Physics major's computer

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computer is indeed a necessity, cause the lecturers,TAs tend to send information concerning the course which is vital.
Today also TAs (some of them) post their class exercises in the course website, so I don't see how you can bypass it unless they copy it with xerox machines and send the copies to the students.
Nonsense. There's nothing wrong with having course notes on the web -- apart from the fact that it always causes a significant drop in attendance at lectures -- but I don't see why printed copies of handouts can't be given at lectures or by TAs.

Regardless, I stand by the original point that if you find yourself at a university which doesn't have a sufficient number of open-access machines with which to view your online course materials, your university isn't being run well.
 

CRGreathouse

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computer is indeed a necessity
Pretty much. I had instructors put reading assignments online, give online assignments, email announcements to classes, and even use online textbooks.
 
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If you have the misfortune of finding yourself in a university which requires you -- as a first-year student -- to spend a significant proportion of your time sitting in front of a computer, any computer, you're being short changed. There is no conceivable reason whatsoever why a first-year student should have to have a laptop. None.

I'm horrified at what must be happening at universities in the US if new students are being led to believe that a laptop is a necessary item. (This isn't wanton US-bashing: I'm genuinely concerned by the thought of new students being required to go even further into debt for something which should be seen as an unnecessary luxury.)
While I appreciate your care and concern which appears to be genuine, you may be a bit out of touch with the way modern universities are operating. The world is integrating technology and computers into its basic operating structure, and universities are no different.

My university is heavily computer-oriented. Some assignments are given online, many are turned in online, lectures notes and schedules are posted online, a few professors even use online software to administer quizzes (but large exams are always done in class without exception). Most students have laptops or computers of some sort and put them to good use. The university operates a full computer repair and IT service just for its students. The campus has tons of computer sites preloaded with all the software one might possibly need no matter what one's major is.

Many degree programs are structured assuming students have their own computers or are willing to spend a significant amount of time using the school's computer sites. This is overall a *good* thing. Computers are powerful learning tools. I firmly believe that if one has sufficient computer skills, one will learn significantly more through four years of college math if one uses a computer with mathematical or maple than will another student who's using a sliderule or a simple scientific calculator because the computer facilitates sophisticated mathematical explorations that are impossible with the calculator.

How is spending time in front of a computer any worse really than spending time in front of a piece of paper and pencil?

And I think you're exaggerating the cost of laptops. The total cost of college for four years is going to be about $50,000 for most schools (quadruple that at least for Ivy League schools). An extra $800 - $1000 for a laptop that will last all that time is not much in comparison.

Regardless, I stand by the original point that if you find yourself at a university which doesn't have a sufficient number of open-access machines with which to view your online course materials, your university isn't being run well.
Well, most schools I know of do have plenty of open-access machines, but it is much more convenient for the student to just have a computer of his own. But if this is your main point, then I would tend to agree with you more that the previous part of this post suggests.
 
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In response to the original question, the answer really depends on your school and your own computer habits. Some people are frankly much better at putting a laptop to good use than are others.

If you're not going to use the laptop for anything but writing the occasional English paper, then I'd get a cheap Dell laptop around the $600 price tag and upload my documents to Google Docs instead of spending money on an external hard drive.

If you plan on using your computer extensively to do mathematical investigations, however, then I'd go for a more powerful computer. It's more expensive, but if you properly utilize the tools you'll get your money's worth. I'm a strong believer that the computer is to the mathematician as the laboratory is to the chemist. With tools like Mathematica, Maple, MATLAB, etc., and authoring tools such as LaTeX, significant mathematical research can be done with a computer.

I personally use a Macbook Pro. Mac OS X comes with a fantastic graphing program called Grapher. It's tucked away in the Applications/Utilities folder. Apple should be advertising this thing more; it's a marvelous program and was a pleasant surprise when I found it. Mac OS X also has built-in software for viewing PDFs and PostScript files which is far superior to the extremely bloated Adobe Acrobat (which last time I used it did not even view PostScript files).

Ultimately the PC vs. Mac decision will just be your personal preference. Neither platform is definitively better than the other. I suppose you should keep in mind that it's easy to dual boot Windows (XP or Vista) on any new Intel-based Mac.

The biggest downside to a Mac is obviously the price. The price differential is slowly decreasing over the years, but Macs are generally slightly more expensive than similar PCs. The Macbook Pro offers the best performance to price ratio and competes very strongly with other PC laptops. The Macbook Air is an absolute no for college; it's underpowered, overpriced, it lacks a CD drive, and the thin factor is cool but not needed for hardly anyone. The Macbook is better but it's still a bit underpowered for the price.
 
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If your school "requires" you to have IT access and does not provide it, then you are indeed being short changed. It is an unreasonable request; you should make sure that your instructors give you hard copy of everything. An expectation to read e-mail once per day is not unreasonable, though, from my experience.

If your school just presumes that you will have some (self-provided) machine to access things like on-line tests (which will be web-based), or download notes (which will be in pdf for a physics course), then it doesn't matter what computer you buy at all.

The idea of buying a mac laptop 'cos of the graphics card is indeed laughable. (And I have 4 macs lying around the place so please don't accuse me of being M$ biased.)

If you want a decent laptop that will be of use scientifically (to a physicist, mathematician (I see a lot of Macs at conferences) or even a geneticist), then a Mac is a good choice. It's BSD underpinnings mean lots of useful things like good CLI tools and a proper LaTeX distro exist, and are easy to obtain. Check out surf for fancy graphing, for example, too, or some of the gene sequencers that are written for Mac.

Moreover, they are on a proper laptop - I gave up on Linux on a laptop a long time ago, when even under Gentoo I found hibernation and proper ACPI control to be impossible.
 
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Yeah, you really shouldn't be buying any laptop just because of the graphics card. Laptops are just not gaming machines. My Macbook Pro actually can play current games pretty well (I've tested out Oblivion and Unreal tournament 3), but there's no way it will keep up with games like a desktop would. Dell makes laptops that have dual 8800s in them, but the battery life is under an hour on average and the machines have heat issues.

Some magazine (I don't remember which one unfortunately) was only able to get one of the Dell laptops with dual 8800s to run for an hour on the battery while merely surfing the internet--no games or anything.
 

robphy

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If you want a decent laptop that will be of use scientifically (to a physicist, mathematician (I see a lot of Macs at conferences) or even a geneticist), then a Mac is a good choice. It's BSD underpinnings mean lots of useful things like good CLI tools and a proper LaTeX distro exist, and are easy to obtain. Check out surf for fancy graphing, for example, too, or some of the gene sequencers that are written for Mac.
XP is also a good choice.
I use Cygwin for my CommandLineInterface needs and MikTeX for my LaTeX needs.
As I mentioned earlier [in reference to Math software... but it also applies to computer platforms], it's probably a good idea to be compatible with what your professors and classmates use... especially if you are new to using a computer.
 

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