Health, Science & Technology, Technology

Plugging in for School: Laptop Buying Guide

by Brett Schultz

Trouble picking a laptop for school? This guide will help you pick the right computer for your needs.

College brings a lot of demands such as reading, writing, and research. And that work requires an efficient and reliable computer, especially at RACC, where most courses make heavy use of the Canvas Learning Management System. College classes generally make the same core demands on a computer, but certain classes and majors will find users with varying ideas of a perfect computer.

So buyers should begin by examining how they plan on using their new computer. People often incorrectly believe that spending more will mean a better computer. Yet if you do not know the specific features you need – what you’ll be doing with the system and, equally, what you won’t – you could purchase a computer that has the wrong features and added frustrations and unneeded expense.

Considering Needs

Most college students have experienced a computer freezing. Though the outright Blue Screen of Death is not as common as it once was, Windows still has hiccups that result in frustrating lags. You bring a new computer home and begin multitasking – opening several windows at once, toggling from browser tabs to PDF documents to Word documents – and the laptop begins to heat up and freezes.

Why did your brand new laptop just seize up like the Tin Man after a rain shower?

The problem might be that a huge chunk of that price was sunk into a 2TB hard drive and an expensive 512GB SSD. Whatever money was left over was funneled into a weak processor and insufficient RAM for all those neglected browser tabs. If you’re doing a lot of multitasking, you could have spent $100 less and gotten a laptop with a powerful quad core processor and 8GB of RAM, with a 500GB hard drive that would have been sufficient. The high-capacity hard drive and lightning-fast SSD drive aren’t needed if you aren’t storing massive numbers of files or running games that require constant loading. And, if you are storing large files, an external hard drive of a few terabytes in size will be much cheaper.

A scenario like that – big eyes for the wrong specs and the consequent loss of “Expository Essay 1” – is common among college students, the heavy users who are looking for a single computer for their work. So the first step is to plan ahead for use. Before heading out to shop, consider the following questions:

  • What is your budget?
  • How long do you want to have the computer?
  • What are you going to use it for?
  • Is there anything else you must have with it?

Budget

Know your max. How much money can you comfortably set aside for this expense?

And do not forget that the laptop itself is just part of the expense. Consider what you will need to do – and how you like to do it. Do you hate using the touchpad and need a mouse? Do you need multiple batteries and chargers to keep your device running throughout the day? After deducting these accessories, you know what is left for the main device. The estimates for the accessories may vary depending on the laptop you choose, so narrow your pick to a few and average the accessories out.

Again, consider what you will have to do. Hardware is but half the equation here. You’ll need to consider software as well. Most college students prefer to have a standard word processor – meaning Microsoft’s Word – however free, online word processors exist (GoogleDocs and Libre Office, for instance.) Some classes even require certain software. All those software purchases add up. Most people forget to include anti-virus software in the cost of their equipment, and any help from that mob of geeks at the area big box store isn’t charity. Trust me. If you feel you are a safe user, today you can get away with free antivirus software, such as Anti-Virus Guard (AVG) and Malwarebytes Anti-Malware Just be sure to select the custom install option instead of standard, to disable the trial.

Longevity

When you’re buying your laptop, you might be focused on the semester ahead and the money currently in your pocket. How long do you plan on owning your laptop?

If the machine is just to get you through a semester, don’t go overboard and spend your entire budget. But, at the same time, don’t spend too little. An underpowered netbook that runs an operating system other than Windows might not have the power or the features to support a medium-sized program such as Word, or even handle multiple internet browser tabs.

If you are planning to stretch the life out of your laptop for years, I’d suggest spending as much as you can.

Let me elaborate on this: don’t pick the most expensive laptop and buy it. Do research on sites like Amazon and Newegg, and use their search filters such as screen size. Start with the stuff you must have, and the features you are comfortable with. Don’t pick a feature that you’re unaware of, such as memory speed. That’s fine tuning that comes after sifting through the options most important to you.

Use

What are you going to use it for? If you are just taking notes, accessing email, and typing a document, you could last years on a $400 laptop with an Intel core i3 processor. Going back to longevity, if this is only for a year, and you do each of the tasks one at a time, a netbook that runs Android or a Chromebook would be a fantastic option.

Some students who do lots of gaming, graphic design and media editing will need a computer with a strong graphics card. For many, the graphics card in laptops is enough to display picture on the screen, but even starting Windows Movie Maker and compiling video will get you into trouble.

To get a better understanding of how your demands are being met on the computer, in the middle of your everyday computing demand, press Control + Shift + Escape. This command opens Windows Task Manager. Press the expand view button, and click the Performance tab. You will see multiple sections to choose from, such as processor, network, memory, and storage disk use. Select the processor/CPU section. This will show, in real time, your processor’s speed and utilization. It will also show the processor’s maximum speed and number of cores. If the processor’s utilization is above 75% utilization and you find that during usage it seems slow, you may need a faster processor next time around. To know the exact model of your installed processor, type “System Info” in the start menu.

Now take a look under the memory/RAM section. If your computer freezes or “whites out” a lot, I’m going to bet you need more RAM. Some computers and laptops are capable of adding more RAM to the maximum specification, which I will talk about in a future article. If the RAM utilization is over two-thirds full, it is time to add more, if at all possible.

Critical Features

Most college students share a number of common activities: multiple windows open at once, much internet browsing, some entertainment, and light storage demands. For this work, a quad core processor at 2.4GHz or faster with at least 8GB of RAM and 500GB of storage will work quite well. Yet each individual user will need to tweak this core system, and understanding the basic mechanics of a computer will help.

When purchasing a computer, the major concern should be the three critical features that give computers their capabilities: the processor, which is like the brain of the computer, the RAM, which is the processing memory of the computer, and the storage, which is the long-term memory of the computer.

Processor

There are currently two major computer processor manufacturers: Intel and AMD. Geeks have been spilling blood for years over which manufacturer is better, but you should evaluate each model on its own merits. Both manufacturers make processors for various markets, from small processors to large, high-speed, high-performance processors.

To use a metaphor, a processor is the brain of the computer. Within the processor, the computer’s “thought processes” occur. A processor has three specifications, two of which are critical to your purchase.

The first specification is the number of cores. While older processors only contained one central processing unit (why processors are often called CPUs), many of today’s processors contain multiple cores. More cores mean more power without having to plug in multiple processors into a computer. The cores act like brains, so having two cores is like having two brains. Each can handle its own task, so twice the work gets done.

There are processors with up to eight cores; however, these are generally the most expensive and would be overkill unless you’re planning on playing processing-intensive games or running large programs (e.g. parts of Adobe’s Creative Suite may be demanding for some computers). For most students, a medium-sized quad core processor will work just fine.

The second specification of a processor is the speed. The speed is how fast the processor can calculate. Raw speed is not always better. A fast, dual core processor at 3.5GHz could be outperformed by a quad core at 2.5GHz because, as stated earlier, the smaller processor can perform more tasks at once. It really all depends on the task: some tasks are better completed with more cores; some are better completed with sheer speed. To put speed into perspective, most netbooks have processors slower than 1.8GHz, but as a rule, stay above 2GHz with larger laptops.

The third specification of a processor is the cache. Cache is the processor’s super short-term memory. The larger the number, the more the processor can store, making the computer’s work faster and more efficient. This is something I would use as a last criterion once your selection is narrow.

Intel and AMD have three types of processors: everyday, mainstream (student level), and high-performance. AMD’s high-performance tier is called FX, and Intel’s is i7 or i7 Extreme Edition. The speed (3.7GHz +) and higher core count are generally found in this tier. The middle tier consists of the mainstream processors at a speed between 2.7 and 3.6GHz; these being AMD’s Athlon and Intel’s i3 and i5. The “everyday computing” processors (lower than 2.7GHz) are AMD’s Athlon 5000 and Sempron 3000 and Intel’s cheaper i3 lineup as well as their Celeron and Pentium.

Memory

Like cache was to a processor, RAM serves as a computer’s short-term memory. When you turn on your computer, the operating system stored on your hard drive is copied over to the RAM. The processor only has access to whatever is in RAM. Think of RAM as a bucket. The operating system will take up about 3GBs of RAM. Open a program, and more is added to the bucket. Depending on the size of the bucket, or RAM, it may get full pretty fast. The rule to remember, especially for multitaskers is: “If it is open, it’s in the RAM.”

To test how full your memory is, press Control + Shift + Escape. From the Task Manager window select the performance tab. There, you’ll find a memory section. This shows how full your bucket of RAM is. Is it over half filled? I’d definitely prioritize a larger RAM capacity when you work through the website’s criteria selection pane.

Storage

Not to be mistaken for memory/RAM, a hard drive is like the computer’s long-term memory. When you shut down your computer, the RAM must be emptied completely. When the processor shuts down, all of the new information on the RAM is taken and saved on to the hard drive. The hard drive holds all data, even when the computer is turned off. Your files, ranging from documents to music, are all stored here. A typical Blu-ray movie is now around 8GB; a music album is around 0.7GB.

Here’s an easy way to check how full your hard drive currently is: Open Windows File Explorer (it has a folder icon), right-click your Local Disk C:// drive and click Properties. A pie chart will open, displaying how much of the drive is used in relation to the total size of the drive. Deleting files will free up this space, and of course adding files will fill up this space. With many computers, the cost of manufacturing a high capacity hard drive has gone down, and it is becoming more and more common to see 1TB and even 2TB hard drives being installed on computers and laptops.

But size is not the only option. Today, average computers have a choice of drive type: conventional hard-disk drives (HDD) or solid state drives (SSD).

Conventional hard drives have multiple, stacked metal platters that rotate at around 7,200rpm and have an arm which races back and forth across the drives, placing and removing electrons (or data) on the platter. The hard drive resembles a tiny, high speed record player, but it not only plays the information; it also records it. Conventional hard drives have stood the test of time and are still found in many computers today. A downfall to these drives is that they are susceptible to damage from drops, and they have a shorter life span, due to heat emitted from the spooling disk motor and arm motor.

But a new drive, many times faster than the standard mechanical hard drive is gaining ground: the solid state drive (SSD). Much like a very high capacity flash drive, SSDs are made of completely solid copper layers. Because they have no moving parts, the electrons are not slowed down by the time it takes for the arm to move across the drive, or waiting for the drive to make a full revolution. Because there are no moving parts, this makes them longer-lasting due to a decreased chance of deterioration or heat damage from the moving parts. Naturally, they are more expensive (though the price is coming down considerably).

Some higher end computers are now coming with hybrid drives: a bundle of a hard drive and an SSD drive. The operating system goes on the SSD, making for noticeably faster boot times when paired with a high speed processor. Popular programs also come pre-installed on the SSD. Your important files, like multimedia, documents and other data remain on the hard drive. What this means is anything that tasks the drive with frequent loading will be automatically placed on the SDD by the computer. Some computers have 500GB or even up to 2TB SSDs and no traditional hard drives at all. These computers are faster than those with hybrid drives, but expensive and not necessary for most users.

It might seem like there’s a lot to consider when buying a new laptop. But if you consider your needs and habits as a user, you can find the components that will work for you. If you’re still having trouble deciding or have a request for a future technology article, send a message to FSJ @ racc.edu, with a mention of your tech troubles in the subject.

 

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