System Upgrade Quick Reference

The specifications on our "Buying the Right Computer" page represent the minimum specifications that will run most programs our students need. However, upgrades will help your system process faster:

  • CPUs are the engine of the system and are the best upgrade to speed up a system.
    • Faster or higher model CPUs can process things faster, but cost significantly more, produces more heat and shortens battery run time.
      • Intel's Atom and mobile processors are slow but good for battery life.
      • Intel's standard CPU line is i3 (slowest), i5 (mainstream), and i7 (fastest). For example, an i5 2.5GHz CPU is going to be slower than an i7 of the same speed, thanks to differences in CPU design.
      • Intel's Xeon line are the heavy hitters that provide workstation or server level performance, but produce significantly more heat and greatly reduces battery run time.
    • CPUs designed for mobile use typically have low-power modes so you save battery life and reduce heat while writing a document, then step up to full speed to work in engineering software or playing videos, gaming, and more.
    • Laptop CPUs typically cannot be upgraded, so if you think you'll need more power, now is the time to upgrade.
  • More RAM means the computer can hold more items in memory, so your computer does not need to wait on data coming from the vastly slower disk drive.
    • You can install RAM upgrades at any time, without the need to change Windows configuration.
    • Other than cost, there is no penalty for adding more RAM.
    • Systems are limited in the amount of RAM it can handle, so double check the specifications before ordering.
  • Larger storage gives you more space for data files, school work, programs, music, games and more.
    • You can usually upgrade hard drives, but most users require help to install the new drive, install Windows, and copy your data to the new drive.
    • Physical hard drives (HD) are the least expensive option.
      • However, HDs are heavy, have very sluggish data rates, and decrease battery longevity.
      • Faster drives (usually 5,400, 7,200, or 10,000 RPM) are better for system performance but greatly reduce battery life. Even the fastest drives have noticeable lag when retrieving data.
    • Solid State Drives (SSDs) are more expensive, but are often worth the cost:
      • SSDs are lighter than HDs and greatly increase battery life over HDs.
      • SSDs have data rates similar to RAM, so your CPU is not waiting for data retrieval. This can be critical when doing an engineering project that requires lots of disk reads.
      • SSDs typically are smaller than HDs, often 128GB, 256GB, or 500GB in size.
  • Video cards render the data the CPU sends to it. This is very RAM and processor intensive when rendering 3D images or doing 3D design.
    • Laptop graphics cards are embedded into the motherboard and cannot be upgraded.
    • Better video cards can render this data swiftly and have the capacity to render 3D scenes easily.
    • A video system noted as a good gaming system will render engineering software.
    • A good card with at least 1GB of graphics RAM is critical for most engineering software, especially with 3D design and CAD.
  • Larger displays with higher resolution will be a help with engineering software, especially CAD, simulation, or design programs.
    • The screen size is a fixed feature of the laptop and you may need to change models to get larger screens or higher resolution.
    • Minimum resolution should be 1920x1080 (full HD), but higher resolutions will be helpful with engineering software.
  • Accessory notes:
    • Docking stations allow you to simply connect to power and external screens, keyboard, and mouse or other items with one connection. A USB docking station is nearly universal and would work for several computers.
    • To guard against data loss through damage, malware, equipment failure, or theft, we highly recommend saving data to several locations, either your OneDrive drive or an external hard drive secured at home.
    • External monitors give larger images and are easier on the eyes.
      • A 20" or larger full HD (1920x1080) screen is the minimum recommended size.
      • Higher resolution, larger monitors will be a big help with engineering software.
      • A small 4k TVs (up to 28") would work nicely as a monitor and can be less expensive than a dedicated monitor of the same size.
    • Keyboards and mice
      • A wireless keyboard and mouse set at home can fit the hands better than the laptop keyboard and help to relieve hand/wrist stress.
      • A portable mouse is often easier to use than the laptop touchpad, especially with the accuracy needed for engineering software.
    • USB Ethernet Adapter - If your laptop does not have an Ethernet port, we highly recommend purchasing an adapter. Running our Citrix Remote Lab on WiFi is not recommended. You will have much better results on the higher speeds of a wired connection.