As a programmer, having the right tools is essential to your success. A good programming laptop can make a big difference in your productivity and the quality of your work. With so many options on the market, it can be overwhelming to try to find the perfect laptop for your needs. Here are a few things to consider when choosing the best programming laptop.
And just to note, my current daily driver is the Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Yoga because it hits almost all of the marks that I am going to mention below. You can read my thorough on that laptop over here.
The processor is the brain of your laptop, and it plays a big role in how well your laptop can handle tasks like compiling code and running simulations (if you're into that). Look for laptops with processors from top brands like Intel or AMD, and consider getting a laptop with a quad-core processor or higher for the best performance.
When it comes to Intel chipsets, I always recommend going with the latest generation as they typically offer better performance and increased overall battery life over its predecessors. You can get a big increase in performance by going from 10th gen to 11th gen, though you will pay a price for that boost.
However, much of software development involves spending large portions of time typing into an IDE, which is akin to a fancy text editor. And as most of us know, you don't need an enormous amount of processing power in order to type into a text editor.
Where performance does play a role here though is with the newest autocompletion and suggestion features that modern IDE's bring to the table. Because depending on the size of your application, those queries and searches can become very time consuming.
And with large applications, you will also have to deal with larger compilation times. If you're app is taking more than a minute to build, then consider a more power CPU. It isn't guaranteed to drastically improve your compile times, as much of that has to do with the efficiency of both your code and the compiler itself, but it potentially can offer an improvement.
I typically go for the mid-tier CPU options when available, such as an i5 versus an i7, in order to cut down on costs. And after years of developing everything from hobby projects to full stack applications for large corporations, I can safely say that I haven't felt let down by the performance of the i5 just yet.
It is also important to consider the number of cores and threads, clock speed, and memory support when choosing a CPU for programming. If you are working with large data sets or running multiple applications at the same time, you'll want a CPU with more cores and threads. A higher clock speed will provide better performance for single-threaded tasks, but it's not always a guarantee of better performance for multi-threaded tasks.
Memory, or RAM, is used to store data that your laptop is currently using or processing. When it comes to programming, more is usually better. Look for laptops with at least 8GB of RAM, and consider getting a laptop with 16GB or more if you plan on doing resource-intensive tasks like running virtual machines or working with large data sets.
The only real reason that I would recommend an 8GB machine over 16GB or more is if cost is a factor in your purchase decision. Because usually going up to a 16GB configuration can add a few hundred dollars to the overall price.
8GB is perfectly reasonable, if you aren't a huge multi-tasker, but if you're like me and you typically have 100 tabs open and 3 or 4 instances of visual studio running, then your 8GB will be used up almost as soon as you turn on your machine.
Overall, Windows is pretty good at allocating RAM however. I personally still have several 8GB laptops that I use for various projects and they've never really shown degradation. However I do have to deal with applications unloading from memory every so often and having to reload them constantly, which can definitely add a few minutes to your day.
However, I don't do any sort of high level gaming or video editing on these machines, and when I've tried, they pretty much crash almost immediately. So if you're going to be using your laptop for more than just writing code, consider a boost in your RAM needs.
DDR4 vs DDR5
When it comes to the types of RAM for a laptop, you will encounter either DDR4 (pretty common) or it's newer successor DDR5. And truth be told, as of this writing, many laptops that I find online are still rocking DDR4.
But if it fits your price point, it might be worth the upgrade, because DDR5 offers the following advantages:
- Higher data transfer rates: DDR5 memory can transfer data at twice the rate of DDR4 memory, which means it can provide faster performance for data-intensive tasks.
- More memory density: DDR5 memory can pack more memory into the same physical space, which means it can provide more memory capacity.
- Lower power consumption: DDR5 memory is designed to consume less power than DDR4 memory, which means it can reduce power consumption and heat generation.
However, DDR4 is still powerful enough to handle any development tasks that come your way. And you might get something at a more reasonable price.
Soldered vs Upgradeable
And lastly, when picking up a new laptop, you have the choice of either having the RAM cards soldered onto the board, in which case you won't be able to add any more, or you can select one with removable RAM cards.
If you're going with soldered for whatever reason, then I would highly recommend going with as much RAM as you can afford. Because a laptop can be a big investment and should ideally last you a number of years. And it's always better to have more RAM not being used, then to have no RAM left at all.
Storage is where you keep all of your files and programs. Solid-state drives (SSDs) are faster and more reliable than traditional hard drives, but they are also more expensive. If you can afford it, get a laptop with an SSD, but if not, make sure to get a laptop with at least 256GB of storage to ensure you have enough space for your programs and files.
External drives are cheap enough these days, where you can get away with having a smaller sized internal drive.
But I would not recommend anything below 256GB, because if you're on Windows, you know that the OS takes up a significant amount of the storage. And as a developer, you'll probably need to install a combination of the following:
- Visual Studio
- VS Code
- SQL Server / MySQL / PostgreSQL
- NodeJS / IIS / Apache
- Sublime / Notepad++
- Build tools
- Design tools
- And so on
And this isn't including your actual applications, which can each take up anywhere from 300MB to 1GB+ depending on the framework that you are using.
So either plan to pick up an external drive, (my personal choice) or pick up a laptop that comes equipped with 750GB+.
Screen size and resolution
As a programmer, you will likely be spending a lot of time reading small font code, so it is important to have a good display. Look for laptops with screens that are at least 14 inches and have a resolution of 1920 x 1080 or higher.
Resolution is important because often times you will be looking at large chunks of code that can span multiple scrolls and it can become tedious to constantly keep scrolling up and down just to get the full context of the logic.
And depending on your particular job tasks, you might find yourself doing a fair amount of design work, particularly if you're a web developer. I personally spend a good chunk of my development time staring at a code editor followed by the resulting markup and in the design world, pixels matter.
So if you're working on the design of a project, having a screen with good color accuracy is important. This is why you often times see designers working with Macs, as they offer very good color accuracy overall.
Keyboard and trackpad
Most developers that I know use some type of either office, or gaming mouse as their daily drivers. But if you're like me and find yourself going from meeting to meeting with laptop in tow, then you're going to want a responsive trackpad.
A good keyboard and trackpad are essential for programming, as you're constantly highlighting chunks of code to copy/paste. Look for laptops with comfortable, responsive keyboards and trackpads, and consider getting a laptop with a backlit keyboard for easier typing in low light environments. However, if your tough typing skills are strong, then you can probably opt out of needing a backlight.
Some of the best keyboards for office workers / developers / writers / etc are found in Lenovo laptops. They have great key travel and are spaced out well enough where don't have to modify your hand position too much in order to maintain high accuracy.
If you plan on taking your laptop with you on the go, it is important to consider its weight and size. Look for laptops that are lightweight and have a slim profile, but make sure not to sacrifice too much performance in the process.
Typically, ultra portable laptops can come with powerful CPU's, but they fall short when it comes to cooling. And a hot CPU isn't going to perform as well as a liquid cooled one.
And ultra portability usually means a smaller battery as well. So finding the right balance between size and efficiency is crucial if you're looking to travel far with needing to be tied to a wall outlet.
Microsoft's Surface Pro line offers some of the best laptops when it comes to portability. Typically weighing less than a book and coming in thinner than most notebooks, it's definitely a take anywhere device. But, it's battery life is decent at best based on various online reviews.
If you're a Mac person however, then you will have better luck. Apple's M1 and M2 laptops have consistently scored very high in terms of both performance and battery life and that's still something that's relatively rare in the Windows ecosystem.
Programming laptops can range in price from a few hundred to several thousand dollars. Determine your budget and look for laptops that offer the best value for your money. Don't be afraid to spend a little extra for a laptop with a better processor or more memory, as these features can have a big impact on your productivity, especially if you plan on using your machine for years.
On the lower end, you can find plenty of Lenovo laptops that come equipped with latest-gen processors, 16GB of RAM, 512GB SSD's and FHD displays for under $1000. However, don't expect them to be the smallest and lightest laptops with MIL-spec standards.
Somewhere in the middle, you can look to spend around $1200 for a decently powered and portable laptop with good battery life and with some level of sturdiness. Typically these are made from stronger and lighter materials then their cheaper counterparts.
Last few words
In conclusion, choosing the best programming laptop requires careful consideration of your needs and budget. Look for laptops with powerful processors, plenty of memory and storage, good displays, and comfortable keyboards and trackpads. Don't be afraid to spend a little extra for a laptop that meets your needs, as a good programming laptop can make a big difference in your productivity and the quality of your work.
Walter Guevara is a software engineer, startup founder and currently teaches programming for a coding bootcamp. He is currently building things that don't yet exist.