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Laptop Advice

Hello, my name is Peter, and I've been with James Madison College for 15 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 9th, 2019 as several items have changed.

Specs to look for

  • Solid State Drive - smaller in capacity, but exponentially faster, this is the most important feature.
  • At least 8gb of ram - avoid anything less
  • i5 or i7 processor, i3 is ok, but they are a bit slow. Quad core is better than dual core.
  • 128gb of space is sufficient, but it may feel cramped. 256gb is better
  • 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.

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. However, I would recommend you avoid any Mac Laptops for now and go the PC route. MSU's requirement is for a laptop, so you shouldn't buy a desktop. All current Mac Laptops have a keyboard with a well-known design flaw. I would recommend avoiding Mac laptops until they redesign the keyboard. This includes all models from 2016 to 2019, including the recently released MacBook Pro and MacBook Air. I also feel that Apple laptops, which have always had a price premium, have swung too far into the realm of poor value with keyboard reliability and other issues.

Update: On July 9th, they have released two new models, and they are better priced, but still retain the keyboard. All Macs with the problematic keyboard are covered for four years from purchase date automatically. Given the price reduction of July 9th, 2019, if you want to have a Mac, they are acceptable options, provided you are aware of the keyboard issues and purchase AppleCare. However, since most laptops are essentially web browsing and word processing machines, the price premium is sometimes not justified given the keyboard issues. If you're heavily integrated in the Apple ecosystem, the MacBooks can be an appealing choice, but, Windows has come a long way as well.

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.

Anti Virus?

I am required to run anti virus on departmental operated machines, but for student machines, MSU offers a discounted option at $19.99 a year. 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 all have 2 year warranties and an excellent Costco Concierge service in case you have difficulties.
  • Buy it on a Credit Card - many 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. The Costco Citi card adds two years. American Express adds two years on warranties that are two years or longer, otherwise they add one year. 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. The Uber credit card offers a 1 year extended warranty, cell phone protection, and generous cash back for restaurant and travel spending.
  • Our MSU Tech Store has a Dell Latitude 5490a with a four year warranty for $969. Put it on that Costco Citi card and you could be covered for six years of repairs. If you choose to buy an Apple laptop, the AppleCare insurance is a must.

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.
  • Google offers unlimited photo storage.
  • 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 1password or 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