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Laptop Advice

Hello, my name is Peter, and I've been with James Madison College for 19 years as the IT/Systems Analyst. While I don't often work with students directly, I often get asked about the MSU laptop requirement. While you may be stressing about a laptop purchase, it's not as important as you think, just about any laptop will do these days. The following advice is my own personal opinion and may not reflect the opinion of Michigan State. This page was updated on July 20th, 2023.


Amazon is running a great deal on a MacBook Air M1 for $749.99. It is a tremendous value and should last well past your college career. Pricing does vary but it's currently $749.99.

Detailed recommendation: Apple MacBook Air M1 or M2 with 512gb storage and 16gb of ram, with AppleCare, purchased on a credit card that offers extended warranty for free (varies by card provider). The M2 version is also fine, but specced the same - but it's just slightly sleeker, slightly faster, and slightly more expensive. You get an educational discount, just show your ID at the Apple Store or order online in the Apple higher education shop. You can purchase the 256gb / 8gb ram variants as well, they are ever so slightly slower and multitask slightly less efficient, but they are more than sufficient. Check pricing at Amazon, Costco, and the Apple Higher Education store.

In June of 2023, Apple released a 15" MacBook Air. While it's slightly less portable, the larger screen is a joy to use and it's my current favorite computer.

Why do I recommend a Mac over a PC? The Macs are indeed slightly more expensive (10-25%) but they last about twice as long, and are about 3 times as fast, and are much less likely to have issues. 

You can stop reading here, or read on below for more details.

Specs to look for and general advice

  • Solid State Drive - smaller in capacity, but exponentially faster, this is the most important feature.
  • At least 8gb of ram, but 16gb would be better.
  • PC: AMD Ryzen or Intel i5 or i7 processor, i3 is ok, but they are a bit slow. Quad core is better than dual core. For PC and Intel, I would suggest 11th generation or later, preferably Intel 12th generation or later. For PC and AMD, the Ryzens are all pretty good.
  • Mac: Apple Silicon (M1 or M2 processor)
  • 256gb or more of storage. 128gb is too small. If you are buying an M2 Mac, you should to upgrade to 512gb due to a storage change that Apple has made.
  • Built in HDMI port. Optional, but useful to have for presentations. If you don't have it built in, all laptops work with an adapter. You should have your own adapter, one will not be provided for you.
  • If you like to work outside, a dark or black laptop will absorb the sun and make it overheat.
  • Keep food and water away from your laptop. If the outside looks like an airline tray table, imagine what the inside looks like.

M2 Mac Update

Apple has released the M2 generation of laptops. The M1 models are fine and can be easier to find. Here are my thoughts on all the currently available models. I would still go for the M1 MacBook Air.

  • M1 MacBook Air - this is the one to get. The base one is fine if money is tight, but if you have some room for upgrades, I would upgrade to 512gb storage first, and 16gb of ram second. It's a proven computer at this point.
  • M1 MacBook Pro - there is no need to get this computer, it's the same speed as the M1 MacBook Air but has a fan, so it can do slightly better in sustained demanding loads (such as exporting 4K video, not doing your home work or watching Youtube). Not recommended.
  • M2 Macbook Air - a bit thinner, and a bit lighter than the M1 MacBook Air, and some would say sleeker. It is generally 10% faster than the M1 models...but remember the M1 computers are roughly 3x as fast as PCs at this time. If you do decide to get the M2 MacBook air, you definitely need to upgrade to 512gb storage space as the 256gb size is about half as fast due to a change on how Apple puts storage on these devices. An optional upgrade would be moving from 8gb to 16gb.
  • M2 MacBook Pro - see what I wrote about the M1 MacBook Pro, with the added caveat that you also need to upgrade this to 512gb. This machine is not recommended. 
  • About memory/ram. 8gb is fine if you're a minimalist. 16gb is a must if you like to have hundreds of browser tabs open.

PC vs Mac

I grew up as a PC user but currently use a Mac, so I am well versed in both and both are good choices. If you're looking for an easy recommendation, I recommend the 2020 MacBook Air with M1 proccesor.  Now with Apple's own processor, this computer is competitively priced, lasts 15 hours on battery, and is faster than most PCs.  You can buy with an educational discount. You could get a 2020 MacBook Pro but the Air is more than sufficient for my needs as an IT Professional and you can avoid spending the extra money. On the PC side, I would recommend Dell, either a Latitude 5400 series, or an XPS13. Again, make sure to get an i5 quad core (stay away from dual core), and 256gb of solid state storage or more (SSD). For Intel chips on PC, I would get 12th generation, or 11th generation, but not any earlier - this phrase will appear in the specs. I would lean towards the Mac though, we have fewer issues with them, and with the new Apple Silicon chips it's hard to recommend a PC at this point.

Yet another note about PC vs Mac: my tech support calls for the laptops themselves is over 8:1. I have about 8 PC issues for every 1 Mac issue. Dead batteries, wifi issues, terrible sound quality, PCs just aren't as good and don't last as long.

What to avoid: anything 'used' or renewed. ANY Intel Mac, and the 2016-2019 Macs all had a design flaw in the keyboard. Note, used is fine if it's a family computer, or your high school laptop. It's hard to know what you get when you buy one off Facebook Marketplace, etc. The only exception to this is Apple renewed direct from Apple. They do a pretty good job.

If you have an existing laptop, feel free to take that and use it. Just make sure you use your free cloud storage as a student. You don't NEED a new laptop to be a successful student. You do NEED to backup your files to be a successful student.

How about a tablet?

I don't recommend a tablet acting as a primary computing device, although several students I know do it and they seem to like it. A Chromebook, while inexpensive, would be too limiting. An iPad as your daily driver is likely not going to be sufficient, and they are more expensive and less flexible when you price anything but the lowest end model. If you were to get an iPad Pro and a Magic Keyboard, that's more than a good laptop would cost and it would do less. So don't do that.

Anti Virus?

I am required to run anti virus on departmental operated machines, but for student machines, MSU offers a discounted option. PC/Windows has anti virus built in and Mac machines are slightly less prone to infections. I don't use anti virus on my personal machines, as long as you are careful you should be fine. And, an anti virus will lull you into a false sense of security. They won't stop you from reusing passwords, or clicking links you shouldn't, or installing software that you shouldn't. If you're mindful of what you're clicking on, downloading, and installing, you should be ok.

Buying Advice

  • Costco - Costco sells laptops and they most have 2 year warranties and an excellent Costco Concierge service in case you have difficulties.
  • Buy it on a Credit Card - some credit cards offer extended warranty, free of charge. As long as the laptop was purchased on the credit card, they will pay for any repairs after the warranty is over, for one or two years. Most of the MSUFCU credit cards do not offer this, except the new Visa Signature card, although that carries an annual fee. Other credit card companies vary, call the number on the back of the card to find out, although many are removing this benefit. As of this writing, the Amazon Prime Visa Card has it, as well as few Capital One Cards.
  • Apple has a higher education discount. Show your ID card at the store, or shop in the higher education shop.

Operating Advice

  • MSU provides 1TB of cloud drive storage. Store your school work on it. Your computer having a malfunction will not be an excuse since MSU provides a robust file back up and sync option. Google Docs are fine, but when you turn in a document, your professor will be expecting a Word document. Save as a Word document and you'll be fine.
  • Back up files. As they say, two copies is one, and one copy is none.
  • If the website link looks sketchy, don't click on it.
  • Passwords - use a different password on every website. Use a password vault such as Strongbox, KeepassXC, 1password, Bitwarden, mSecure.
  • Use two factor authentication on every website that offers it.
  • Students get free access to Word, Excel, PowerPoint and all the other applications while enrolled. No need to purchase Office software. Download at office.com.