Let’s buy a computer.

The fall semester is closing in, meaning school supplies sales are showing up in stores.  Dorm decor, textbooks, and laptops always top the lists of what every student needs.  But as a collegiate guy, how do you pick out the technology needed to give you the edge over your peers?  Do you really need a tablet?  What about a full size custom tower?  If you don’t understand the capabilities of the technology available, shopping for a new computer will be all but easy.  Let’s break down some of the terms you’ll see thrown around at Best Buy or Amazon, then compare the different machines available to see what best fits your needs.

When you purchase a computer, the processor, RAM, and storage device are crucial decision making points you should always take into account.  When you get into the custom pc world, you will deal with motherboards, GPUs, and PCUs as well.  However, most college students only need a laptop, so I will just focus on those aspects.

The processor is a fitting place to start, seeing that it’s the heart of any computer, tablet, and phone.  Intel and AMD are the two big names in processors.  Intel has proven time and time again that they are the go-to brand when it comes to sheer power.  Most machines you will see are running on an Intel processor.  The flagship family for Intel is the Core series, the Core i3, the Core i5, and the Core i7.  Core i3 is the basic model for the family.  It’s meant for the casual user who wants a processor to do everyday computing.  More than likely, all you will need is an i3.  The i5 is the next step up.  Most i5 processors use four cores and with speeds clocking between 2.5 and 3.5 GHz.  If that previous sentence made little to no sense to you, it basically means that you can run most games and editing software with an i5 easily.  Most ultrabooks and MacBooks on the market use an i5 for their longevity and ability to run any program you throw at it with ease.  The i7 is a monstrous processor, capable of running the most strenuous video editing and CAD software out there.  If you’re studying engineering, computer sciences, or anything in the graphic design realm, you will more than likely want an i7 in your machine.

Memory and storage seem interchangeable, but are two entirely different things.  Memory is associated with RAM (Random Access Memory) and storage with HDDs (Hard Disk Drive) and SSDs (Solid State Drive).  RAM is data storage for data that you are currently using.  Programs that you are currently running read and write data on your machines RAM, which will eventually move to a storage drive.  When you save a document or rip a song on to your computer, you store that data on a HDD or SSD for later use.  The difference between a SSD and HDD is quite simple.  A HDD has a disk spinning inside the enclosure, while a SSD has no moving parts.  SDDs  run faster and cooler, while still being more reliable than a HDD.

Depending on what you will be using your laptop for, the side ports are also points you should take into consideration.  Typically, all you will need is 2 or 3 USB 3.0 ports, an HDMI port, and an audio port.  Other ports you may see are ethernet ports, SD card slots, VGA ports, and Thunderbolt ports, but most of these are not really necessary to have in school.

Now for the hard decision.  Do you need a computer running Windows, or do you need a Mac?  Most students only use their laptops for writing papers, so purchasing a Windows laptop would certainly be a great option for students on a tight budget.  However, don’t confuse Windows with Microsoft Office.  Windows is an operating system, while Office is a program.  Office is available for both Windows machines, as well as OSX machines.  Office WILL NOT RUN on Chromebooks and Linux machines though.  If you plan on just using your laptop for Facebook and using Microsoft Office, save yourself some money and buy a new Windows 8 laptop.  With the launch of Windows 8 in late 2012, the variety of laptops, ultrabooks, and tablets exploded!  Personally, I am not a fan of the latest installment of the OS, but the laptops that spawned from it are remarkably beautiful.  Everything ASUS and Lenovo have put out is reliable, as well as affordable.

But what if you’re creative minded?  If most of your school work is done with Adobe’s creative suite, then a Mac should be your only decision.  Every employer in the arts, as well as creative fields such as advertising, marketing, public relations, and mass communications uses Apple products.  It’s just the way it is.  Rather than deal with the fuss of transferring data between your work place’s Mac and your Windows machine, just get a Mac.  Yes, they are pricier, but you are paying for reliability, longevity, and a user friendly operating system.  There are 5 different Mac models you can pick from, and from there, you can pick out the specs you need.  As a student, you most likely don’t need a Mac Pro, an iMac, or a Mac Mini.  Instead, stick with either the MacBook Air or MacBook Pro, whichever best suits your needs.

I am writing this on a MacBook Air.  My rig for entertainment is a custom Lenovo P500.  When I’m just browsing the internet or playing with Linux, I’m more than likely using a souped Acer Chromebook.  They all have their pros and cons, but if I had to only pick one, I would always choose my MacBook Air.  It is by far the most reliable machine I have, as well as the fastest.  Again, that’s just my opinion.  The Lenovo and Chromebook both get decent usage, but the MacBook is usually the one you will see me work on.

At the end of the day, deciding on a computer comes down to one main factor.  Budget.  Always try to get the best bang for your buck.  Many stores offer student discounts that can total up to $200 in savings!  Students assume that they have to have the best laptop available, even though most any will get the job done.  As a student, you have to remember that you will have more finances available to you in the future.  You will always have the option after school to get that custom gaming rig, or the Mac Pro for your creative endeavors.