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Physics major's computer

  1. Jul 5, 2008 #1
    I'm starting my freshman year as a physics major this fall and was wondering if a pc or a mac would suit my needs. also, what programs besides ms word and excel would i need?
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 5, 2008 #2

    I'm starting my freshman year as a physics major this fall and was wondering which would suit my needs better, a mac or a pc?
  4. Jul 5, 2008 #3
    For most of your needs a PC or Mac doesn't matter. But in most cases a PC is cheaper.
    You might also want to install some programs which only exist for PC (Windows).
  5. Jul 5, 2008 #4


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    I got through physics with just a calculator, and actually did my freshman year with a sliderule.

    Probably by the junior year, one would need a decent computer.

    Word and Excel will probably meet one's needs. Beyond that, a LaTeX program might be useful, as well as a C/C++ complier, and perhaps Mathematica.

    Gnuplot is a useful graphics program. Excel's graphics leave a lot to be desired.

    Photoshop Elements is a nice basic and relatively inexpensive graphics program.

    There are utilities like Adobe Acrobat Reader (free) and WinZip, that are useful.

    For text editing, I prefer TextPad, which is a powerful text editor. There is a free version, but it's limited. For full functionality, one has to buy a license.
  6. Jul 5, 2008 #5

    Dr Transport

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    I'd suggest MatLab as another choice for mathematical software. It's graphing capability is really good and it isn't as had to learn as Gnuplot.

    If you don't want to pay for Office, there an bunch of freebies out there (openoffice.org) that have almost the same functionality as MS Office. Your school will most likely have a licensing agreement and you can get MS for next to nothing along with compilers.

    Other than that, I agree with Astronuc.

    You might want to stop in to your new school a week or two early and maybe you could get a laptop thru them with all the software you might use for the next couple of years.
  7. Jul 5, 2008 #6
    My advice, which may be controversial, is don't. Don't buy a computer when you go to college. Start your first year without one, put the money towards some decent food, and study hard. Learn how to attack problems and develop ideas with a pen and paper. You'd be amazed at the amount of students I see who attempt to do everything on their laptop, even when it's obvious that this is a hideously inefficient -- not to mention idiotic -- way of doing things.

    If you find that you need one in your second year, get it then.

    If you do get one for your first year, don't be surprised if you find that you're spending a stupid amount of time on Facebook et al. that could be better spent studying.
  8. Jul 8, 2008 #7
    Im starting my freshman year in august and will also be majoring in physics. I havent bought my laptop for school yet but im leaning toward the macbook pro because it comes equipped with a state of the art graphics card, that will come in handy when looking at 3d graphs, and also a lot of other programs that will be useful.

    The downside is that it starts off at $1999, you have to buy MS office separately (an additional 200 bucks), and it cost about $300 to insure.

    Shoehorn, if ppl take your advice and don't get a laptop their freshman year how will they conveniently write papers, check their email, and do research? I know every school has a library but its a lot easier to just pick up your laptop and instantly do any one of those things.
  9. Jul 8, 2008 #8
    It's madness to think that you need a computer for your first year. Undoubtedly it would be convenient, but there's no way on earth that it should be necessary. Any decent university should have enough available public access computers for a first year student's needs. If your university doesn't provide this facility, go to another university; the one you're in is obviously poor and/or run by idiots.

    Regardless, a MacBook Pro is overkill. I can't think of a single instance where a first-year student would need a "state of the art graphics card" for "looking at 3d graphs." (This, of course, ignores the fact that the MacBook Pro's graphics card is so far from being state-of-the-art as to make even the suggestion ludicrous. Apparently Apple's ad-men are better at flogging their wares to an edacious public than I believed...) Indeed, I can't think of a single reason why any undergraduate physics student at my university, first year or not, would find such a thing useful for their course work, much less find it necessary.

    It's also a lot easier to waste valuable time pissing about on the internet. Thankfully we're rather immune to the "every student needs a laptop" nonsense on this side of the pond, but I'm still amazed by how much time is wasted by the -- mercifully few -- students who start university equipped with a laptop.

    Almost as amazed as I am by the inevitable handful of cretins who attempt to take notes in a certain well-known introductory quantum theory class using Microsoft Word and -- gasp -- Equation Editor.
  10. Jul 8, 2008 #9
    Get a PC so you can use MATLAB. I have found it the single most useful computer program of my BSc, Hon, and now MSc in Physics. You could get a mac book pro and learn to use wine or some other emulator but it takes a bit of time methinks.
  11. Jul 8, 2008 #10
    The Macbook pro actually has a pretty weak graphics card; it just happens that laptops simply cannot house any serious graphics hardware and the MacBook Pros tend to have the best Nvidia integrated graphics available for notebooks, but they pale in comparison to what is available for desktop or workstation computer.

    Also, there are many notebooks out there with the same graphics and processor as the Macbook pros, for less than half the money if you find a good deal.

    Anyway, here is my advice, assuming you are going to have only a laptop and nothing else:

    1) Get a fast laptop with a lot of RAM and a good graphics card. If you do that, you will not need to buy another laptop for a good long while, five or six years if you are lucky and take care of it (if you want more computing power, you can always buy/build a desktop).

    2) Get external accessories. A docking station is not necessary, but convenient. You should get, if you can afford it, the largest monitor that your laptop will run reliably, as well as an ergonomic keyboard and mouse. Then, when you are working at home, you can put the laptop safely away, and at worse, you or your roomate/girlfriend will spill their beer on your $50 keyboard, not your $2000 computer.

    3) Buy only the software you need. As a student, you will need to write a lot. You should buy an office suite. MS Office is the standard, though I prefer WordPerfect over Word. Either way, you should probably hold off on buying a suite until you get to school, as you can probably obtain a sharp discount.

    4) Buy an antivirus. It may be that your school provides one for free. Unless you are running MacOS/Linux you need one, badly, especially if you let other people use your computer.

    5) Buy an external hard drive. Use it to back up your important files. As a student, your work, your intellectual output is important. You never know when a hard drive will spin up for the last time, but Murphy's law says it will usually be a few minutes after you finish that 20 page essay that you spent all week on.

    As for physics software, if you are really interested in learning it, the suggestions of Mathematica and Matlab, which you can buy for a steep student discount, are not bad. However, if you do buy this, it should only be for your own education and gratification. If you use any special commercial software in your classes, it will be available in the computer labs, and until you know what software might be useful to buy for your own computer, it could be a big waste of your limited money. You could spend $150 on the student version of Mathematica and discover that your math and physics departments use Maple. A C++ compiler is great, if you want to study computer programming on your own, otherwise just let the lab assistant hook you up with an appropriate compiler if and when you take a computer programming class.

    There is a lot of other useful software and computer accessories, like reference managers, printers, scanners, and cd rom versions of the OED. If you feel you need them, and you have the money, they can all contribute to your ability to work; however, you should buy them as the need arises, rather than before you really understand what would be most useful to you.
  12. Jul 8, 2008 #11

    Haven't they heard of a tablet PC? :rolleyes:
  13. Jul 8, 2008 #12


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    Interesting. Physics students at Warsaw University are required to use *nix type system for most of the time. At least all projects for computer classes are to be done under Linux. Doesn't mean there are no Windows based systems at library, but that's completely different story.
  14. Jul 8, 2008 #13


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    Unfortunately, probably not....
    It's been a frustration of TabletPC owners and enthusiasts that the TabletPC remains a small niche market. Here is a recent flurry of discussion from http://gottabemobile.com:
    Long Live The Tablet PC
    Tablet Isnt Dead We Just Need A Leader
    Tablet PC Sales Expectations Never Realized
    The Tablet PC Has Not Failed Developers Have
    A Former Tablet PC Team Member Speaks Out On Microsoft And Tablet PC Marketing

    Personally, I find it extremely useful in an academic setting... especially when I am working on a calculation or delivering lectures in the classroom.

    (Here's an entry on the TabletPC I wrote for the PF-blog in 2006... which has now been migrated into my user blog: https://www.physicsforums.com/blog.php/2006/05/20/tabletpcs-for-science-and-science-teaching/blog.php?b=103 [Broken] .) I am shopping around for my next TabletPC now. If Apple comes out with a tablet (as is often rumored), I might consider a Mac.

    (By the way, on Windows, I use Cygwin for my unix needs.)
    Last edited by a moderator: May 3, 2017
  15. Jul 8, 2008 #14
    I got one from work about four months ago, and it is really useful. It is a couple years old, but in good condition, and I payed only $150 for it. It is a shame that new ones run about $2000 for most models, and that they are such a small market.

    BTW, if you have XP Pro or Vista Enterprise/Ultimate, you can install Microsoft's Unix Subsystem, which is a great deal faster than Cygwin (since it is native Win32 rather than an emulation), though it is harder to find Unix utilities for.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 3, 2017
  16. Jul 8, 2008 #15


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    The least expensive tabletpcs I know of are at Gateway http://www.gateway.com/convertible [Broken] (about $1000). There are also some good deals on refurbs from the Dell Outlet on the Dell XT tablets: http://www.dell.com/content/products/category.aspx/notebooks?c=us&cs=28&l=en&s=dfb . Certainly, high-end tablets can run $2000, or even $3000 (e.g. Toughbook TabletPC).

    (By the way... the latest buzz is about a new Fujitsu T5010 that is being recommended at the Virginia Tech engineering school: http://www.eng.vt.edu/academics/comp_require.php [Broken] )

    I use XP/Tablet. I believe cygwin is native... it's not running in a virtual machine on XP. I mainly use it because scripting in bash, perl, and python is often more efficient than using the GUI to do some things. In addition, those scripts are more portable to other platforms (like linux and osx) than .bat or .vbs files. I also use cygwin to write code with gcc... then process the output with scripts.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 3, 2017
  17. Jul 8, 2008 #16
    You should look at using openOffice as a completely free alternative to MS Office. It can create and edit .doc, .ppt, .xls, and it has all the features that any student will need from MS Office. It is available on Windows, OSX, and Linux.

    I think a physics major should start using OSX or Linux as early in their career as possible.

    I recommend a cheap 500$ Dell laptop that ships with Linux if possible. Otherwise learn to install it to replace Windows.

    I also strongly recommend getting the Linux student versions of Mathematica and/or Matlab.
  18. Jul 8, 2008 #17
    HP makes one aimed at the home market which starts at about $1000. It is a nice laptop, but it lacks some of the features of higher end models, like a high resolution screen, intel processor, and the ability to swap the CD drive for a second battery.

    I know Cygwin uses a Linux API layer. My understanding, and experience is that this slows it down. Since you have XP pro on your tablet PC, you might want to try out the UNIX subsystem for Windows.

    Last edited by a moderator: May 3, 2017
  19. Jul 11, 2008 #18
    Actually, I see no reason, at least in the beginning, to buy Mathematica. For most students and professors I know who tried Maxima, it satisfied all their needs. For Matlab the possibilities are usually less satisfy, indeed... Although they worth a try (Scilab, Euler, Octave).
  20. Jul 11, 2008 #19


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    I would check with what the school uses. They may already have a site license.

    In addition, it's probably good to use whatever your professors and fellow students use.
    It's easier to get help... and to use materials that they have already produced. (It might not be fun to always be translating what they have done into another platform... although in the long run, it's probably useful.)

    Of course, no one says you can't use two or more packages.
    I do... and often switch back and forth... depending on my task.
  21. Jul 16, 2008 #20
    I am not in college or ever taken a full year's stay at a college (i am in fith grade :D) but i have taken a college course in trig i used to give quizzes early (i had to move, in fact i am moving tommorrow!) in a physics class. And in my opinion if you buy/get a microcontroller, EEPROM(optional but recommmended), led screen, few resistors, tools, buttons, PCB you can make a scientific calc for under $8 and 1-2 hours of work or if you want a graphing calc instead of an led screen get a small (3" by 3" is REALLY BIG and useful) lcd screen instead (that will probably take a lot more programming but you can download code off of the internet). i you can even add custom butttons that are useful like you can add some for useful constants like gravity on earth, wavelengths, and you can have additional memory with the EEPROM(that's why its recommended) and basically you can keep adding stuff as you go along so instead of $2000 for a computer you spend under $30-$35 on a graphing calc made at home (this assumes you already have a computer to program the microcontroller and EEPROM)but all this leads that you don't really NEED a computer but it would be helpful to have one.
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