Laptop recommendations?

Hi, I’m a BME/CS major struggling to choose a laptop for college. What factors should I consider? What software should my laptop manage to run? What brand or model would you recommend? Thanks.

Your department will have recommendations. My strong recommendation is to choose the lightest one that will otherwise meet your needs.

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For PCs, I am a fan of Dell because of its service network. For my son in CS (not at Duke), we bought a Dell XPS 13 with max RAM and fastest available processor. If you are wondering if spending more on a laptop is worthwhile, in CS you will push the limits of your machine often, so a more capable machine provides almost daily benefits.

The XPS 13 is considerably lighter than the XPS 15, and at the time, was almost the same speed. The downside is that the screen is small for full time coding, and so we bought a second larger display and keyboard. If that’s not feasible for you, then a laptop with a larger display makes sense.

And regarding service, the fan on his laptop started acting up, and after remote diagnosis failed, Dell sent a tech to our home to fix it at no charge. A laptop is so essential to CS students that it’s worthwhile getting one with a good service network.

For CS, spend your money on a powerful GPU with lots of GPU memory, which will allow you to run many software packages or your own programs (matrix operations, machine learning algorithms, etc.) that are optimized to run on GPUs. If you just want something light to take notes in classes, get an iPad, iPad Pro, or Microsoft Surface.

Just remember, you have to carry it everywhere and you have remote options for heavy lifting apps. In CS the general need for power is not nearly as high as it is in ME. Most of what you’ll do can be accomplished on any computer. Buying an ultra powerful laptop is like buying a dump truck for your everyday driver because you’ll need it once or twice a year. How do I know. I made this mistake buying for my son in 2014 wanting the “best” computer.

At the time the machine was a powerhouse. It had an i7, 32g of RAM, 2 1T SSDs and a quadro graphics card. It would fly! It also weighed 9 pounds, plus he had to carry a transformer because the batter live was so bad!

When he graduated and bought his own computer, he bought a MacBook. His work issued him a MacBook. When he does complex fluids calculations or 3D cad renderings, both of which are uncommon, he uses a workstation at the office.

More power is nice, but you won’t need it often and it comes with a price. Most departments will tell you what to bring or you can buy once you land.

Good luck!

I suggest a moderately powerful but not extreme configuration, with a compromise of screen size and weight.

Based on what my D used to graduate from a rigorous engineering school, a current generation i7, 16GB RAM, 500GB SSD should be sufficient, with the standard WiFi, Bluetooth, etc., that pretty much comes with everything these days. She used a 14” and I imagine a 15” would be fine. 13” and smaller can be uncomfortable to squint/navigate and 17” is getting heavy to carry around all the time.

A convertible form factor and touch screen, where the keyboard can fold a full 360 to act as a tablet, and a stylus, can be handy for note taking in class.

I strongly recommend splurging for the 4 year (or however many years you have left) on-site, next-day service contract. My D dropped hers once and the above advice provided to me had her operational with a new screen/case/ network card/etc. within 2 days. Her roommate wasn’t so lucky, and had to get by for 3 weeks waiting for mail in service.

There’s probably a Mac equivalent, and I’m sure Apple fans will tell you it will run everything (wasn’t true for my D, but whatever), but I’m not familiar enough with them to recommend.

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What’s the possible weight difference between a “light” and “heavy” laptop?

Seriously, if someone can’t carry around an extra pound or two, then I don’t know what to say next. Maybe, get to the gym and lift some weights? :wink:

The difference between my son’s Solidworks Certified portable workstation and his Apple is over 10 pounds!

Another problem with an ultra-light laptop is its smaller battery (which is the heaviest component in a laptop). Even if the manufacturer claims 10+ hours of usage, the reality is it won’t last a full day under heavy use, forcing the student to plug it in all the time, which shortens the battery life permanently and makes the problem gradually worse.

First, let me preface by saying that this mostly tongue-in-cheek with a dab of :man_facepalming:

How many college students need a “portable workstation”?

I just went to the Apple website and the difference between the 13.3" Air and 16" Pro is 1.5 lbs. For a college student, I’d think that’s roughly the decision, in terms of weight.

And whether it’s 1.5 lbs or even 10 lbs, if you find that heavy, then I’d tell my kids, go grab a barbell and some plates and start lifting. :rofl:

I’ll tell you what @boneh3ad, the engineering forum champion, PhD, and college prof who needs more power than nearly everyone, chose for his laptop…Lenovo Carbon.

NOBODY! :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:

That’s why I’m trying to discourage the OP from getting too caught up in getting a super powerful laptop.

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A Dell XPS 15 with a 6-core i7 processor, NVIDIA GPU and 16GB of RAM, and 512GB of storage is about 4 lbs. A machine like that can handle just about anything you will run into with CS.


That GPU is a 4GB 1650 Ti. My S needed a minimum of 8GB (2070 super or better) to run his program. :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:

BTW, he doesn’t care about the CPU. For what he needs to do, the GPU is the key. The latest NVIDIA GPUs are the 30xx series.

I would suggest a “grow into it” approach, because you will have a better idea on what you really need as you to start to take classes and find out what you want to focus on. For most of your classes you don’t need much more that a good laptop. I’m not sure about BME but for CS a laptop with an Nvidia GPU can come in handy in certain classes. Most CS classes that require use of GPUs typically come with some amount of time on GPU clusters but many students (my S included) eventually purchased their own desktop systems for AI/ML work (and believe me, that’s an expensive purchase).

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I’ve since upgraded to a Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Yoga. The ability to flip to tablet mode is useful when teaching, where I can directly annotate whatever I have on screen with a stylus.


About 100% for Dell - 2.4 vs. 5+ lbs.

Yes, when you carry it all day, every day it makes a difference.

What college-required program needs an 8GB video card? My D ran every CAD program required at a T10 engineering program with onboard graphics.

If a student needs a “gaming” machine, that’s a different story, and not required for college.

I depends on the complexity of the rendering and the time you’re willing to let your machine churn. 3D requires much more power. No onboard cards are SolidWorks certified. That said, if you really need that power you can get it, but most would do that on a desktop. My son had a fully SolidWorks certified machine with a Quadro that was a beast, but it was also a BEAST! :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye: In retrospect it wasn’t necessary. He now does design and complex fluid calcs on a MacBook Pro and a desktop.

GPU isn’t just for rendering graphics any more. It, rather than CPU, is used for intensive computation these days (GPUs are used in cryptocurrency mining, for example). For colleges, programs in machine learning, and even common commercial applications such as MatLab or Mathematica, now all use Nvidia’s CUDA API to run on GPU (they may run orders of magnitude faster on a GPU than on a CPU). To operate on large data sets (e.g. in machine learning), a GPU with 8GB RAM is often the bare minimum.