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Laptop suggestions for math/statistics grad schools


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Hi,

I'll be starting an Applied Math PhD program soon which will involve coursework in statistics. I'm looking to buy a good laptop that will last be in the long term, ideally through my program. I reckon with time I'll have to use it for programming in Python, Julia etc. and scientific computation in general. Suggestions?

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You can get a MacBook Air for $900 with education pricing. I think Mac is a nice blend of user-friendly convenience while also having the Unix command line for general programming stuff.  My last one lasted 5 strong years and an additional 2 years of being somewhat useable if not ideal.

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I always dream of one of those "monster machines" with lots of cores (e.g. 16 cores) whereas my own macbook has only 2 cores. Some "pro people" do have such machines and would even carry around GPU/FPGA boards. Some of my classmates recently have pooled resources together to buy Nvidia's new multi-instance GPU (A100) for $199000 a piece! 

Edited by DanielWarlock
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I'd recommend one of the new ThinkPads with Ryzen 4000 CPUs that are coming out in the next 2 weeks. If you choose the L15 (starting at $649), you can stack up on RAM and SSD and the price would only be around $1k. The AMD's 7nm Ryzen processors, despite being cheaper, are thrashing Intel CPUs right now in terms of multi-core performance, which is very crucial if you do a lot of parallel computations. In terms of build quality and longevity, ThinkPads are the OG business laptops that will last you many years. GPUs are not really important, because even if you want to do deep learning, you'd want to use your university's computing cluster (my uni has a NVIDIA DGX-2 cluster available upon request) or use some cloud solution.

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I would second the Macbook if you aren't that tech-savvy, as having a Unix based OS is much easier to deal with than a Windows one for anything programming related. If you don't like Apple, then an option is to dual boot Linux on whatever Windows machine you buy.

For anything that requires intensive compute, your university will likely either have a cluster or provide you with cloud compute credits, in which case you would need to ssh into and having a Unix OS makes this process significantly less painful. The Windows Linux support IMO is frankly quite awful and package management/installing new programming libraries is also horrendous on Windows. 

Also second the insanely expensive graphics card, think about how fast your ggplots will render with real time ray tracing.

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I must give my opinion on university computing cluster and cloud solution: (i) university computing cluster will require you to submit a batch file and you will potentially need to wait for a long time before your job is executed. And if they do provide interactive, resources allotted to you will be very limited; (ii) I definitely DO NOT recommend using cloud computing such as AWS even if you have like $200 free credits to burn through--it is nothing. The cost can be as high as $30/hr PER NODE for some luxury machines! They will also charge you on storage etc also. I used AWS last semester because the experience is better than university cluster. BIG MISTAKE! After 2 month my bill is $700+, and I haven't actually done anything substantial. So if you can convince your cohort to buy a commonly accessible GPU then do that instead. Sometimes department has spare funds so they buy stuff like massage chairs but such money in my opinion is better spent on computing equipment. 

Edited by DanielWarlock
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My university primarily sells Apple and Dell laptops, so I’ll look into them. I’ve meaning to get my hands off my current Windows Laptop. Programming etc on it is nuts.

Thoughts on the Windows Surface Pro? I’ve read good things about it. Also I’ll be making a jump from Windows to Apple if I get a MacBook Pro around the $800. I’m not the most IT savvy. Will the change be manageable?

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I have no idea if Daniel is posting satire or really wants graduate students to pitch in their stipends to buy a $200,000 computer.

@J456 I think Apple is about as user-friendly as you can get. I think you'll definitely be able to manage. This is coming from someone who does not like to learn new software stuff. 

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15 minutes ago, bayessays said:

I have no idea if Daniel is posting satire or really wants graduate students to pitch in their stipends to buy a $200,000 computer.

@J456 I think Apple is about as user-friendly as you can get. I think you'll definitely be able to manage. This is coming from someone who does not like to learn new software stuff. 

It is not satire and it is a collaboration effort. Actually they may have eventually resolved to buy like 10 of these and put them in the prof's office for safekeeping because it is much cheaper if you buy a bunch at a time.

Edited by DanielWarlock
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Just now, DanielWarlock said:

It is not satire and it is a collaboration effort. Actually they may have eventually resolved to buy like 10 of these and put those in the prof's office for safekeeping because it is much cheaper if you buy a bunch at a time.

That sounds insane to me. How many people are there in your cohort that can pool together 2 million? Was there any funding or was it completely self-funded? Maybe a lot of people at Harvard are just independently rich? 😅

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On 6/13/2020 at 10:46 PM, J456 said:

My university primarily sells Apple and Dell laptops, so I’ll look into them. I’ve meaning to get my hands off my current Windows Laptop. Programming etc on it is nuts.

Thoughts on the Windows Surface Pro? I’ve read good things about it. Also I’ll be making a jump from Windows to Apple if I get a MacBook Pro around the $800. I’m not the most IT savvy. Will the change be manageable?

IMO, computing speed / power aren't really that necessary. If you're going to do anything hardcore, you're going to use a cluster computing system. Thus, I'd say get a laptop that has a good battery life, is comfortable to carry around in a backpack, and won't break the bank.

I have a Surface and several of my classmates do. It's portable, lightweight, and (usually) cheaper than Apple products. They also do education pricing.

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I agree with @StatsG0d. Frankly, as long as your computer is fast enough to run some code for research and big problem sets, you're fine. For some of the heavier research you'll be doing, you'll be sending it to the cluster, at least in my department. Get a laptop you'd like. I got a MacBook Pro with the student discounts and upgraded it. I love it, and have always been an Apple user so I prefer the macs for many reasons. 

Takeaway: Get something you want that's light, fast (enough) and won't cripple you financially. As long as you don't mistreat it or download some seedy parts of the internet, you'll be okay.

Edited by BL250604
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I do think it's worth having a lot of RAM on the computer for R, but most computers these days already have quite a bit. It was a bigger issue ten years ago, but I've always found R/RStudio to have memory crashes, so more RAM can help there but otherwise any computer performance will be fine. 

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1 hour ago, bayessays said:

I do think it's worth having a lot of RAM on the computer for R, but most computers these days already have quite a bit. It was a bigger issue ten years ago, but I've always found R/RStudio to have memory crashes, so more RAM can help there but otherwise any computer performance will be fine. 

Absolutely. I have 16 GB for that exact reason. I think 8 GB could do just fine, but for the minimal upgrade charge, I upped it to be safe. I'd say that 16GB i7 or better is probably the best way to go. That tends to be pretty standard with some of the more heavy duty models, so there should be plenty of options for the OP.

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18 minutes ago, BL250604 said:

Absolutely. I have 16 GB for that exact reason. I think 8 GB could do just fine, but for the minimal upgrade charge, I upped it to be safe. I'd say that 16GB i7 or better is probably the best way to go. That tends to be pretty standard with some of the more heavy duty models, so there should be plenty of options for the OP.

The MacBook pro's I have looked at are all i5 with 8 GB of RAM. Any suggestions for a laptop with an i7 processor and 16 GB of RAM in the same price range?

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4 minutes ago, J456 said:

The MacBook pro's I have looked at are all i5 with 8 GB of RAM. Any suggestions for a laptop with an i7 processor and 16 GB of RAM in the same price range?

I personally looked (only) at the Dell XPS and the MacBook Pro. My MacBook Pro is the 13" that I upgraded. A lot of students in my cohort love the Thinkpads. I think those are the three most popular in my cohort. I know other students that have the surface (or some variety of the surface), but I don't know much about it.

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21 minutes ago, J456 said:

The MacBook pro's I have looked at are all i5 with 8 GB of RAM. Any suggestions for a laptop with an i7 processor and 16 GB of RAM in the same price range?

Not necessarily recommending this (I'm getting an i3 with 8gb personally as that's good enough for me), but if you get the base 13 inch MacBook Air and upgrade the processor to an i7 and the RAM to 16gb, that is $1330, which is about the same as the Pro.

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I think a macbook is the way to go. They're simple and work for a long time. In terms of computing power it really doesn't matter. I have a five year old macbook pro with a 2.7GHz i5 and 8gb of ram. At home I have a couple of linux boxes with two 1060s and a 2070 and maybe 80 gigs of ram in total. I never have any issues. You'll probably have access to a cluster, so you might as well get used to using one. A laptop is really just for displaying homework, showing results at meetings, emailing on the go, and SSHing into something that actually does work.

Also since price is always a consideration consider buying something off govdeals. I once got a thinkpad with a 3.6 GHz i7 and 16gb of ram for around $200. Just had to drive to the city near me. https://www.govdeals.com/index.cfm?fa=Main.AdvSearchResultsNew&kWord=Macbook&whichForm=vehicle&searchPg=Main

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