Desktop Computing Recommendations for Penn: 2014-2015

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 with 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 functionality with University-wide systems is maintained as necessary.

Students should consult with their School's computing department for recommendations for individually owned computers.

Key considerations for this year

Decisions regarding Windows 8.1 Update

Windows 8.1 Update is significantly more friendly to keyboard and mouse use than Windows 8 RTM or even Windows 8.1, but it is still not optimized for those input methods. There are reasons that individual Schools, Centers, and departments might choose to deploy Windows 8.1 Update on select systems, such as specific support considerations or image consistency across their product lines, but with the exception of systems that have touchscreens Windows 7 SP1 will remain the best choice for the majority of institutionally owned Windows systems for the coming year.

Considering alternate desktop delivery methods

For many areas and use cases at the University, desktop virtualization, thin client deployments, or application virtualization may serve to replace the traditional desktop. Support providers should carefully assess their environment before implementing any of these alternate desktop delivery methods, keeping in mind that cost savings on the client side are often offset by greater server and storage needs. In the absence of cost benefits, there are other Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) benefits related to support, security, and sustainability that may favor adoption of alternate desktop delivery methods for many use cases across the University.

Retiring operating systems

Windows Vista and OS X Snow Leopard (10.6) will be retired effective July 1, 2014. Please refer to the Operating System Life Cycles charts for ISC's long-term guidance on operating systems.

Desktop recommendations for general use

ISC's recommended configurations for new systems are shown below. Estimated prices are effective June 1, 2014, and are based on small form factor or all-in-one Dell OptiPlex (Windows) systems with three year next day warranty service or all-in-one Apple iMac (OS X) systems with one year next day warranty service. ISC will support these systems for four years, from July 1, 2014 until June 30, 2018.

  Windows OS X

Core i5 (any)

or Core i7 (any)1

Core i5 (any)

or Core i7 (any)1

Memory (RAM) 8.0 GB 8.0 GB
Storage 500 GB2 500 GB2
Display & Graphics

20-inch LCD3

discrete video card or 

Intel integrated graphics (HD4000 and above)

21.5-inch LCD3

discrete video card

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

optional DVD+R/CD-RW drive

80% efficient power supply

hardware-based systems management

optional DVD+R/CD-RW drive

80% efficient power supply

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

Windows 7 SP14or

Windows 8.1 Update5

see important notes 4 and 5 below

OS X Mavericks (10.9)6
Support Period Until July, 2018 Until July, 2018
Estimated Price $1,000 to $1,2507 $1,250 to $1,6007



  1. Processor speed is no longer considered important, but the class of processor (such as Core i5, Core i7, etc.) is. A more detailed University-centric perspective on 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, particularly those from Apple, ship in standard configurations with substantially larger (1.0 TB) 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 in order to avoid possible disclosure of sensitive data. Finally, support providers should consider hybrid/SSHD drives for price/performance reasons and may wish to consider SSD drives in some cases.
  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. Note that the OS X specification is driven by available iMac display sizes.
  4.  Windows 7 Service Pack 1 (32-bit and 64-bit Professional, Ultimate, and Enterprise editions) is recommended for new systems, with 64-bit being the default choice. Note that Windows 7 Professional includes all of the multimedia features present in Windows 7 Home Premium, and therefore is recommended as superior to Home Premium. 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. ISC does not recommend but will support the 32-bit and 64-bit versions of Windows 7 Home Premium Service Pack 1. 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. Windows 8.1 Update (32-bit and 64-bit Pro and Enterprise editions) is recommended for desktop systems with touchscreens. ISC does not recommend but will support the consumer version of Windows 8.1 Update, which lacks important networking, security, and compatibility features, such as domain-based authentication, that are essential to many Schools and Centers in the University.
  6. OS X Mavericks (10.9) is the only choice for new Macintosh systems as Apple's newly released systems always require the latest version of OS X. Apple's Boot Camp technology offers added flexibility for users who need to use Windows 7 Service Pack 1 or Windows 8.1 Update 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 OS X operating systems be patched and maintained.
  7. Pricing is generated using online configurators available from Apple, Dell, and Lenovo and is for general reference only. Support providers may be able to generate significantly more competitive pricing for volume purchases, often with the assistance of the University's Computer Connection.

A four year comparative history of the desktop recommendations is provided for reference.

In response to what is sometimes rapid technological change, ISC's Performance Desktop Purchasing Guide offers purchase recommendations for new systems that meet or exceed these specifications. Specifications are reviewed and updated when there are significant changes for performance systems.

Penn's requirements for desktops used to access the University's administrative systems are consistent with the recommendations for general purpose systems specified above. ISC maintains detailed information on the specific desktop environment requirements for administrative systems such as BEN Financials, the University's budget planning applications (Oracle EPM/Hyperion), and Webi/Business Objects. In general, ISC is comfortable with Windows 7 Service Pack 1 as the operating system of choice for administrative systems.

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 2013-2014 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 the 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 Apple and Dell now offer four year warranties. If a system will used for the full four year life cycle, these warranties (which typically add about $70 to the overall cost) often are appropriate. However, 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 by allocating 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 life cycle support

While ISC generally expects support for recommended operating systems to persist through the four year life cycle of the desktop recommendations, that often may not be possible. Please refer to the Operating System Life Cycles charts for long-term guidance on the University's supported operating systems.

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 remotely 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.

Ultra Low-Cost Desktops – not recommended

Price reductions resulting from market competition and continued technical innovation make definition of "Ultra 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 strongly discourages purchasing "Low-Cost Desktops" 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. ISC has certified low-cost enterprise-class systems for use at the University. However, 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.

Controlling costs

Controlling costs continues to be important, though other considerations also must be weighed to insure that business needs are met. 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).

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 kept 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: April 22, 2014 Tags: Hardware Recommendations, Lifecycles, Standards, Purchasing Guide, Desktop, Recommendations, Supported Product, Essentials

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