Desktop Computing Recommendations for Penn: 2011-2012

Information Systems & Computing (ISC), in consultation with the Penn community, annually publishes recommendations for desktop computers. These recommendations reflect institutional and industry trends but do not necessarily take into account the computing requirements of specific Schools, departments, or Centers.

Before making purchasing decisions, administrators, faculty, and staff should always consult their Local Support Providers (LSPs) to ensure that local requirements are fulfilled. LSPs consider local costs and operational requirements, and are responsible for ensuring that connectivity to University-wide systems is maintained as necessary.

Students should consult their Schools with respect to recommendations for individually owned computers.

Key Considerations for This Year

Standardizing on Windows 7

Windows 7 should be the default choice for Windows deployments. It has proved to be stable and highly compatible with most University systems and Windows 7 Service Pack 1 improves that usability. Also, both Windows 7 and Windows Vista substantially increase the viability of using non-administrative accounts for general use purposes and thus enhance security.

Exploring Desktop Virtualization

For some areas and use cases at the University, desktop virtualization or thin client deployments may serve to adequately replace the traditional desktop. Support providers should carefully assess their environment for these alternate desktop delivery methods, keeping in mind that cost savings on the client side often are offset by greater server and storage needs.

Improving Sustainability

University IT staff are encouraged to continue adopting measures that promote "Green IT". One option for LSPs is to purchase small form factor or all-in-one desktops when possible — they use less power and significantly less materials than towers. The University's hardware vendors now offer high-efficiency (80% or higher - often branded as 80 PLUS) power supplies at little or no additional cost. For information on the relative power usage of modern desktops and notebooks commonly used at the University under various operating conditions, see the Computer Power Usage page.

Hardware-based systems management technology (examples are Intel Standard Manageability, iAMT, and VPro) offers the capability of booting from a completely off (not just sleep) condition. It allows Windows-based systems to save substantial energy and still be available for remote access, patching, and backup.

Controlling Costs

Controlling costs continues to be important in the current fiscal environment, though other considerations also must be weighed to insure that business needs are met. ISC has certified low-cost enterprise-class systems for use at the University, but these systems may not always be the best choice, as they often lack important manageability or configurability features. Please see ISC's Computing Hardware Resources page for detailed reviews of various desktop systems.

A cost and resource savings option already commonly employed at the University is to buy high quality displays with LED backlights every other life cycle instead of every life cycle. Another option is to bundle significant numbers of identical systems into a single purchase, often resulting in an additional discount from the system vendor (note that most desktop systems available from the University's Computer Connection already reflect bulk purchase pricing).

Desktop Recommendations for General Use

ISC's recommended configurations for new systems are shown below. Estimated prices are effective June 1, 2011, and are based on small form factor Dell OptiPlex (Windows) systems with three year next day warranty service or all-in-one Apple iMac (Mac OS) systems with one year next day warranty service. ISC will support these systems for four years, from July 1, 2011 until June 30, 2015.

Operating System Windows Mac OS

Core i5 (any)

or Core i7 (any)

or Athlon Phenom II (any)1

Core i5 (any)

or Core i7 (any)1

Memory (RAM) 4.0 GB 4.0 GB
Hard Disk 320 GB2 320 GB2
Display & Graphics

19-inch or 20-inch LCD3

discrete video card

21.5-inch LCD3

NVIDIA integrated graphics

or discrete video card

Sound Built-in audio & speaker Built-in audio & speaker

DVD+R/CD-RW drive

80% efficient power supply

hardware-based systems management technology

DVD+R/CD-RW drive

80% efficient power supply

Network Connection 10/100/1000BaseT Ethernet 10/100/1000BaseT Ethernet
Recommended Operating System

Windows 7 SP14

see important notes below

Mac OS 10.6.x5
Support Period Until July, 2015 Until July, 2015
Estimated Price $1,150 to $1,5506 $1,600 to $2,1006


  1. Processor speed is no longer considered important, but the class of processor is. A more detailed University-centric perspective on AMD and Intel processors is available from ISC's Processor Guide.
  2. Systems that use network storage for their entire life cycle may be deployed with smaller (i.e., 250 GB) hard drives. Some systems, in particular those from Apple, ship in standard configurations with substantially larger hard drives. An option, often called something like "Keep Your Hard Drive", allows the retention of a defective hard drive when receiving a replacement hard drive under warranty. This usually costs about $20 and is a good choice for many Schools and Centers.
  3. There is often significant variance in features, resolution, and display quality among LCD monitors of the same size. See ISC's Display and Graphics Guide for more information on LCDs and video cards.
  4. Windows 7 Service Pack 1 (32-bit and 64-bit Professional, Ultimate, and Enterprise editions) is supported and recommended for new systems. ISC does not recommend, but will support the 32-bit and 64-bit versions of Windows 7 Home Premium Service Pack 1. Home Premium lacks important networking, security, and compatibility features, such as domain-based authentication, that are essential to many Schools and Centers in the University. Note that Windows 7 Professional includes all the multimedia features present in Windows 7 Home Premium, and therefore is recommended as an alternative to Home Premium. ISC does not recommend and will not support any version of Windows 7 Starter or Windows 7 Home Basic. Starter and Home Basic lack many important networking, maintenance, and security features that are critical to many Schools and Centers at the University.
  5. Mac OS 10.6.x is the only supported and recommended choice for new Macintosh systems, as Apple's newly released systems always require the latest version of Mac OS. Apple's Boot Camp technology offers added flexibility for users who need to use Windows 7 occasionally. It should not be used to turn a Macintosh into a full time Windows system. Boot Camp requires that both the Windows and the Mac OS operating systems be patched and maintained.
  6. Pricing is generated using the online configurators available from Apple and Dell and is for general reference only. Support providers often can generate significantly more competitive pricing, often with the assistance of the University's Computer Connection.

In response to what is often rapid technological change, ISC's Performance Desktop Purchasing Guide offers quarterly purchase recommendations for new systems that meet or exceed these specifications. 

If your School, department, or Center is considering major changes or investments, ISC strongly recommends a consultation to weigh the pros and cons in today's rapidly changing environment (contact John Mulhern III in ISC,; x3-3567).

 Penn's administrative systems desktop requirements are consistent with the recommendations for general purpose systems specified above, with exceptions for BEN Financials and the University's budget planning applications (Oracle EPM/Hyperion). In general, ISC is comfortable with Windows 7 Service Pack 1 as the operating system of choice for administrative systems.

BEN Financials


Windows 7 Service Pack 1, Windows Vista Service Pack 2, and Windows XP Service Pack 3 are currently the only versions of Windows certified by Oracle, and Firefox version 3.x, Internet Explorer 7, and Internet Explorer 8 are the only browsers certified to work with Oracle.

Mac OS

Currently, all Macintosh users are able to access/view/markup invoice images in native Mac OS.

Macintosh users can use Apple's Boot Camp technology to run all BEN applications by booting into Windows 7 Service Pack 1, Windows Vista Service Pack 2, or Windows XP Service Pack 3 and using Firefox 3.x, Internet Explorer 7, or Internet Explorer 8. While it is possible for a Macintosh running VMware Fusion or other virtualization software with an appropriately configured Windows environment to run the BEN applications, such virtualization products are not certified by Oracle.

Oracle EPM/Hyperion


Windows 7 Service Pack 1, Windows Vista Service Pack 2, and Windows XP Service Pack 3 are currently the only versions of Windows certified by Oracle, while Internet Explorer 7 and Internet Explorer 8 are the only browsers certified to work with Oracle EPM/Hyperion. Firefox versions 3.0.x and 3.5.x were functional, but Firefox 3.6.x and 4.0.x currently do not function. Though the 64-bit versions of Windows are fully functional, 64-bit versions of Microsoft Office do not function with the SmartView add-in.

Mac OS 

Firefox versions 3.0.x and 3.5.x were functional, but Firefox 3.6.x and 4.0.x currently do not function. As of July 2011, Mac OS users can use older versions of Firefox 3.x.

 Several distinct categories of notebook systems are available, each designed to suit the needs of a particular class of users. Given the physical conditions to which they are often subjected, notebook systems generally have a shorter useful life than desktop systems (typically three years or less). Therefore, ISC provides support for three years for major brands of notebook systems that meet or exceed the 2010-2011 recommendations.

The current Notebook Purchasing Guide can help you determine which combination of features and capability will best serve your needs.

Extending Warranties

For computers with warranties of less than three years, ISC strongly recommends purchase of extended warranties when departments are not prepared to make repairs themselves, especially beyond the first year or two of a computer's useful life.

Manufacturers such as Dell now offer four year warranties, up from the fairly standard three years. If a system will be in use for the full four year life cycle, these warranties (which typically add about $70 to the overall cost) often are appropriate, though support providers should expect the rate of system failure in the fourth year to be higher than that in the first three years.

Another option is to self-insure for the fourth year — put the additional $70 per system that would otherwise be spent on warranty extension into a fund to fix or replace systems that fail during the fourth year of service.

Operating System Support 

While ISC generally expects support for recommended operating systems to persist through the four year life cycle of the desktop recommendations, that may not always be possible.

Note that Windows XP Service Pack 3 and Mac OS 10.5.x will face retirement within this current four year life cycle, with Windows XP Service Pack 3 expected to retire at the end of Fiscal 2012. Please refer to the Operating System Life Cycle charts for long-term guidance on the University's supported operating systems.

Low-Cost Desktops – Not Recommended 

Price reductions resulting from market competition and continued technical innovation make definition of "Low-Cost Desktops" a moving target. It is generally true that computers priced in the bottom 40% of the current range compromise some combination of performance, reliability, compatibility, expandability, and warranty period to achieve the lowest possible costs.

Bearing in mind that you get what you pay for, and since total costs of ownership associated with supporting any desktop system always far outweigh the actual purchase price, ISC does not recommend that "Low-Cost Desktops" be purchased for general use.

As an alternative, the Value Desktop Purchasing Guide offers recommendations for competitively priced systems that are compatible with Penn's computing environment and are widely supported on campus.

Further Information 

The Computer Connection offers Apple and Dell configurations that match the recommendations discussed above.

ISC provides information on supported computing applications, middleware, and operating systems.

All desktop systems should have important data backed up and be virus-free. Additional security information from the Office of Information Security can be found here.

The Office of Environmental Health and Radiation Safety provides information on computer ergonomics.


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Date Posted: July 1, 2011 Tags: Hardware Recommendations, Lifecycles, Standards, Purchasing Guide, Desktop, Recommendations, Supported Product

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