such machines, when well cared for, will last four years and never experience any problems.
|Consumer vs Enterprise Grade|
ITS tends to recommend enterprise grade (often listed as small business) equipment because, in our experience, it tends to be built with higher quality components and is, as a result, more robust. With that said, many students on campus purchase consumer line machines which perform flawlessly during their Carleton careers.
Consumer line machines tend to be less expensive because the manufacturing process use less expensive parts. One way in which manufacturers manage this by sourcing parts from multiple providers across the same manufacturing run. The only time that this impacts the owner of the machine is if/when they have to upgrade hardware drivers, at which time it can be tricky to identify the specific hardware installed in the machine.
Our high-end specification is really a minimum suggestion for anything that will be considered high-end. If this is the type of machine you are considering, it's likely that you will better know and understand where your own needs lie, whether that's raw processing power, more RAM for multi-tasking, or sheer volume of disk space. This is the type of machine that will be favored by, for example, digital artists working with multimedia (in particular video production), and die-hard gamers.
In a college environment, the high-end user is also the most likely to consider a desktop system over a laptop. While we've seen specifications in the two arenas converge during the last few years, it still holds true that the biggest performance upgrades at the best prices lie in the desktop world.
Intel Dual Core i7
8 - 16GB
512GB Solid State Drive
Laptop vs. Desktop
Not long ago, laptops were much more expensive than desktops and typically lower performance. This just isn't true any more. Our recommended specifications are the same for both laptops and desktops, in particular for low- and mid-range. And the price gap is minimal, though it is true that laptops still tend to have a slightly higher cost of ownership.
At the high-end, laptops hit their ceiling at a lower spec but higher price point than desktops. If you're looking for more processing power and greater flexibility in terms of upgrades, you should probably be looking at a desktop.
With all this in mind, for the average student (if there is such a thing), the main question is probably portability. When considering portability, think about whether or not you will be carrying your computer around campus, for example, to take notes in class. Or will the machine spend all of its time in your dorm room?
Operating System or Mac vs Windows
Despite the often vocal supporters in each camp, neither operating system is superior to the other; they are simply different. It’s really a matter of personal preference. However, if there is particular software that you (want to) use heavily, and it is only available for one of the operating systems, that may make the decision for you.
Windows machines: due to the number of manufacturers, there are a greater variety of Windows computers on the market than Mac (made solely by Apple). These machines can be loosely split into consumer grade versus enterprise- (or business-) grade..
Screen Size (Laptops)
The size of the screen is really what governs the overall size (and a significant amount of the weight) of a laptop. The importance of screen size is related perhaps most importantly to your vision. There has been a definite trend towards smaller screen sizes in laptops in recent years. Smaller screens with higher resolutions often means smaller text on the screen, which can be a problem if poor eyesight is a consideration (While you can change the resolution settings on laptops, the picture is far superior when running in the native resolution i.e. the default).
Another consideration is the type of work you will be doing on the laptop and the amount of “real estate” you want on your desktop. For example, if you prefer to work with multiple windows open and visible, a larger screen will be more important.
Physical Size (Laptops)
If you plan to carry your machine with you most places, it will be worth considering the size and weight of the laptop. Overall, the average weight of laptops has decreased over the years, however a larger screen or more powerful laptop can add a significant few pounds to your backpack.
Graphics: Discrete vs. Integrated
You will see references to "integrated" or "on-board" graphics versus "discrete" graphics when you look at machine listings, but what's the difference? And why is a discrete graphics processor better?
The primary disadvantage of an integrated graphics card is that it does not have its own resources (processor and memory) for performing graphics tasks. Instead, it taps into the main system resources, which reduces the amount available to other processes or programs. The more intense the graphics, the slower other processes or programs will perform.
A discrete graphics card, on the other hand, has its own processor and memory and handles all of the graphics work itself. This means that graphics processes are far less likely to adversely affect the performance of the machine. In fact, overall performance should be better.
Current integrated graphics are vastly superior to those of the past and may be adequate for many people. However, our specifications assume a four-year life span, and the graphics (or visual) demands placed on personal computers is only going to increase. We therefore always recommend discrete graphics for our baseline.
Most computer manufacturers offer a basic service plan with the purchase of a new machine, with an option to upgrade. While it tends to be a fairly pricey upgrade, we typically recommend that you purchase an extended service plan from the manufacturer (not the retailer), especially in the case of a laptop.
Some manufacturers will also offer an insurance plan which covers damage as the result of accidents such as drops or spilled drink. This is the type of damage we see most commonly at the ITS HelpDesk, and may be considered the most likely on a college campus.
A repair to a laptop can and typically does cost hundreds of dollars—for example, replacing the LCD on a laptop normally costs around $300–500 plus labor; this is similarly true for anything that is attached to the main motherboard (aka logic board) such as the power jack or network port. An extended service plan will often pay for itself with a single repair such as this. Based on our experience at the ITS HelpDesk, most laptops will experience some fault or accidental damage over the course of four years, either due to normal wear and tear or due to manufacturing issues.
With all that said, you can certainly make a decision based on your own experience. If you have owned a computer in the past and have never needed to repair it, and consider your typical usage to be low risk in terms of damage, you may consider it a better option to just pay for a repair if the need arises.
Please note that we have no arrangements, deals, or kick-backs with any of the manufacturers included in our matching machines above. Once we had decided on our specifications for each category, we simply checked the manufacturer's websites and selected those models which matched our numbers.
In the interests of disclosure, the bulk of Carleton's computers are purchased from Apple and Dell, with a number of Windows laptops purchased from Lenovo. Apple offers no special discount for members of the Carleton community, but rather offers a standard Educational Discount to any customers who qualify. Both Dell and Lenovo have in the past worked with Carleton to offer computer packages matching our baseline specification at a reduced price, but no such arrangement exists at the time of publishing these recommendations.
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