Choosing the ideal laptop for hacking and penetration testing is a difficult process and usually depends on your specific hacking needs and tools. Are you into war driving and hacking WiFi hotspots on the run? Or maybe your laptop mostly stays home and you run time-intensive brute force attack programs? What processor and graphics technologies are your password cracking programs able to take advantage of? How often do you rely on time-memory tradeoff techniques to recover passwords? Is this your main hacking platform or do you SSH into another machine? All of these questions will be relevant to choosing the best hacking machine for you.
Performance is the most critical measurement for most hacking applications. Password cracking is a CPU-hungry operation and most hackers will require access to a top-of-the-line computer in order to run their password recovery applications. You will also need to make sure that you meet the minimum requirements to run your favorite auditing software and operating systems, whether that be Backtrax 5, Kali, or something else.
If you intend to do any password cracking on this machine at all, you will probably want a laptop with a minimum of an i5 or i7 processor. These processors have multiple cores to ensure that your password recovery programs run as quickly as possible while still being power efficient. If you have the budget for it (usually > $2000), you can even buy a cutting edge Xeon processor. However, make sure that your hacking programs have multithreading capabilities or the majority of your processor speed will be wasted. If your password cracking program supports GPU acceleration, you will want to buy a laptop with a top-of-the-line GPU since these processors easily trump traditional processing cores for most hacking applications.
There are more and more cracking tools emerging with multithreading and GPU-acceleration capabilities, including Hydra and Hashcat. However, if you do not have multithreaded hacking programs, you will want to look for the laptop with the highest possible clock rate per core (in GHz), even though those processors are usually far less energy-efficient than processors with a slower clock rate and more processing cores. Furthermore, if you have no GPU-accelerated hacking programs it is better not to invest in an expensive GPU, since even a basic GPU can run most games and there is little other need for GPU performance in hacking.
Unless you have pressing demands for massive amounts of storage, you will want to buy a laptop with SSD storage. These drives are much faster and more energy efficient than traditional spinning disk drives. If you use time-memory-tradeoff techniques for password recovery, you will likely be ahead to store your small to medium-sized hash tables on a faster SSD. Your rainbow/ rtgen/ ophrack tables will load into the RAM almost instantly, whereas a spinning disk drive can take several minutes to load each new hash table. If you have very large hash tables or multiple tables with different hash types, you may want to look into a hybrid HDD/ SDD laptop. This will allow you to store your larger tables on the (bigger and cheaper) spinning disk drive and transfer them to the faster SDD drive depending on that day’s hacking needs and hash algorithms.
Ram requirements will vary wildly depending on your hacking requirements. If you are doing simple MitM attacks, wardriving, and network sniffing, you can get by on a minimum of RAM (even under 4GB). Even most password crackers depend more heavily on the processor than the RAM. If you are using time-memory tradeoff techniques, you want to make sure that your RAM is larger than your individual hash table sizes by at least one or two gigabytes. A minimum of 4GB RAM is recommended for Rainbowcrack. If you don’t have enough RAM to hold your entire hash table in memory at once, you will take a major hit in the performance advantage of this technique since your computer will have to load the files from the hard drive in small fragments. Once you have met those requirements, there is usually no need to invest in massive amounts of RAM.
However, if your hacking technique requires running virtual machines, then RAM will definitely be a valuable commodity. Virtual machines are exceptionally RAM hungry, and 4GB of RAM is hardly enough to run two virtual machines. Upgrading from four to eight gigabytes of RAM is very affordable anymore, so if your work often requires VMs then you might as well look into this option. If you are willing to invest over $900 in your hacking laptop, you may even look into buying 16GB of RAM.
Depending on your hacking practices, performance may not be nearly as important as portability. This is especially true if you have VNC or SSH access to a powerful hacking server. Many hackers will invest in a password cracking supercomputer which they leave at home and a more lightweight laptop. Desktop computers usually deliver much more powerful components then you would ever find in a laptop for far cheaper and they also provide much greater opportunity for upgrading in the future. If you have access to such a cracking machine and you are looking for a laptop for simple wardriving, network traffic sniffing, and MitM attacks, then you will want to focus on battery life and weight.
Less powerful components will often actually consume less power, allowing your battery to last longer. For example, the Intel i5 is usually more power-efficient than the i7. Processors with slower clock rates (in GHz) with more individual processing cores will reduce heat and prevent you from wasting your battery running the fan. An entry-level graphics card will suffice for most basic gaming and save significant energy over a high-end Nvidia with hundreds of individual processing cores. If you are looking to save battery life, always invest in SSD storage. SSD flash-based storage is far more energy efficient than traditional drives which spin heavy magnetic discs at some 7-10,000 rpm.
Using more lightweight components in terms of both performance and physical weight will also make it easier to lug your laptop around on a wardriving expedition. If you are willing to go without the more advanced GPUs and fan-cooled processors, you will save on battery life and you can even reduce your laptop’s weight to under three pounds.
The Best Laptops for Hacking
Now that we’ve gone over the basic computer requirements for hacking, what actually are the best laptops for hacking?
For the wardriver or mobile hacker looking for a decently powerful laptop with a long-lasting battery, the Asus Zenbook UX360CA wins the prize. Incredibly flexible in its usage, this laptop can easily transform between notebook, tablet, and tent modes for use not only as a hacking machine but for other entertainment as well. Coming in at only three pounds, this lightweight laptop has 6.5 hours of battery life. Despite being a lightweight, it features 8GB of RAM, a decently fast M3-6Y30 processor, and a 500GB SSD drive. Asus Zenbook’s stats are more than sufficient for network traffic collection, MitM, and basic dictionary attacks. The fast 500GB SSD drive will even let you save a decently-sized hash table for TMT attacks.
If you are looking for a faster processor on a tight budget, you may want to look at the Dell Inspiron i7559-763BLK. The quad-core i5 processor is really the bare minimum if you are looking to run any in-depth brute force password cracker, and the dedicated GPU also allows for hardware acceleration. The smaller 250GB SSD can easily be supplemented with a 2.5” SSD or HDD drive in the second upgrade port.
Breaking the $1,000 budget mark are the higher-end Lenovo ThinkPad Edge E560, Eluktronics P640RE, and Razer Blade. The Lenovo features 500GB HDD and a 500GB SSD—a good balance of speed and storage space on a medium budget. The entry-level i7 processor provides strong performance while maintaining a 5.5-hour battery life. The Eluktronics comes with a high-end i7 processor and a powerful Nvidia GPU for hardware acceleration. A 1TB SSD ensures you won’t run out of space and can store even the largest hash tables for use on the go. The Eluktronics is one of the most powerful hacking computers you can buy with a budget under $2,000. If you are using the CPU and GPU at full load for a long time, however, you will want to monitor the temperature as the Eluktronics runs hot.
If you are looking for the most powerful hacking laptop money can buy and your budget is not a pressing issue, the Razer Blade is a password cracking paradise. With a top-of-the-line i7 processor and one of the fastest GPUs on the market, you will have a hard time getting better raw cracking performance out of a laptop. Furthermore, you can upgrade the 16GB to 32GB of RAM with the extra RAM slots. You can brute force over 570 million passwords/ second on the GPU alone and use the 8-threaded i7 processor to scan even the largest hash tables stored on your 1TB SSD. However, the Razer Blade can cost you north of $2,400 and may not be the best choice for everybody.
So be sure to draw up a list of your requirements and choose the laptop best suited to your hacking needs. Knowing where you need power and where you don’t can save you from paying for features you don’t need and even sacrificing battery life and mobility. Whatever laptop you buy, be sure to look for upgrade potential as you hacking needs or niche may change over the years.