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I'm sure that plenty of people have asked this question... But I cannot find a current, definitive answer. A college student, majoring in anything to do with computers will generally be doing one of three things on their computer:

  1. Productivity software - Microsoft Office programs, a compiler for whatever language they're teaching, etc.
  2. Graphic programs - Photoshop, Flash, and Illustrator in my case.
  3. Gaming. In my case, I stick to mid-end games. The games I play require around a Pentium 2.4, and a basic video card.

So, all I'm wondering is if I am looking to replace my desktop, so I can spend as little time at home as possible, what are the bare minimums I need to start with? Can I just use a Core 2 Duo/Quad, or do I need to step up to an i3? I really don't know anything about AMD, so i wouldn't know about their comparable models.

The processor is the big question here. Any laptop I can get will have 2-4gb of ram, which should be enough, and I'll probably use an external hard drive, so I can work between computers anyway.

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2 Answers 2

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Any computer you buy now which isn't a low-powered netbook will be more than fast enough for anything most normal users need to do. Here's some info which hopefully you'll fine useful. I've also written a more extensive blog post specifically targeted at college students looking for a new computer. It's a couple months old, but mostly still relevant, and has some specific machine recommendations.

Processor

Even the previous generation of mobile processors, the Core 2 Duo series, will run Office, Photoshop, Visual Studio and most video games without any trouble. Any of the 2010 Core processors, even a Core i3, will beat a previous-generation Core 2 processor at just about anything, and again, is more than sufficient. Most laptop users' processors, even superusers, run idle most of the time. You will likely be just fine with a Core 2 Duo; just make sure you get a newer one with the 45nm technology. I would advise at least 2.0 GHz, though slower can work. You can check a given processor's specs using Intel's specfinder.

Memory

Memory is going to depend entirely on how you use your computer. Most people will get by just fine with 2 GB. If you use memory-intensive applications a lot though, such as Visual Studio or Adobe Creative Suite products, which you said you do, you'll get by with 2 but would probably run more comfortably with 4 GB. It's a subjective matter, but more than 4 GB is probably overkill unless you run multiple VMs simultaneously.

Graphics

Graphics are a tricky situation. Intel's current-gen HD integrated graphics, which come with any Core ix processor, can handle most games on medium settings. If it'l run on a P4-era computer, it'll run on this. You'll probably be fine with integrated graphics, but the extra boost from a dedicated card can be nice at times. If you want dedicated graphics, look for switchable graphics like Nvidia Optimus, which allow you to use the integrated GPU to save battery, and switches to the dedicated GPU only when required, like for games. If you do get a Core 2 series processor, a dedicated GPU might be more necessary; check what graphics chipset is in the computer you're looking at. If it doesn't meet the specs for the games you play, your money might be better sent on upgrading to a Core i3 with the newer integrated HD graphics rather than spending it on an older, more power hungry dedicated card.

Hard Drive

Hard drives are an oft-overlooked bottleneck. Size isn't a huge deal, you can figure out for yourself how big of a hard drive you need, but speed matters. Get a 7200 RPM drive; I would choose a 320 GB 7200 RPM drive over a 1 TB 5400 RPM drive any day.

Another thing to consider with hard drives is having an eSATA or USB 3.0 port for fast backups. Backups are very important, and having a fast connection to an external drive makes backing up a much easier experience, thus making it more likely that you'll do it often. This was a critical part of my decision on what laptop to get.

To sum it all up...

As long as you don't buy a netbook, basically any computer buy now will be plenty fast for your needs. Read some online reviews, and see if it's a good laptop overall, don't just worry about the specs; they'll probably be fine.

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Wow. Amazingly detailed. I don't think I could have asked for anything more. –  Varilian Nov 19 '10 at 13:32

Core 2 Duo will be adequate, and at least 2GB of RAM. MSI and Asus have mid-range laptops in the $600 - $700 range that include two- or three-year warranties, Windows 7 Home Premium, and 2GB of RAM.

Spend your money on the RAM, and a machine with a 7200rpm drive. The processor is important, but there's a balancing point, and the drive and RAM will help offset a slower processor.

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Good answer. There is only one major difference I've found between laptops and desktop: the chipset and memory speeds in laptops tend to be a bit slower. So comparable processors and amount of RAM does not lead to comparable performance. Expect the laptop to be a little slower than a comparable desktop machine. Nevertheless, modern (even cheap) laptops are amazingly good. –  quickly_now Nov 19 '10 at 4:27
    
Thanks for adding that. +1 for you. –  user3463 Nov 19 '10 at 4:29

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