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Physics researcher/student needing new laptop

  1. Jan 28, 2015 #1

    I'm a physics student (currently a senior in college, planning on going to graduate school for a Ph.D.). My current laptop is encountering major problems, mostly small things that make it not worth investing more money into the laptop, given that it's already old.

    I currently do experimental particle physics research so I want to make sure I get a new laptop that is able to handle what I do: I do a lot of simulations and data analysis. C++ and ROOT are my go-to, but I also use Mathematica and Python quite a bit.

    What specs would you recommend for a laptop? I was thinking an i5 processor, 8GB RAM, and a 256 or 512 SSD, but I don't want to go overboard and spend a lot of extra money if I don't need it. I also was thinking about getting a Unix-based OS (either Ubuntu or Mac), given that SO many tasks that I need four or five applications on Windows, I could just do on the terminal. Thoughts?

    Thanks! :)
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 28, 2015 #2


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    In some places, you can get a laptop as part of the PhD position. Could that be an option?
    Does that happen on the laptop itself or on some remove machine where you just need ssh?
    That is probably a good idea.
  4. Jan 28, 2015 #3
    I will have to buy my own computer. I have computers in the labs I work in, but I like being able to do work from home, or while visiting my parents. Physics doesn't stop.

    It happens on both. But, as a personal preference I want to be able to run it on my computer as well. I find it easier to edit on a text editor application (such as sublime, xcode, etc) than using Vim or Emacs while ssh-ing. Not 100% necessary though. The core of the data analysis is on a different machine, where the data is stored

    As for Unix-based OS, is a Mac worth the money? Or should I get a PC and partition the drive and get a Linux distro or how should I go about it? I know how to handle a terminal and do stuff on it, but I'm not super advanced at computers and operating systems, and I'm worried Linux will be too much for me to handle.
  5. Feb 2, 2015 #4
    About the data-analysis, you will inevitably get better at commandline editing as you use it.
    I'd say this is a good thing. On the other hand troubleshooting/testing can be cumbersome.
    Samples of data sets can help you with that, minimizing your 'local load'.

    The amount of RAM seems suitable, however extra RAM is never a waste.
    If you browse the web like me for example, dozens of tabs open at the moment, it's clear you sooner or later reach the limits.

    If you use a suitable linux distro I wouldn't worry about this to much. I recently made the transition to linux and so far I haven't met any difficulties.

    Except for the fact I accidentally I installed a factory build of openSUSE (similar to a beta) which meant some software wasn't available yet.

    For openSUSE the package manager (YaST is the GUI and zypper in the command line) is great in my opinion.
    When searching for software on the opensuse website you will encounter one-click-install buttons. These do just that, click them, feed the computer your root password and install the software.

    The downside is that I sometimes succeed in semi-jamming the user interface.
    A simple reboot fixes this the first time after which you can search a command line solution (killall plasma-desktop to close it and kstart plasma-desktop to get it back up and running)

    Another option is testing several linux distributions using liveCDs until you find something you like.

    Or you could always opt for a dual boot (first windows, then linux is the easiest!)
  6. Feb 3, 2015 #5
    This question would be much easier answered if you gave us a budget range you'd like to stay in.
  7. Feb 5, 2015 #6
    Probably would want to stay below 1500.
  8. Feb 20, 2015 #7
    I'd say, get a cheap laptop and manually purchase a solid state hard disk and up to 12 gigs of ram. I'll bet you save 100s
  9. Feb 25, 2015 #8


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    For $1500, you should be able to get a decent USED Intel mac laptop and run both Windows 7 (or 8.1) and Mac OS X on it. That gives you a lot of flexibility. When I was teaching at Penn, a huge number of students did this; they mostly used a third party boot manager so they could switch instantaneously across OS's. I did it using Apple's native boot manager (Boot Camp) which comes with OS X--I could boot into either Windows or Mac OS X, but not both at the same time.

    My advice is, don't worry much about processor speed--they are all quite fast these days--but go for lots of RAM/memory instead. Get a minimum of 4 Gb; get 8 Gb RAM if you can. And a decent size disk (Min 250 Gb). But remember that disk can always be increased, these days, via USB drives.

    If you should get a Mac and dual-boot using Apple's Boot Camp, my technical blog describes several adventures I had using it: http://harborsparrow.blogspot.com/2009/12/boot-camp-revisited.html
    Last edited: Feb 25, 2015
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