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Desktop vs Laptop for Undergraduate Physics

  1. Jul 25, 2010 #1
    Hey, I'm going into physics in the fall for my first year. I'm going to be living at home and commuting to and from campus (about a half hour bus ride).

    My question is how often does a physics student use their laptop in class? I'm on a budget and I'd rather spend my money on a desktop and get a more powerful computer than a laptop, but I am starting to wonder if this will be sufficient (no portability).

    My school has computer labs available to all students, so out of class use of computers won't be that much of an issue.

    Thanks, any responses are greatly appreciated.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 25, 2010 #2


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    I've never seen a physics class require you to bring a computer, but I have seen them ban laptops from the classroom since almost no one is ever using them to do work.
  4. Jul 25, 2010 #3
    Hm, alright, that puts things into perspective a bit. Thanks
  5. Jul 25, 2010 #4


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    Unless you're incredibly proficient at typing LaTeX, you do not use a computer for physics notes.

    Also, don't think you're going to be needing a powerful computer to do simulations of any kind (or any physics), even if you're doing some undergraduate research involved with computation (I naively thought this, going into undergraduate).
  6. Jul 25, 2010 #5
    in case, you may be part of a research group (surely not in your first year), a laptop may come handy.....for an REU outside too, you'd want to take your own laptop.

    you don;t really need one right now for your first year. if you feel the need later on, get one :)

    talking about desktops, I'd for a more powerful one. it'll remain fast-enough for longer.
  7. Jul 25, 2010 #6
    A lot of laptops are pretty snappy nowadays and can probably handle anything you may want to with it for awhile. I would say if you have a lot of down time to do homework on campus, a laptop is invaluable, especially when having to write up many reports or papers for gen ed classes. It's much easier than trying to grab one of the campus computers, plus you can use it anywhere.
  8. Jul 26, 2010 #7

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    Be aware that laptops have a higher vapor pressure than desktops.
  9. Jul 26, 2010 #8
    I don't use my laptop at all in class. I write all my notes on paper (especially in any physical science course). I write summary notes on my laptop at home, but really a desktop would prove just as efficient. I find bringing it to class just to be a waste of space and a distraction.
  10. Jul 26, 2010 #9
    I never used a laptop in class as an undergrad. The only person I saw who did this had a tablet PC, and he simply wrote all of his notes on it instead of using a notebook. I guess this saves paper and lets you consolidate all of your notes, but that's the most of an advantage I've seen.

    In grad school I've been bringing my laptop to work every day. But I just use it to make Powerpoints and stuff, and I could get along with out it (though it'd be a minor inconvenience). All of my simulations are run on a cluster at work, so there's no real need to have a laptop. The only reason I have a laptop is because I prefer the associated mobility.
  11. Jul 26, 2010 #10


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    Do you have also a desktop in your home?

    I have a laptop and I mainly use it in my home, in forsight I would have prefered a desktop.

    I guess my next PC will be desktop.
  12. Jul 26, 2010 #11
    I love having my laptop.

    I have a lot of e-copies of my books and like that I can do my homework anywhere on campus, not just in a lab. A lot of my physics homework was online so that was nice to have as well.

    Not to mention instead of carrying around 4 books I can usually get away with a book and my laptop - since my books are on my laptop.
  13. Jul 27, 2010 #12
    wrong thread :)
    Last edited: Jul 27, 2010
  14. Jul 27, 2010 #13
    If you'll be taking any programming classes, I'd probably recommend a labtop. I found mine useful to follow along if I can run the code the lecturer is teaching from.
  15. Jul 27, 2010 #14
    many programming courses in physics use unix tho.
  16. Jul 27, 2010 #15


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    Times have changed over the decades, but one thing that worked well for me in engineering courses was to make lecture notes in the margins of my texts and to highlight (underline) parts of the text that the profs emphasized. If you need to make more extensive notes, most texts have some end-papers that are blank or nearly so that you can use. If I had to go back to school, I'd do exactly the same thing and rely on my desk-top at home to consolidate materials as needed.

    I did not try to take very detailed notes - I found that to be a waste of time because I needed to concentrate on learning the concepts touched on in the lectures, and figuring out where my comprehension might be weak. Sitting there typing notes during a lecture would be no more productive than sitting there trying to make comprehensive notes. No laptop needed.
  17. Jul 28, 2010 #16
    Well, install some linux distribution then. It tends to work well these days, especially if you google linux + [the model you're interested] in first.
  18. Jul 28, 2010 #17
    I rarely needed a laptop, but I'd recommend it. The biggest need I found was for a project I worked on that required a lot of programming and also required me at times to be able to connect to equipment in one of the campus buildings (though at a larger school with more money available maybe they would have provided one for the project...)

    It's also nice to be able to move from your room to the couch when working on homework.
  19. Jul 28, 2010 #18
    Contrary to what Nabeshin said, having a powerful laptop able to do run simulations was/still is extremely nice for working from my apartment and working after hours in my REU this year.
  20. Aug 5, 2010 #19
    Buy a Macbook pro 13". I cannot emphasize how awesome this laptop is. I have run Windows 7 and other OSs when needed through Sun virtualzation software. The battery life is great and on and on. It will last a long time and the unibody is years ahead of its time.
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