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Recommendations for Computers and Accessories for Engineering Undergraduates
If you want to skip all the discussion, you can find the recommendations for an average user in red.
Laptop or Desktop?
We are asked about this often. The majority of incoming students have laptops when they arrive. Laptops offer easier portability and take up a lot less space. However, they are generally more expensive and replacement of individual parts becomes more difficult. Desktops offer more flexibility for adding new hardware and troubleshooting hardware problems. However, moving a desktop computer to a services desk for assistance becomes more difficult. More advanced users might choose to have both a laptop and desktop.
For the average user, we recommend a laptop. 13" Screens are easiest to carry around, while 15" screens can be a little heavy.
Mac/Apple or PC?
This is another question we are asked often. With only a handful of individual computer exceptions, our open labs in the Engineering school run Windows operating systems. We are seeing an increase in the number of students who use the Mac platform for their regular needs. However, many of the software packages used in the Engineering school are only available for Windows. Students with Apple computers are often able to find other ways to accommodate their class needs while still using the Mac OS as their primary operating system. These methods include Boot Camp, VMware Fusion, and Parallels.
For the average user, we recommend a PC running Windows 11 or later.
The limitations of most of the computers we work with usually will not be processing power. When a user finds that things are running slowly on their system, other factors should be considered. The processors that come as the default option on newer computers are usually more than enough to handle the needs of the average computer user. Projects that require high powered computing are usually run on servers or clusters here.
The most common processors available now are Intel and AMD. For all typical uses, there is no obvious performance difference between the two brands.
For the average user, we recommend an Intel Core i7.
Most of the programs we’ll be running will be the limited by this. Computers without a reasonable amount of RAM (random access memory) will load slowly and run programs poorly.
For the average user, we recommend 16GB of RAM.
Hard Drives and Storage
When people think of their storage, they’re often thinking in terms of capacity. Each person will have different storage needs. Music takes up a lot of space. Videos take up even more. Photographs stored at a decent resolution take up some amount in between. On the other hand, Word documents are extremely small.
There are two other important factors to consider. The first of those is speed. Hard drive speed is measured in RPMs (Revolutions Per Minute). Solid state hard drives (SSDs) are fairly common now and use solid state memory for storage, so there is no need for a measure of RPMs. These are the fastest, and the prices are dropping like crazy. From an end user perspective the hard drive speed shows in boot time, application launch time, and data copy rates.
The final consideration is backup storage. It’s a good idea to have some type external drive (like a USB drive or external hard drive) or cloud storage solution to store a copy of important data.
For the average user, we recommend a ~250GB m.2 or SATA SSD, and backing up to a cloud solution such as Google Drive.
Most computers come with a graphics card that is built in (“on board,” “standard VGA,” or "standard hdmi"). With the standard VGA or HDMI outputs, if you’re using a typical LCD monitor, doing word processing, browsing YouTube, or doing some basic video editing, things will look pretty good. A noticeable difference comes when the user starts to expect more to happen on the screen, whether that be running video games, displaying on an extremely large screen/monitor, or any other form of intensive video operation. The more of these operations a user expects to perform, the better their graphics card should be.
For the average user, we recommend the default graphics card option, which may be standard HDMI or DisplayPort (DP).
Many students come in asking about what they should purchase in advance. Much like text books, this isn’t something that can be easily answered unless you know what the course instructor requires. The Engineering school has computer labs in place for typical student needs. Many of the course software packages are either free (see terpware.umd.edu) or covered under campus licensing agreements for all of our students.
For the average user, we recommend looking on Terpware for discounted pricing of key packages like Microsoft Office and purchasing software elsewhere only as needed.
Other Useful Resources
Once you’ve received a directory username and password, you can visit the Technology Purchase Consult site to build and purchase a laptop.
The Terpware site gives you access to plenty of discounted or free software that you will need for your course work.
The Terrapin Technology Store allows for walk-ins, so you can view items in person before purchasing them. They are located on the first floor of McKeldin Library, on campus.