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Recommendations for Computers and Accessories

The Clark School of Engineering and the Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) Department do not have minimum system requirements. However, we are happy to offer recommendations. Please read below to find out our recommendations for computing components. If you want to skip all the discussion, you can find the recommendations for an average user in red. These recommendations can be more broadly applied to other departments within the Clark School of Engineering.

Laptop or Desktop?

We are asked about this often. The majority of incoming students have laptops when they arrive. Laptops offer easier portability and take up a lot less space. However, they are generally more expensive and replacement of individual parts becomes more difficult. Desktops offer more flexibility for adding new hardware and troubleshooting hardware problems. However, moving a desktop computer to a help desk for assistance becomes more difficult. More advanced users might choose to have both a laptop and desktop.

For the average user, we recommend a laptop.

Mac/Apple or PC?

This is another question we are asked often. All ECE labs run on the Windows operating systems. We are seeing an increase in the number of students who use the Mac platform for their regular needs. However, many of the software packages used in the ECE department are only available for Windows. Students with Apple computers are often able to find other ways to accommodate their class needs while still using the Mac OS as their primary operating system. These methods include Boot Camp, VMware Fusion, and Parallels.

For the average user, we recommend a PC running Windows 7.

Processors

The limitations of most of the computers we work with usually will not be processing power. When a user finds that things are running slowly on their system, other factors should be considered. The processors that come as the default option on newer computers are usually more than enough to handle the needs of the average computer user. Projects that require high powered computing are usually run on servers or clusters here. 

The most common processors available now are Intel and AMD. For all typical uses, there is no obvious performance difference between the two brands.

For the average user, we recommend an Intel Core i5.

Memory

Most of the programs we’ll be running will be the limited by this. Computers without a reasonable amount of RAM (random access memory) will load slowly and run programs poorly.

For the average user, we recommend 4GB of DDR3 RAM.

Hard Drives and Storage

When people think of their storage, they’re often thinking in terms of capacity. Each person will have different storage needs. Music takes up a lot of space. Videos take up even more. Photographs stored at a decent resolution take up some amount in between. On the other hand, Word documents are extremely small.

There are two other important factors to consider. The first of those is speed. Hard drive speed is measured in RPMs (Revolutions Per Minute). Solid state hard drives (SSDs) are becoming more popular and use solid state memory for storage, so there is no need for a measure of RPMs. These are the fastest, but the most expensive right now. From an end user perspective the hard drive speed shows in boot time, application launch time, and data copy rates.

The final consideration is backup storage. It’s a good idea to have some type of external storage device (a flash drive or external hard drive) to store a copy of important data.

For the average user, we recommend a 250GB 7200RPM (non-SSD) internal hard drive and an external USB drive for backups.

Video/Graphics

Most computers come with a graphics card that is built in (“on board” or “standard VGA”). With the standard VGA outputs, if you’re using a typical LCD monitor, doing word processing, browsing YouTube, or doing some basic video editing, things will look pretty good. A noticeable difference comes when the user starts to expect more to happen on the screen, whether that be running video games, displaying on an extremely large screen/monitor, or any other form of intensive video operation. The more of these operations a user expects to perform, the better their graphics card should be.

For the average user, we recommend the standard VGA (default) graphics card option.  

DVD/CD Drives

It’s still standard for computers to come with some form of optical drive. Software, music, and videos still come in optical disc form. Some computers, like netbooks and the MacBook Air, aren’t designed with one included. In these cases, users have the option of purchasing an external optical device.

For the average user, we recommend a DVD-RW drive.

Software

Many students come in asking about what they should purchase in advance. Much like text books, this isn’t something that can be easily answered unless you know what the course instructor requires. The ECE department has computer labs in place for typical student needs. Many of the course software packages are either free or covered under campus licensing agreements for all of our students.

For the average user, we recommend Microsoft Office and purchasing other software only as needed.


Other Useful Resources

Once you’ve received a directory username and password, you can visit the Academic Computing for Terps site to build and purchase a laptop.

The Software Licensing department handles faculty, staff, and student needs for software. Some packages, such as the Microsoft Forefront anti-virus software, are available for download immediately. You can visit the Terrapin Technology Store (0203 Stamp Student Union) on campus for assistance as well.

If you have further questions, please contact the ECE Help Desk (ecehelp@ece.umd.edu).

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