On course for uni – what laptop should I get?

If you're about to start your Computer Science and Engineering degree, you might be wondering; do I need a special laptop or can I use what I have?


We caught up with Craig Howie who heads up a team that looks after all of the School's labs and infrastructure that support CSE's teaching and research. Craig gives us his intel on what you should consider if you're going to purchase a laptop.

Do you need a laptop as a first-year student?

The School has very well-equipped labs, with over 360 computers for both scheduled teaching and individual use. So, yes, we have machines for students to use. That said, priority goes to bookings for actual teaching. (You can view the lab schedule here).

Having a laptop gives you some flexibility. For instance, during a lecture, you can log onto our vlab and basically look and play along during the demonstration. So, having a laptop is definitely useful, but it's not essential in your first year. You could get by and do everything in the labs.

Having a laptop gives you some flexibility. For instance, during a lecture, you can log onto our vlab and basically look and play along during the demonstration. So, having a laptop is definitely useful

Craig Howie

One option would be to wait until you get into your second or third year as you might choose to specialise and need more hardware. Then you can select what laptop is best for your purpose. 

What's vlab?

Our computers run Linux rather than Windows, it's an entirely different operating system that people need to get used to. We have a system called vlab - without having to install anything on a computer or change anything; students can get the same environment as what they get on a CSE computer - it looks the same! This could be a Mac, it can be a Windows PC, could be an iPad or a Surface. With this system, they can get access to all the stuff they normally have in the lab.

If students are looking to purchase a new laptop, what sort of features are most important?

Probably the most important feature will be battery life. While there are more spaces on campus with access to power, it’s still nice to be able to go most of the day without having to plug in. Some of the other features to consider are the amount of RAM and the amount and type of storage.

If you plan to mainly use vlab, then your requirements are quite small. For vlab, you could get away with a lower spec machine, let's say 4 GB of RAM and a smaller amount of storage, like maybe 128 GB of SSD or larger, but slower HDD.

If you're planning to do some more things with your computer, like install another operating system in a virtual machine, or install other software for independent learning, we'd recommend at least 8 GB of RAM with 256 GB of storage and possibly even a little bit more. A system with 16 GB and some more storage, maybe even 500 GB would be worth looking at if you want to start to experimenting. But certainly, most entry-level PCs will cater for what you'll need at uni. As you pay more, you'll get maybe a faster processing unit, faster storage, but it really depends on what your budget is.

The other consideration is the size. You're going to be carrying your laptop around with you a lot, so you don't want it to be too heavy. A 13-inch laptop is a good trade-off between size and readability.

What bells and whistles aren't necessary?

For first-year, you don't need a dedicated graphics card. You can pay a lot of money to get it, unless of course you want to play games!

If you just want to do what you need to do for your courses, then you can get by with a basic machine, $700-800, maybe even a bit less. If you want to play games and do a few more things with them and get into your own programming, then you might be looking at spending $1500 or so.

What research should you do and do you have any recommendations about where to purchase a laptop?

What I would generally recommend is to visit a store that has quite a lot on display - such as JB Hi-Fi or Officeworks. You can go and have a look, lift them up, test out the keyboards, see how it feels. Once you've decided which ones you like then do some extra research on the web – there are often reviews available by other users.

Then I'd look around on the web for discounts on the laptop you want. For instance, JB Hi-Fi from time to time have 10% off Apple products, Apple also has a permanent discount for higher education. There's also the main UNSW IT page, which has permanent discounts for students for Apple, HP, Dell and Microsoft Surface Pro. You'll need to investigate which offer gives you the best discount at the time.

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