Engineering & Science Computing • ESC

Guide for Undergraduate Computer Selection

In this document:

Operating System

Apple OS X (recommended)

OS X is extremely popular with the students and faculty in the colleges of science and engineering. It is currently on its way to being the choice of the majority of incoming students. It is a variant of UNIX, making it a good platform in disciplines where F/OSS (Free/Open Source Software) is used for research. Apple Macintosh computers can run Windows and Linux as easily as OS X making these operating systems easily available.

Possible disadvantages of OS X include higher cost for hardware (though operating system upgrades are generally much less expensive); lack of native support for some applications you might already be using (but dual-boot and virtualization solution to run Windows would probably eliminate that); and initial learning curve for new users (though this is generally not a problem).

Microsoft Windows (recommended)

Microsoft Windows will run all the software students are expected to use during their undergraduate career. The hardware selection for Windows is much broader than for OS X, and can be found cheaper. Caution should be exercised when choosing only based on price. Poor build quality and hidden technical shortcomings are rife in "cheap" options. (see: recommended models for a guide to good choices.) Windows 7 or 8 can be used. Windows 8 computers may feature touch screens like tablets which can be very convenient.

Possible disadvantages of Windows include increased vulnerability to malware and viruses; exclusion from easy participation in the F/OSS community (this can be overcome with dual-booting, or compatibility and virtualization software to run Linux); and potential difficulty transitioning to Windows 8, the current version.

Linux (caution)

While Linux can be used successfully for many undergraduate activities, there is no guarantee that the operating system will be supported by all required software. Linux users will find less peer and official support for this choice. If it is the secondary operating system on a Windows or OS X computer, this should present no problem but it is not yet recommended that Linux be considered the primary operating system for an undergraduate. ESC is ready to help any student who would like to include Linux as part of her undergraduate computing experience.

If you'd like to run Linux, consider buying a Windows or OS X computer and setting it up to dual-boot so you don't find yourself unable to participate in classwork.

Hardware

This can be divided into two categories: Apple Macintosh computers to run OS X and Windows-equipped machines. The Apple hardware is a much simpler case since the options are far more limited. The Windows choices are so varied that while we do have recommended models it is likely you will find them unavailable or changed by the time you read this. Please refer to the tables below to make a choice if one of the recommended models is unavailable.

Apple Macintosh

There are a few options in the Macintosh range which offer sufficient capacity for an ND undergraduate. The prices directly reflect the tradeoffs in the models. When selecting a model it is important to consider not only the beginning but the end of the student's undergraduate career. As a student progresses in her chosen discipline, more sophisticated demands will be made of the computer. (The details are in our recommended models list.)

13" MacBook Air (recommended with caution)

The Air is an "ultrabook". That is, it is an ultraportable computer. It is exceptionally lightweight and features a very long battery life. Though it has a base price of about $1149, the Air, in an acceptable configuration for our use here (upgraded CPU and RAM) will cost about $1,239. The Apple Care (extended warranty), which is essential to purchase brings the price to about $1,422.

This machine may be sufficient, but if a student intends to enter a discipline which features CAD (Computer Aided Design), CAM (Computer Aided Modeling); simulation, or visualization, the capacity of the graphics subsystem may be inadequate. Select this option with caution. You may find you need to purchase an additional computer later in your time at ND with better graphics.

13" MacBook Pro (recommended)

The 13" model of the MacBook Pro is dimensionally similar the Air, however it offers Intel Iris Pro graphics as well as enhanced battery life. The base price is $1,199 and climbing to about $1,582 upgraded to an acceptable configuration and with Apple Care.

15" MacBook Pro (recommended)

The 15" model of the MacBook Pro offers both a faster CPU, with more cores (four vs. two in the other models), as well as an option for a dedicated graphics processor. This makes it the safest choice for engineering and computational science work. The display is also larger, and while this makes the machine heavier and somewhat less portable, it makes working easier and may be worth tradeoff for serious applications.

The base price is $1,899 but the recommended configuration (upgraded RAM, plus Apple Care) brings it to about $2,138. With the upgraded dedicated graphics processor it is $2,538. This is the most expensive option but the cost represents the capabilities of the machine.

Windows Computers

Since Microsoft is not in the business of supplying notebook computers, a Windows machine will need to come from one of the many vendors who sell them. While there are many manufacturers to choose from, our recommended models come from Dell, Hewlett Packard, and Lenovo, three companies which are used regularly by faculty and research groups at Notre Dame. Since there are many models and they change regularly, the table of recommendations below can be used to help choose something other than one of the recommended models on our list.

Feature Minimum Recommended
CPU i5 (dual core) i7 (quad core)
RAM 8GB 16GB
Graphics N/A Dedicated Graphics Processor
Display 13" 15"

Getting More Help

Engineering & Science Computing is the support group for teaching and research IT in the colleges of Engineering and Science. We are happy to answer questions or assist as we can in getting the right computer for your Notre Dame undergraduate career. If you need additional help, please do not hesitate to call us at (574) 631-0101 or email to undergrad-help@esc.nd.edu. If your questions require it, we will be happy to set up a consultation at your convenience. Because our staff is often assisting on-site, you might get voicemail rather than a person. Please leave a message! Our system will create a request and you will get a call back as soon as someone is available. Be sure to leave a phone number and good times for us to call. We look forward to helping you.

Engineering & Science Computing • +1 (574) 631-0101 • undergrad-help@esc.nd.edu • ©2013 University of Notre Dame