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Advice for students about buying laptops/tablets


As the IT Director for the department, I’m occasionally asked for my opinion about what sort of equipment (e.g. laptop, tablet) students should get. While the department makes no specific recommendations (we do not endorse any particular vendor or model of equipment), I’d like to be able to share with students something on this topic. I was wondering if any students who have laptops and/or tablets would be willing to share their experiences about what model or type of equipment works well for them, and why? This wouldn’t be a departmental recommendation, of course, but it might be useful information for students facing the question of what to buy.

So: my question to each of you is: as a Computer Science student, what sort of laptop or tablet works well for you? Why? What are the pros and cons, in your experience? Would you do anything different if you were choosing today?


John DiMarco
IT Director, Department of Computer Science, University of Toronto


What sort of laptop or tablet works well for you? Why? What are the pros and cons, in your experience? Would you do anything different if you were choosing today?

I used to be a Windows user but after second year in CS, when we were introduced to Linux shell (command line programming), I realized the convenience of Macbooks, which have an integrated Linux shell. Windows also has a similar command line system but with different commands which make it harder to use Windows’ command line when developing websites using NodeJS or any other project that would requires command line. Thus, I switched to a Macbook air going into my third year. Nevertheless, it is totally possible to download Ubuntu on Windows for having Linux shells, where the only catch is that you can only be signed into either one of the two systems due to hard disk partitioning. This means if you have an assignment you’re working on in Linux but want to look at a PDF file that you saved on the Windows part of the disk, you would have to log-off from Linux and sign into Windows to see it, unless of course you save it in the Linux side. Most people who do get Ubuntu, just become used to working in it so don’t usually switch back to Windows. Another alternative on Windows is a Virtual Machine (VMWare or another virtual disk), which allows you to have the two systems running in parallel but at the cost of dividing your current memory, thus slowing down overall work flow.
All this being said, apparently Windows integrated a Linux shell in it as it has been announced, but I don’t have any first or second hand experience with it, so I can’t say much.


Hi, Dutta,

Thanks for your helpful reply. I, too, like Macs because of their integrated UNIX shell. But they’re so expensive to buy. The Macbook Air is the cheapest of their laptops but it starts at $1200. Sometimes you can buy cheaper apple-refurbished Macbooks at http://www.apple.com/ca/shop/browse/home/specialdeals/mac. Apple-refurbished is really good-as-new, complete with apple warranty. But while it’s cheaper, it’s still expensive. But I guess if you can afford it, a macbook air or pro is a pretty good choice.

On Windows, you can get a free integrated UNIX environment from cygwin.com, and on Windows 10, you can add an integrated Ubuntu Linux installation (but not everything works), see http://www.howtogeek.com/249966/how-to-install-and-use-the-linux-bash-shell-on-windows-10. Both of these approaches allow UNIXy stuff and Windows stuff to run at the same time and see the same files, use the same memory, etc.

Of these, I use Cygwin all the time. It has its limitations but it’s definitely useful. I’ve played with the optional integrated Ubuntu in Windows 10, and it seems to work, but it’s clearly “beta”, which makes me nervous about using it for real work, and it requires Windows 10. Still, Windows + Cygwin seems pretty good.




As a Computer Science student, what sort of laptop or tablet works well for you? Why? What are the pros and cons, in your experience? Would you do anything different if you were choosing today?

I personally use, and still use Windows as well. I think Windows is great because a lot of programs are compatible with Windows but I agree with Dutta about not having the Unix shell in Windows is a pain especially with courses like CSC209 and CSC369 where the command line programming is used in the Linux shell. Cygwin is really great as well, but it does take up a lot of space on my laptop and I do not have a lot of memory on my laptop, so sometimes I would use the NX client although it is generally pretty slow too. I am not a Mac user however, for CSC258, we needed to use Quartus for Verilog programming. You can only download Quartus on Windows and Linux. I’m not sure if there’s a way of getting Quartus on Mac. I think ideally for computer science students, download Ubuntu and using Linux OS can be very useful because you can have access to a lot of developer tools as well.


Thanks, Yushan, for your reply.

The confusing thing about Windows laptops is that there are so many to choose from. Do you have any recommendations about which particular Windows laptop to get? What model of laptop did you get for yourself? Are you happy with it? Would you do something different if you were getting a new one today?




Hi John,

I would like to share some thoughts regarding this as well. On the first year, I didn’t quite understand about the specs of laptops and I opted for a bulkier gaming/multimedia laptop. It has great performance but wouldn’t last long without a charger and that is always an issue whenever I have a 3 hour class. I also upgraded the hard drive to an SSD as I couldn’t handle the slowness of traditional hard drive overtime.

Now, I have changed to the Surface pro 3 as I found a cheaper refurbished model, it is much lighter and could last much longer and still be able to run most software no problem. The only drawback I could think of is probably that it will heat up when running a graphic intensive software.

My recommendation for a windows laptop would be some sort of an ultrabook like the Asus Zenbook or the Lenovo Thinkpad/Yoga with an SSD or at least a 7200rpm HDD and it most likely come with the newer lithium ion/polymer batteries as well. Since the components has got much smaller and cheaper overtime, you could find the older version or refurbished ones at around $700-1000 while the new one would be around $1200 or more.

On the side note: I’ve always wanted to try whether Mac is much better for school but its always around 1.5x more expensive with a similar specs windows laptop.

Hope this helps!


Hi John,

I was using Windows until I came to the university. I’m using a Mac right now. I think that Windows is better for playing games etc whereas Mac is better for school. The battery for Mac lasts so much longer than Windows which is beneficial if you don’t have an outlet near you when you’re sitting in class and want to take notes. Also Mac provides the Terminal and unix command line. Most of the softwares for courses are also compatible with Mac. The only disadvantage of Macs are that they’re expensive.

Hope this helps!