Computer science & Engineering is a great major to choose in college, the courses teach you a rigorous understanding of math and algorithms and you come out of college with a well respected degree and one that can lead to a lot of job opportunities as well. During the four years you’ll be working on your computer science degree you’d better believe you’ll get an overdose of sitting in front of a computer late into the night writing and debugging code. For that reason, choosing the right laptop is a very important decision, it can make a big difference in your efficiency of writing and studying thousands of lines of code. So the question arises, what is the best laptop for a computer science major? Good question, which we’ll try to answer.
Key Features to look for in a laptop for Computer Science Engineering majors:
- Reliability- Any type of engineering school is a lot of hard work and studying (trust me, I know). The last thing you need is the headache of a slow laptop, or worse, one that crashes and wastes your time. Don’t go cheap when buying technology equipment that’s going to be essential to your success in computer science. A $400 laptop deal might look tempting when you’re already in debt up to your eyeballs with tuition costs, but you’ll regret it in 3-years when that $400 under powered netbook starts to fall apart and the warranty expired long ago.
- Screen Features – The screen characteristics of a laptop are a huge factor for computer science students so we’re going to break this down into sub-sections to cover each point that’s important:
- Matte Screen Finish– Currently most consumer laptops have what is called a glossy screen finish, the benefit of a glossy screen layer is that it makes colors more rich and vibrant which is great for movie watching or image viewing. However, a glossy screen is also very reflective in a room that has strong backlighting, such as the fluorescent lights commonly found in offices. The reflection off a glossy screen can cause eye strain, and if you’re staring at a screen for hours on end that can be both annoying and painful. I highly recommend selecting a laptop with a matte screen finish, this means that colors will not be as vibrant but you also don’t get any screen reflection. Most business laptops have a matte screen so looking for a laptop classed in the business category is a good place to start.
- HD+ Screen Resolution– Most laptops on the market today have a 1366 x 768 widescreen resolution. This is not optimal for reading code, it’s very wide which means you see a lot of whitespace at the end of code lines (very long lines of code are frowned upon), but you don’t get a lot of vertical viewing to see multiple lines of code. As a result you end up having to scroll a lot to see code logic, and when you’re trying to follow a logic structure that can be inefficient and simply makes understanding code harder. To counter this I recommend getting a laptop with a higher resolution screen than 1366 x 768, the next step up is a 1600 x 900 resolution and is sometimes referred to as HD+ by laptop makers. Even better is a 1920 x 1080 resolution, but that’s hard to find except in the most expensive of laptops dubbed “workstations”.
- Screen Size of over 13” – This point is closely related to the above, since you’ll want a high resolution screen that’s still a comfortable viewing size you’ll need to find a laptop with at least a 13.3” size screen, high resolution screens are not offered below that size. A 14” screen is the sweet spot for finding a laptop that is portable but still has all the features, such as a high resolution 1600 x 900 screen, and performance power you’ll need.
- Laptop with Docking Solution– When you’re at home coding it’s nice to be able to use a larger external monitor instead of a cramped laptop screen (again, seeing more lines of code means more productivity). One way to make that much easier is to have a dock you can just put your laptop into and quickly be hooked up to an external monitor or whatever other peripherals you want attached to the dock. Most business laptops have built in dock ports and then the laptop dock can be purchased separately for around $100 – $200.
- Strong warranty and support – People often ask whether it is worth getting an extended or enhanced warranty on a laptop. Since we’ve already established that you’ll need a premium laptop that is reliable and you can’t afford to be without a laptop during your four years of school, I actually believe it is worth it to invest in up to a 3-year warranty and accidental damage protection warranty for engineering students. This can be pricey, but the peace of mind of knowing your laptop will be repaired quickly and without cost by the manufacturer can be worth it. One example of an enhanced protection plan is the AppleCare protection plan. The AppleCare plan costs $349 for a 15” MacBook Pro laptop, the coverage lasts for 3-years and during that time if your laptop breaks or stops working you can either mail it in for free with a pre-labeled box from Apple or take it into an Apple retail store for repair. Some companies even offer next day or same day on site repair, for instance Dell offers such a warranty called Dell ProSupport, this way you stay at home and a tech shows up and does the work right there. As an example of pricing, 3-year ProSupport warranty is $109 on a Dell Latitude E6420 business laptop. And don’t forget to use a credit card such as American Express that offers a free 1-year warranty extensionto whatever manufacturer warranty you purchase.
- Good battery Life – There’s a good chance you’ll have some lectures that last for 3 or more hours and have the need for a laptop to last you through back to back classes without the ability to plug in your laptop. If your laptop only has a couple of hours of battery life then you’ll be out of luck for taking notes or referencing material on your laptop when the battery conks out. It’s very important to get a laptop with at least 4 hours of battery lifeon a single charge, and if not make sure your laptop has a replaceable battery and take a spare battery with you. Some of the large screen high performance laptops with beefy graphics cards will suck down the battery in only an hour or two, think twice if that’s what you really need.
- Thin and light design– You’ll probably be carrying your laptop around quite a bit, even if you prefer to work at home there will be times you need to take your laptop to class, the computer lab or other campus locations. Your back will thank you if you get a laptop that weighs under 5lbs.
- Cool running– The number one cause of laptop failure over time is heat buildup that leads to parts getting stressed and eventually breaking. Heat is bad for a laptop and also bad for your comfort if it’s sitting in your lap! Do your research and make sure to get a laptop that uses superior cooling techniques and components that use less power as that translates to less heat. A mid-range dual core mobile processor and integrated or switchable graphics are often good component choices. Don’t get the fastest processor and graphics card you can find, they generally create a lot more heat and use a lot more power.
- HDMI, DisplayPort or DVI port - I recommend getting an external monitor that you can use at home on your desk that can rotate 90-degrees so you can view it in what’s called portrait mode (see image to the right), the Dell 23” P2311H LCD monitor is an example of a monitor that does this. By viewing code, or even web pages, in portrait mode you can see a lot more lines without having to scroll. To easily output video to a monitor having either an HDMI, DisplayPort or DVI port on a laptop is very handy. If your monitor accepts one type of port but the laptop has a different kind it’s easy to find things such as HDMI to DVI converters for around $8.
Should a computer science major get a Mac or PC for ? It depends, first check with your schools Engineering department and see if they firmly recommend one or the other, and if so stick with that recommendation. If you’re going to be writing lots of Windows programs, stick with a PC. If you’ll be doing UNIX, Apache and PHP related stuff then a Mac has all of that built-in already and could be a wise choice. And if you’re extremely comfortable with a Windows or Mac platform, go with what you know. A lot of work you do may be done via remote login to a school server and not actually on your computer, both PC and Mac offer telnet clients such as PuTTY so at the end of the day both platforms will likely work just fine and it’s simply a matter of choosing which you prefer. If you do go with a Mac and find a need for Windows you can use the built-in Mac OS X Bootcamp or software such as Parallels or VMWare Fusion to run Windows on a Mac, you will need a purchased and valid copy of Windows to do that.
Best Laptops for Computer Science & Engineering Students 2011
Now for some specific recommendations for laptops that can make good options for computer engineering students (in no particular order):
Lenovo ThinkPad T420 – I reviewed the 14” screen ThinkPad T420 from Lenovo earlier this year and found it easy to recommend due to it’s high quality build and flexible configuration. You can configure it with up to an Intel Core i7 2nd generation processor, SSD storage and 8GB of RAM if you really want to go out with a performance machine. Not that that’s necessary, for under $1,000 you can still get the T420 equipped with a very capable Intel Core i5 processor. You can get a 1600 x 900 high resolution screen, which I would highly recommend, it’s only a $50 upgrade. Battery life is around 5 hours with the standard 6-cell and you can upgrade to a larger 9-cell if you need more than that. The T420 is a business laptop and as such has a matte screen and offers a docking solution. Lenovo offers extended warranties and next business day on site repair coverage, right now the upgrade for a 2-year on site repair warranty is only $58 so that’s well worth it.
Apple MacBook Pro 13.3” or 15.4” – If you’ve been on campus as an undergraduate for any amount of time then you know how popular Apple is amongst the student crowd. If you’re one of those people that has been using a Mac for a number of years I recommend going with what you know and continuing to use a Mac, the hardware is reliable, attractive and has most of the key features I’d recommend in a laptop for computer science. The two key features it doesn’t have are a matte screen and integrated docking solution. The glossy screen is something you’d just have to deal with while the docking solution can be uniquely solved by a company called Henge Docks that offers a docking station for the MBP. The MBPk Pro 13-inch laptop is well suited for students that need a lot of portability while the 15.4” version offers a higher resolution screen and is more suited for those that will be mostly using it on a desk at home. The latest MacBook Pro has the new Sandy Bridge family Intel Core i5 processors and a Thunderbolt port for fast data transfer with peripherals. The built-in camera is HD quality for amazing video chat capabilities. The base level 13.3” MacBook Pro starts at $1,199 but if you go through the Apple Education store, open to any higher level learning student, you can get 10% off the pricing.
Dell Latitude E6420 – The Dell Latitude E6420 is a 14” screen business laptop that can be configured in numerous ways and has a very rugged design with what Dell dubs a “Tri-Metal” design to protect the internal components. The Latitude E6420 also sports the latest USB 3.0 port for faster data transfer. The Latitude E6420 can be configured with up to an Intel Quad Core processor, though I wouldn’t recommend such an expensive and unnecessary choice, a dual core Intel Core i5 or Core i7 is plenty enough. The E6420 offers up to a 1600 x 900 resolution matte screen, which is the perfect choice to go with. The Latitude E6420 has a backlit keyboard, which is handy for darkened classroom situations. The E6420 has numerous battery options and you can get over 6 hours with the largest 9-cell battery. Dell offers a 3-year next business day service repair as the standard on any Dell Latitude that is sold, so you don’t even need to upgrade the warranty to get an amazing service agreement. I have used Dell business laptops in the past and had very good experience with getting quick service when necessary. Pricing on the Latitude E6420 starts at around $1,200.
HP EliteBook 8460p – The 14” screen HP EliteBook 8460p is another 14” business laptop (notice a theme here). It has a very rugged design so can take the bumps and bruises that come with being carried around campus in a backpack. The EliteBook 8460p design is somewhat like a MacBook Pro, very clean and professional looking. You can configure up to an Intel Core i7 processor and there is an option for a high resolution 1600 x 900 screen. A docking solution comes in the form of the HP 120W Advanced Docking station. While you may have heard recently that HP is “reconsidering” its PC business, don’t be alarmed as the company wouldn’t stop honoring warranties or simply exit the business, the most likely scenario is spinning of the PC division to a separate company that would continue to operate for years to come. You can read more on my take about the HP situation and whether it’s wise to buy an HP PC still here.
There are other good laptop options for Computer Science & Engineering Major outside of those covered here of course. Just be sure that any laptop you get has most of the key features we mentioned. Consider the list of recommended laptops a living breathing document as it will get updated it as more laptops are released or suggestions come in. If you’re an Engineering major and have tips on a laptop purchase or questions feel free to comment on this post. Good luck with your computer science studies and making a decision on which laptop to buy to help you with all the work you’ll have to do!