Mar 22, 2008
Posted in: Academics & Research
I've had dial-up internet for as long as I can remember. One of the things I was looking forward to most about MIT was having a laptop and campus-wide WI-FI. I always had this sparkling image of me, sitting in Killian Court under the sun, blogging about MIT (with not a care in the world). The issue? I needed a laptop. Although there have been some blogs about what computers to bring to campus, and some articles around the internet, most of the links were broken and the info outdated. This is my attempt at helping you understand what laptops frequent campus and which you should consider buying if you come. So, without further delay, let's get started!
There are two computer options for MIT: Desktops and laptops. Both have their merits, but in all honesty, most people here use laptops. If you're dead set on having a desktop and wouldn't work with anything less, then you won't be at a huge disadvantage with a desktop, but it's definitely in the minority of computing choices.
What you'll notice about MIT is that there are laptops everywhere! Proof?
I love having a laptop, it lets me do what I'm doing now (type a blog entry in the floor lounge while watching the Great Mouse Detective and Chicken Run).
What should you get though? So many options! Let's start with the formalities, what does MIT recommend? If you go to MIT's page of Recommended Laptops you will see three varieties:
3) Lenovo IBM Thinkpad
Perhaps as a consequence of this website, and also the fact that MIT gives students a discount on all three of these brands, these will be the laptops you see the most of on campus. Each has its benefits and each has its downsides. What are they?
Never have I met somebody who owns a Mac that didn't love it. A little less than half the computers I see on campus are Macs. Which Mac though?
Macbooks are great for your typical, everyday student. If you're going to be doing basic typing, Mathematica, music playing, and general computing then the Macbook is great for you. It'll run all of your basic programs (including MatLab, provided for free by MIT) and networks just fine to MIT and its printers.
Macbook Pros are also quite popular here. Used mostly by people that plan on doing programming and more computationally demanding applications. The backlit keyboard is also a nice feature (but then again, Macs are pretty anyway, that's half the point).
I'm going to have to discourage purchasing a Macbook air at this point. It's VERY expensive and not that powerful. It's very pretty and shiny, but not practical for MIT. Everybody here I know that has one is a Mac fanboy and also uses another computer in addition to their Air. Wait for SSD prices to drop, then look at the Air.
Issues with Macs
If you are going to be a Mechanical Engineer you should avoid a Mac. That's not to say you can't have one, but your life will be easier with a PC, the reason being the modeling software you'll be using (SolidWorks) isn't compatible with Mac. It was designed specifically for Windows and will likely never be ported. That being said, you can buy a Macbook Pro, dual-boot it with Windows, and then install SolidWorks (again, MIT provides it for free). You'll need a Pro though, of the three types of Macs only it has the RAM and the graphics to comfortably run modeling software. The air and the Macbook will be really laggy.
A little less than the other half of laptops are Dells. You'll see some Inspirons around, but most are Latitudes (Dell's business laptop). I use a Dell D820 and love it. I like the ability to customize exactly what goes into a Dell and I've never had a problem with delivery or tech support. They're really solid machines.
If you explore the Dell website you'll see a bunch of different configurations (Hard drive size, RAM, graphics card, screen size, etc). While most of these features don't really matter, there are a few that I'd like to suggest you focus on for certain situations.
Windows Vista -- If you have Windows Vista (and you very likely will, it comes pre-installed on many new laptops, but a downgrade to XP is always an option) then you'll want 2 gigs of RAM. You can run your computer on 1 gig but it won't be a pleasant experience. Idling, Windows Vista uses about 990 Mb of RAM, leaving you very little left running applications. You won't regret the extra RAM.
SolidWorks -- If you are planning on using modeling programs like SolidWorks or playing graphic-intensive games (Portal/Crysis) then you'll want a larger than average graphics card. I use a 512 Mb (which Dell may not offer anymore?) but a 256 is perfectly respectable and is a good choice.
Other Stuff -- Hard drive size isn't crucial because external HDDs are relatively cheap (much cheaper than putting a large hard drive into a laptop.) When you check out prices you'll notice that there is a huge price spike when you get above a certain hard drive size.
Lenovo IBM Thinkpad
While not nearly as prevalent as the Macbook or the Dell, the Thinkpad still has a respectable following at MIT. I don't know a lot about Lenovo, nor about Thinkpads, but people that have them swear by them (similar to how Mac users swear by their computers). I would suggest buying a Thinkpad based on
b) If you've used one before and like them
c) If you want a tablet with the MIT discount
On a side note, the guy who wrote the algorithm and developed the red nubby mouse thing (I don't know what to call it!) on the Thinkpads works in the MIT Media Lab.
I'm sorry I don't know a lot about these things, but everybody I know who has one is very happy with it. I'd try some of them out before buying one, just to make sure you like it, but consider it.
Other laptops are present on campus that don't have the benefit of an MIT discount. These laptops are generally purchased because of past experiences with different brands and personal preferences. Some of the more common include:
HP -- A good computer, more similar to Dell than to the other two (Macbook and Lenovo).
Gateway -- Not as known for their laptops. If you love Gateway, go for it, but I'd stick with some more main-stream comptuers.
Acer -- I would urge you to stay as far away from Acer as possible. Acer has a pretty terrible reputation for reliability and quality. They're cheap, sure, but the parts and components are picked from all sorts of third-party sources and oftentimes aren't compatible/well designed. Many don't latch closed, have glitchy keyboards, and perform poorly. If you're aiming for cheap, go for the Macbook.
Eeepc/XO -- As exciting as these two new tiny laptops are, I would stray from them as a primary computer. Especially the XO, it's unlikely to be compatible with any of the printer networks and will require a pretty decent background in Linux, programming and . . .you know what, just don't buy it. The Eeepc is kinda cute and would be good to just throw in your pocket, but primary computer? Prolly not.
The last type of computer option is the tablet. Tablets are amazing. I love them. How cool would it be to be able to take notes during class on a tablet? Be able to use Photoshop with a pen? I would TOTALLY have a tablet if not for one thing: Graphics. As I said earlier, I want to be able to run SolidWorks on my laptop, which is almost impossible with a tablet. They simply don't make a tablet with a graphics card strong enough to run Solidworks. Every tablet out there has an integrated graphics card that just can't handle it. I e-mailed all the top tablet manufacturers and the general consensus is that tablets just aren't popular enough or mainstream enough to warrant an external graphics card. Maybe in several years they'll be awesome, but for now they just don't match what I need. If you are anything but a Mechanical Engineer then definitely look into tablets, they're so cool!
The Lenovo IBM picture up there is of a tablet, one of the more popular brands of tablets on campus. Lenovo is a very trustworthy tablet brand.
When exploring for a computer there are some numbers you want to consider. Look up what they mean on Wikipedia or e-mail me if you have any questions about what each is.
Hard Drive Size/Speed (5400 RPM/7200 RPM)
Clock Speed (Measured in GHz)
That's all I've got for you. Good luck, and enjoy the purchase of your new computer!
*Disclaimer: I'm not a computer expert. My goal in this entry is to help you understand how computers integrate with MIT. I have simplified certain aspects of computer shopping for ease of readability (nobody wants to read a huge entry of tech specs) but you should be able to rely on this entry for basic choice making. Again, good luck!