Computer Recommendations

New students often have questions about whether to bring a computer to campus and what kind of computer is recommended. These questions and more are answered below.

Here are a handful of resources that will help you get started:

Frequently Asked Questions

Do I need a computer?

There is no requirement that you have a computer. However, most students in engineering find that having one is convenient and almost essential.  If you do not bring your own computer, there are computer labs facilities on campus (though the number is restricted by Covid-19 this year) where you can access files on Google Drive, other cloud resources, and portable USB keys or hard drives. If you do bring your own computer, you can do homework, access the Internet, use email or make recreational use of the computer in the comfort of your own dorm or apartment. While it is clearly more convenient to do individual work in the comfort of your own room, engineering students at Cornell also often participate in team assignments and projects, many of which utilize computer facilities on campus with advanced (expensive) engineering software and greater processing power.

CIT (Cornell Information Technologies) is a central office that coordinates much of the computing infrastructure on campus.

Will I be doing a lot of schoolwork on a personal computer?

In engineering, absolutely! The computer has revolutionized the world and engineering is no exception.  Almost every academic course you take will require the use of some sort of computer technology.  The computer will also become a larger part of your life here as you use it to type your papers, compile and analyze course data for class assignments, schedule activities, send email, attend Zoom meetings, check websites, and use the Internet as an essential means of communication for both work and play.

What computing facilities are available on campus?

The college maintains computing facilities and tools to ensure all students have access to the necessary computing power.  The ACCEL (Academic Computing Center in the Engineering Library) maintains Windows computers loaded with general and engineering specific software.  Other public labs are located both in the College of Engineering and across campus (such as Mann Library).  Locations and descriptions of all labs on campus, including ACCEL and the CIT Public Labs, are available.  In addition to these public computer facilities, many College of Engineering departments provide additional computing resources to help you to complete assignments for upper-level courses.

If I purchase a new computer, should I get Mac, Windows, or Linux?

The choice of an operating system should primarily be determined by your personal preference; for most majors, it is not critical as common software packages are generally available on all platforms.  For some majors, advanced software may be limited to a subset of platforms, but you may not know your major right now. 

If I purchase a new computer, how, where, and when do I buy it?

Many students buy their computers online or at a well-known dealer near their home.  You can take advantage of the academic discounts at The Cornell Store for computer systems from major manufacturers like Dell, Lenovo, Apple, and HP.  They also offer academic pricing for many popular software packages!

Laptop, tablet, or desktop?

While laptops and desktops have advantages and disadvantages, most students find that a high-end laptop or tablet is more effective given their portability and the computational power available today. Laptops and tablets can be used in class to take notes, or to work with your classmates on campus.   In the case of remote studies, tablets can be particularly useful for sharing your work with team members or with instructional staff.

Students do need to keep an eye on their computers to minimize the risk of theft.  Also remember that laptops may feel heavier day-to-day in your backpack than they do for the few minutes at the store.  For laptops, a docking station and a full-sized keyboard, mouse and monitor for use in the dorm is beneficial.

Tablets are also becoming very popular on campus.  Many students use tablets for taking notes in classes, checking email, reading text books, surfing the Internet, and general communication; they are also particularly useful for remote office hours and team projects.  However, in most cases, a tablet will not replace all of the needed computer functions.  Although tablet technology is changing quickly, and some of the new tablets are becoming as powerful as a laptop, software compatibility and ease of use must be carefully evaluated.  A popular option today are the laptops that convert easily to a tablet format when needed (e.g. Microsoft Surface).

Desktops generally have higher performance than comparably priced laptops and appropriate for demanding computing tasks.  If you will use your computer mostly in the dorm room, desktops are easier/cheaper to maintain and upgrade.  For work outside your dorm, files can be saved to the cloud (Google Drive) or transferred on a USB key or portable drive. 

When choosing between a laptop, tablet or a desktop, do your homework.  Try to see what kind of computing lifestyle fits you best.  Do you work on the go or do you like to concentrate in one place? How important is having all your files with you? Will the processing power of your computer be important to you? You should ask yourselves these questions and many more when making your decision.

Laptop/tablet features?

Higher-end laptops, as well as tablets, provide a variety of input options including traditional keyboards, touch screens, and pen capability.  In additional, almost all are equipped with high resolution cameras and noise-cancelling microphones.

Screen size and battery life are important but are personal preferences.  Larger display sizes reduce portability (weight and size) while enhancing usability.  Battery life will similarly dictate use, though power outlets for charging are more widely available on campus now.

What software will I need?

Many courses will require word processing and spreadsheet software.  One of the most popular office suite is Microsoft Office 365 which is available to Cornell students at no cost.

You may also be able to use Google Docs as an alternative for your own work and for most courses.

Whatever hardware and software you choose, be sure to enable all security features (virus protection, active host firewall, up-to-date patching, etc.) for your software operating system.  Third-party virus protection software is also an option.

What are the recommended computer specifications?

The minimum recommendations provided by CIT are adequate for purposes like word processing and email.  If you have a machine that meets their minimum characteristics, it is not essential to upgrade right away.  However, some engineering applications may require more computing power than the minimum recommendations from CIT.  Guidelines below are offered for minimum computer specifications, as well as recommended desktop and laptop specifications for new computers.

Recommended Mac Desktop

AttributeSpecification
Processorunder 3 years old
Memory16 GB RAM
Hard Drive500 GB
NetworkBroadband Internet may be needed if working from home
Operating SystemOS X Catalina
Special NoteSupport for MacOS Mojave

Recommended Mac Laptop

AttributeSpecification
Processorunder 3 years old; under 3 years old for MacBook Air
Memory16 GB RAM
Hard Drive500 GB
Monitor13" LCD
Operating SystemOS X Catalina
Special Notes

Support for MacOS Mojave

May require usb-c to hdmi adapter if connecting to classroom AV

Recommended PC Desktop

AttributeSpecification
Processor3.0 GHz Intel Core i5, i7; no more than 3 years old
Memory16 GB RAM
Hard DriveAt least 500 GB "SSD"
NetworkInternet connection required if off-campus
Monitor1080P or 1920x1080 minimum resolution
Printer(optional) Color inkjet or laser
Operating SystemWindows 10 and/or Linux
Warranty3 year warranty plan
Special NoteSupport for Windows 10

Recommended PC Laptop

AttributeSpecification
Processor2.4 GHz Intel Core i5 or i7; no more than 3 years old
Memory16 GB RAM
Hard DriveAt least 500 GB "SSD"
NetworkInternet connection required if off-campus
ScreenAt least 1080P
Operating SystemWindows 10 and/or Linux
Warranty3 year warranty plan, accidental coverage if desired
Special NoteSupport for Windows 10

How soon will my computer investment become obsolete?

A high-end laptop purchased at the start of a college career will generally be adequate for your undergraduate years.  As long as replacement parts are available, your machine will be able to do what it did the day you took it out of the box.  Ideally, you should be able to increase RAM (or start with 16 GB today) and hard drive / SSD storage (but not critical given increasing use of cloud-based storage).  Newer, bigger, flashier applications will come along that may make you pine for the newest model, but you can write, compute, and print for many years with older technology.  The resale value of your equipment will drop like a rock; so, once you buy, you don't want to replace too soon.  If you aspire to having the fastest, meanest, most powerful number cruncher in the dorm, you can probably outspend your neighbor today.  But enjoy your status while you have it; someone will have a faster one that costs less next week.

What about printers and other peripherals?

Though we live in the digital age, some of your classes will still require you to hand in paper copies of your homework and reports.  While the cost of quality personal printers continues to come down, printers will take up precious desk space and have to be stocked with paper and ink.  An option is to use printers on campus.  CIT offers many monochrome and color laser printers available on campus with CIT Net-Print.  ACCEL also has professional high-quality monochrome laser printers for your use.  In addition, ACCEL has sheet and slide scanners to digitize your documents.

What about email and Internet access?

As mentioned earlier, the Internet and email have become vital links in the Cornell community.  You will use email and the Internet to get course announcements, collaborate on projects, download the latest homework assignments, and check your grades online.  Cornell's wireless networks (802.11 b/g/n) are available in most buildings around campus, and most dorms are equipped with both wired and wireless Internet connections.

What is Linux?

Linux is another operating system, like Windows or OS X.  It is not an officially supported system at Cornell, so using it as your only OS will take some additional effort on your part.  But it is widely used in the engineering field, especially in server and similar backend functions.  Note that Linux can be installed in parallel with Windows or OS X (or both) on many machines at the expense of additional disk space.  In addition, Linux is open source, so you can actually look at the source code if you are so inclined. 

An astounding number and variety of applications come with a Linux distribution, including free clones of some popular Windows applications.  Free (VirtualBox) and commercial (VMware or Parallels) software is available to allow entire Windows or OS X systems to run on virtual hardware simultaneous with Linux.  Much of the free software available in the PC community actually originated in either the Linux or UNIX worlds.

How do I get computer help?

For hardware issues, we recommend that you keep your machine under warranty with your vendor, unless you have the knowledge to do your own maintenance.  Laptops especially can be difficult to get repaired in a timely manner without a service contract.  CIT does have some hardware information on their website, such as firmware, drivers, and vendor contact information.

Software: CIT has information on their website for Windows and Mac OS issues.  They also run a help desk that you can call at (607) 255-5500; drop by B16 Olin Library for help in person; or email.  They will naturally be better at general issues than specialized applications.  But they will always try to help you or direct you to sources for more help.

Security: CIT provides advice about antivirus, firewall, and anti-spyware capabilities on the IT Resources tab on Cornell's online portal.  CIT has outlined some steps to greatly improve the overall security of your computer.

Also, remember that a well worded Google search can provide many good help resources for virtually any issue.