My son bought himself a computer this week, for his senior year in high school. He’s been trying to decide whether he wants to go with a MacBook or a cheaper Linux-based laptop in college, and decided it made sense to try out a Linux machine for a while first, to see whether it will meet his needs. (He’s gotten rather used to some of the Mac software over the past decade.) Windows is not an option he is willing to consider—he has picked up that prejudice from me, I think, though he has had more experience with Windows machines than I have, so he may have come by it naturally.
I told him that I would buy his college computer, but that he had a choice of getting one very good laptop at the beginning of college, or somewhat less expensive ones that were replaced more often. Basically, I’ll be buying him about $2000 worth of computer, either all at once or spread out over the 4 years of college. We spent some time discussing the tradeoffs—the good one at the beginning would be great for freshman year, but by senior year he’d probably do better with a cheap laptop every year or two, as computers lose value pretty rapidly.
He decided to try a very cheap Linux netbook this year, to see how well he got on with Linux, so that he could make a good decision next year about what I should buy him. He spent a lot of time looking at prices and features, and finally settled on an Acer C710-2487 11.6-Inch Chromebook for $240 from Amazon. This was the cheapest netbook that had reasonable features:
- Intel Celeron 847 Processor – 1.1 GHz (2 MB Cache)
- 4 GB DDR3 RAM
- 320 GB 5400 rpm Hard Drive
- 11.6-Inch Screen, Intel HD Graphics
- Built-in HD Webcam
- Two built-in stereo speakers
- 3- USB 2.0 Ports
- 1- HDMI™ Port
- Multi-Gesture Touchpad
He’s not a gamer, so the lack of graphics acceleration is not likely to bother him. The processor is a bit slow, but moving up to a faster processor adds a lot to the price. The USB ports are only USB2, not USB3, which he agonized over for a while, since he already has a USB3 flash drive, but he decided that the cost of moving up to USB3 was too high. At 3.05 lbs (1.38kg), his netbook is fairly heavy, but lighter than my 15″ MacBook Pro at 5.5 pounds (2.49 kg)
One of the first things he did with the Chromebook was to download Ubuntu and reconfigure the machine to be an Ubuntu laptop rather than a Chromebook. Buying similar hardware with Ubuntu already installed actually costs more than getting a Chromebook and discarding the Chrome OS. I suspect that he’ll spend much of next week downloading and testing software he’ll want on the netbook: Skype, various Python modules, Arduino software, KL25 development software, gnuplot, GIMP, Eagle PC Board layout software, LibreOffice, Inkscape, … . Some of those may come with Ubuntu—I’ve not checked, as I’ve never installed Ubuntu. He’ll have to get used to the tiny keyboard and using a touchpad instead of a mouse (or he’ll have to buy himself a mouse).
He has not bought himself a backup drive, but I’ll think I’ll give him the old 500GB Seagate drive that I used to use to back up my laptop. (I had to switch to a 3TB backup drive, since I now have more than 500GB of junk on my laptop: photos and the HD videos from my video camera take up a lot of disk!) I’m not sure what backup utility he’ll use—Chromebooks are intended to keep everything on the web, so backup is usually not a major consideration. There is a nice list of Ubuntu backup options at http://www.thegeekstuff.com/2012/05/backup-ubuntu-desktop/, but none of them seem as simple as the Time Machine on the Mac. The simplest approach is probably to use rsync or rsnapshot to copy from the internal drive to the external one.
I think that spending a year deciding whether Ubuntu on a cheap laptop will work for him (while he still has access to the big screen of the household iMac) is an excellent idea, and spending his own money encouraged him to think hard about what features he really wanted and which ones were nice, but overpriced. Next year, when he selects the computer that I will buy him, he’ll have a much better idea what he really needs to be productive on a computer (and he’ll be used to installing Linux packages—a very handy skill for a CS major).