Is 8GB enough for a programming laptop?

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Is 8GB enough for a programming laptop?
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One of the most common questions that I see online about choosing your next programming laptop, is about just how much RAM do you really need so that you're not left stranded months after you've bought it.

And the answer is a bit tricky, because it definitely depends on a number of factors and every developer has different needs when it comes to their workflow. So today I'll break down my 2 cents on the topic, because I do use a laptop with 8GB daily as my primary work machine. But I also own a laptop with 16GB that I use for non-work projects. And I have thoughts on both.

The case for 8GB

The main reason why anybody would choose a laptop with 8GB of RAM (less than most phones) in this day and age is probably because of cost. Sometimes bumping up from 8GB to 16GB can increase the overall price by a few hundred dollars, and suddenly that cool looking $1000 laptop doesn't sound as cool at $1400.

That's why I personally went with 8GB on my Lenovo ThinkPad X1 a few years ago. The RAM is soldered on and thus, I've been stuck with 8GB for forever now.

And for the most part, it can handle any programming task that I toss at it just fine. Visual Studio and VS Code don't struggle when building, compiling or transpiling code in any way.

But when I'm working on web applications, things start to get dicey. Very dicey. Because as we all know, websites run on browsers. And browsers can be notorious resource hogs for whatever mystical reason that isn't clear. And this is definitely an area of frustration for me many a time.

I frequently find myself having to shut down browsers with all 50 of my tabs in order to clear up resources. But I never need to shut down my IDE's. They all just run smoothly with no hiccups typically.

I also use various database management applications, like DBeaver and SQL Server Management Studio and they tend to be open constantly on my machine. And they perform equally as well on my 8GB laptop as my 16GB machine.

But things start to lean towards worse if I'm using project management and communication applications, like Slack or Notion, which also tend to be resource heavy at times. At least on my machine. These can quickly take my laptop to 99% RAM usage interrupting my overall workflow.

It isn't the end of the world though. I typically am mindful about which apps I have launched, and so it isn't quite a problem for me personally.

So if you're just coding and working with a traditional tech stack with maybe a few browser tabs open, then from my experience 8GB is enough and you won't notice any kind of lag or degradation.

But if you require a few non-development apps in order to do your work, then opting for 16GB is probably the way to go.

The case for 16GB and up

Luckily for everyone, laptop's are getting cheaper and cheaper these days. My 16GB laptop is an ASUS Zenbook model with an AMD processor that I purchased sometime in the past year. Zenbooks are super portable, moderately powerful laptops that don't typically break the bank. 

You can find a newer model of my particular laptop on Amazon for a very reasonable $1199. Not only do you get a healthy 16GB of RAM, but you also get an OLED panel to go with it. And I will attest that the screen alone makes this a solid purchase for me.

The extra 8GB's though don't really improve my IDE or database work in any way. It's all mainly for the browser tabs, Slack and Notion. Those applications run without a hitch and I still have RAM to spare at the end of the day.

So the right choice is going to come down to your particular requirements in terms of applications and your work and your current budget.

But 8GB can still make for a very decent programming machine in the end, so it isn't the end of the world if you don't upgrade.

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.


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