College computer setup

First year

Over the course of my first year at University of Washington, my computer setup changed a few times, so I thought I’d talk about them here (since it might help others decide on how to approach their own college computer setup).

Before college, I didn’t have a fast laptop computer; my main machine actually was an Acer laptop but its screen was broken so in order to use it I had to connect it to an external monitor! I didn’t want to take this machine to my dorm room because I knew it would be a pain to setup, and also I still wanted a computer to use at home.

I didn’t get a laptop for college at first (unlike many of my peers). My reasoning was that laptops are easily stolen, and I didn’t expect to do any “real” work outside my dorm room: I can still program in my room, and I have my phone with me all the time to read things on, so why would I spend several hundred dollars on a new laptop?

So I decided to build a desktop for my dorm room, and keep my “laptop” with the broken screen at home. You might think a desktop would be more expensive, but because a friend had some extra parts for most of the machine, and was willing to basically give it away to me, I was able to get the desktop for around $60. Since I already had an extra monitor, keyboard, and mouse, this was a pretty cheap and good deal.

Due to some complications with building the machine though1, actually bringing the computer to my dorm was delayed several weeks(?).2 So for the first few weeks (?) I didn’t really have a computer in college (this wasn’t really a problem though, in terms of doing coursework: most of the homework was due each week so I could just e.g. do math problems on paper and LaTeX them over the weekend).

Later, I had begun working with a friend in a UW library each week to do some extra CS learning. This, of course, required having a device on which I could program that was portable. No problem, I decided to buy a Google Nexus 7 tablet, and then connect to a Linode machine in the cloud that had everything already setup. I could even buy a Bluetooth keyboard because Vim on a touchscreen didn’t sound like fun. Well, this worked for a while, except the Bluetooth keyboard wasn’t that great to type on, and constantly depending on WiFi to connect to Linode wasn’t that great either (although UW does provide WiFi everywhere). This setup, where I would take the tablet and phone around during the day and then work on my desktop in my dorm room, lasted for most of the year. Part of why I didn’t change earlier was that most classes continued to not really require a laptop; we never programmed in class or anything and all I needed was a browser, which the tablet adequately supplied. Even when studying with my friend, a lot of the time we’d just be reading and doing problems on paper, so being able to program wasn’t that important.

In spring quarter though, I finally got a Thinkpad x2203, which was great timing because having an actual mobile machine to program on was important for ATM S 559.

Second year at UW

I’ve gotten really used to having a laptop to take around with me everywhere. I actually often just keep the Thinkpad in my backpack even when I don’t necessarily use it in class (it noticeably makes my backpack heavier though). This year, being able to program outside of my dorm room has been more important: CSE 332 has partner programming projects, so being able to work in a public space is useful. In addition, math 33X this year has had a lot more opportunities to work with classmates on problem sets, and since I typeset most of my homework with LaTeX, it’s useful to be able to solve a problem and then type it up all while working with people in a library.

I actually like my Thinkpad so much now that I just use it at home as well; I just take it back each weekend. At home I hook it up to an external monitor and enjoy a dual-screen setup.


  1. A defective motherboard and optical drive.

  2. A little before courses had started, but after I had already moved into my dorm, I actually remember asking a question on Quora about how to get a Haskell compiler for the UW library computers.

  3. Two friends independently suggested I get this machine!