Looking for the right laptop to use while you get your engineering or CS degree? Here's a guide to help.

It's easy to feel as though you need an expensive laptop for college, but more often than not that's far from the case. 90% of students would probably be totally fine with almost any laptop out there—it's mostly engineering students who need a little more horsepower. Here's how to find exactly what you need.

Engineering professionals on the go often need some incredibly powerful PC hardware. Needless to say, if you need 0 compromises on power, affordability and mobility both fly out the window.


In some alien universe, this qualifies as 'mobile'

A TitanUS X95MW. Image courtesy of TitanUS.


While for someone like that, the perfect pick might be an MSI Mobile Workstation, students like me would be hard pressed to hand over cash we could use to purchase a car, books, or food for a laptop—especially with mounting college debts. Fortunately, there’s hope!

Engineering students like myself often run into a problem when they are heading to college. Many are not of the opinion that a Macbook is the right choice, or simply don’t have $999 to throw at a base model 13” Macbook Air. Where in most majors, you can get by with just about anything, certain engineering professions require the use of laptops that meet specific requirements.

  • The requirements engineers have for their laptops are a bit different than for many other professions. We don't necessarily care about having the thinnest, lightest, sleekest computer in the room. However, for those less versed in all the PC jargon and less willing to spend weeks shopping for deals, it’s easy to spend over a thousand dollars trying to get a good machine when you could get by with just a few hundred.

With that in mind, I’ve decided to take a look at the requirements that befit most STEM students in terms of usability, preferences, and the need to run common software. I personally just had to shop for a laptop myself and, as an ME student, I felt I should share the options I considered for myself along with other deals available. 

I’ve arranged this guide into three categories: Computer Science, Electrical/Computer Engineering, and Mechanical Engineering. I put them in the order of increasingly powerful computing needs.

Those more expensive options on the list (like the $800 Inspiron) are perfect for any content creation needs from graphic design to video editing, plus CAD and 3D modelling work, and even light gaming. I also not only created links to the proper search filters on Amazon for said laptops, but picked out a few options I feel stand out. Usually, these are especially good deals for the included hardware and well-reviewed models. I also filled out the price range I feel is fair to meet or exceed the presented requirements.


Computer Science:

Specs for Computer Science laptops are based on what computers can run Eclipse, a commonly used editing platform. Eclipse's rather meager list of specs is proof that even 8-year-old laptops have no problems coding. 

  • 13+” display (768p min, <= 1080p)
  • Basically any Intel CPU
  • If you will be compiling often, go for better CPUs
  • 3GB RAM minimum
  • 32GB SSD to 250+GB HDD
  • Decent battery life
  • Can run Linux (Chromebooks with Intel CPUs will work)
  • Under $450


Based on these specifications, here's the list of laptops that might work for your CS needs:

  • ThinkPad T400: Windows 10, Intel Core 2 Duo, 4GB RAM, 120GB HDD, 14.1in.

This is more or less the "bargain basement" option.


This is a very budget-friendly Windows machine with solid reviews.


  • HP 14" HD Laptop PC: with Intel Celeron Dual Core 1.6 GHz, 2GB RAM, 32GB SSD, Windows 10 (Blue) [no specific model listed]


  • Acer Chromebook 14: Aluminum, 14-inch Full HD, Intel Celeron Quad-Core N3160, 4GB LPDDR3, 32GB SSD

The LPDDR3L performs as well as DDR3L but uses 90% less energy while idling so it's a little more power efficient. The tradeoff is that it's soldered in permanently.


The Acer Chromebook 14. Image courtesy of Amazon.


  • ASUS Vivobook: Quad core Pentium CPU, 14” 1080p display, 4GB RAM, 128GB SSD

The Vivobook is basically a budget Ultrabook. ASUS is known for quality and certainly delivers the look of a premium laptop here. The difference in price over the Acer Chromebook 14 gets you a CPU twice as powerful and four times the storage, 1080p display, and Windows. A pretty great deal altogether, in my opinion.


The ASUS Vivobook. Image courtesy of PC World.


  • HP Pavilion x360: 13.3-Inch 2 in 1 Touchscreen Convertible Laptop (Intel Core i3-6100U Processor, 4GB DDR3 RAM, 500GB HDD, Windows 10)

This may seem a bad deal next to the Vivobook, but the i3-6100U is a hidden gem. It outpaces the Vivobook's Pentium quad core in every benchmark thanks to hyperthreading (four threads but two physical cores). If you need a compiling powerhouse, look for the sixth generation i3/i5/i7-series and the laptops in the EE list below.

Side note: Many of my CS buddies look for backlit keyboards in their machines which are typically a premium feature. However, since you'd likely only need that in one room, consider buying an external backlit keyboard. Coders use those a lot, anyhow, and some are super cheap. I've personally used this one.



Amazon - CS Laptops

Amazon - Keyboards



Electrical Engineering and/or Computer Engineering

These specs for EE/ECE laptops are based on which laptops can run AutoCAD Electrical. This is the most demanding PCB design software I could find and it's still not very demanding. Computer-focused people will have the same coding needs as CS folks, plus the need to use light graphical tools for designing boards. 

  • 14+” display, 1080p preferred
  • I3 or better with Intel HD Graphics or better
  • 4GB RAM (8GB preferred)
  • 500+GB HDD (128+GB SSD preferred)
  • Decent battery life
  • Windows for AutoCAD Electrical, can use Linux for EagleCAD, KiCAD
  • Under $600


Based on the above list, here are the laptops that might work best for electrical and/or computer engineering:

  • ASUS Vivobook: Quad core Pentium CPU, 14” 1080p display, 4GB RAM, 128GB SSD

This is a repeat from the CS list, but it deserves a spot on the EE/ECE list, as well.


  • HP 15-ay013nr: 15.6" Full-HD Laptop (6th Generation Core i5, 8GB RAM, 128GB SSD) with Windows 10

This HP has a pretty generic, modern look, but it packs far more power than the x360 or Vivobook in its far larger body at near the same price point (as of 07/22/16). This is likely considerably more power than you'd need as an EE. If it's on sale under $450, like it was when I was researching, it's a great deal.


The HP 15-ay013nr. Image courtesy of Amazon.


  • Acer Aspire E 15: Intel Core i5-6200U + Nvidia GTX 940M, 8GB DDR3L, 15.6” 1080p display, 1TB HDD, Windows 10 Home

The discrete graphics card isn't really needed for EE, but if you need to do graphical work it will certainly help. Computer engineers will appreciate this.


  • Acer Aspire E 15: Intel Core i5-6200U + Nvidia GTX 940MX, 8GB DDR3L, 15.6” 1080p display, 256GB SSD, Windows 10 Home

This is the same laptop model as the one above, but with a better GPU and an SSD for a little extra cash. This one gives better hardware per dollar.  


  • Acer Aspire E 15Intel Core i7-6500U + Nvidia GTX 940MX, 8GB DDR3L, 15.6” 1080p display, 256GB SSD, Windows 10 Home

And one more time, here's the Acer Aspire E 15 with an i7 for another price hike to give it even better value. This i7 is almost as fast as the i5-6300HQ Quad core; the i5 HQ has four cores and four threads to this i7's two cores and four threads. In fact, this laptop has a faster processor and far better graphics than the fully-upgraded Macbook Air 13"—and costs about half as much.


The Acer Aspire E 15. Image courtesy of Amazon.



Amazon - EE Laptops



Mechanical Engineering

These specs for ME laptops are based on what's needed to run Autodesk Inventor Pro, a program that's very easy-to-use and free for students. I have plenty of experience with this design tool. Solidworks is a more commonly used alternative with heavier system requirements but is unspecific about what graphics hardware it will work on (I assume at least 2GB Vid-RAM).

Note: The “recommended” specs are for desktop workstations. 2GB VidRAM is typical.

  • 15” (15.6”) display, 1080p
  • I5 4th gen or better
  • Discrete GPU (Nvidia GTX series, 940M or better)
  • 8GB RAM (can always add more)
  • SSD highly preferred (256+GB)
  • Battery life > 5hrs
  • MUST run Windows
  • Under $1000


Based on these specs, here are the laptops that might best suit your ME needs:

  • Acer Aspire E 15: Intel Core i7-6500U + Nvidia GTX 940MX, 8GB DDR3L, 15.6” 1080p display, 256GB SSD, Windows 10 Home

See the EE/ECE section for the details here since it's the same as above. Though it's a relatively weak GPU, it's still a dedicated one with 2GB GDDR5.


  • Acer Aspire V 15: Intel Core i5-6300HQ Quad Core, NVIDIA GTX 950M, 8GB DDR4, 15.6 Full HD, 256GB SSD, Windows 10 Home

The quad core i5 and GTX 950M are both considerably better than the previous Acer model, plus this includes a backlit keyboard!


  • Asus 15-inch Gaming Laptop: Intel Core i7-6500U GTX 950M, 15.6" Full HD 1920x1080, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD, Backlit Keyboard, Windows 10

While this model may seem overpriced compared to the V 15, especially with a worse CPU, it looks way better in my opinion. Also, while the Acer models all stuff lots of hardware into a cheap chassis, Asus generally has a better quality look and feel. It's also lighter, thinner, and more power-efficient. It comes with an empty 2.5" bay for extra storage.


The Asus gaming laptop. Image courtesy of Amazon.


  • Dell Inspiron 7559: i5-6300HQ Quad Core + Nvidia GTX 960M 4GB, 8GB DDR3L, 15.6” 1080p display, 256GB SSD

Now this is a proper rig for editing, 3D graphics work, or even moderate gaming. While its computing power is only marginally better than the 950M, it sports twice the vid-RAM which CAD work often eats up. Personally, I'm not a big fan of the typical red n' black gaming aesthetic, and this laptop only half-embraces it. It looks less business-like than I prefer, but more professional than most gaming laptops out there. 



The Dell Inspiron 7559. Image courtesy of Digital Trends.


  • HP Pavilion 15t: i5 or i7 quad core, GTX 950M 2GB or 960M 4GB, 1080p or 4K (optional touchscreen), 1TB HDD or 256GB SSD, 8GB DDR4 [only if on sale]

This is ultimately what I got. Ultimately, I chose this based on the holiday sale being offered at the time. I would recommend only pursuing this option in the same conditions: a nice sale.


If you're after uncompromised processing power, this machine has your back. The quad core 8-thread i7-6700HQ is a beast. This option definitely has the most powerful processor under $1200. You can always replace the HDD with an SSD on your own. 


The Acer Aspire V15 Nitro. Image courtesy of Acer.



PortablePicker - ME Laptops

Amazon - Laptops for ME



Keep in mind that, while a Google search for ‘gaming laptop’ will net plenty of machines with the CPU/GPU/RAM ME students need, it’s very common for those to have very small batteries which won’t get through two classes. Visit manufacturer webpages and check out the pack capacity in Wh (watt-hours) for specific models. You’ll want over 60Wh for a beefy PC—dedicated graphics are power hungry. 

You can typically run anything required of an engineering student on campus desktops. So if, for instance, you’re an ME student who can’t afford a $500 laptop, you could always fall back on campus resources and get a cheaper laptop. It also pays to upgrade rather than look fo a whole new model when it comes to wanting more RAM or an SSD. Online guides are all over the place: Simply look up your laptop model on iFixit or look for YouTube video tutorials. There's a chance you can be done in 20 minutes with no prior experience (well, longer if you count the cloning time for an SSD swap). 

Remember: Try to spend less than $1000. Once you cross that line, you may as well get a $500-600 desktop and spend the money you saved on a good $400 laptop. The performance of a desktop i3-6100 handily beats even an i7-6500U mobile CPU, and a desktop GTX 750 ti edges out a mobile GTX 960M. Together, those desktop components are about $220, while a laptop with those specs would run you $700 easily. 

Good luck!


Subject/Item Meaning/Significance
Core i Series ex) i5-6200U: i5 Series, 6th Generation; U is dual-, HQ is quad-core
CPU Central Processing Unit, a.k.a. processor.
GPU Graphics Processing Unit, a.k.a graphics card
HDD/SSD Hard Disk Drive / Solid State Drive. SSD is way faster, but expensive.
RAM (Random Access Memory) Notation DDR3/DDR3L are similar. DDR4 is a bit more efficient, newer.
CPU Hierarchy 6th gen is newest. All 6th gen U CPUs < 6th i5 HQ < 6th i7 HQ
GPU Hierarchy If 940M is 100%, 940MX is 120%, 950M is 195%, 960M is 220%
Resolution HD is 720p to 900p, FHD or Full HD is 1080p. 768p is common.
Compare CPUhttp://cpuboss.com/
Compare GPUhttp://gpuboss.com/



  • wgormley 2016-08-05

    go to any school and you will see a strong majority of the c.s. students using macs. windows is not the preferred development environment amongst the newer generations. this sounds much more like an advertisement for windows based machines…

  • tladoux 2016-08-05

    I think you sell MacBooks short based on what you get for the money (create/edit PDFs, Movie and Photo editing, video codecs, read and write Microsoft office products, plus the plethora of programs ported or not from Unix) and the resale value and longevity of the MacBook exceeds any Windows laptop. Oh yeah, and run Windows natively. Excellent battery life!

  • John Mathews 2016-08-05

    As a senior IT support member at a major engineering university, I can tell you our most used software will not run on MACs and those users that choose to try are our problem children.  Matlab, autocad, siemons, ansys, soldworks, cmg, abacus, etc, none of these work well or at all on a mac and please don’t talk about virtual machines running this.  We have maybe 5% Mac users, mostly in CS, but nobody in Aero or Me can get by with a Mac.  Its not a preference its just the way it is.  Personally I’d be happy to junk all windows systems for Linux, but I don’t get to make those decisions, the market does that.

    • gvenn 2016-08-05

      This is definitely true for hardware engineering, but for CS in silicon valley at least almost all CS developers at startups are on OS X. Of course the future may change, and Ubuntu is starting to make a dent, but this is at least what my eyes see. You can almost use this metric to determine what area a person works in. If they carry around a Mac, and are “engineers”, then they work in non-embedded software. If they carry around a Windows laptop they are hardware engineers/embedded developers; if engineers.

      • Seth Schaffer 2016-08-05

        Don’t take this the wrong way, but I never intended this article to be for students in silicon valley. The idea was stretching your dollar to meet your most basic needs as a student. Of course you can always get a Mac, or any ultrabook for that matter, and it will greatly exceed the hardware needs required of a student.  I didn’t include Mac laptops in this list - not because they are inadequate, but because the idea was to avoid overspending and still have a capable machine. In other words, why spend $800+ when $600 is plenty? Because you don’t need that $200+. If you do, this article is for you.

      • gvenn 2016-08-06

        I guess I can’t reply to the followup, but I was not referring to students. I’m talking about locations that have real jobs. I’m not a student, but I believe that students should become familiar with the hardware/OS that relates to the profession they are training for. If I am a professional EE, I expect those that I hire to be comfortable with the tools that the industry generally expects to be used. If on the other hand, my profession involves developing software that runs on servers, then likewise I expect those that I hire to be familiar with the tools used in that industry. I happen to come from this latter industry, and if a prospective candidate does not know how to develop on UNIX systems, and preferably with or without IDEs, I can’t hire them. Now these statements are general, and of course there are exceptions that are off the center of the bell curve—meaning not all software developer positions are alike, but there is a current dominant one in non-embedded software, at least in my location.

  • curryguy123 2016-08-05

    As an EE student, I use Windows cause of the Circuit Simulation software that’s available (we specifically use MultiSim), but I think lots of CS majors like Macs for the better programming environment it offers. Also, I disagree with the comment about not needing portability. Engineering students often need more portability because most of our homework, labs, projects require a computer and we normally travel all over campus to meet group members and work with friends. A lot of my EE friends and I went with ultrabooks for that reason…they’re light and portable like Macbook Pros, but they have the software we need that’s only on Windows while being pretty powerful (EEs don’t need much GPU rendering like MEs might for CAD, so no discrete graphics is fine).

  • cycle_mycle 2016-08-06

    Just out of curiosity, how do you get an Acer Chromebook (or any Chromebook) to run Eclipse? I was under the impression that they only run on-line apps. I never owned one so I really am ignorant in this regard, but I think of owning one from time to time and always stop short because of what I see as severe limitations. Can anyone comment on this subject?

    • Seth Schaffer 2016-08-06

      Eclipse doesn’t run on Chrome OS, your confusion is well warranted. You would need to install Linux (or Windows, but that’s like half the price of many Chromebooks) on the Chromebook to run Eclipse itself, but there are plenty of Chrome OS programming environments too. One great one I know of is Codeshare - not exactly a replacement for Eclipse but still lets you code with any of a ton of languages with color coded syntax and save it all in cloud storage for free. My older brother said he knows several CS majors at his university who use Chromebooks as their main laptop - I have no clue what exact programs they use but evidently there are more substitutes for Eclipse than I know about.

      • cycle_mycle 2016-08-17

        OK, that sounds like what I have been hearing—except I haven’t known anyone to actually own one. I have been running Linux for years now and usually use older used computers. I don’t have much budget for new and tend to consider Chromebooks from time to time but I just can’t seem to hand over that hard earned cash. I have on the other hand been noticing prices dropping so . . . any way, thank you for your reply, it was very helpful.

  • Notiz_Me 2016-08-06

    As a Computer Science student I would not find my pick in your selection. GPGPU-programming is an important topic when talking about neural networks and other number-crunching applications. If you want to do high performance computing, a GPU is a must.

    Make sure it’s an nVidia GPU which is capable of running CUDA (https://developer.nvidia.com/cuda-gpus) and DirectX 10 or higher (any new GPU). AMD might be closing the gap, but, for now, nVidia will make your life easier.