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I'm asking this anonymously. Our department of computer science just received a donation to buy laptops for students. Major activity will be programming and languages used will be C/C++/Python/Perl/Java/R. We will be instituting a lending scheme for students who can't afford them.

As a committee, we now need to decide whether we should be buying Apple Macbook Pro(13") or Thinkpad (T420) both with more or less similar specifications and price. The Apple will run it's OS and Thinkpad will run Debian Linux.

My question is : We are training the students for research and we wish to provide them with an environment close to how it is in the real world. Should we choosing one over the other considering all students have an inclination for research/academia?

This is not meant to be a flame war but rather a question of whether Academia has hidden liking towards Apple and if yes, why?

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    Why not let each student choose? The real world is not homogeneous. – JeffE Jul 12 '12 at 21:48
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    If I told you I had a "hidden liking", then I wouldn't have a "hidden liking" anymore, would I? – David Ketcheson Jul 13 '12 at 6:36
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I think that in most conferences/project meetings I attend, there isn't an overwhelming preference on one side or the other (I'm working in computer science, in case that matters). In other words, there are many academics happily working with linux, and many academics happily working with mac (some are even working with both), so in your case, there is no real wrong choice.

From what I've experienced, in some places, there could be a preference for apple computers because of the way some universities order their hardware: if you ask for a PC, you might not be able to choose which one exactly, and you might end up with a low quality, cheap product, whereas if you ask for a mac, the quality is better (at least, that was true a while ago). But I don't think it can explain why the proportion of apple laptops in the academic world is higher than that of the general population.

In any case, I don't think that working within on environment will prevent the students to switch to another one later one if they need to.

  • I suspect the difference in the ratio of apple/non inside and outside academia has a lot to do with the kind of people that pursue academia. I think that many academics take more time to pick what they want, rather than simply taking what they're given. Additionally, you have to reach critical mass. If everyone in your field uses ibm pc, then you have a higher cost of entry to use mac. This is no longer true in many (all?) fields of academia. – Dan C Jul 13 '12 at 14:09
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I think that neither apple nor Thinkpad T420 have a reasonable advantage for a programmer. A 13" screen is too small for an activity that it is often done with, much bigger displays (at least in my limited experience). I think that a standard programmer doesn't see any difference between these laptop and a good 750$ 15" laptop; but you can buy two of them at the same price of the T420 or the macbook pro. And you can lend them at a lower rate. If you need more computational power, then probably they are not enough. An OpenCL or OpenGL programmer, for example, cannot seriously use them for his job; expecially without a ssh connection to a high performance desktop or a connection with some cloud computing server.

So, my opinion is that you can find a cheaper laptop, with adequate performance, and increase the number of laptop that you buy. Obviously, if the number of laptops is fixed, there is no advantage in a cheaper laptop, even if I think a bigger display can be useful.

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I do not think there's any appreciable difference. Both types of machines are able to perform the tasks you require more than adequately, and neither has a significant learning curve for students unfamiliar with the platform. I would choose the one that your IT staff has more experience supporting and the one that has the fewest associated costs.

If all costs really are equal, ask the students; they'll probably have a strong opinion one way or the other.

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Does your donor have a preference? Neither will look like good value for money, but Macs are sexy looking. What about buying Macs and dual booting them? This way your students can get experience in both environments.

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I don't think that there is technically a real difference between the two alternatives that you mention. Now, you have to find other ways to choose. I guess that buying macs can seduce prospective students easily (at least more than T420): "Hey Bob, do you now CS dpt XYZ? Sure Alice, this is the coolest on earth, they even give macbooks to their students...".

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Couple of reasons I would go with thinkpads are the following. Please keep in mind I have no CS background.

  • Longevity: thinkpads (particularly T series) have a good track record. They can be repaired, reused and upgraded. Apple computers are almost the opposite. A failure in a component often warants for an entire motherboard (since everything is soldered).

  • Thermals: Apple has terrible termals. Thinkpads are not particularly superb but they are still significantly better than apple computers. If any of your students needs to do something computation heavy for their research it will be benefical to have some thermal performance.

  • Rigidity: I don't know much about apple chasis materials but there is a cult around thinkpads' (reddit r/thinkpad) admiring their rigid, reliable construction. If you go in the afforementioned subreddit, you will see people ressurecting very old thinkpads. On the other hand a significant portion of Apple laptops are now under an extensive keyboard replacement program because their keyboards fail. They say it is a small portion of their keyboards but people around me seem to have this issue more often than they make it sound. And when their keyboards fail, it is absurdly long, expensive and hard to replace them. You do not want your students to go through keyboard issues in their busy periods (final weeks etc.).

  • Upgradability: As mentioned, Apple solders every component to their motherboards. Upgrades are near impossible. T series thinkpads usually have really upgradable motherboards. It is not uncommon to see thinkpad lovers using a 10 year old IBM thinkpad with the new CPU, rams, IPS screen and SSD they installed.

  • Repertuar: You have mentioned that you would like to give your students "environment close to how it is in the real world" but it is likely the case that they will need to be familiar with a good range of hardware and software. Certainly, thinkpads with linux is the less common choice between the two.

  • Hmmm. Longevity. My two main Mac computers were both built in 2012. No failures yet. And the older ones like mine are upgradeable. But thinness of the machine comes at a price. Usually in upgradeability. There isn't really room for both a socket and a chip in a really thin laptop. My spouse uses a 17" MacBook pro from 2011. No failures yet. Also pretty upgradeable. Pretty much everything in a laptop is a compromise and a balance of concerns. – Buffy Oct 5 at 14:57
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    @Buffy I really meant for more recent model laptops. I didn't realise the question was asked in 2012. One really interesting thing is the keyboard replacement program is extended to cover their new line of products. They in a sense admit their design is flawed yet won't change anything. They won't even change to an easy to replace design. – Boaty Mcboatface Oct 5 at 15:20
  • Yes, they sometimes do foolish things and need to back out of it. My comments are from 2019, of course. I've actually had good luck buying old (used and refurbished) mac products without reliability issues. I don't know if you'd trust other manufacturers to the same extent. – Buffy Oct 5 at 15:23
  • If you ever have time I would really suggest you to check subreddit r/thinkpad. They have great fun refurbishing / upgrading old computers. – Boaty Mcboatface Oct 5 at 15:38
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Debian or Ubuntu is much better for dev work than a Mac

There's open source software available for Linux that's not always available for Mac.

(I often see people running Linux in a virtual machine when programming in a Mac.)

Apple keyboard is no good for development

  1. The ctrl key is not on the expected location, i.e. lower left corner;

  2. There are no explicit PageUp and PageDown keys, and no RightCtrl;

  3. The shortcut to close an application is cmd - Q; and

  4. Touch bar in the case of MacBook Pro.

These are not minor details since during development shortcuts are heavily used in browsers as well as code editors.

(1) Anyone that has used a traditional keyboard knows the left ctrl to be in a particular position. Among other things you use it for copy/paste/move, select all, locate text, moving lines around in some editors, etc. Apple has decided to put the Fn key there instead. This leads to invoking the wrong shortcut and can be frustraing beyond words.

It is particularly terrible if you regularly use standard keyboards mixed with Apple keyboards; sticking to Apple-only stuff would probably help imprint the Apple locations for Fn and Ctrl in your brain.

Apple allows you to remap Fn to Ctrl but not the other way around; it is possible, though, with third-party software. But I have found this doesn't always work smoothly (in my case when dealing with virtual machines).

(2a) When we have multiple tabs opened in a browser or code editor we can use ctrl - PageUp and ctrl - PageDown to navigate the tabs. This is done a lot.

The Home and End keys are useful to navigate the browser editor screen and text.

Turns out Apple decided not to have explicit PageUp and PageDown keys. My iMac keyboard also doesn't have the Home and End keys. These can be simulated with the Fn plus arrow keys.

In a standard keyboard I can navigate tabs with a single hand using RightCtrl - PageUp and RightCtrl - PageDown without even thinking about it. In a Mac you have to twist yourself to press the function key with the left ctrl and then use the other hand to press the arrows. Makes me wonder whether Apple designers are Emacs users.

(2b) I mentioned at the beginning Mac users often use Linux in a virtual machine when they need it; or dual boot.

Ubuntu, one of the most popular Linux distributions, uses the GNOME desktop environment. To change workspaces we use WinKey - PageUp and WinKey - PageDown; or the equivalent version with the Command key in an Apple keyboard. As you can imagine the easy task of changing workspaces with a standard keyboard turns into a nightmare with the Apple keyboard layout because there are no explicit PageUp and PageDown keys.

The fallback shortcuts in this case are Ctrl - Alt - Up and Ctrl - Alt - Down which also change workspace.

(3) The shortcut to close the browser and all its tabs is Command - Q. This closes all your tabs. The shortcut to close a single tab is Command - W. Do you see a problem here?

The problem is Q and W are right next to each other. Closing a tab is something one does regularly. A single misstep and there go all your tabs. This is annoying to say the least when you have hundreds of tabs opened.

This is more of a problem with macOS and not with the keyboard. In Linux you use the more sane Alt - F4 and Ctrl - W shortcuts to respectively quit the application and close a tab.

(4) Touch bar is pretty and perhaps it's alright for most Mac users. When developing in Android Studio, for example, the symbols can turn into a little green hammer for building, etc. Fantastic. Thing is, we can already do this with F10; and, most importantly, without looking at the keyboard.

Pressing the F1 to F12 keys is problematic with the Touch Bar. Normal keys give you physical feedback. Not only can you feel where the key is, but you know when it has been pressed. This tactile feedback is gone with the Touch Bar.

Using vim, for instance, becomes rather complicated when you are unable to feel the Esc.

Computer ports

Apple has a serious issue with computer ports. They like to be different. And, I imagine, they like to sell adaptors.

  • Will the students use those laptops for presentations in class?

  • Will the students use those laptops for mobile development?

  • Will the students need to connect the laptop to a network using the ubiquitous RJ45?

  • Are there other peripherals the students might need to connect to the laptops, say a standard USB thumb drive?

If so, keep in mind the need to acquire a truckload of adaptors.

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    Sorry, I used apple's Mac products, including laptops, for many years (since 1985, actually) for development. You are expressing a preference only and are upset that the Mac provides solutions differently than what you are used to. This is a rant. It is fine to have a preference, but this is only that. It says nothing about the quality or usability of mac products. – Buffy Oct 5 at 12:07
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    I have met many programmers that will purchase personal machines and always choose Apple... They sort all the shortcuts they need and don't hav e a problem with ctrl+c or cmnd+c for copy etc... They said they like the build quality and stability... And I have Apple, having used and purchased various makes of pc , SGI machines, Sun spark stations etc – Solar Mike Oct 5 at 12:36
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    Actually, I've used everything from IBM big iron to Sun desktops to Windows (many many versions) to linux (several flavors). Hardware from several vendors. Apple (and macOS) always wins for writing and for development. Sorry. You are just ranting. – Buffy Oct 5 at 12:41
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    Note that you can buy a Mac and then still install Linux on it. Natively, not in a VM. – Federico Poloni Oct 5 at 13:13
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    @Daniel You can set shortcut equivalents for PageUp/PageDown. Your rant is somewhat ridiculous. Also, you can install almost any open-source software that runs on Linux through terminal, even without setting up an actual install (through a VM or as a dual boot, both are options). – Morgan Rodgers Oct 5 at 17:21

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