Purchasing a Personal Computer: Advice and Resources

We're often asked, "What's the best kind of computer to bring to Carleton?" The honest answer is that there isn't really a "best kind;" it's more of a "best fit".

The best computer for any person is a computer that they are comfortable using, and that can do the work that they need it to do. For example, a person interested in video editing has a different "best" computer than someone who plans to spend most of their time reading articles or writing essays.

Regardless of the type, we do recommend that all students bring a computer with them to campus. The computer purchasing portal (details below) provides a great start on recommended specifications and models, and also offers a small discount on pricing. If purchasing a computer presents an unmanageable financial burden, the college has several ways to help meet demonstrated need. The Office of the Provost can help you navigate this process.

Carleton's Computer Purchasing Portal

Carleton students, faculty, and staff can purchase a computer through our partner, CDW.

Other purchasing options include:

  • Look for "Refurbished" or "Outlet" options from computer manufacturers. Apple, Dell, and Lenovo all offer excellent refurbished options.
  • Most retailers also offer sales. The sale might not be for the newest model, but can save you a lot of money for a very good machine.

Specs and Suggestions

Computer specs can sound like a foreign language! Here's a Beginner's Guide to Reading Computer Specifications.

Computer: Baseline Model (mid-tier)

These computers should be able to last for 4 years, and they have the computing power to accomplish the things most people at Carleton need to do. These specifications match what we supply to campus computer labs and to most faculty and staff.

  • CPU options
    • Intel Core i7
    • Ryzen 5
    • Apple M3
  • RAM (memory)
    • 16GB
  • Storage (harddrive)
    • 256GB SSD (Solid State Drive) if you save most things to the cloud (Google Drive or Dropbox)
    • 512GB SSD (Solid State Drive) if you save large files to your computer's harddrive
  • Warranty
    • We highly recommend accidental damage coverage. One coffee spill will easily justify the cost of a warranty

Machines that match these options are listed on our page of Standard Computing Equipment for Carleton Employees

Computer: Economy Model (Lower-Tier)

Prioritizing price without sacrificing too much in performance, look for computers that have:

  • CPU options
    • Intel Core i5
    • Apple M2
  • RAM (memory)
    • 8GB
  • Storage (harddrive)
    • 128GB SSD (Solid State Drive) if you save most things to the cloud (Google Drive or Dropbox)
    • 256GB SSD (Solid State Drive) if you save large files to your computer's harddrive
  • Warranty
    • We highly recommend accidental damage coverage. One coffee spill will easily justify the cost of a warranty

Machines that match these options include:

Monitors, keyboards, etc

Additional Considerations


We have found that Chromebooks don't provide enough functionality or options to meet all the needs of a four year career at Carleton. While they can easily be used to check Moodle, email, chat sessions, etc. the are not always suited for curricular work. Chromebooks are incompatible with a lot of software packages commonly used on campus, such as Office, the stats suite R, or Mathematica. Chromebooks can connect to the wireless and wired networks, as well as print to Carleton printers. However, depending on the classes that you take in any given term, you should expect to make liberal use of the public campus labs work.

For more information, please consult the What is a Chromebook section from this fantastic article by WirecutterThe Best Chromebook.


Tablets are the pinnacle of portability. Unfortunately, those running iOS or Android operating system cannot install much of the software used in the Carleton curriculum (Microsoft Office Suite, Rstudio, etc.). Windows tablets circumvent these issues, but often at the cost of performance and disk space on low-cost models, or price on the higher-performance models. Wirecutter has a great breakdown of tablets in their article Can an iPad Pro or Surface Pro Tablet Replace Your Laptop?

Operating Systems (Mac vs Windows)

While people often have strong opinions about Mac vs Windows, it really just comes down to personal preference. Both operating systems are very good and both will serve you well at Carleton.  If you end up needing to use a program that only works on one operating system (and not the one you have) there's a good chance that you'll be able to use a Computer Lab or RemoteLab machine to accomplish your goals.

Laptop Screen Sizes

The size of the screen is really what governs the overall size (and most of the weight) of a laptop. The importance of screen size is related perhaps most importantly to your vision. There has been a definite trend towards smaller screen sizes in laptops in recent years. Smaller screens with higher resolutions often means smaller text on the screen, which can be a problem if poor eyesight is a consideration (While you can change the resolution settings on laptops, the picture is far superior when running in the native resolution i.e. the default).

Another consideration is the type of work you will be doing on the laptop and the amount of “real estate” you want on your screen. For example, if you prefer to work with multiple windows open and visible, a larger screen will be more important. Or you may want to purchase an external monitor to use when you're at your desk. Recommended monitor specs are listed here

Graphics Cards

The primary disadvantage of an integrated graphics card is that it does not have its own resources (processor and memory) for performing graphics tasks. Instead, it taps into the main system resources, which reduces the amount available to other processes or programs. The more intense the graphics, the slower other processes or programs will perform.

A discrete graphics card or chip, on the other hand, has its own processor and memory and handles all of the graphics work itself. This means that graphics processes are far less likely to adversely affect the performance of the machine. In fact, overall performance should be better.

Current integrated graphics are vastly superior to those of the past and may be adequate for many people. However, the graphics (or visual) demands placed on personal computers is only going to increase, so more machines are offering the option of an upgrade to a discrete chip.


Please note that we have no arrangements, deals, or kick-backs with any of the manufacturers included in our matching machines above. Once we had decided on our specifications for each category, we simply checked the manufacturer's websites and selected those models that matched our numbers.

In the interests of disclosure, the bulk of Carleton's computers are purchased from Apple, Dell, Lenovo, and Microsoft, through our vendor CDW-G. Apple offers no special discount for members of the Carleton community, but rather offers a standard Educational Discount to any customers who qualify. Both Dell and Lenovo have, in the past, worked with Carleton to offer computer packages matching our baseline specification at a reduced price, but no such arrangement exists at the time of publishing these recommendations. The Computer Purchasing Portal offered through CDW-G does, however, offer the same discount that Carleton receives on our equipment orders.

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Article ID: 137623
Wed 9/8/21 2:22 PM
Mon 5/6/24 11:31 AM

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