The Best Gift You Can Give Your College Student – A High-Performance Laptop

It’s that time of year when we think about getting our new and returning college students into school. And with that comes the endless costs of tuition, books, lab fees, recreation fees, and just about anything else a college or university can add to the bill. While that’s a bit overwhelming on its own, you should consider adding a new high-performance laptop to the list of things your college students will need, especially if they’re pursuing a computer-related or other science and engineering degree.

When your student is in a computer-related or science, engineering, engineering, or math (usually referred to as STEM) program, the most valuable thing they have, or should I say often lacks, is time. Nothing is more discouraging than having multiple teachers tell you that you have to commit 40 hours or more a week just to focus on a single class. Put three or four of these together, which is common in higher STEM programs, and there’s little time for other activities, including sleep. Giving your college student a high-performance laptop doesn’t guarantee success, but it does give them a crucial tool for success and their best chance at managing that valuable and limited resource we call time.

The reason a powerful laptop is so important is because students in STEM and other related fields spend countless hours on computers writing and testing code, developing designs, running simulations, and/or training neural network models. And the first rule of thumb is that NOTHING works the first time. This means students spend hours and sometimes days just trying to complete a single project. A high-performance computer makes some of this easier, especially when it reduces the time it takes to complete a graphics- or computation-intensive task. While the college or university will provide some computing resources, particularly servers, and may even require that the project be submitted through an institution’s servers, their servers often provide a limited amount due to age or configuration of the network and equipment and/or overuse Performance based on the number of students and faculty trying to use these resources at the same time. Therefore, having a high-performance computer to complete assignments efficiently is extremely valuable for a STEM student.

Many students will choose to use two computers—a high-performance desktop in their dorm or apartment that doubles as a gaming and entertainment PC, and a separate ultra-light laptop with limited power and long battery life for taking notes. While this will work, it’s still inefficient when the student needs to go back and forth between their home location and the college campus for classes, labs, and study groups. Consider that a student spends 8 to 14 hours a day on or near campus for classes, labs, study groups, and other activities. With a powerful laptop, they can work from anywhere and may even be able to multitask by doing many things at the same time, e.g. B. Compile code, render a diagram, or train a neural network while watching instructional videos, participate in a group activity, or relax by playing for a few minutes. And yes, many STEM students will tell you that play reduces their stress. Additionally, a high-performance computer lets you complete tasks faster, which is crucial when you have to wait for a task to complete to see if it worked correctly before moving on to another part of the project.

What is a high-performance laptop?

The ultimate laptop for a STEM student is one that has a reasonably powerful CPU (an AMD Ryzen 7 or Intel Core i7 or higher), a discrete AMD Ryzen or Nvidia GeForce RTX GPU, 16GB or more RAM, and at least 1 TB features storage, at least 8 hours of battery life on light applications or 4 hours on compute-intensive applications, and weighs less than 5 pounds (the lighter the better). If you’re looking for laptops with these specs, they’d classify them as “gaming” or “studio” laptops, but you might as well justify them as STEM laptops.

Nvidia recently provided some data on the applications typically required by STEM students and the benefits of having a high-performance laptop, particularly one with a discrete GPU. Nvidia found that applications like Solidworks and Matlab ran 8x and 4x faster on laptops configured with an Nvidia RTX 3070 GPU than on laptops with an Intel Core i7 CPU with integrated graphics. And some applications like Enscape, a commercial real-time rendering and virtual reality plugin, wouldn’t even run on some laptops without a separate GPU. But that doesn’t stop there, as triple-A games like Borderlands 3, Cyberpunk, and Destiny 2 grow in size, introduce ray tracing, and require higher performance, some won’t run or run at all on many laptops without discrete graphics or other competitive specs. So, a poorly performing laptop can not only impact your students’ study time and performance, but it can also impact other aspects of the college experience. While that may seem a little too dramatic, I speak from experience.

Learning the hard way

Unfortunately, I experienced this first hand. After the hinges on my son’s laptop broke a few years ago, we rushed to buy a new laptop before class started. We tried to follow similar specs I listed above for a thin and light laptop. We chose an HP model that had the met specifications and many others that would be beneficial for my son such as: B. A higher audio performance as he is also an event and radio DJ. HP offered two versions, one with discrete graphics and one without. Unfortunately, the discrete graphics option was not available at the time and HP was unable to provide a timeframe for availability. So we bought the version without a separate GPU. In hindsight that was a mistake. My son can tell you how he would spend hours watching his PC trying to complete a task and almost overheating and not being able to complete other tasks or play some of the games he would like to play. To his credit he hasn’t complained about it, but as a parent and myself an engineer, I feel like I let him down by not getting him the best PC for his needs.

As I am sending my youngest son to university for a STEM degree, I am now looking for a new one not only for him but also for my eldest son who will start his masters degree in the fall. The table below shows some of the PCs we found that meet these requirements. Please note that you often have to sift through all possible system configurations to get the PC you want and achieve a final price, which is typically $1,200-$2,000. Also note that most STEM applications run on Windows-based PCs, so we didn’t consider Apple, although many students use MACs for multimedia design applications.

Note that the major PC vendors Dell and HP provide all the specifications on their websites needed to make an informed decision, including the weight and battery capacity of the configured PC. While some of the HP PCs are slightly over the 5-pound weight target, they’re included because most of the weight difference is due to the extra battery capacity. There are many other Lenovo laptops, especially ThinkPads, that likely meet the specs, but Lenovo’s website doesn’t provide any information on weight or battery capacity. I know that many of the Asus PCs, like the ROG and TUF gaming PCs, also meet the specs, but the ASUS website requires each PC to be configured to come up with a price, which is too much work for this rating was. And most Acer PCs didn’t meet the weight requirements.

Another purchase to consider is a multi-terabyte external flash drive. Even at 1 terabyte, the average STEM student and gamer will likely exceed that storage limit quickly. While high-capacity flash drives are more expensive than hard disk drives (HDD), they’re a sturdier option for bouncing around in a backpack day in and day out. You can often find 1TB flash drives (external SSDs) for around $100 and 4TB flash drives in the $400-$450 range.

While only students can determine their success, a high-performance laptop is the most valuable tool a STEM student can have, and it can give them an edge in both schoolwork and the overall college experience.

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