A Computer Buying Guide for Computer Science Majors

Original article written by Shaun Wang, published March 10, 2017, updated by GCU March 30, 2021
Computer Science Major, College of Science, Engineering and Technology

computer science student using laptop

Mac or Windows? The decades-old question remains unsolved. A lot of times the decision is not based on computer alone, but rather on user preference and finances. Explore which computer is best for computer science students and how to choose specs based on long-term need.

Many advertisements have recently been advertising Chromebooks as a potential alternative to Mac and Windows. However, while Chromebooks are good for basic computing, they are not compatible with a computer science degree program. The issue is that all apps must be downloaded from an app store making it hard to download third-party software. This is also true for Windows Vista computers. While app stores can be disabled on Vista, it is best to avoid the hassle and get a regular Windows or Mac for your degree program.

Table of Contents:

System: Mac vs. Windows

Recommended: Mac

The advantage of Mac is that it is a UNIX-based system – and computer science courses are mainly taught in UNIX. Most development software is made for UNIX-based systems, and it is the most widely used in the industry. Moreover, users can still install Windows on a Mac using either Virtual Machine or Oracle (free), and it will run as it would on a native Windows computer. Mac systems are more stable, with barely any sudden shutoffs, a user-friendly interface and no forced system updates. However, with all these benefits, the downside for a Mac is the cost. The graphics card, in general, is not as good as the one on a Windows computer within the same price range, although it is more than enough for computer science courses.

The advantage of Windows systems is that most programs are compatible because almost everything is designed with Windows in mind. However, that is not the case for programmers, and UNIX systems are undeniably better for developers. With a Windows system, you can set up dual boot so you can use your system’s full capabilities in both Windows and Linux in order to use a UNIX system. Alternatively, you can set up a virtual machine for quick access to both systems at the cost of performance. You can buy a PC inexpensively and still have a good system – and Windows is far better for gaming.

MacBook, MacBook Pro or MacBook Air?

Recommended: MacBook Pro, Minimum: MacBook Air

Apple created three product lines for laptops. The MacBook and MacBook Air are suitable for users who are not heavy computer users, while the MacBook Pro is better for users who expect more computing power from their laptop. Even though MacBook and MacBook Air are similar for the user group, each product line still has its differences and advantages. It is important to check your degree program requirements before purchasing your computer.

MacBook vs. MacBook Air

MacBook Air is more compact and thinner, with a screen size of 12’’ with a Retina display. While MacBook only weighs roughly three pounds and is only 13.1 mm in width, the Air is roughly two pounds. It has a more powerful touchpad that is bigger and supports force touch. The keyboard design is also more advanced. However, a MacBook is more expensive than a MacBook Air. It has a less powerful CPU and only one USB-C port, which means that users would have to buy adapter hubs for HDMI or USB 3.0. In short, the MacBook Air is cheaper, has a more powerful CPU than a MacBook and has more connection ports. However, it has a less advanced keyboard and touchpad.

MacBook Pro

Ultimately, the MacBook Pro is the go-to product for students who want to use their computers for computer science classes, mainly because MacBook Pro is more powerful. There are two sizes: a 13-inch and a 16-inch model. However, the 13-inch base model comes with 2 GHz CPU while the base model for MacBook is only 1.3 GHz. The integrated graphics card is better, and the MacBook Pro also gives user options to install i7 CPU as well as an AMD discrete graphics card. Now, even though a MacBook Pro is the best computer for computer science students, there are still more questions to be answered:

  • How much memory should I get?
  • How much storage should I get?
  • Should I get the discrete graphics card?

How Much CPU Do I Need?

Recommended: i7 Chip

An i7 chip is needed for computer science classes. However, be aware you have higher financial costs, but more power. For regular software development, programmers do not need i7 to code and build software. Unless you plan to intensively use the CPU for specific programs, like Microsoft HoloLensEmulator, then the core i5 is good enough, though i7 is preferred.

How Much Storage Should I Get?

Recommended: 512 GB, Minimum: 256 GB, Overkill: 1 TB

As for storage, 1 TB would be way more than enough while 128 GB would not be sufficient. Mac users should also install Windows on their Macs through Oracle or VMware because some software works better on Windows (such as Visual Studio). With 512 GB, after splitting the storage by using two systems, there would be storage left for the system. It is also recommended that users buy an external hard drive, a USB flash drive, or use cloud storage to save backup copies of important files because you will need them if the computer crashes. Most files are archived so you can store them on an external hard drive, which is a lot cheaper than the built-in storage. The key to choosing storage is to find the optimal that is able to store all the files you need with you and then buy an external hard drive to store everything else.

What Screen Size Should I Choose?

Recommended: 15 inches, Minimum: 13 inches

As a computer science student, you will have multiple windows open, such as a window full of code, a window of the running program, a browser window and a notes window. Having a bigger screen is always a better choice. In fact, most professional developers have at least two computer monitors. If a larger screen or dual monitors is not in your budget, a 13-inch screen will suffice.

How Much Memory Do I Need?

Recommended: 16 GB, Minimum: 8 GB, Overkill: 32GB

In general, 8 GB of memory is the minimum recommended. Running multiple programs like development software, word processing and an internet browser at the same time can be handled by 8 GGB of RAM. However, if you are running parallel software (such as a Windows system on a MacOS system) or if you plan to run multiple virtual machines, then 16 GB would be a good amount of RAM.

If your computer science emphasis is big data analytics, then having 16 GB RAM would help the speed of processing data since there would be 8 GB more memory for the CPU to use. But that is not essential – you can still use 8 GB RAM to process data.

Which GPU Should I Get?

Recommended: AMD Radeon, Minimum: Intel Graphics, Overkill: External Graphics Card

Mac uses either an Intel Iris Plus graphics card or an extra discrete AMD graphics card for better performance, which is more expensive. You will not need a discrete graphics card for any of your computer science classes; however, if you can afford one, then get a discrete graphics card because you might need it for other things. If you want to learn intensive graphics modeling, a discrete graphics card would be a good companion. If you are learning parallel computing, then the GPU and CPU running side by side would speed up the program execution time.

What Software Do I Need?

Grand Canyon University provides its students with a lot of powerful free software that otherwise would be very expensive. For instance, you do not need to worry about buying Microsoft Office Suite or MS Access SQL Server, all development tools from JetBrains, including CLion for C/C++ language development and ReSharper for code editing. You will need to download the free Adobe Acrobat DC app for your Mac because you need that software to be able to view documents like your electronic textbook.

Think Long-Term When Investing in Your Computer

If you decide to buy a Mac, one advantage is that it will typically last longer than a Windows computer. Expect that you will be using your Mac computer for at least six years or more, barring any accidents or damage. Get a case or sleeve as well as a keyboard cover for your Mac to protect it so cosmetically it would still look great after years of use.

Since you will be using your Mac for an extended period of time, invest in it! If you have the money to pay for a model that has better specs, do it. As an example, 8 GB of RAM may sound adequate upfront, but as time goes on, it will not be enough. By the time you want to have 16 GB of RAM, you will likely have to buy a new computer. Therefore, think long-term when you buy your computer – and buy it with the specs that will be enough throughout your entire program.

The Buyer’s Decision

If you have a computer right now, wait to buy a new one. A standard Windows or Mac laptop is good enough for the first two years of computer science classes. It may not have the best performance, but it will definitely be good enough. After your first two years of college, if you are well into the more advanced computer science coursework, then consider buying a really good Mac for heavier usage.

Grand Canyon University’s College of Science, Engineering and Technology offers a premier education. To learn more about our programs, click the Request More Information button on this page.

*Please note the specs for the computers discussed in this blog are current at the time of publishing. Technology changes frequently, and we encourage students to complete thorough research before purchasing a computer.

More About Shaun:

Shaun is majoring in computer science with an emphasis on big data analytics at Grand Canyon University. The most important thing in Shaun’s life is Jesus. After becoming a follower of Christ three years ago, his life is forever changed. He loves to talk about Jesus and show love to other people. Shaun is actively involved in church and is teaching Bible studies on campus. His favorite verse is: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).

Shaun also considers himself to be a passionate software engineer. He loves to build applications and learn new skills. He knows C#, .NET, SQL, C++, Javascript, Python, HTML, CSS, SQL and Unity, but his favorite is working on the .NET stack for web development. He is enjoying working for the GCU web development team.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.