The following recommended configurations represent "middle-of-the-road" systems that will have no problem running the basic programs you'll need to compute on campus, but will also give you more power to work with digital media, play games, and communicate wirelessly. A computer with specifications like these can reasonably be expected to last for three to four years, and virtually every new computer bought today will meet these recommendations.
These recommendations are just a starting point, though, and you may want to exceed some of these specifications, depending on how you plan to use your computer. For example, if you plan to use advanced applications, such as Adobe Creative Suite or computer-aided design (CAD) programs, consider a faster processor (CPU) and more memory (RAM) to help those programs run more smoothly.
Recommended Computer Configurations
The University is equally accessible to both PC users and Mac users. Deciding between getting a PC or Mac, then, is largely a matter of personal preference, though certain programs or units may recommend one platform over the other (check the Undergraduate and Graduate Program Recommendations page for information about your department).
Windows-based PCs are prevalent and widely used, but many commonly-used Windows programs (such as Microsoft Office) are also available for the Mac. In addition, the latest models of Apple computers feature an Intel processor, which allows you to run both Mac OS and Windows on the same machine with appropriate software.
Either a desktop or a laptop will work on the University's network; what you buy is a matter of fitting your needs. Once on campus, you can stop into the Illini Union Tech Zone store, located on the first floor of the Illini Union. For personal assistance through the buying process, you can call an Illini Union Tech Zone representative at 1-800-455-2365.
The use of tablet computers, like the Apple iPad and Windows Surface, is increasing on campus; however, tablets do not currently solve all campus computing needs, including the ability to print to paper.
If you think you’ll be doing most of your computing work in your dorm room or apartment, a desktop computer may fit your needs. Desktops are somewhat less expensive than comparable laptop machines.
Laptop computers offer the advantages of compact size and portability. If you travel or want a computer for impromptu study sessions outside of your room, a laptop may be ideal.
Here are some other laptop features to consider:
- Security: The compact size and portability of laptops make them easy to conceal and steal, so make sure you take security precautions to prevent theft, such as purchasing a laptop lock. Most laptops have a slot designed for these locks.
- Battery life: Most new laptop batteries should last two to five hours or more. Your school day will last longer than your computer's battery, so you should consider upgrading to an "extended-life" battery if you know you'll have to rely on battery power a lot. Power outlets aren't always available, so you'll need to rely on battery power sometimes.
- Networking and wireless: Wired network connections are available in many locations across the campus; wireless access is available almost everywhere.
- Warranty: An extended warranty is good insurance for broken hardware. Make sure to keep a backup of files because some warranty services erase data.
Your operating system (OS) is the interface between you and all of your programs. The OS you are running not only determines which programs you can run on you computer, it also determines which kinds of malware and other threats your computer can resist.
CITES recommends that you keep your operating system as up-to-date as possible. This does not mean that you must have the absolutely most current OS for your computer, but it does mean that your OS must meet certain minimum standards, including current manufacturer support. Manufacturer-supported software receives regular patches and updates, which not only allow your OS to be more compatible with newer applications (which may include required campus applications), but also to be less vulnerable to the latest Internet malware. Unsupported OSes can pose a security risk to the campus network and are not supported by CITES.
If you use Windows, your OS should have its latest service pack installed and it should be within its Period of Extended Support. If you use Mac OS X, you should be using the minimum (or better) CITES-supported version of OS X.
For the latest information on which Windows and OS X versions are currently supported on the campus network, see CITES' Help Desk Supported Software.
Central Processing Unit
The Central Processing Unit (CPU) is the brains behind your computer and controls everything about your computer. Today, there are CPUs made by Intel or AMD. In general, a dual core CPU will give you more performance than a single core CPU.
RAM memory determines how quickly and effectively your computer can handle running multiple programs at the same time. For basic functions like browsing the web, using a word processor, and using a spreadsheet program simultaneously, 4 GB will be fine. If you're working with more advanced photo- or video-editing programs, you probably want more memory to improve speed and reliability.
Most computers purchased today come with at least a 320 GB hard drive. Everything you need to run your computer and do your school work will comfortably fit, but if you plan on buying music or videos online or installing new software packages, the more hard drive space you have, the better. Some computers come with solid-state drives (SSD), or flash storage. These offer faster performance but are more costly than larger, traditional hard drives.
You can access the Internet either through the campus buildings wired networks or the campus wireless network. Wired Ethernet cards (also known as 10BaseT; 10/100 network cards; or Ethernet NICs) can connect to a wired connection at at least one of the following speeds: 10 megabits/sec, 100 megabits/sec, or 1000 megabits/sec (also known as gigabit or gig speeds). The dorms are wired at 10mb. 100mb and 1000mb cards are backwards compatible with 10mb connections.
Wireless Ethernet cards (or "wi-fi") are built into most laptops and will run some or all of the following wireless protocols (802.11a, 802.11b, 802.11g, or 802.11n). If you have a choice, getting a wireless card that can access 802.11a, b, g, and n will give you the most flexibility.
For more information about "wi-fi" standards, visit http://cites.illinois.edu/wireless/speed.html.
For desktops, the size of your monitor is really a matter of personal preference. With laptops, however, anything larger than a 15" monitor significantly increases the weight of the machine and makes it heavier to transport. Keep in mind that a very small screen size may not be best suited for writing papers.
Check the University of Illinois WebStore before you purchase software from a commercial vendor. The WebStore offers software at educational discounts, sometimes as much as 90% off retail prices and 50% off software upgrades. U of I students, faculty, and staff are eligible to get some software, like antivirus protection, for free.
For most people, the only software they really need is antivirus protection, a web browser, a word processor, and a spreadsheet program. Operating systems come with a web browser pre-installed (Internet Explorer or IE in Windows; Safari in OS X), though you can download others such as Firefox or Google Chrome. Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel are commonly used programs for word processing and spreadsheets.
You should also check out Help Desk Supported Software to see what the CITES Help Desk is most likely to be able to assist you with.
You can store files on removable media (such as CDs, DVDs, USB flash drives, and external hard drives) or on non-removable media, like a hard drive. CITES computer labs support DVDs, CDs, and USB drives. You will want a DVD drive that can burn DVD-R and DVD-RW disks on your computer.
Small portable storage devices (often called thumb drives or flash drives) that plug into a PC USB port have large capacities and low prices. Note: It is easy to misplace a small USB drive, so always keep a backup copy of your files on your hard drive or a network drive.
Another good file storage solution is U of I Box, which provides faculty, staff, and students 50 gigabytes of secure online storage that you can access anytime, anywhere, as long as you have an Internet connection.
You have the option to print to Instructional Computing Services (ICS) and University Residence Hall printers, either from residence hall and ICS lab computers or your own computer. Charges are applied to your university account, and you can check your account balance online.
If you have your own computer, you may also find it convenient to have your own printer. There are several varieties of printers available at affordable prices (be sure to consider the cost of replacement parts, such as toner, when you're looking at pricing). A black-and-white printer should be fine if you plan on printing out mostly essays and spreadsheets, but consider a color printer if you intend to print out a lot of digital photos or other design-heavy documents. Printers also take up desk space, so make sure you have room for a printer before you purchase one. If space or cost is an issue, consider sharing a printer with a roommate.