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Daughter needs a laptop

My daughter is going to University in the fall and needs a laptop (Architecture student).  The recommended buy from the school is a Dell Latitute D800 or a Precision M60 (fairly loaded).  The question is...

Do I get a truly *loaded* laptop (well over $3000) and hope it lasts the whole six years of the program?  Or, do I buy a "nice" laptop (about $2000) and expect to get a new one when she hits graduate school?

What makes this a difficult decision is I do not know if the most cutting edge laptop will still perform well enough five years from now.

Input from recent architecture/engineering students is appreciated.


(BTW- I know I can save some money shopping around, but 90% of the students will be buying a Dell and it will make life much easier for her having "standard" equipment.)

Caffeinated
Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Anything cutting edge now will be ancient in five year's time.

John Topley (www.johntopley.com)
Wednesday, June 02, 2004

I suspect you might be asking the wrong people. A 5 year old machine would be hideously out of date to most people on this board - in fact a 3 year old one is probably getting a bit creaky). I don't know what system requirements an architecture student might have, but if it was me I'd probably just go with the recommended spec (then at least she can't blame you!)

For what it's worth - I can't see how having a "standard" Dell would make her life any easier than having a Compaq (for example)

SteveM
Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Although I can't directly comment, I work for a construction company with several archtitects.  We got an Alienware laptop for one of the architects because of its graphics capabilities.  Alienware make some serious high end laptops for gamers.  If anything your daughter would be the envy of everyone at the lan party...

Bill Rushmore
Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Get a PowerBook. Macs don't become obsolete quite as fast as PCs. A five year old Mac is generally considered a viable, if aging, machine.

Karl
Wednesday, June 02, 2004

I just went though this with my brother.  We decided on an iBook for him - in my opinion the viruses that pervade a college campus are the most dangerous thing, moreso than theft.  I have had several friends lose nearly a year's worth of email and data to viruses (they spread much more quickly and uncontrollably on college networks it seems).

However, if we were going to get a Dell, which we seriously considered, I suggest getting better peripherals (higher speed printer - a small laser is probably the best option - color isn't often required at college as much as we might think), and a good backup solution - Maxtor makes a one touch solution I believe.  The computer may make it five years - I've had a laptop for 5 years now that still functions, though I much prefer to not use it simply because certain applications are a touch slow and impede my work.  I suggest getting a standard model, get extra RAM and a bigger hard drive (college students flood hard drives with papers, email, and music). 

So, spend your money on some better peripherals, a backup solution she can use, RAM, and HD.  You're money will be better served and she'll be happier when it's 5:45a and she's trying to print a 100 page paper while a new virus is running around campus.

Lou
Wednesday, June 02, 2004


At the school where I did my undergrad, we were required to buy their laptop.  When we ordered it the Apr before our freshman year, it was pretty nice.  By the time we got it in August, it was a little dated.  Within a year, there were already some serious pains.  By the time our senior year rolled around, it was a paperweight.  All for $3500.  (~900/year)

I'd recommend spending about $1000-1500 up front for a laptop and plan on using it for two years (~500-750/year).  Then, if you can get a third year out of it, great.  If not, you can spend another $1000-1500 and get a new one for the last two years.

It works out to approximately the same price, but then you don't have to worry about the new developments, you'll get some benefit from them during the interim...

KC
Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Thoughts on peripherals -
- An external USB 2.0 hard drive (120-200GB) is an excellent backup solution as well as providing growing room
- Agreed on a laser printer; figure she'll have access to the large-format printers in the arch dept for schoolwork. Make sure to throw a second toner cartridge into the mix - teach her to buy toner when the spare goes in so she doesn't run out the night a paper is due.
- A DVD burner, for file portability and additional backup
- A USB key (256 MB, USB 2.0) , because people rarely buy them for themselves, but they're so incredibly handy
- An external keyboard and mouse - laptop keyboards are definitely more likely to cause RSI

College campus? Buy a cable lock! Get two! (Cable lock the external hard drive)

Philo

Also be sure to buy any software at academic prices.

Philo
Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Both my sister and two cousins each went through two or more laptops during their undergrad degrees. From mechanical failures to outdating, they just did not last. The college environment can be rather tough. I would recommend a cheap laptop with a USB storage device for critical file backups, make sure she nows how to save to the device before she leaves for school. Also spend the money and get great anti-virus and personal firewall software, the school networks are typcially horrible.

Jeff
Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Wouldn't an architecture student be looking at a large  good quality screen as a top priority?

And I see the recommendations for a mac, but if the school is teaching with some sort of CAD/Architecture Software system perhaps it needs to be Windows?

Just my 2 cents, having never owned a laptop of my own... or gone to architecture school for that matter.

Chris Ormerod
Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Thanks to all for the feedback.  Here's a link to the spec...

http://www.coa.gatech.edu/computing/April04CoAHardwareSpecs.pdf


Karl/Lou-
I would agree, but a Mac seems to be out of the question.

SteveM-
I don't want to be her personal help desk (I'm a geek, she's not).  It will be nice if the other students and faculty can help her out.  "Oh, my Dell has the same problem with XYZ.  I got the driver at support.dell.com..."

KC-
I like you're idea.  Get a functional laptop for the first 2-3 years, when she's using a lot of Word and PowerPoint, then get a real powerhouse for the last 2-3.

Philo-
Great idea on the USB drive.  They recommend an 80Gb hard drive, but the prices seem to climb quickly.  Plus, no problems when I upgrade the laptop.


Come on!  No architecture/engineering students out there?  I want to hear what apps you used for the first 2-3 years.

Caffeinated
Wednesday, June 02, 2004

She can sit on my lap if she's cute.


Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Is she going to live in a dorm on campus?
How good is the university equipped with computers?
Are computers allowed (and a benefit to use) in exams?

Peter Monsson
Wednesday, June 02, 2004

> Anything cutting edge now will be ancient in five year's time.

And it will be out of warrantee.

Christopher Wells
Wednesday, June 02, 2004

As an engineering student, I used one of the original Palm Pilots :)  My husband had a Eurocom laptop, which, 8 years later we still use and it is fine for Word and the like. Now, we rent out rooms to university students, so we are still hooked into what they are doing these days <g>.

The biggest problem with a laptop for university/college is not how "good" the computer is but battery life.  Batteries only last so long - eventually the laptop no longer charges and you must plug it into the wall in order for it to be useful.

I would say: students are remarkably adaptive - and the universities and colleges tend to have acceptable computers available.  Especially in the upper years of engineering and architecture programs where special software is often used and students are not generally given permission to copy this software to their personal machines. 

In my opinion, unless a laptop is required (in which case, use the recommended specs from the school), the student doesn't strictly speaking *need* a laptop.

Having a computer of your own helps and is great, but as long as you buy something that is okay now (I'd say between $1500-$2000), I suspect she'll get by fine.

Why are you her personal laptop provider anyway?  If she hasn't even started undergrad, don't you think it is a bit premature to worry about the computer she'll use for grad school (if she goes!).  In my opinion, by the time she hits grad school, she ought to be able to be able to get her own computer, if she thinks she needs a new one.

MaisOui
Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Go value, and get her a new one in 2,5 years. The value offering then will way outperform any top of the line monster you could buy now.
What to spend on?
- screen don't be skimpy here. She's going to need it.
- memory: get 1 gig
- hd: go for the 80 gigs
- make sure she has a burner (CD or DVD)
- wireless: can't do much without
- support: get her the 3 year on site next day thing

What you can be cheap on:
- processor: anything besides a Celeron, any speed will do
- grafix card: you'd be surprised how easy going this CAD stuff is on the HW compared to even the lighter 3D shooters.

I'd aim for something like an Inspiron 8600 (or the 5150 if you can still buy it with the 1600x1200 screen)

Just me (Sir to you)
Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Alienware Area 51m

3 ghz Pentium 4 (they have up to 3.4)
1g RAM
CDRW drive (you can get a DVD-R)
60g 7200rpm HDD
64mb graphics card (nVidia or ATI Radeon)
WINXP Pro
2 USB ports
miniPCI wireless card
1 PCMCIA port
big ole 15.4" widescreen

I just bought this machine for $2700 USD.

The things that make Alienware unique and better than the Dell is that 1) they have a user upgradeable graphics card (first in the industry) and 2) the CPU is actually a desktop processor.  No more of that "the laptop speed is really only half as fast as my desktop" stuff.  They modded the motherboard to fit a desktop CPU into their laptops.  The bummer is that this thing is big and heavy.  But damn its a beast.

Clay Whipkey
Wednesday, June 02, 2004

It looks like the college is getting backhanders from Dell.

You need the following: 15" screen; 60-80GB hard drive; 60GB 2.5" external USB2 HD;  INTERNAL DVD writer; 256MB pen drive; 1GB RAM; wi-fi; and of course inbuilt network cards and modem.

Now how much you spend will basically depend on how much you value portability. Pentium M and Centrino based laptops are much more expensive than those with desktop chips but they run much cooler, and the battery life is so much longer, and they are portable rather than luggable. That is where your money is going.

As for lasting six years - who can tell. I'm writing this on a four year old 733Mhz desktop, and I doubt if I'll be changing the innards for another year or so. Mind you I've changed the CDwriter twice (the last time for a DVD burner) and the original 20GB hard drive  has been retired for an 80GB and a 30GB. But I still would have been amazed four years ago if I had been told I would be running basicaly the same setup now. My laptop's two years old, and I've just swapped out the 20Gb HD for a 60GB one, and used the spare one as an external drive. I'm looking for a new battery tomorrow, but I don't see myself upgrading for a couple of years at least.

Stephen Jones
Wednesday, June 02, 2004

---" The things that make Alienware unique (...) the CPU is actually a desktop processor."----

Nothing unique about that. All the cheapo sub $1,000 laptops have desktop processors.

Stephen Jones
Wednesday, June 02, 2004

As a mechanical engineer using various CAD systems I can tell you for certain that no machine will last much past 3-4 years. The school likely has a contract with the few programs that they use, so they will be upgrading as new releases come out. And CAD programs tend to get exponentially more demanding with each release.

As was mentioned above, graphics power and screen size will be important. The higher resolution the better. It may be worth it to buy her a nice 19" LCD for the dorm, but you could hold off on that until she sees of that would be handy.

As she works her way through the curriculum she'll start doing more and more 3D design and regular rendering. This takes a combination of processing and graphical power.

The only advantage to going with one of the Dell's they recommend is that their help desk may be able to fix some things. Otherwise the only real requirement, I'm sure, is a good, solid XP machine (Thus no Macs).

The other option would be to buy her a decent desktop setup for the dorm, and a nice reasonably powerful lightweight laptop for mobility. Then she'd have the best of both worlds and not need to lug around a 8lb. monster everywhere she goes.

Hope she has fun.

  --Josh

JWA
Wednesday, June 02, 2004

P.S. - It will most definitely be best to wait and buy right before she needs it. Prices come down, specs go up, etc. A few months can make a big difference.

JWA
Wednesday, June 02, 2004

I'd get a refurb Dell from Costco (if you're a member), then upgrade when she's a junior.  Most CAD packages render fine on the run-of-the-mill PC of today.  Colleges also don't tend to use the latest and greatest software for students - costs too much.  I'd check with the school and see what CAD packages they use and find on the system requirements for those.

yet another anon
Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Buy for today, Gates says in a few years hardware will be free.

Yo
Wednesday, June 02, 2004

I'd go with a Dell.  The University has a tech support department there that can probably do basic repairs (replace a blown hard drive, etc.) and answer support questions.  If you buy from a different manufacturer, she'll be on her own for support.

For a student, portability and battery life may be the biggest concerns.  A "desktop replacement" type notebook like the Inspiron 8600 or an Alienware will be pretty heavy to lug around campus, plus will have mediocre battery life. 

A "thin and light" notebook like the Latitude D600 will be much easier on the shoulders when traveling from class to class.  It should have better battery life, especially if it has a Pentium M processor (like the D600.)  If you get a second battery that fits in the modular bay, she should get up to 8 hours of juice -- enough so she won't have to lug the power brick around with her.

IMO, some of the recommended accessories from others seem excessive.  (Nice if money is no object, but not essential.)  The minimum specifications the college provides aren't bad -- I'd go with at least a 30 GB hard drive and possibly a gig of RAM.  However, if it were me, I'd stick close to the minimum specifications and save that money for a new notebook three years down the road.

Robert Jacobson
Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Thanks to all for the feedback.  Much appreciated!

Caffeinated
Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Work out what software she'll need to run. If there's any specialist software, make sure that the spec. exceeds their requirements. Get lots of RAM (at least 1GB); processor speed (in addition to being a very poor measure of CPU performance) is probably less important (laptops often reduce the clock speed to increase battery life anyway). Get lots of disk space if you can afford it. Get a wireless card (or a built-in one).

Consider an Apple PowerBook. They are very good computers (this coming from a long-time PC user!), you can get an educational discount on Apple hardware and software, they don't age like PCs do, they are easier to use, the hardware and software is more sophisticated (OS X has features today that MS Longhorn will have in 2007), and you won't need to worry about viruses.

But make sure that any software you need is available for OS X: if she'll only need MS Office, email and internet, then OS X will do you fine (MS have just release a new version of Office for OS X).

General advice:
+ expect to need a new computer every 2.5 years or so (sad fact of life...).
+ if you can get 3 years next business day on-site service for a reasonable price, grab it.
+ make sure the thing is insured.
+ if you get a Windows PC, make sure she has the firewall turned on and virus definitions up-to-date. This is less of an issue for Macs, as they are less of a target and more secure out of the box.

C Rose
Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Have you considered a tablet PC?

MilesArcher
Wednesday, June 02, 2004

"Have you considered a tablet PC?"

With the exception of the newest Toshiba, all the tablet PCs have way too low resolution for her needs (besides which, most people prefer larger screens even with the extra weight and lower battery life). If you aren't literally using the tablet in tablet mode, then that 10.5 to 12" screen is going to be a HUGE negative.

Brad Wilson (dotnetguy.techieswithcats.com)
Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Wow, some interesting comments. I don't see how one can blame the network for viruses. I guess it's because of the windows bent here. On my laptop I determine who can do what when and how ... but then maybe someone can enlighten me, however, please don't tell me that the network is responsible for users who don't know what they are doing.  And then about the need for cutting edge. Heck, my laptop is 5 years old and the only problem I have is with the small hard drive. My workstations are all at least 2 -3 years old. My personal webserver is at least 1-2 years old.

What you need to know are the apps she must run. Of course it saddens me to think that a laptop is considered necessary at all. I wonder how people in the past managed. I guess the new crop of architects will be all that much better because they had laptops when they went to school.

me
Wednesday, June 02, 2004

We used to wash clothing by beating it with rocks.

Get with the times, Luddite. :-p

Brad Wilson (dotnetguy.techieswithcats.com)
Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Get her an iBook. GET HER AN IBOOK, I can't make the font any bigger to shout louder.

Reasons? 1. They're far less likely to get infected by some ghastly virus. 2. They'll connect straight out of the box to almost anything (Unix or Windows) for file sharing and printing. 3. The battery life is excellent. 4. Setting up wireless networking is a no-brainer (hey, even I managed it - well actually the mac setup software did, I didn't have to know anything). 5. They're cool and the software is just plain nicer to use than windows (compare Omnigraffle to Visio for a starter). 6. Mac offer great discounts through their higher education scheme (at least in the UK) so the price differential is not that great. 7. Anyway, she's going to be spending a lot of time with it, so price shouldn't be the overriding factor. 8. Office X interoperates just fine with the Office 2K, in fact it has some rather better features like an amodal style editor. 9.  You spend much less time patching and cursing OS X than Win2K. 10. I like the keyboard, it has a fine feel. 11. iPhoto is brilliant for editing all the embarrassing pictures.

That should be enough. JUST GET HER AN IBOOK, you know you should.

Gaius
Wednesday, June 02, 2004

P.S. Yes, I know, there's nothing worse than a convert...

Gaius
Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Definitely expect to upgrade in three years time, because mobile devices are undergoing important changes.

For now, must-haves are wireless and backup, such as a DVD writer. (For architecture, expect big files that might not fit on a CD.)

The Precision M60 is a good basic buy, and not much more expensive than a loaded other model.

Mr 2020
Wednesday, June 02, 2004

I recall people always recommending mem upgrades from Crucial. Never used them myself, perhaps someone can comment. Generally a better deal than the upgrades on dell.com.
http://www.crucial.com

Tayssir John Gabbour
Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Yea, Dell charge a massive premium for memory upgrades.

Laptop memory is standardized now, so you can buy generic, name brand like Crucial, or top of the range like Kingston.

Hard drives are also swappable in most latptops made in the last couple of years. One way of saving money might be to get a laptop with a low capacity HD and then swap it out for a High Capacity one and use the old one as an external USB 2.0 one (the case will cost around $20).

Stephen Jones
Wednesday, June 02, 2004

IBM T41 gets my vote.  Fast Pentium M, 1400x1050 screen, DVD/CDRW, 5.0 lbs, great battery life, 3 year IBM warranty, less than $2k.  No way would I ever get a larger/heavier machine again, at least not if it were for my only computer.  I have Toshiba, Compaq, Dell, and IBM laptops.  IBM is better than the rest.  You used to pay a premium for IBM, but not anymore.  Comparing a T41 to a comparable machine from Dell (remember to factor in support) the prices are similar.

I'd get an Apple Powerbook or iBook if I weren't tied to PC platform, though. 

Herbert Sitz
Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Why does she need a laptop? In classes she shoud use a shared desktop and in her room she could have a (rented) desktop.

Somorone
Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Well, having just graduated from an engineering program and typing this on the laptop I got when I started college (standard issue, no hard choice there), here are my thoughts.

A nice laptop will last six years.  Sure, mine's 650 MHz and seems slow compared to a new computer, but it still does everything I need.  (It doesn't do DirectX > 8.0, but I don't actually NEED that.)  Windows is kind of self-destructing, but it's 98 and I'd expect XP to hold up better.  The 486 laptops the seniors had when I went to college were pretty dated, but these days, though computers still get faster, you don't need it as much.
The battery, however, will not last more than two years.  Laptop batteries are expensive, though not as expensive as a new laptop.
The other thing to consider is a waranty.  Something will probably go wrong, it's nice if you can get it fixed easily.  Power boards are a popular item to need repair.
Some major backup device is also a good thing to have.  My harddrive hasn't had any problems, but the laptops from last year have had harddrive failures left and right.

So I guess my recomendation would probably be a less expensive computer now, and another later.  Otherwise, either plan on getting a new battery or two (later, or now and keep 'em in the closet), or just get a desktop, because that's what you're going to end up with in two years when you take the battery out of the computer because it's just three pounds of deadweight.

Michael Chansky
Thursday, June 03, 2004

1) Don't buy cutting edge.

Why: In a year you can buy the same equipment for a lot less.


2) Try to avoid buying a laptop upfront.  What happens if she shows up to school without one?  Not allowed to attend class?

Why: She won't really know what is needed until she starts.


3) Don't buy any periperhals (or laptops) until they are proved indispensable.  ie - send her to school with nothing and then see what she REALLY needs.

Why: She'll appreciate the periperhals a lot more when she can remember what life was like without them.


4) Give her $2000 and let her figure it out herself.

Why: She won't be able to blame you for any error.

Andrew
Thursday, June 03, 2004

The biggest question is still whether she really needs a laptop.

Peter Monsson
Thursday, June 03, 2004

"The biggest question is still whether she really needs a laptop."

I would definitely want a laptop if I were at a university.  It's a very mobile lifestyle.  You might be studying/writing your paper/surfing the web in your dorm room, at the library, in a study lounge, at a coffee shop, etc. etc.  Wi-fi is slowly becoming ubiquitous, and universities are always ahead of the real world in things techie.

Jim Rankin
Thursday, June 03, 2004

Yeah I defintely want a laptop too if someone else was paying for it.  I'd also want an iPod, Pentium PC, Digital Camera, external hard drive, 512MB usb drive, laser printer, 20" LCD ...

Andrew
Thursday, June 03, 2004

"when she hits graduate school"

HEY. TEACHER. LEAVE THAT KID ALONE.

pink floyd suck.
Thursday, June 03, 2004

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