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

It’s that time of year when we think about moving our new and returning college students to school. And with that comes the never-ending expenses of tuition, books, lab fees, recreation fees, and almost anything else a college or university can think of adding to the bill. While this alone is a bit overwhelming, you should consider adding a new high-performance laptop to the list of things your college students need, particularly if they are pursuing a computer-related or other science and technology degree.

If your student is in a computer-related or science, technology, engineering, or math (typically referred to as STEM) program, the most valuable thing they have, or should I say often lack, is time. Nothing is more daunting than having multiple instructors tell you that you need to spend 40 hours or more a week just focusing on a single class. Add three or four of these together, which is customary in higher-level STEM programs, and there’s little time for other activities, including sleep. Giving your college student a high-performance laptop won’t guarantee success, but it will give them a critical tool for achieving success and their best chance at managing that valuable and limited resource we call time.

The reason a high-performance laptop is so important is because students in STEM and other related fields will 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 the 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 required to perform a graphics or compute intensive task. While the college or university will provide some computer resources, particularly servers, and may even require that the project be submitted over an institution’s servers, their servers often offer limited performance due to the age or configuration of the network and equipment and/or being overused because of the number of students and faculty trying to use those resources all at the same time. Thus, having a high-performance computer is extremely valuable to a STEM student to efficiently complete tasks.

Many students will turn to using two computers – a high-performance desktop in their dorm or apartment that also doubles as a gaming and entertainment PC and a separate ultra-light laptop with limited performance and long battery life for taking notes. While this will work, it is still inefficient if the student must go back and forth between where they live and college campus for classes, labs, and study groups. Consider that a student may spend 8 to 14 hours a day on or around campus for classes, labs, study groups, and other activities. Having a high-performance laptop will allow them to work from anywhere and possibly even multitask, doing many things at once, such as compiling code, rendering a diagram, or training a neural network while watching class videos, participating in a group activity, or destressing by gaming for a few minutes. And yes, many STEM students will tell you that gaming lowers their stress. In addition, a high-performance computer allows you to get tasks done more quickly, which is critical if you have to wait for a task to finish to see if it worked correctly before you move 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 relatively high-performance CPU (an AMD Ryzen 7 or Intel Core i7 or higher), a discrete AMD Ryzen or Nvidia GeForce RTX GPU, 16GB or more of RAM, at least 1TB of storage, a minimum of 8 hours battery life with light applications or 4 hours with compute intensive applications, and weighs under 5 pounds (the lighter, the better). When you go looking for laptop with these specifications, they are classified as “gaming” or “studio” laptops but you could just as easily justify them as STEM laptops.

Nvidia recently provided some data on the applications typically required for STEM students and the benefit of having a high-performance laptop, especially one configured 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 over laptops using an Intel Core i7 CPU with integrated graphics. And some applications like Enscape, a commercial real-time rendering and virtual reality plugin, would not even run on some laptops without a discrete GPU. But it doesn’t stop there, as Triple-A games like Borderlands 3, Cyberpunk, and Destiny 2 increase in size, adopt ray tracing, and require higher performance, some will not run competitively or at all on many laptops without discrete graphics and other competitive specifications. So, having an underperforming laptop may not only strain your student’s educational time and performance, but it may also impact other aspects of the college experience. While that may seem a little overly dramatic, I speak from experience.

Learning The Hard Way

I, unfortunately, have experienced this firsthand. After the hinges broke on my son’s laptop a few years ago, we rushed to purchase a new laptop before classes began. We were trying to adhere to similar specifications that I listed above for a thin-and-light laptop. We selected an HP model that had the met specifications and many others that would be beneficial to my son, such as higher performance audio, because he is also an event and radio DJ. HP offered two versions, one with discrete graphics and one without. Unfortunately, the one with discrete graphics was not available at the time and HP could not provide a timeframe for when it would be available. So, we went ahead and purchased the version without a discrete GPU. In hindsight, that was a mistake. My son can tell you about spending hours watching his PC try to complete a task and almost overheating, and the inability to do other tasks or play some of the games he would like to play. To his credit, he did not complain about it, but as parent and an engineer myself I feel that I let him down by not getting him the best PC for his needs.

As I send my youngest son off to the university for a STEM degree, I am now shopping for not just for him but a new one for my oldest who will begin his master program in the fall. The chart below provides some of the PCs that we have found that meet these requirements. Please note that you often need to dig through all the possible system configurations to get the desired PC and to get to a final price, which is typically $1,200 to $2,000. Also note that most of the STEM applications run on Windows-based PCs, so we did not consider Apple even though many students use MACs for multimedia design applications.

Note that of 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 PC as configured. While some of the HP PCs are slightly over the 5-pound weight target, they are included because most of the weight difference can be accounted for in the additional battery capacity. There are many other Lenovo laptops, particularly ThinkPads, that likely meet the specifications but the Lenovo website does not provide the weight or battery capacity specifications. I know that many of the Asus PCs, such as the ROG and TUF gaming PCs also meet the specifications, but the ASUS website requires configuring each PCs the get to a price, which was too much work for this evaluation. And, most of the Acer PCs did not meet the weight requirement.

One other item to consider purchasing is an external multi-terabyte flash drive. Even at 1 terabyte, the average STEM student, and gamer, will likely exceed that storage limit quickly. While the high-capacity flash drives are more expensive than hard disk drives (HDD), they are a more rugged option to be bouncing around in a backpack from day to day. You can often find 1TB flash drives (external SSDs) for around $100 and 4TB flash drives on sale in the $400 to $450 range.

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