Laptop Purchasing 101

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WVWC Laptop Minimum Requirements

  • Processor – Intel Core 2 Duo
  • Operating System – Windows XP, Windows Vista, Windows 7, Windows 8
  • System Memory – 1GB (XP); 2GB (Vista or Win7 or Win8)
  • Hard Disk Drive Capacity – 80GB
  • Optical Drive – DVD
  • Wireless – 802.11b compatible
  • Network - Ethernet
  • Display Resolution - 800x600

What models are recommended by WVWC?

WVWC has partnerships with both ASUS Computer and Dell.  Under these partnerships, WVWC is a service warranty provider for both manufacturers. Necessary repairs can be done on-campus in a timely manner, which results in minimal inconvenience for our students.  In addition to warranty and non-warranty repairs, accidental damage claims for Dell systems may be serviced on campus. ASUS requires that accidental damage claims are processed through their repair facility.  The WVWC recommended models from both manufacturers are quality systems with special pricing for WVWC students.  Please refer to later sections of this document for detailed hardware information. It is advisable to compare system specifications carefully when shopping for laptops.  Links to our partner web sites can be found at http://www.wvwc.edu/offices/technology/index.php#Vendors .

Can I use a computer that I currently own?

Yes. As long as the system meets the minimum requirements listed above, it should serve you well at WVWC.  We recommend that you bring any recovery disks that you may have with you and keep them in a location where they will not become damaged.  Many systems include a utility to create recovery disk sets.  If you have not created recovery disks for your laptop, we highly recommend that you do so.  Our office also assists our students with advice regarding maintenance, upgrades, and out-of-warranty repairs.  Also, should the need for a new computer arise at a later time, the recommended models through our partners are available throughout the year.

What software must I purchase for my use at WVWC?

WVWC provides Microsoft Office 2013 Professional to our students via site license. This software requires the Windows operating system. There is no need for you to purchase this software, either with a new system or separately. This software is available for installation from our campus network.  Students will be provided with instructions on how to install site licensed software after they arrive on campus.  Additionally, some course software, such as IBM SPSS Statistics is also provided.  Some courses will require software that may be purchased or provided through fees of the individual departments.

In the past, WVWC also provided antivirus software to our student body, but due to the availability of quality retail products, the inclusion of anti-malware programs as part of the core operating system in Windows 8, and the availability of quality freeware antivirus software, such as AVG Antivirus Free 2013 (available by searching for AVG Free at Download.com), we now only provide antivirus software for WVWC-owned computers. If you need assistance installing antivirus software, our Helpdesk staff will gladly assist you.

Can I use a MacBook?

Yes, many of our students use MacBooks on campus, but there are some special considerations that you must address.

  • Some courses require the use of Windows based software, and it is the student’s responsibility to have the ability to install and run Windows based software as stated within the minimum requirements.
  • Unless through a third party, accidental damage coverage is not available.
  • The closest location of an Apple Store is Pittsburgh, PA.

If buying new, when should I order my laptop?

If ordering a new laptop, we recommend that you do so no later than mid-July. That should allow enough time for order processing and shipping while providing enough extra time to correct any potential problems with an order.

Important Considerations When Purchasing a Laptop

  • Hardware Requirements - What hardware requirements are there for the software that I want to run or the tasks that I want to perform? 
  • Service Contract - What kind of service package comes with the system?  How long is the coverage period? In the event that the computer fails, what will be the process to have it repaired?  How long will the student be without a computer?
  • Portability - How portable is the laptop?  Can it fit into standard carry cases and be carried comfortably?  How much does it weigh?
  • Durability – Will this model of laptop hold up to the rigors of daily use and college life?  How many years of service should I expect from a laptop?
  • Cost vs. Value – Am I more concerned with the initial cost or total cost of ownership?

Strategies

Strategy #1: Buy Cheap & Plan on Replacement

The historic trend of computing is that technology continues to advance, new features are introduced, and new systems are faster and less expensive.
Pros – The technology that the student is using is new, albeit at the lower end of the performance and features available at the time of purchase.  The initial investment is relatively low.  If the system is popular, parts for out-of-warranty repairs may be available through third parties, such as on E-Bay.
Cons – The systems tend to be less durable, do not allow for accidental damage protection, and typically carry only a 1 year warranty.  Some warranties may also include additional restrictions.  During the event of a system failure, delays for repair or replacement may be extended, which can negatively impact the student in regards to the need for laptop computing in the classroom.

Strategy #2: Buy Business Class Systems with Extended Warranties

The business class systems through our partners are warranted for 3 years, and some ASUS B-Series systems offer 3-year extended battery warranties as well.  The Dell Latitudes are configured with 3-year accidental damage protection, while ASUS offers ADP on the initial year only.  Also, the Dell units have the option of extending the warranty period to the fourth year.  This may appeal to some that want the peace of mind of having coverage throughout their undergraduate experience, but it also is an expense in maintaining a four year old laptop, which historically would be approaching obsoleteness.
Pros – WVWC is in a rural area, and knowing that you can get dependable and timely warranty service on campus provides the student with the minimal inconvenience in the event of a problem.  Business class systems tend to be more durable and offer better performance than low-end models.
Cons – Extended warranty coverage adds to the initial cost of the system, and it could be argued that the money would be better spent buying newer technology. Also, as the system ages, it may not perform as well as new, lower-end systems on the market. This is especially true when the system is over two years old.

Strategy #3: Buy Mid-Range and Split the Extremes

Mid-range laptops can split the pros and cons of either extreme by offering performance and warranty coverage while the system is new, yet maintaining a reasonable initial cost price point.
Pros – Initial costs tend to be within $200 of most low-end retail units.  Warranties are typically two-years. (Most of the ASUS systems on our site carry a 2-year warranty and initial year ADP.  Dell units can have warranty extensions and ADP added during the configuration.)  Mid-range laptops tend to have better features, durability, and performance than the retail bargain units.  Additional monies are not spent on warranties beyond two years and can be applied toward the possible replacement of the system in latter years.
Cons – During the latter years of undergraduate study, the student may experience delays in the event of system failure due to the need for out-of-warranty service or system replacement.

 

Strategy #4: Buy an Ultrabook or Convertible Tablet

The newest technology may be found in Ultrabooks and Convertible Tablets. These systems are generally well constructed, lightweight, thin, and are well configured for moderate to high computing performance levels. They incorporate cutting edge technology such as SSDS (solid state drives) that start up fast, transfer data fast, and have no moving parts. Some models feature touch screens for added functionality. When shopping for these models, the consumer must be careful to ensure that the product is not confused with a tablet (such as an iPad, Android tablet, or Microsoft Windows RT Surface tablet), as those products are not compatible with the software that is utilized at WVWC.

Pros - Portability, performance, and style. Solid state drives, and the lack of moving parts, should reduce service failures. (By far, the majority of service issues that we work with are hard disk drive related failures.)

Cons - Many models are static configurations from the factory, so items like memory and batteries cannot be upgraded or replaced by the end user. Like most markets, the newest and sleekest technology is relatively expensive. Finally, most models do not have internal optical disk drives (CD/DVD) and may utilize non-VGA video output, so external drives (USB) and adapters may be required for full functionality.

Laptop Component Information

Service Contract - There are several different types of service contracts (warranties). For all laptops, warranty repairs must be performed by an authorized service provider. The WVWC Helpdesk is an authorized warranty provider for Dell and ASUS; therefore, repairs can be done on campus with minimal student inconvenience.

  • Warranty Type
    • On Site - The system is repaired on site, generally by sending a technician to your location.
    • Next Business Day (NBD) - After a troubleshooting session via telephone, required parts and a technician will repair the system on the next business day.
    • Depot - After a troubleshooting session via telephone, technical support will arrange to have the computer shipped to a central location for repair. (Most Retail Warranties)
    • Third Party or Retail - Third party or retail warranties vary widely. Most require that the system is taken to the retailer or shipped to a central location for repair.
  • Additional Warranties
    • Accidental Damage Repair (ADP) - This service covers damages due to accidents such as impact from dropping the system or spilling liquid into the system. Services, if offered, vary by manufacturer and model. Dell systems with Dell Complete Care can have ADP claims processed on campus, while ASUS requires depot repair for ADP claims.
    • Extended Battery Warranties - Some ASUS B Series models offer extended 3 year battery warranties. Without such coverage, batteries are only warranted for the initial year since they are considered consumable items.
    • Third Party Provided Warranty or ADP - Some retailers offer extended warranty or accidental damage protection through third parties. Although some of these providers may offer quality services, you may also receive inferior service or repairs through the provider. In addition, these claims must be shipped out and result in extended down time.

Processors – Processors are one of the more expensive components of the laptop and can range from the Intel Core 2 Duo (WVWC’s minimum requirement) to the latest Intel Core i7 (quad) processors. If there is specialty software, such as graphics editing software, that you anticipate using, you should check with the software manufacturer’s minimum and recommended hardware requirements.  Please note that we never recommend that you buy a new system that is at the minimum processor requirement, since it would likely become obsolete very quickly.  Processors are not easily upgradable in laptop computers, as the system boards are designed to accept limited processor models.   All of the processors in the range mentioned above will function well for basic to moderate computing workloads.  In addition to Intel, AMD processors of equivalent performance levels are also acceptable for WVWC requirements.  In general, the faster the clock speed (measured in GHz) and the numbers of cores determine the performance of the processor.  Also, as the model numbers increase, so do the features and performance levels.   If you want to compare the “nuts and bolts” features of  Intel processors, a useful feature comparison chart can be found at http://www.intel.com/consumer/products/processors/compare-processors.htm

System Memory – All running applications on a system must be stored in system memory where the processor can access the data.  System memory is relatively easy and affordable to upgrade later in the lifespan of the laptop, so decisions made on initial memory are not permanent, as they are with the processors.  The exception to this rule is with Ultrabook or Tablet models, where memory is typically not upgradable.

Most new laptops today ship with DDR3 memory, which can transfer data at a faster rate than previous DDR2 and DDR types.  (The memory type is not upgradable, but the capacity of the memory on the DIMM chip is.) The amount of total memory that a laptop can support is determined by the operating system (32-bit vs. 64-bit) and the system architecture.  Most 32-bit systems will support up to 4GB, while the 64-bit operating systems will support the maximum that the system architecture can support (generally 8GB).  Although the minimum WVWC requirement is lower, we recommend at least 4GB of total memory.

Operating System – WVWC requires our students to have the ability to install and run Microsoft Windows based software on their laptops. We support Windows XP, Windows Vista, and Windows 7, both 32-bit and 64-bit versions, and Windows 8. 

  • In the past, we recommended the professional editions of the Windows software, but as times and usage requirements have changed, the Home Premium versions of XP, Vista, Windows 7, and Windows 8 are sufficient for student use.
  • Students opting to use a MacBook, which runs Mac OS X, continue to have this responsibility.  Although Windows can be installed on a MacBook as a second operating system, the student must provide the software, as WVWC does not provide licensed operating systems to students.  Our Helpdesk can install the licensed operating system for them for a $50 fee.   Other options, including installing student purchased VM software (such as VMWare or Parallels) are also supported.  Please contact our Helpdesk for additional information.

Hard Disk Drives – Hard disk drives (HDD) provide the permanent storage for data and software applications on the laptop.  This technology has, in most cases, far exceeded the needs of the typical student as capacity availability for laptop hard drives can range as high as 500GB. (Our experience is that most student data profiles range between 10GB – 50GB.) To maintain performance, the HDD needs 10% free space to function efficiently.  Given these specs, a student with an exceptional amount of software (100GB) and a 50GB profile, would still have 40% disk free space on a 250GB drive. 

The analogy we use here is that HDD capacity difference is like the difference between swimming in 20 ft. of water or 200 ft. of water… if you are not swimming to the bottom, there is no difference or benefit.

  • There are a few things to consider with the HDD selection that can impact system performance and durability.
    • Spin speed – Conventional SATA 3 laptop HDDs spin at 5400 or 7200 RPM. There are a few new designs that reach 10,000 RPM.  Basically, the faster the drive spins, the less time it takes to locate and transfer data (disk latency and transfer rates).
    • Conventional vs. Solid State Drives (SSD) – Conventional HDDs have notoriously become less reliable as the technology in capacity has advanced.  This is due to the increased capacity, lower clearance tolerances, increased heat, and increased spin speeds of the drives that have moving parts, while utilizing the same physical size limitations of a laptop HDD.  Vibrations from use or impact from drops can internally damage drives and result in data loss.  New solid state drives have no moving parts; therefore, their reliability is greatly increased.  This technology has now increased to where the latency and transfer rates of SSDs are equal to or better than those of conventional disk drives.   The issue is cost… while conventional HDD drives can cost as low as $50 for a 250GB drive ($0.20/GB), SSDs can cost as much as $200 for a 256GB drive ($0.78/GB). It should be mentioned here that in the Spring of 2012, the SSD pricing was as high as $460 for a 256GB drive, or $1.80/GB, so you can see that as the technology becomes more "mainstream" the prices drop significantly. Finally, some systems such as Ultrabooks, are using a combination of HDD + SSD, which allows for the fast startup times and data transfer times associated with SSDs and the low-cost capacity associated with HHDs.

Optical Drives – Optical drives are the removable media disk drives in the laptop that support CDs and DVDs.  Students are required to have at least a DVD drive for use with the installation of software.  Other features such as DVD RW (re-writable), provide the ability to “burn” CDs and DVDs.  This is useful for data backup, storage, or distribution, but it is not a requirement.  Some laptops, especially those termed "Ultrabook", “ultra-light”, “ultra-portable”, or “netbook” may not have an optical drive as an internal component.  You can add an external USB optical drive as an accessory in these cases.  A typical external USB multi-function DVD RW drive is about $50 - $60.  Finally, some drives are Blu-Ray compatible, meaning that they support the new Blu-ray optical disk format.  Optical drives that support Blu-ray are more expensive than those that do not.

LCD Display – There are a few features that should be taken into consideration with LCD displays, but all of the displays available in today’s laptops are suitable for use at WVWC.

  • Backlight – LCDs are backlit by either Cold Cathode Ray (CCR) or Light Emitting Diode (LED).  LED backlit displays tend to provide brighter display while utilizing less power.
  • Resolution – The higher the resolution, the clearer the display appears at close distance and the more “space” you have on the screen. 
  • Touch Screen – Some laptops offer a touch screen option which allows for “clicking” and “dragging” functions to be done by touching the screen with your finger.

Video / Graphics Controller – The graphics controller determines the maximum resolution that can be output to the display, as well as the number of colors supported.  In addition, they may have their own memory or “share” system memory, and they may have advanced chipsets for supporting 3D video.  There are two main types of graphics controllers in laptops:

  • Integrated – Integrated graphics controllers are built into the system board, are sufficient for most basic computing tasks, and use less power than discrete graphics controllers.  Integrated graphics controllers share a portion of system memory that they can directly access without processor interruption.
  • Discrete – Generally, discrete graphics controllers significantly outperform integrated controllers the most when graphic performance demands are the highest, such as with 3D gaming, video editing, etc.  The differences during basic computer usage are nominal.  Discrete controllers generally have their own memory, but may still share a portion of the total memory they use from system memory.
  • NVidia Optimus – Some models offer a hybrid solution that uses both types of controllers and a switching technology that determines which controller to utilize for the best balance between performance and power consumption.