Buying Guide

Need Your Own External Hard Drive?

We recommend you have one. An external hard drive can serve at least 2 purposes:

  1. As a local backup to complement the network backups which Code42 provides (more information on backups here)
  2. As portable storage when on campus, so that you can easily work with files on both cron public computers and your personal computer. Indeed some classes have you working with such large datasets, they require you to have a fast, portable external drive

As a result, cron recommend bus-powered, portable, hard drives with the following specs:

  • USB 3.1/gen 2 with USB-C connector is preferable provided the drive is equipped with both USB-C<->USB-C and USB-C<->USB-A cables or adapters. Note that the naming convention for USB 3.x is rubbish. If you can understand it, send us a postcard. Here are some helpful links explaining the mess: onetwo
  • If you are not planning on using the drive for backups, then 120 GB capacity should do. If you do plan on using the drive for local backups, then you should get a drive which is twice the capacity of your computer drive
  • If you can afford it, a solid state hard drive (SSD) will be very much faster and more reliable. For example: Glyph AtomTranscend Portable SSDCalDigit Tuff-NanoOWC Envoy Pro ElectronSamsung T7 or Orico's 480GB CN210 SSD are fast, reliable, reasonably priced and come with both USB-C<->USB-C and USB-C<->USB-A cables. We do not recommend Western Digital Passport Drives with conventional mechanical drives as they have high failure rates. Western Digital just announced Passport Drives with solid state drives. Those may prove better
  • Almost all drives come with software installers they ask you run. Don't. Especially if a Macintosh user as macOS has universal device drivers. You do not need to install anything for the drives to work. Just plug them into your computer, reformat them (HFS+ or APFS for Macintosh / NTFS for Windows) and done

Need Your Own Computer?

No, you do not as there are public cluster computers available. With that said, all students come to MIT equipped with a computer, typically a laptop.

What is Good Enough?

The expected lifetime of a computer is five to seven years. While a five-year-old computer may still work fine, technology will have advanced to the point of making a new computer attractive. If your computer does not meet the baseline specifications below, you may want to consider buying a new one.

    Note: if interested in software provided by the Department, or desire full compatibility with resources here, the computer you bring must run 64-bit Windows 10 (PC) or macOS 11 or above (Macintosh).

    Baseline Windows PC

    • Intel Core i7 processor
    • 16 GB RAM absolute minimum
    • 512 GB SSD absolute minimum
    • Windows 11

    To view your current computer's specs: in File Explorer, right-click This PC > Properties.

    Baseline Macintosh

    • Apple Silicon M1/M2
    • 16 GB RAM minimum
    • 512 GB SSD absolute minimum
    • macOS 12 Monterey

    To view your current Macintosh's specs: Apple Menu > About This Mac > More Info

    Desktop or Laptop or Netbook / iPad?

    Most all incoming students bring laptops. A number bring both laptops and desktops or laptops with large external displays which are left on studio desk or at home.

    In their quest for to meet everyone's needs, laptop makers have to make various trade-offs among power consumption, heat generation and dissipation, size, weight, and cost. The result is that laptops tend to fall into four broad categories: 

    1. Netbooks/Tablets: In the quest for ultra-portability, students use these for note taking, PDF annotation, presentations and the like while on campus, and leave any heavier computing tasks for public cluster computers or home computer
    2. Ultralight, ultra-thin, ultra-compact: These ultra-books are expensive because of the premium components used to make them so small and light. Most components such as video or ethernet adapters are typically outboard accessories (often at extra cost). These are favored by non-graphics intensive users as they provide the greatest portability and (increasingly) excellent performance
    3. Desktop Replacement: These machines feature big displays, big hard drives, fast processors and a lot of bulk and weight. These machines are expensive because just about everything you might need in a desktop machine is included. Battery life tends to be short. Students seldom select these owing to their bulk

    Something in the middle of 2 and 3 is where most students will be looking. In between the above extremes lies the greatest variety of units that vary in their size, weight and performance. Mid-size (13"-14") laptops generally offer the best value with a lot of functionality at a reasonable price.

    At any point on the scale, however, you will get more computer for your dollar with a desktop. If you are shuttling your computer to school or work daily, then clearly lighter (3 pounds or less) and smaller is the way to go. However, if you only take the machine on the road for the occasional trip out of town, you may be more willing to tolerate the weight in exchange for having a more powerful computer the rest of the time.

    Macintosh or Windows?

    Both platforms are widely used in the Department, with approximately 87.3% of faculty and staff using Macintosh. Approximately 70% of the Department's student body own Macs. cron support both platforms.

    How might you decide which to use? All major software (Microsoft, Adobe, Affinity, QGIS, Rhino, etc) is available for both platforms. What's more, the files are 100% binary compatible which is to say one can use the identical files across platforms. However there is one caveat for those interested in running ESRI ArcGIS on their personal computer. This is a Windows only application. It will not run on Macintosh unless your Intel-based Macintosh is configured to run Windows using Boot Camp or virtualization software--a practice we no longer recommend. Note that ESRI ArcGIS is not required for your studies and further, there are on-campus resources for running ESRI ArcGIS products. 

    The Macintosh enjoys favor among those editing digital video, preparing multimedia presentations and graphics work in general. For word processing, office automation, and web browsing, both do equally well.

    In the case of security, privacy and maintenance, the Macintosh has historically been far less vulnerable to viruses and spyware and is easier to use and maintain.

    If the natural environment is a concern (it most definiterly is to us), Apple's environmental record leads the industry. Apple's most recent report can be found here.

    Intel-based Macintosh or Apple Silicon-based Macintosh [M1/M2]?

    Important: In late June 2020 Apple announced they would be moving their computers from Intel chipsets to 'Apple Silicon' (ARM-based SoCs designed by Apple). Thus far (May 2022) they have released the following Apple Silicon-based computers: MacBook Air M1/M2, MacBook Pro 13" M1, MacBook Pro 14"/16" M1 Pro/Max, Mac Mini M1, Mac Studio M1 Max/Ultra, iMac 24" M1. These have proven far superior to their Intel counterparts in every respect. You should not consider the purchase of an Intel-based Macintosh unless it is urgently critical that you run Windows (and x86 Windows applications) under Boot Camp or as a virtual machine on Apple hardware.

    We recommend those requiring Windows-only software simply to purchase PC hardware, not Macintosh.

    Which Windows?

    Answer: Windows 10 64-bit or Windows 11. Most all of our installers, configuration scripts, printing, documentation and expertise are for Windows 10/11 only. For those students purchasing new Windows PCs, do so with Windows 10/11 64-bit to accommodate 8->32GB RAM and the software which we make available.

    Recommended Configuration for New Purchase

    cron Recommended Windows PC Laptop (as of May 2022)

    The MIT recommended Dell laptops listed at will all work well in our environment.

    cron Recommended Macintosh Laptop (as of May 2022)

    Though the MIT recommended Apple laptops listed at will all work in our environment, we do not recommend them. Instead, you should consider the purchase of a MacBook Air M1, MacBook Pro 13" M1, MacBook Pro14" M1 Pro (for laptop) or Mac mini M1, Mac Studio M1 Max/Ultra or iMac 24" M1 (desktop).

    Important: As stated above under 'Intel-based Macintosh or Apple Silicon-based Macintosh [M1]?' you should not consider the purchase of an Intel-based Macintosh unless you must urgently run Windows (and x86 Windows applications) under Boot Camp or as a virtual machine on Apple hardware. Apple Silicon-based Macintoshes are significantly better than their Intel counterparts and are the direction all Apple development is moving.

    Note: Apple's Back-to-School special includes a free set of AirPods ($160 offer). You might find better prices than Apple's Educational Pricing from third party vendors: B&H. MacMall, Amazon, etc.

    Options for Most All Computers

    • More System MemoryIt's hard to have too much. Consider boosting your RAM to 32GB. Under no circumstances get less than 16GB. Note: Many laptops (and all Apple laptops) have non-upgradeable RAM. We recommend the maximum RAM you can afford if purchasing these models-with 16GB being the sweet spot for most needs
    • Better/Faster ProcessorIt is a good idea to buy the best processor you can reasonably afford. The Intel processors you are likely to see are named i3, i5, i7 and i9. As the number in their name increases, so does the performance for most tasks (and price). There are then different speeds to consider for each of these processors. At any given time, however, there is a point where the next increment in performance is no longer worth the cost. Processors are only one factor in overall computer speed, and possibly not the most important. Investing in more RAM, faster system bus or a faster disk (SSD), may make a bigger contribution to computer speed than a more capable CPU. With all that said, we recommend i7 and i9 processors for those with CAD, multimedia or GIS needs, whilst i5 processors are fine for general purpose (web, email, word processing etc.). Those purchasing Macintosh should opt for the M1 or M1 Pro/Max/Ultra processor (see 'Intel-based Macintosh or Apple Silicon-based Macintosh [M1]?' above)
    • Better Video Card: Everything you see on the screen has to go through this component first, so improving it can noticeably enhance performance, especially for graphics and video applications, and video games. Look for cards with 1GB (or even 2GB) of onboard video RAM. Don't confuse this video RAM with the system memory, mentioned above. The M1 Macintoshes have superb video performance. Those laptops equipped with M1 Pro and M1 Max processors are graphics performing behemoths
    • Faster Hard Disk: We recommend SSD hard drives for both laptops and desktops. These are extremely fast and more reliable than conventional mechanical drives. However they are more expensive. For laptops they are a must
    • Removable Storage: We highly recommend an external, bus-powered hard drive: an SSD based drive with USB 3.1/gen 2 with USB-C connector or Thunderbolt 3/4 is preferable provided the drive is equipped with both USB-C<->USB-C and USB-C<->USB-A cables or adapters
    • Better, Larger Display: You will spend a lot of time staring at your screen, so it pays not to skimp on this component. A quality display will outlive the rest of your computer. A good 24" display with 1920x1200 resolution is less than $350. The OEM monitors that ship bundled with computers (both desktop and laptop) can be quite good; Dell's offerings are among the best. If you're not happy with the bundled monitor, however, you can buy a computer without it and purchase one on your own. If you want to learn more about the issues involved in buying a monitor, the CNET Monitor Buying Guide is a decent place to start. For laptops, consider getting a FHD resolution (i.e.1920x1080) display if possible. A lower resolution screen is where most budget laptops will skimp. However, on the windows end we are seeing little value in very very high density displays over QHD (2560 x 1440), and many older programs have trouble dealing with the dpi of retina like displays
    • Three-Year Warranty: Due to their itinerant ways and delicate components, laptops are very vulnerable to hardware failures of various kinds. It's not uncommon to have some part fail after a while. Hence, having warranty coverage for the full expected three-year use of the computer is a good idea. Often this is standard on new PCs. Apple's 3 and 4 year warranties goes by AppleCare and start at about $180. PCs can be bought with accidental coverage and is recommended. Check your credit card policy for any additional coverage
    • Generous Return Policy: Some vendors will give you 30 days to try the computer out; if you don't like it, return it, no questions asked. Others are less generous. On a big ticket purchase like a computer, the return option may relieve anxiety
    • Thunderbolt port: Developed by Intel with technical assistance from Apple. This high-performance bus supports blazingly fast data transfer speeds and folds PCI Express and DisplayPort into a serial data interface. As a result, one can daisy-chain multiple hard drives and multiple displays to a Thunderbolt-enabled computer (all Macintoshes and many PCs) and watch 3 different Blue-Ray movies on 3 different displays whilst copying GB of data across hard drives and recharging your laptop battery all at the same time, across the same thin cable!
    • USB 3.1/gen 2 (recently renamed USB 3.2/gen2) or USB-C: This new kid on the ports aim to do it all with high speed and connections to thunderbolt, video, ethernet, and even laptop charging. However, there are many variants so if your machine has one do your homework here and here

    Laptop Options

    • External Display: You can connect a larger, brighter display at home or in studio, and position it more ergonomically. This can make GIS and drawing applications usable on a laptop with a small display. Apple laptops can work with any third-part display. The purchase of an adapter may be necessary. See the section on 'Better, Larger Display' above
    • External Keyboard and Mouse: For when you get tired of laptop keys, want a proper numeric keypad, or realize GIS applications are much harder to use with a touch pad or touch point
    • Port Replicator or Docking Station: Simplifies connections if you have a monitor, keyboard, and mouse at home or in studio that you would like to hook up to the laptop regularly. Thunderbolt docks are extremely versatile (requires laptop with Thunderbolt (all new Macs, many new PCs):OWC, CalDigit, Lenovo. Some Thunderbolt and USB-C external displays have built-in dock which obviates need for a docking station 
    • No Fault Warranty coverage: This covers your laptop if you drop it or back your Mercedes over it (but not spills, theft or fire). Dell calls it Complete Care Lenovo calls it ThinkPlus Protection and both charge extra for it. AppleCare+ for Macintosh (recommended) extends your coverage to three years from your AppleCare+ purchase date and adds up to two incidents of accidental damage coverage, each subject to a service fee of $99 for screen/spill damage or external enclosure damage plus applicable tax. In addition, you'll get 24/7 priority access to Apple experts via chat or phone

    How Much Should You Pay?

    The sky is the limit when it comes to buying a new computer. One can easily pay $10,000 or more if one really wants to. Few of us, however, are so extravagant. More realistically, a good desktop PC with a monitor and a basic printer will cost between $800 and $2500, depending on the options. On the high end, beyond $3000 provides no benefits except for the most extreme numerical analysis, simulation or video applications. For a laptop, the budget will need to be higher. Plan on spending about $1,500-$2,000 for a laptop (add about $100 to include a basic printer).

    Which Brand and Where Should You Buy It?

    Disclaimer: You are not required to bring a computer. You are welcome to buy any brand of computer you wish. You have many options, many of which may be superior to those we describe here. We also cannot vouch that our experience with various vendors will be the same as yours and cannot accept responsibility for any unhappy experiences. These remarks represent our subjective opinions only.

    First, you need to make a decision about whether you are going to buy a PC or a Macintosh. See 'Which Platform?' above.

    Next we encourage you to consider the manufacturer's environmental practices. Apple publish a yearly environmental report which documents in detail the environmental impact of its manufacturing and operations and the company's plans for mitigation. Others are not as candid.

    For PCs, we have had good experiences with Dell and Lenovo over many years. We have generally been pleased with their products, prices, and support. We like being able to configure PCs to our own specifications, the prices are usually better than those at a retail store, and the machines are typically delivered to one's door within a week or so. When shopping for either of them, start at MIT's personal purchase web pages (MIT Web certificates required) to see the discounts those vendors provide to MIT students. It often pays to look at the regular home user listings too; these may be cheaper if a specific model is having a promotion, or have more up-to-date models and features. The cost of delivery through the education site is frequently less than at the consumer site. The sites change frequently as products and promotions come and go, so you will need to check this yourself when you are ready to buy. 

    For Dells, MIT tends to recommend the Dell Optiplex and Latitude lines, which are built for reliability, serviceability (on-campus) and long life. Dell's Dimension and Inspiron product lines are oriented towards consumers, with higher performance (especially for games) at a given price. Dell's Precision models are high-end workstations, providing extreme performance and reliability at a high price. 

    Lenovo has an excellent reputation for its Thinkpad line of laptops. Lenovo consistently ranks at the top of Windows laptop vendors for customer satisfaction and the ease of getting problems fixed when they do occur. Lenovo's T and X series laptops emphasize reliability and long life.

    Only Apple manufacture Macintoshes. You can buy them from the online Education Apple Store or retail. Apple typically offers a 'Back-to-School' special with the purchase of a Macintosh computer (beginning mid-summer). It is not uncommon for vendors such as B&H, MacMall and Amazon to have very competitive prices and bundle deals.

    MIT has a special arrangement with the on-line computer merchants GovConnection, Dell and Apple ( whereby you can buy computers and other items at a discounted MIT price. This includes academically-priced software; the discount from the commercial version can be quite large. Although GovConnection often has good prices, you may do better by shopping around for say the deal of the week at the Lenovo or Dell site. 

    For an opportunity to look at and touch the equipment before buying it, we recommend MicroCenter in Cambridge, which has a very wide selection and well priced showroom/store. For laptops this can be particularly valuable. Of course there are Apple Retail Stores with a full range of Apple products and very knowledgeable staff who will help set up a new Macintosh for you-including transferring files from off old Macintosh or Windows PC.

    What About Used or Refurbished Computers?

    As a general rule, avoid second hand computers. Buying a used computer from an individual is particularly risky, as you know little of the machine's history, and many private sellers have unrealistic expectations about what their old computer is worth. That said, we strongly recommend you consider Apple's refurbished wares found on their online store: refurbished link. These come 'as if new' with full warranty. Savings can be up to 40%. As Apple's refurbished offerings change daily, it easiest to track available items through this web site:

    Where Can You Learn More?

    There are a wealth of product reviews available online at no cost! Whatever you are considering, you owe it to yourself to look for a review or two of the product. Here are some good sites for buying guides and computer reviews: 

    cron can offer personalized assistance in picking a computer that will work well in and around the Department and Institute. Additionally, the IS&T staff can provide help with computer buying questions.

    Need Help? cron