Buying a Computer
For the UMD CS Program
By Dr. Peter A. H. Peterson <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Last Updated: June 2021
So, you're in the market for a computer?! How fun! Many students ask what kind of computer they should purchase for the UMD CS program. We’ve written this document to help you navigate this choice with the hopes that you’ll end up with something you like that meets your needs for school.
Laptops are more suitable for today’s students than desktops. Quite a bit of Computer Science (and other) homework requires using a computer; having a laptop means you can work on your homework anywhere. It's super helpful for when you want to meet with a TA or instructor; you can simply bring your laptop and show them exactly what you're struggling with. Laptops also typically have built in cameras, which is very handy for videoconferencing.
Either PC (MS Windows) or Apple is OK, but buy a name brand laptop; an economy laptop with an unknown name is a risk. Some students run the GNU/Linux OS on their Apple or Windows computers; that's OK too. Don't buy a laptop that only runs Android (e.g., anything called a "Chromebook"). These cheap laptops can be great for certain things, but they're not powerful enough for CS students.
Most laptops have a range of possible CPU, memory, and disk options. It's hard to give specific information for these because they are always changing. But the rule of thumb is: more (larger, higher) is usually better. A better provisioned computer will last longer before it becomes obsolete.
CPUs for laptops are usually rated in GHz (gigahertz), where more is usually better. Modern computers also have multiple cores, and more is also better (to a point). A minimum of four cores is probably a good choice, and if you can afford a CPU option with a higher GHz rating, you'll be happier with it in the long run. Intel CPUs are currently also sold as Celeron, i3, i5 or i7 chips, where (you guessed it, higher is better). If your laptop has an Intel CPU, get an i5 or i7, not Celeron or i3 -- the latter CPUs are made for "economy" laptops and you'll probably find them too slow. (I have a quad-core i7 CPU in my laptop, which is several years old now and still perfectly good.)
I recommend that you get a CPU that has virtualization extensions. Intel calls this VT-x while AMD calls this AMD-V. Virtualization extensions allow you to efficiently run additional operating systems or "virtual machines" inside your existing OS. (For example, you can run Windows inside its own window on your Mac, or run Linux on a Mac or a Windows machine.) Sometimes classes have you install an operating system to experiment with; using a virtual machine means you don't have to mess with your "main" computer and when you're done you can just delete the virtual machine. It's extremely useful. Low-end CPUs often lack this feature. You can still run virtual machines on low-end computers, but virtualization uses a lot of memory and it can be painfully slow without the CPU extensions.
Manufacturers don't always advertise this feature; finding out whether a specific laptop has them can require you to read the specification sheets closely or ask a salesperson.
Memory is another choice where more is definitely better, and many modern laptops cannot have their memory upgraded -- so you might be stuck with whatever you buy. I advise 8GB as a absolute minimum amount of RAM, but recommend 16GB because CS projects often require many separate tasks running at the same time, each of which uses memory. You might even find yourself running a virtual computer on your laptop, which usually takes 2-4GB itself! Your computer will use extra RAM to make your computer faster (this is called caching), and RAM is generally cheap, so some extra RAM will not go to waste. (I have 32GB RAM in my laptop.)
For hard drives, get something that has at least hundreds of gigabytes -- I would say not less than 250GB. 1TB is 1000GB, and (as a student) you probably won't need more than 1TB. You may also have a choice between a traditional "hard disk drive" (HDD) and a "solid state drive" (SSD). SSD's are much faster, energy efficient, and tend to last longer, but (as a result) they much more costly per GB. You could save money with a mechanical HDD, but I think you would rather have a smaller SSD than a larger, slower HDD. You can also get an external USB disk if you need extra space. (Until recently, I had a 500GB HDD in my laptop.)
Modern laptops sometimes have cool features like touch sensitivity or are convertible (you can fold them over backwards or detach the screen) allowing you to use them as tablets; some have pens so you can write on the screen. These features are cool and can be very useful for note-taking, reading, etc. (and sometimes don't even cost more) but they are not essential for CS students.
Many modern laptops do not include DVD-ROM drives. This is not a big deal, because you can buy external USB DVD drives for tens of dollars.
You should consider buying an external USB hard drive so that you can back up your files, and you should not carry the backup with you. While loss or theft is rare at UMD, it can happen. And eventually all computer parts break. Recovering data from a broken disk -- if it is even possible -- costs thousands of dollars.
Many laptop screens are small these days; you might enjoy an external display to keep on your desk at home, along with a keyboard and mouse. I like having a smaller profile laptop for traveling / carrying around, but I prefer to work on a large screen at home or work so that I can have multiple windows open for easy reference.
Think about how you're going to carry the laptop around -- a good case or backpack with a laptop pocket can help protect your device.
I don't know what the statisticians would say about this, but I usually extend the warranty to at least three years and I would consider getting a "drops and spills" warranty, especially if you are investing in a well-provisioned (i.e., expensive) laptop.
I feel like one year is often not long enough for problems to crop up, and it is frustrating when things break right after the warranty expires. After three years, a computer is usually pretty "broken in", and I usually don't expect a computer to last more than 5 years.
If the warranty starts to become a significant portion of the total price, you may want to reconsider.
This guide is mostly about computer specifications -- what to buy. However, another important question is where to buy.
We recommend you purchase your computer through the UMD bookstore (in person, or online). Here’s why:
The UMD Bookstore has its own “Computer Corner” that has Macs and PCs for purchase. They have academic pricing, can extend warranties, will try to match prices and also sell a variety of accessories. They can also order computers from most manufacturers, sometimes with special non-profit/academic/bulk rates. That said, they have an existing relationship with Apple and HP, and UMD’s ITSS services those brands, which means you can get high quality machines that can often be fixed right here on campus if something goes wrong.
Even more, students do not have to pay state sales tax on computers because they are required for school (some limits apply), and you may be able to use financial aid to purchase a computer. The UMD Computer Corner folks should be able to help you with that. The UMD Computer Corner’s website is: http://www.umdcc.com/.
On top of all this, they’re very knowledgeable, nice folks that know what UMD students need. You can be sure that they can answer your questions accurately, and if they can’t, the CS department is only a few minutes away.
You can also consider big box stores like Best Buy and Costco; they often have a good selection of machines and you can often get a “package deal” with accessories and the like. They also have salespeople that can answer your questions, but they probably won’t know as much as the UMD Bookstore folks, and they may be trying to sell particular machines.
You can also buy directly from the manufacturer, or buy online from resellers (e.g., Amazon). However, if you buy from Amazon you’ll be limited by whatever inventory they have on hand, and in either case you’ll pay taxes, might not be able to get as good of a deal as you could at UMD, and the computers may be lower quality or harder to repair on campus.
To boil this down:
I hope this helps!
If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to contact me at email@example.com.