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What laptop do you recommend for a frugal CS student?
August 31, 2012 5:26 PM   Subscribe

What laptop do you recommend for a frugal CS student?

I'm a freshman at a competitive computer science university. I spend a lot of hours on my laptop but my needs are fairly limited (word processing, Internet, multimedia, and now coding). For the past 4 years, I've used a Dell Studio 1535, but the weight and 3 hour battery life make it cumbersome to tote around.
(It has 4 GB of RAM, I'm using 108 GB of HDD, Core2Duo processor)

I love the 256 GB MacBook Air 13", but it is a bit pricey at $1500. Can anyone recommend an equally trendy, less expensive alternative?
posted by ptsampras14 to Technology (22 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
When you say "I'm a freshman," do you mean "I start school less than a month ago"? If so, I would recommend that you ask a senior student or a professor. Every programming course will define a canonical environment for judging coursework, and your life will be a lot easier if your computer can approximate that environment.

If you want to buy something immediately, though, I would recommend buying a Thinkpad and dual-booting Linux. I recommend the Linux because every CS program I've seen uses some kind of *NIX as their canonical environment, and I recommend the Thinkpad because those laptops tend to take very well to dual-booting Linux. The Thinkpad Wiki at thinkwiki.org has a lot of information if you choose this option.
posted by d. z. wang at 5:46 PM on August 31, 2012


Used Thinkpad. Go to the thinkpad forums and then into the marketplace and buy one that's used and in good shape by a retailer with good reviews under the review thread.

You can even get one with warranty from lenovo left on it. My T60 has left me nothing if not satisfied.
posted by RolandOfEld at 5:50 PM on August 31, 2012


Lenovo also has an online outlet with cheap scratch'n'dent & refurbished Thinkpads, and they happen to be running a Labor Day special this weekend. The T series are built like tanks, and you can get one for less than $500 there. The X series are lighter, if weight is an issue.
posted by vorfeed at 6:08 PM on August 31, 2012


If it was me I'd bite the bullet and get the MacBook if possible... It's the only way to code for all platforms.
posted by goat at 6:18 PM on August 31, 2012


HP dm1z-4200 (or something else in the dm1 family, but that one counts as the lightest). Small, PC-compatible (ie, what all your CS classes will expect you to have), good battery life, decent performance (though by no means a "gaming" machine)... A bit small on the screen, but you can look across the dm1 family for tradeoffs on that. And under $500.
posted by pla at 6:20 PM on August 31, 2012


Echoing d. z. wang, I would recommend finding out what the recommended computer is in your program, or if there are particular requirements. I know some departments require students to all buy the same laptop, configured in a particular way, from the university bookstore.

That said, in recent years CS faculty and students I have seen in a number of different universities all carried Apple laptops.
posted by needled at 6:56 PM on August 31, 2012


You know that as a student you get a discount on Apple gear, don't you? I don't know what it will be for you, but probably $100-$200. And you don't need 256GB, 128GB will probably do for school-work related things. If you get a bigger project that needs more storage, your department will probably give you access to servers to use.

That being said, any laptop with Linux will probably be fine.
posted by procrastination at 7:02 PM on August 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


Check with upperclasspeeps/professors.

The Thinkpad T4xxs series (s is for slim) is a great compromise between weight and function. Swap out the optical drive for a HDD caddy and boot off a SSD (in the main HD compartment). SSDs, especially smaller ones, are starting to get into the "cheap" zone now.

I got (and still use) a T410s as an update on an older X61s and the small increase in weight is functionally negligible (for me) and boasts more screen real estate which is valuable when you're manipulating/reading a ton of text (like, programming). LCD panel quality is also aces. The external monitor management is as good or better than any other brand of laptop for when you want to get serious work done. Downside - VGA and display port but no native HDMI output (but you can get an adapter cable for that). The keyboards are fantastic and I type for multiple hours at a time without a prob.

You can probably find refurbed/seconded T410s's with i5 and i7 processors.
posted by porpoise at 7:17 PM on August 31, 2012


The ThinkPad X230 is a good choice: 12.5" IPS display, nice keyboard, good battery life. It supposedly has an annoying feature whereby it will not charge batteries other than Lenovo's own (as per this -- Battery Safeguard). I'd expect a typical battery to maintain full charge under heavy usage for at least 2 years, so perhaps it's a very minor concern.

Buy a nice, large monitor if you don't already have one as you're not going to want to work with a 12.5" display all the time. Since the X230 has a DisplayPort rather than HDMI, you'll need to buy an adapter.

I suggest you do your best to handle any laptop you're thinking of buying in person before pulling the trigger. Unfortunately, this isn't always easy when it comes to ThinkPads.
posted by inauthentic at 7:29 PM on August 31, 2012


If you're going to go Mac, try driving your preferred code editor on it before you buy it and make sure your fingers are not going to drive you crazy searching for the Home and End keys it doesn't have.
posted by flabdablet at 7:36 PM on August 31, 2012


I've been thinking about this a lot, too, since I've more or less stopped carrying my computer. Given that the primary criteria is low weight and secondary criteria is battery life, your two choice categories are ultrabooks and netbooks. An ultrabook could completely replace your current laptop and the low end is not too expensive (but is still quite expensive for what you get). On the other hand, if you're really not doing that much real work while you're out, you could just as happily get a netbook to carry around and use your current laptop while you're at home/in your room. It's not going to be great for long hours at a stretch, but popping it out and coding for an hour in between classes is no sweat. This is probably what I'm going to end up doing, unless I win the lottery.

Good point about checking the requirements for your program, but make sure you differentiate between what an administrator says you should have and what you actually need. For example, my program uses a combination of platform-agnostic languages (Python and Java) and using a university server as the build target. It's not at all necessary to have your own *nix machine, anything with an SSH client is sufficient.
posted by anaelith at 7:39 PM on August 31, 2012


Have you considered a linux box in the cloud and a tablet with a vnc client and Bluetooth keyboard?
posted by humanfont at 8:07 PM on August 31, 2012


Assuming you know that these will work with the technologies in the classes you are taking: Chromebook or MacBook Air. A Chromebook is thrifty and Macs last forever. Probably all you really need is an SSH client. But only probably. Ask the seniors.
posted by pmb at 8:40 PM on August 31, 2012


If you are going to be putting four years of your life into getting a CS degree, the extra $500 (or whatever) for the MacBook Air (or whatever you find suits you best) is pretty insignificant for something that you'll probably be spending a good deal of time using and carrying around.

If you were a carpenter, would you get a cheap hammer, or the hammer that suited you best?
posted by Good Brain at 8:49 PM on August 31, 2012


Good Brain : If you were a carpenter, would you get a cheap hammer, or the hammer that suited you best?

The cheap one - Because you'll lose it (or in this case, it will become obsolete) long before you get enough use out of it to justify the extra cost. Now, if you want to talk about the slightly more expensive hammer with the nice grip, vs the solid gold hammer with inlaid titanium ribbing...

It really kinda amazes me how many people in this thread have encouraged the asker to blow three times as much money as a decent middle-of-the-road modern laptop, just for a name and a picture of a fruit. he specifically mentioned price sensitivity as one of his criteria; $500 vs $1500 means, bluntly, no Apple for you!
posted by pla at 9:07 PM on August 31, 2012 [3 favorites]


Since the X230 has a DisplayPort rather than HDMI, you'll need to buy an adapter.

Display Port isn't too rare in external monitors. Lenovo monitors carry a premium on their price, true, but they're damned good monitors. I've seen some other brands models with dp input.

I was referring more to when you have to use your laptop to drive presentations; I haven't yet run into a projector that wouldn't take VGA and I rarely encounter academic/industrial presentation systems which actually had HDMI input (although all of these lacked native display port input). iirc, I've seen DP-to-HDMI cables; having one in your laptop go-bag is like having male-female/female-male/female-female VGA-DVI adaptors.

Annoyance I have with Apple notebooks and most of the ultrabooks; you need an adaptor in order to display to an external monitor such as a big screen HD TV or a projector. Not a huge deal, but still. VGA as a legacy video out is very convenient, especially in an academic setting (although with CS, you'd expect more current technology compliance, but that's expensive and not all venues will be so equipped).
posted by porpoise at 9:57 PM on August 31, 2012


Annoyance I have with Apple notebooks

The new MacBook Pros have HDMI out by default.
posted by kdar at 10:19 PM on August 31, 2012


I had a cheap desktop freshman year that I inherited from a friend.
Then in sophomore year I got a cheap laptop ($400)
Finally in senior year, after working through junior year as a part time programmer I was able to afford a real laptop.
The frustration caused by not having a good computer was definitely not worth it. It would have been worthwhile for me to go into credit card debt and get a good laptop freshman year. Having a responsive computer when it is your main tool is just too critical to ignore. There've been a few people who tried to measure these costs while working in a company. I'm sure there are more studies if you bother looking. When I work at a company that won't give me a satisfactory computer (ie: amazon,) I buy my own computer for use at work and consider it part of an expense of working there, similar to a commute or business clothes. If you stick with your degree, you'll most likely be making enough to pay off the laptop.

Re Pla's point about: I haven't lost a laptop (or phone) so that wasn't a consideration for me. If I was the type that loses these kinds of things I'd not get one, and invest in a good desktop instead.

It doesn't need to be apple, (unless you are going to be programming for iOS in class or in your free time,) but it needs to be responsive enough that you don't want to throw it out the window when you are programming. Buy a computer with at least 8GB of RAM and preferably an SSD. The cheapest 11" macbook air reconfigured for 8GB of RAM would qualify and is 1,039.00 after the education discount
posted by uncreative at 10:20 PM on August 31, 2012


Nthing "talk to professors and upperclassmen", but I would reccomend blowing $200 or so on a cheap, refurbished netbook and spending the first month using that and the public computers in the labs/your dorm. Figure out what kind of usage patterns are best for you (does working in public make you more focused and less likely to slack off, or do you need to be alone in your own space to concentrate fully?), and what your specific needs are, then drop the bulk of your cash. At some point within the four years, as a CS student, having a second computer like a netbook will come in handy, guaranteed.
posted by The Master and Margarita Mix at 10:22 PM on August 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


but it needs to be responsive enough that you don't want to throw it out the window when you are programming. Buy a computer with at least 8GB of RAM and preferably an SSD.

Stop using Eclipse. The majority of programmer's editors don't have system requirements similar to Crysis and they still manage to have features like auto-complete and find-and-replace. If you're complaining about compile times rather than general responsiveness, the extra two seconds is a chance to pick your head up and stretch so that you don't get programmer posture. If it takes more than seconds to compile then offload the work onto your university's big jobs server, services like that are what you're paying all that tuition for after all.
posted by anaelith at 5:22 AM on September 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


Another vote for the Lenovo ThinkPad. I have the T430 and it suits my needs perfectly - 4GB RAM, Nvidia graphics (I ordered from Lenovo to configure it with this; integrated Intel HD graphics are the default), ~9 hours battery life according to reviews I read.
posted by cp311 at 4:28 PM on September 1, 2012


The cheap one - Because you'll lose it (or in this case, it will become obsolete) long before you get enough use out of it to justify the extra cost. Now, if you want to talk about the slightly more expensive hammer with the nice grip, vs the solid gold hammer with inlaid titanium ribbing...

It really kinda amazes me how many people in this thread have encouraged the asker to blow three times as much money as a decent middle-of-the-road modern laptop, just for a name and a picture of a fruit. he specifically mentioned price sensitivity as one of his criteria; $500 vs $1500 means, bluntly, no Apple for you!


Who is likely to loose their laptop?

I almost always advise people to buy on the cheap end of whatever is current, or even a refurb of last years model, because unless they really need the fastest CPU, or GPU, or whatever right now, they are better off saving their money now and then upgrading sooner if the machine starts feeling long in the tooth. I also advise people not to upgrade the whole computer just because it is "obsolete," because it may be just fine for what they need it to do, and if it isnt, they may just need more RAM or an SSD.

But it really amazes me how little perspective people have. We arent talking about choosing between a Toyota Corolla and a big BMW, where the price difference might pay for four years of a student's living expenses. We are talking about an amount that is likely less than will be spent on a year's worth of textbooks for something that will be used for hours every day and be carried around in a backpack when it isnt in use. Sure, a $500 laptop is cheaper, and likely heavier, less reliable, harder to get repaired, less durable and, with a crappier pointing device and, more bleh.

Or spend the extra for something that you love, and love the hell out of it every day until you get a new one.
posted by Good Brain at 1:10 AM on September 6, 2012


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