We're often asked, "What's the best kind of computer to bring to Carleton?" The honest answer is that there isn't really a "best kind"; it's more of a "best fit".
The best computer for any person is the computer that he or she is comfortable using and does the things that are needed. 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.
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.
Below are recommended specs for three levels of price/performance. Additionally, there are a few suggestions about 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.
Specs and Suggestions
Hard Drive :
For our baseline, we've tried to describe the minimum specification that we believe will be useful and supportable through all four years that you'll be at Carleton. This takes into consideration the progressively increasing requirements for operating systems 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 ITS is purchasing this year with similar expectations.
Lower-end (Economy Model)
Hard Drive :
In today's market, it's not easy to distinguish a low-end machine from a mid-range machine. There's not a lot of difference in the 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. The more significant price difference comes by looking at consumer grade versus enterprise- (or business-) grade machines. ITS tends to recommend enterprise grade equipment because, in our experience, it tends to be more robust. With that said, many students on campus purchase consumer line machines which perform flawlessly during their Carleton careers.
Hard Drive :
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. 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.
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?
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 strongly recommend that you purchase an extended service plan, especially in the case of a laptop.
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 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 over the course of four years, either due to normal wear and tear or due to manufacturing issues. With this in mind, we once again strongly advise purchasing an extended service plan.
Some manufacturers will also offer an insurance plan which covers damage as the result of accidents such as drops or spilled drink. This isn't an option we recommend as strongly, but it may be worth considering. There are very few laptops on the market which will survive a spill of any kind.
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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