Choosing the right laptop for programming can be a tough process.
It’s easy to get confused while researching the various options. There are many different laptop models out there, each with a different set of trade-offs.
You can write code on most laptops. Yet, your productivity will improve if you use a machine suited to the type of tasks that you perform.
There are different types of development, and various tools are required with each specialization. So, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to buying a development machine.
I made the following assumptions in this article:
- You are a web developer
- Your laptop is your primary development machine
Here are some considerations before purchasing your next laptop.
Laptops come in all shapes and sizes. You need to figure out how portable you want your laptop to be.
If you do not need to carry your laptop around often, you might want to consider a 15-inch laptop. These will usually have better specs and more screen estate for multitasking.
If you work in different locations or travel a lot, a 13 or 14-inch laptop may be best for you. They are lighter and provide longer battery life.
Unless you’re buying a 2-in-1 laptop, a touchscreen does not provide enough benefits to justify the extra cost. I’d suggest you avoid the touchscreen.
A laptop’s screen one of its most important features, especially for programmers. Developing applications involves staring at the screen for long periods. You need to pay close attention to the details.
Most budget laptops ship with a 1366 x 768 display, which I consider to be mediocre at best. The display doesn’t have enough screen estate for multitasking. Also, the text isn’t sharp enough for you to have a comfortable reading experience.
A 4k display is overkill for a laptop, especially when you consider the added costs and the battery drain that you will encounter.
Whatever you do, don’t buy a laptop with less than a Full HD 1920 x 1080 (1080p) display. If you have to pay a little extra to get 1080p, do it.
Also make sure the display has good viewing angles; your laptop’s screen should not double as a mirror!
Processing Power (CPU)
Your laptop’s CPU has a huge influence on performance so you can’t afford to skimp on this one. There are many different types of processors with different specifications. Make sure to consider these specs. Some of the most important are cache size, number of cores, frequency, and thermal design power.
In general, a nice Intel core i5 or i7 processor with a frequency of 3GHz or more should suffice for most people.
I don’t think any serious programming can be done on a laptop with less than 4GB of RAM. My smallest RAM recommendation is 8GB. Even that is becoming barely enough with the advent of Electron apps, which love to consume large amounts of RAM. If you have extra cash lying around, invest in 16GB of RAM.
Storage type and capacity
Getting an SSD (Solid State Drive) should be near the top of your priorities. This will give you significant performance improvements over a standard hard drive. Every operation will be a lot faster with an SSD: including booting up the OS, compiling code, launching apps, and loading projects.
A 256GB SSD should be the baseline. If you have more money, a 512GB or 1TB SSD is better. If cost is a factor, opt for a smaller SSD, where your Operating System will live alongside your apps and frequently accessed documents (such as project files). Your remaining stuff, such as music or videos, can rest in a larger external hard drive.
You can’t afford to compromise on your laptop’s keyboard quality since it is what you’ll use to bang out code all day. I tend to go for laptops with a more compact keyboard layout.
The most important thing is to try out a laptop’s keyboard thoroughly before you buy. Make sure the keys are comfortable and easy to reach with good travel. A back-lit keyboard is useful if you intend to work in low-light conditions often.
Good battery life may not be all that important to you if you spend most of your time near a power outlet. Nonetheless, shoot for at least 6 hours of battery life.
Don’t rely on the expected battery life as stated by the manufacturer. Read third-party appraisals from reliable websites, and see what real users are saying about the product in forums and reviews.
Your choice of operating system will determine which laptop to buy to a large extent. Windows users have lots of options but if you prefer macOS, you’re limited to one of the Macbook offerings.
Linux will run on most hardware but it is better to buy laptops which have official Linux support. Some vendors, such as Dell and System 76, provide top quality machines with Linux pre-installed. You might want to look into those first.
Otherwise, do your research to make sure the laptop you intend to buy plays well with your preferred Linux distributions.
Dedicated or Integrated Graphics?
A dedicated (also known as discrete) graphics card isn’t very important for coding purposes. Save money by going with an integrated graphics card. Invest the money you save in an SSD or a better processor which will provide more value for the money.
I’d love to know what factors you consider to be most important for a development machine and how it affects your work on a day to day basis.