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Linux for science students - hardware & software recommendation


Lex Shrapnel

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Here's a list of things I think I might need in a computer, of any kind, for my physics graduate course:

  1. Word processor
  2. Spreadsheet
  3. Presentation slides
  4. Notes organizer
  5. Programming: Simulations, Analysis, Modeling etc
  6. Everything Internet

I've always used linux for all my needs in the past, but I believe grad-school demands might be different than what I've listed. Do I need to get Windows or Mac to push through? One major issue might be compatibility - either between two files or two computers. I have noticed this one from the very beginning of my application process. Every University related documents were designed around non-Linux products. Adobe Reader was required to fill out some pdf forms, some instruction manuals were in Microsoft Word doc extension - some minor things like that. These are, of course, manageable in Linux as long I find the right software.

 

I am also considering buying a laptop - an ultrabook, perhaps. Would you recommend this over a tablet or a desktop PC? I probably would sell this one after my course is complete, since I cannot take it home afterwards. Also, please include in your reply, names of Linux distros, Windows/Mac versions that would fit my needs. Right now, newegg seems like a good place to look.

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My personal opinion is that for any sort of serious computing tablets are not there yet.  I'd also shy away from an ultrabook and get either a "real" laptop or a desktop.  You can also build a decent Linux desktop for only a few hundred dollars.  

 

Linux and Windows will have everything you need and nearly all Linux programs/apps run in OSX.  

 

All three platforms have an office suite available to them however I have found the Linux versions lacking despite the widespread "knowledge" that Linux developers focus on functionality and not appearance.  Apple stripped many, many features for iWork, so unless you can get your hands on an older version you will find it pretty much useless for grad school.  You can get the student version of Office for Mac for $25 or so.  There are a few office suites available for Linux--some are comparable with Windows and all work with OSX that I am aware of and pretty much everything can open and/or save a .doc/.docx file these days.  

 

On my Mac, I use Skim for PDFs--free and awesome.  

 

For simulations, modeling, etc., Linux wins hands down followed by Windows.  OSX is no slouch, considering that Macs can run pretty much the same Linux apps, but keep in mind that for nearly 2 decades Macs were designed more-or-less for the creative fields.  Things have improved over the last few years, however.  

 

Macs can natively run Windows and Linux.  You can install multiple OSs on a Mac, each in their own partition.  You can hack a PC to run OSX, but that might be more work than you are willing to do...I dunno.  

 

Honestly, If you have been using Linux I would suggest to continue to using Linux.  I hang out in a math/physics forum as well.  It seems that gnumeric is recommended spreadsheet for physics and most seem to favor lyx or LaTex for writing papers with the general consensus being that Linux is preferred for physics students. A quick Google search confirms this.  

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There is Scientific Linux, which is similar to RHEL.  I am most familiar with Fedora myself as it is the only distro that I have stuck with over the years and through a few versions.  CentOS also seems to be popular amongst the STEM.  

 

For Windows I would stick with W7 if you can, but you can also get the W7 from Metro in W8.  For OSX, you will get the latest OS, which is currently Yosemity (10.10).  If you purchase a used Mac, Mavericks (10.9) or Mountain Lion (10.8) would be cool, too.  

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I use Ubuntu at home, but what I did is went out and bought an inexpensive laptop with Windows on it so I could take advantage of MS Office and similar programs. Its portability also means I don't have to rely upon the lab computer. It's been well worth the cost so far.

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I started with a Macbook for my home use (and in cases where Linux didn't meet my needs) and Linux (department provided) computer for work use. Two years later, I asked my supervisor to buy me a new computer (the old Linux one was really slow) and I got a 27" iMac, which is much more productive and useful than Linux. I still work on Linux machines (I use the Mac OS terminal to ssh into the department Linux clusters). I prefer using Microsoft Office products for Word Processing, making presentations, making posters, viewing class slides (most profs here use Powerpoint because it's free for all staff and students) and even simple things like text editing (e.g. for LaTeX documents). I also prefer the much more pleasing and easier to use (in my opinion) GUI that Mac computers have. 

 

You might be surprised--but I ended up doing a LOT more "filling out forms on PDFs" than I thought I would. There are forms for reimbursements, forms for applying to travel grants, etc. etc. I had planned to only use my Macbook at home, but eventually I needed to take it into work every day. :( With my new work iMac, I never have to bring in my laptop.

 

So, in the end, the only thing I actually need or want to use Linux for is to run computations or analyses. I mount my Linux's cluster home directory onto my Mac so I edit the code using nice Mac software, and I have a terminal where I can run the code for debug / for science! I would say that if you are buying your own machine, you should buy a machine you like to work with, and keep in mind that most of the world (including your University admin departments) work in the Microsoft Office suite, so you want something compatible with that. I think it's much much easier to make a Windows or Mac computer connect/interface with any Linux machines (using putty or cygwin for Windows; Terminal for Mac) than it is to get all of the non-Linux stuff you need working on a Linux computer.

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