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Back to School (from Home): Choosing the Right Computer Hardware

Back To School (From Home) - Background of Computer Ethernet Cable
400 200 Stewart Sutherland

Hello again, and welcome to the second installment in our series on how to create an effective work or study space at home.

My previous post discussed the importance of picking the best furniture for your home office area. This time, let’s look at the hardware options available to students learning at home and how to pick the best computer and configuration for your needs.

Consider Your Options

A Google Chromebook, an Apple Mac, or Microsoft Windows computer. Which one should you get?

There are a few things worth noting about these options. One is that students may want avoid Chromebooks. These devices don’t include a robust productivity suite (e.g. Microsoft Office), which most students need for their schoolwork. Chromebooks are also very limiting in terms of what type of software can be installed on them. This can really be an issue for students who need to run IBM’s SPSS or other data-analysis software, which aren’t designed for the Chromebook operating system.

Macs are solid systems that tend to be more expensive and have longer lifecycles than your average Windows computer. Keep in mind, though, that Macs are part of a ‘walled garden’ when it comes to what software can be installed on them. That said, Apple does allow certain software to be installed on their computers from outside the Apps Store. Just make sure when you order software that it is compatible with Apple computers.

Consider Your Budget

For many students, it won’t necessarily be preference or brand loyalty that drives the decision of what computer to buy. Student budgets being what they are, many will base their decision largely on price.

Fortunately, a typical college or university student won’t need a supercomputer that sells for more than  $2K. Generally speaking, the sweet spot for computer prices would be somewhere between $300 to $1K for a Windows computer or Chromebook. A Mac will land more in the $700-plus range.

Used and Refurbished

One cost-saving option that students often disregard is to buy a refurbished or used computer.

People often equate “refurbished” with old, worn-out, on its last ram sticks. However, many big box stores offer refurbished or “renewed” computers that come with full or three-month warranties. They’re usually computers that have been returned, inspected (either in house or by the manufacturer), wiped, fixed, and put back on sale. Students can also obtain “used” computers from certified used computer stores (though these often come with more limited “in-store” warranties).

Either of these options could save a student significant money compared to the cost of a new computer. And, as an added bonus, buying a refurbished or used computer keeps equipment out of landfills. And you can often find a three- or four-year-old machine that is better and faster than a new one at the same price. I have not bought a new computer in ten years.

You can learn more about refurbished computers from Newegg Insider.

At the end of the day, the most important numbers to look at when computer shopping aren’t the ones after the dollar symbol. They’re the ones on the device’s specifications tag.

Consider your needs and be sure the device you pick is capable of meeting them. A smart computer shopper should ask themselves what the system will be used for during its lifecycle. Will it be primarily for research and term papers? STEM studies? Media manipulation such as photo or video editing?

An arts major doing a lot of term papers and traditional research can probably get by with a run-of-the-mill Windows computer or entry-level Mac. Someone studying STEM, or a Fine Arts student who needs to do a lot of media manipulation, will really want to look at processor power, ram size, and hard drive space.

In short, being frugal is fine when looking for a piece of tech intended purely for content consumption. But if you’ll need if for more complex tasks, you do not want to buy an underpowered computer.

So What Should You Buy?

As established, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. Your exact needs will vary based on what you’ll be using the device for. However, here are some high-level guidelines for what a typical student will want to look for.

Generally, when looking at a Windows computer, you’ll want a device with a current-generation Intel i5 or i7 Central Processing Unit (CPU) or equivalent such as Nvidia, AMD or Samsung. You’ll also want at least 8 GBs of RAM (not to be confused with hard drive size), though 16 is recommended. Another good guideline for Windows PCs is to never get one with less than 256 GBs for storage.

Similar rules apply to Apple Mac computers as well. I would not recommend any Mac with less than 8 GBs of ram or less than 256 GBs of storage.

There are a lot of choices out there for consumers. Be sure to do your homework prior to committing to a machine. List what your needs will be for the coming school year and then the next two. Look at the device’s specifications before the price and then check out the refurb pages of your favorite store. You may be surprised at what you can get there.

This was the second part of our blog series on learning from home. Our previous post looked at how to choose the best furniture for your home work and study area. Keep an eye out for our next installment!

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