Hardware advice: Other Laptops

This page is part of the Hardware Advice series

If you’ve decided to dive into the huge laptop landscape, to try and find the best solution that meets your demands and budget, use the information on this page to guide your choices.

Unfortunately we’ve noticed that you can’t rely on advice from most computer shops. The software we use at the faculty of Architecture is quite unique and the workload is atypical. Most computer re-sellers don’t take these specifics into account, which may lead to incomplete advice and in the end disappointment.

Once you have got a suitable candidate, we recommend to check with us whether you might have overlooked anything:

Check your laptop specs before you buy

This page provides in-depth information on various topics regarding laptop hardware. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact us.

‘Thin-and-light’ laptops (Ultrabooks)

Most vendors offer thin laptops, often called ‘Ultrabooks’, which are specifically designed with portability in mind. Even though they are mostly advertised as good workhorses, it needs to be noted that in reality thin-and-light laptops mostly come with thin-and-light performance: they usually aren’t made with graphic intense activities in mind. Due to their small form factor these laptops also often omit common connections, such as an Ethernet port needed to use wired internet. Upgrade options can also be limited so it’s worthwhile to investigate if a particular model allows you to swap out hard drive and memory if you ever plan on doing this. In any case make sure to choose a laptop with a dedicated nVidia graphics adapter, an RJ-45 Ethernet port and sufficient connections for peripherals (external keyboards, USB drives, etc.) you intend on using. Further specifications to look for are described below.

Quality and durability

The whole idea of getting a laptop is that you can bring it anywhere, so you’ll probably drag it along for a few years. This requires that the shell and build-quality of your laptop is solid and durable. Therefore we advise to get a high quality and well-built laptop. Some examples of companies that usually make good quality laptops are: Lenovo (formerly IBM), Dell and HP.

We advise you to read (online) reviews and user fora before you make your final decision. Note that most laptop manufacturers have cheaper laptops aimed at home-use and more expensive ones for business and high-end use. The home-use laptops are less suitable to be used during your study.

Warranty

You need your laptop to be working during your studies, but they do break sometimes. Usually 1 year warranty is included. EU regulations require vendors to offer at least two years, but repairs aren’t necessarily free of cost.

We recommend to get at least 3 years of warranty so you don’t have to worry about repairs. Preferably you get on-site warranty, which usually means your laptop can be repaired the next business day at your current location. Having to mail or bring your laptop to a repair center adds at least a few days to the repair time.

Most warranty packs don’t offer a replacement laptop during repairs to continue working. Repairs can take a few days or up to a few weeks, depending on the warranty pack you chose. If you don’t have access to an alternative, this might be become a problem. Hardware failure is usually timed very badly, just before deadlines; blame Murphy.

Processor (CPU)

There are practically only two companies that produce processors for laptops: Intel and AMD. Even though both companies make good processors, you’ll be hard pressed to find a high-end laptop with an AMD CPU and all further recommended specifications nowadays.

It’s advisable to select a quad core processor that is designed for mobile use: high performance and low energy consumption. This will make a big difference in the run time on a single battery charge. Be sure though to select a ‘fully featured’ processor (like an i5 or i7 if your budget permits it), instead of a ‘lightweight’ processor designed for office use. So do not get an Intel i3 or AMD E-series.

Memory (RAM)

Memory is pretty cheap nowadays. Get a minimum of 8 gigabytes of memory. 16GB is nice to have and ‘power users’ may consider opting for 32GB. (Note: in order to effectively use this amount of memory you need a 64-bit operating system. Seeing 32-bit Windows is not shipped with new computers anymore, this usually isn’t an issue anyway).

Graphics adapter (GPU)

There are three main types: integrated graphics processors (Intel HD/Iris graphics), gaming graphics processors (nVidia GeForce Mobile and AMD Radeon) and professional graphics processors (nVidia Quadro Mobile and AMD FirePro M-series).

Integrated graphics solutions are absolutely useless when working with CAD applications.

Graphics adapters designed for gaming can be used. Unfortunately we have bad experiences with (drivers for) ATI/AMD Radeon adapters when used for professional CAD applications (such as Maya, Rhino, etc.). The nVidia GeForce Mobile graphics cards are good alternatives for when professional adapters are unavailable or exceed your budget: these are strong adapters for playing games, but they can also be used for CAD software quite effectively.

Professional graphics solutions would be ideal, but they can be quite expensive and are only available for a limited number of laptops. An nVidia Quadro Mobile would be the best solution. AMD FirePro adapters are supposedly quite good since they are designed for use in professional workstations as well. We however have little first-hand experience with this series, so you’ll have to confirm whether a particular graphics card is certified by the vendors of the applications you plan on using.

Display

Two aspects are most important when selecting a display: physical dimensions and ‘resolution’ (the number of pixels).

Basically all new laptops have widescreen displays. Make sure that the screen resolution is at least WXGA+ (1440×900) or WSXGA+ (1680×1050). 1080p Full HD (1920×1080) is recommended. A physical dimension smaller than 14 inch (diagonal) is advised against. High resolutions on small screens tend to result in details that are too small to be visible or readable. Considering you’ll work with graphics and CAD applications on a regular basis it would be best to go with a display size of at least 15 inch, unless weight and mobility are extremely important to you.

Hard disk

Hard disks typically come in two flavors: mechanical hard drives (HDD) and solid-state drive (SSD). The hard drive is typically the slowest part of your system. The overall speed of your computer in everyday tasks (opening and closing programs, saving files, boot-up time, etc.) is thus mostly dependent on how fast your hard drive is capable of reading and writing files.

For best performance a solid-state drive (SSD) is absolutely recommended! There are a few possible solutions that use SSD technology:

  • traditional hard disk combined with a SSD cache
  • a dedicated SSD plus a ‘traditional’ hard disk for bulk data storage
  • one single large capacity SSD for your operating system and data storage (personal files)

A SSD uses memory chips to store data, opposed to traditional hard disks, which are mechanical devices that store data on a magnetic spinning disk. The main advantage of SSD’s is that they are much faster compared to mechanical hard drives. On the other hand they are also more expensive and have less storage capacity: as of June 2015 a good 240GB SSD costs around €100 (prices continue to drop gradually).

An SSD cache is the cheapest solution of the three, but also offers a smaller performance improvement. When you get a laptop with SSD cache, get at least a 32GB SSD cache. Smaller caches offer very limited performance gain.

If the laptop has room for both an SSD and a traditional hard disk, this is a nice solution for a limited budget. You would use the SSD for your operating system and software, and the traditional hard disk for bulk data storage. The SSD should be at least 120GB. The hard disk can be a 5400rpm model, typically with 500GB or more storage space. If a laptop does not support to install both a SSD and a hard drive. some laptops allow you to install a hard drive in place of the optical drive. You would need a special bracket to do this. In any case try to find out whether the particular model you are interested in is capable of doing this, by searching online for the service manual and going through reviews for example.

You can also opt for just a single SSD. But because this would than also need to hold your data, it needs to be bigger. 240GB is a bare minimum, 480GB or more is recommended. This is the most expensive solution, but it can be used in smaller laptops that simply do not have the space to install both a SSD and a hard drive.

Looking at traditional, mechanical hard disks, you can choose between a hard disk that spins at either 5400 rpm or 7200 rpm. Although we recommend to get an SSD, when not using a SSD, it’s strongly advised to choose a 7200 rpm hard disk. If you only use the hard disk for bulk data storage, a 5400rpm model is fine. The capacity needed for the hard disk is mainly determined by the size of the data you want to store. For regular use a 500GB model is sufficient.

To summarize: we recommend to use some form of SSD technology for performance. If your budget does not allow it, having a 500GB 7200 rpm hard drive is the minimum requirement. For extra performance in ascending order of performance but also cost: use either a SSD cache, two drives – a SSD plus a hard disk for file storage, or a single large SSD. For more information please refer to our tips ‘n tricks page.

Also note that your laptop should never be the only repository of your important files. We recommend getting at least one external hard disk that can be used for archiving and backups: preferably a 3.5 inch model, which is more reliable than the smaller 2.5 inch models.

Summary

  • Good and durable build quality;
  • Special processor for ‘mobile’ use (energy efficiency). Intel i7 is recommended;
  • Minimum 8 gigabytes of memory is recommended;
  • nVidia graphics adapter. AMD adapters have (driver) problems with Maya and Rhino more often;
  • Full HD 1080p display (1920 x 1080 pixels) is recommended.