Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Windows vs Mac for Engineering?

  1. Jun 18, 2014 #1
    Hello all, I am currently looking at laptops to use for school. I will be going to university this fall for general engineering. I may focus on chemical, mechanical, aerospace, or biomedical engineering.

    I am looking for something light and portable, with long battery life, and sufficient performance to last me through university. Thus, ultrabooks and macbooks seem to be the better options. I have done prior research on Mac vs Windows for engineering, and although some say that it's a no brainer to choose a windows laptop due to software compatibility, most suggest that macs are capable of running the required programs with ease. Furthermore, support for mac os has greatly improved and programs required in undergraduate engineering can run either directly from mac os, or dual boot/ VM for windows. Others also suggest that laptops aren't too big of a deal for engineering, because most notes will be written, and if extra performance is required, school computer labs provides the solution.

    In addition to running programs such as matlab, python, autodesk, and other programs pertaining to engineers, I will also be using the laptop to edit videos on final cut, edit photos, light gaming, as well as streaming videos and web browsing for sure as it will be my main computer for university. Currently, I am debating between ultrabooks and macbooks, but leaning towards macbooks. The 13" Macbook Pro Retina is quite appealing, and if I plan on dual booting, getting the 256gb model will probably be the best. However, the issue is deciding on upgrading to 16gb RAM from 8gb, which will cost an additional $200, as well as the processor from the 2.4ghz i5, to a 2.6 ghz i5 for $100. From what I've heard, upgrading the RAM to 16gb is a better option and the minor increase from the 2.4ghz to 2.6ghz isnt that big. So I am not sure, for my uses, if upgrading processor as well as upgrading the ram is necessary. Can anyone provide some suggestions on which upgrade path to take, or if I should just stick with the base 256gb model (2.4ghz i5, 8gb RAM)?

    I haven't looked at ultrabooks too much because I think macs quite nice. Don't get me wrong, I'm not an apple fanboy as I've built my own desktop and owned windows my whole life, but I may want to get a mac as its useful life appears to be longer. I guess I want it just because its a bit fancier, and the retina display is nice. Ultrabooks will run around $1000, but I'm not sure if those will be sufficient. Can someone suggest ultrabooks? I've looked at some lenovos and they look pretty good as well but if I want decent specs for my purposes of video editing and engineering, the price will run close to a mac anyways. Also, the retina display may be useful for engineering??? I'm not too sure on this.

    So what I want to ask is, for and undergrad student going into engineering, is a mac capable of running all the programs I want with ease, and if I go for a mac which one should i get. If macs are completely horrible, a waste of money, and completely out of the question, which ultrabook should i look at? As stated prior, I will be using the laptop mainly for school, but it has to run programs engineers use, video and photo editing, gaming, as well as videos and web browsing. I am spending less than $2000 for sure, and would like to be around the $1500 range. Oh yea, and is there any products that may be released that I should wait for like a new line of macs or something?

    Thanks in advance!
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 18, 2014 #2

    Simon Bridge

    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Homework Helper
    Gold Member

    "Windows" vs "Mac" is comparing an operating system brand with a brand of hardware... but you meaning is clear.

    Your choice of hardware should take into account the course requirements - engineering schools can be a dominated by one type of system so you can expect to interoperate more easily if you also use the same system. Take a look at what programs you may be expected to run, and how you are supposed to use the school's network.

    Your list of requirements actually looks good for getting a PC, and installing GNU/Linux of some kind... you'd get pretty much what you want to do + the added advantage of increased respect for your freedom. Since you've built your own desktop, and, presumably installed an OS from scratch (albeit windows) you should have the expertise for this.

    This'll let you build a desktop from scratch without having to pay for the software suite.
    Same with a lot of laptops and notebooks. You basically get what you want and you can spend your money on performance instead of office.

    For portability with the battery-life, the state of the art keeps shifting. i.e. You can routinely get 10hrs+ on tablets of any kind so how critical is it to get 11-12hrs? Same comments for each of the other things you want. You should make a weight table for your requirements against the different machines in your budget range.

    Your best bet is to actually visit a bunch of stores and try different form-factors/styles out and see what you are comfortable with. There is too much variation to advise you properly.

    Be aware - there is a risk of starting a "my OS is best" war here.
  4. Jun 18, 2014 #3
    Aha, thanks for your suggestions. then if I do end up going for a pc, I would be looking at ultrabooks for their form factor and portability. But looking at some ultrabooks, their prices seem to reach around $1400. I punched in the macbook pro processor and the processor in some of the more expensive ultrabooks into google for comparison , and most say that their performance is relatively the same, although the mac is clocked at 2.4ghz while most of the ultrabooks are only 1.6-1.8 ghz... originally thinking that mac was really over priced, i was surprised that compared to ultrabooks in a similar price range, the mac may be the better choice?

    Regarding linux, i'm not sure if i'm into that. then basing the decision off of booting windows on a mac, or just having windows on a regular pc, which is the better option now? Im not too familiar with processors, but it dos appear the mac has an edge and may prove useful for my needs, and the display is better compared to laptops as they are only full HD.

    And going back, for my uses and future proofing having max RAM of 16gb is recommended? I'm trying to remain relatively neutral, but if you suggest that I go for a laptop for compatibility and install different OS, does it make sense to go with the mac? Because my comparison (not sure how accurate it is) show that macbooks have slightly better processors and screens for similar price? If I boot windows on mac, does that completely eliminate the compatibility issue because it is a pc in a mac shell... or is it a bit more complicated than that?

    :D thankyou
  5. Jun 19, 2014 #4


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Homework Helper

    Decide what you want to spend your money on. You can pay for high performance electronics (faster processor, more RAM, etc) or you can pay for a sexy looking slim-line designer case to put the electronics in.

    Or your can pay twice and get both. (Actually, more than twice, because squeezing high performance electronics into a slim line designer case is another added cost).
  6. Jun 20, 2014 #5


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    Thanks for posting this, OP. I'm starting university this fall too and I was facing the same problem. :smile: . My parents are suggesting Macbook Air, but I guess it's better to buy a good spec PC and install Windows or Ubuntu.
  7. Jun 20, 2014 #6


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor

    I'm convinced the most cost effective platform for doing technical computing today is to do the following:

    (1) Buy a Chromebook. Samsung, Acer, ASUS, HP, and Toshiba all have lightweight systems with long battery life for less than $300.

    (2) Install Ubuntu Linux on the Chromebook using a software package called Crouton. Instructions for doing this are available many places on line, for example at this link.

    After doing this, you will have a full-featured laptop running the Chrome OS and Ubuntu Linux simultaneously. You switch back and forth with a single keystroke. All of the multimedia stuff (web browsing, watching Netflix, listening to music, ...) works great on the Chrome OS. All of the technical computing(Python, C, C++, ...) is available for free on the Ubuntu OS. Files are available from both sides. Note that this is not a "dual-boot" configuration. You almost never need to re-boot. Both OS's are running at the same time, and the switch takes less than 1 second.

    The concerns that you can't work locally on the Chromebook because you are tied to "the cloud" go away, because the Ubuntu OS is fully yours and you can do whatever you want on it.

    The best part is that the whole package costs less than $300. Compare this to your $1400 Macbook, and spend the $1100 on other stuff. I have been running this combination for more than a year(on a Samsung Chromebook, which at the time was $249 at Best Buy, but is now available for $229), and it works great. I bought a 64GB SD plug-in(about $50) to add to the 32GB built in SD disk, so I have 96GB of fast solid-state disk space, which is more than enough. If you need more, you can buy a Terabyte USB disk for ~$75. It weghs less than 2 pounds, and the battery lasts 6-8 hours.

    The only caution I have is that with the Samsung Chromebook, since it is based on ARM and not Intel, there are a few pieces of technical code (like Mathematica) that don't run on it. So if I were buying one today, I would buy an Intel based Chromebook (like Acer, ASUS, HP, Toshiba).
  8. Jun 20, 2014 #7


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Homework Helper

    There is one important consideration nobody has mentioned yet: does the university or college give you "free" access to software that is essential for your courses - e.g. the college buys a group of student licenses for some software package, and you install and run it on your own PC?

    If so, you obviously need a system that is compatible with what the college supports and/or recommends.
  9. Jun 22, 2014 #8


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    Since today's Mac laptops use Intel processors, you can have both Mac and Windows--if you can afford it. To do so, buy a high-end Mac laptop (expensive) and also run Windows on it (additional cost to buy the OS). This is an expensive solution but opens you up for all possibilities. There are two ways to have both operating systems; one is to use third party software such as vmware so you can switch dynamically between either operating system. The other is to dual-boot, which allows you to boot directly into either one, and reboot into the other one (the solution I personally prefer).
  10. Jun 25, 2014 #9
    I am a strong advocate for Linux and FOSS and while Mac OSX is derived from BSD and exceptionally solid I encourage OP to do as some have recommended already and research what your school uses. I really hate to say this for several reasons but the biggest problem facing Mac and Linux in business and school is document format. LibreOffice is very good and there are others that are decent but Microsoft continually alters the code for mere documents, choosing to break compatibility even with their previous versions of the same software, just to sabotage competitors to MS Office. This may be reprehensible on some levels but it is also quite effective at maintaining a monopoly and may force OP to go windows.
  11. Jun 25, 2014 #10

    Simon Bridge

    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Homework Helper
    Gold Member

    I found that Universities are often sensitive to "digital divide" and compatability issues like document format. Many resources are in cross-platform form these days. But you are correct that there is always someone who insists on using the restricted features of MS Office - it's mainly things like templates and forms that do not translate well these days. With tools like crossover office and google docs, compatability is not as big-a issue as it once was.

    Technical subjects often have unix boxes anyway - finding the IT people and asking will often produce support. Then there's the campus Linux User Group. But it sounds like OP does not want to learn a new OS at this stage - I can sympathize, I used to think the same way.
  12. Jun 27, 2014 #11


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    If you do buy a Windows laptop and cost is a factor, here's a strategy that has worked for me many a time: go to the Best Buy website and look for Windows laptops in the range of $300 - $500. Settle only for a Dell or Samsung or Asus with at least 4 Gb RAM, and HDMI port, and a DVD. It will not have the very latest, fastest processor but will be plenty fast enough. Do NOT go into Best Buy; there, on display, will be only $700+ laptops with the very latest processor speed.

    Better yet, find one of these gems with 6 Gb RAM. Windows 8 or 8.1 is fine but you don't need a touch screen (instead, install StartIsBack, shareware for $3, to make it act identically to Windows 7, except faster boot time and better memory management).

    Whatever you do, do not settle for an HP laptop--they have terrible drivers and hinky support. Also, I'm not happy with Acer (poor cache memories, thus slower machines). At least, that is what I have noticed in the past--it is one of their cost cutting strategies.
  13. Jun 27, 2014 #12
    Although presently odds aren't very good that OPs school is supportive of *Nix, if they do (and a few hi tech schools are since so many Scientific clusters use Scientific Linux and derivatives) one can save a great deal of money and the learning curve for windows migrators is minimal, and well worth the effort, this could be a very attractive option.

    Money - Because windows forte is one-size-fits-all, heavy on the glitz, prefetch everything just-in-case, and still has poor scheduling partly because of those features, the hardware requirements keep climbing. This is great news for alternative systems since while it is difficult to get a good used Mac, the number of top-notch, good condition laptops abandoned for "upgrade" to Win8 is a gold mine for Linux users. Example - eBay has huge numbers of Lenovo Thinkpads w/ Core 2 CPUs and anywhere from 2G-8G RAM for ~$100 US. These are Kias on Win8 but Minis on Linux.

    OpSys - One major advantage of FOSS is that hi performance Live CDs/DVDs/Thumbdrives are possible and plentiful http://www.livecdlist.com/ . This means a full-fledged Linux system can be booted on almost any PC with zero changes to any existing system just to give them a "test drive". The only thing even remotely similar for Windows are the BartPE derivatives and exactly because they employ the Pre-install Environment, are useful but severely crippled.

    Disclaimer - This is not windows flamebait. These are tradeoffs. You get a higher level of universality and hand-holding friendliness from windows but like all design parameters, you have to give to get. Some people benefit by eschewing "off the rack" and prefer "tailor made" even if it takes a little more commitment.
  14. Sep 8, 2016 #13
    I was wondering how you would dual-boot on a macbook air? Like is there a program I need to download?
  15. Sep 8, 2016 #14


    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    You use Boot Camp which is already part of Mac OS so you don't have to download it. You do need to buy (or otherwise get a legitimate copy of) Windows. Instructions are here:


    I use Parallels Desktop myself. You have to buy it, but it allows you to have Mac OS and Windows running simultaneously, and switch between them simply by clicking on a window or pressing a hotkey. You need plenty of memory in order for it to work effectively.
  16. Sep 9, 2016 #15


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor

    Save your money for text books, get a cheap laptop. I got through mech engineering with a $300 Toshiba.
    Even a high spec $2k laptop will be painfully slow for CAD, the graphics card alone on your university workstations will be worth more than that;
    Even if you do get a high spec computer now by the time you need to do the heavy lifting in 3 or 4 years it'll likely be even further behind.
  17. Sep 9, 2016 #16
    I agree that the buyer should be aware of the school computing environment and any school-supplied/subsidized/required software before making a choice.

    A useful feature of OS X is that you get an actual UNIX while still having access to a reasonable selection of mainstream apps and "plug-n-play" hardware. For example, there is a MS Office for Mac. The compatibility isn't always perfect between Office for mac and the latest versions of Office for Windows, but it is quite good since it is an officially supported product. In the case you have specific applications that are Windows only, you can dual-boot or use something like Parallels to run the Windows version without rebooting.
  18. Sep 10, 2016 #17


    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    Reminder: The original question in this thread is more than two years old. This thread was re-awakened by spam which has since been deleted.
Know someone interested in this topic? Share this thread via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook

Have something to add?
Draft saved Draft deleted

Similar Discussions: Windows vs Mac for Engineering?
  1. Mac or windows? (Replies: 30)

  2. Windows vs. Mac (Replies: 15)

  3. Mac or Windows users (Replies: 14)