I’ve been a full-stack web developer for past 4 years and as a laptop-obsessed person, I’m glad whenever I get asked what is the best laptop for web development and programming. That’s because I can recommend the stuff I’d buy instead of going through the regular train of thought of “this would be great for me, but I guess this person won’t need that much RAM/SSD/GHz/etc”. And in this post, I’ll guide you on how I’d choose a laptop for web development and which laptops are the best options right now.
What are we looking for in a web development laptop?
What is essential for the best laptop for web development?
Major requirement SSD Storage
Solid State Drives took the laptop market by storm. They outmatch their older HDD counterparts in nearly every criteria.
Any web developer can easily appreciate the main advantage of an SSD – ability to handle a lot of small files. This is relevant every day when you need to search for that one function or when you need to refactor your project. These days nobody needs to be sold the idea that the SSD is your only choice if you’re spending over $1000 for a laptop.
The main problem with SSDs – their lack of storage can get out of hand quickly depending on the projects you’re working on. Every git commit and every new set of front-end graphics chips away at the usually very limited storage size until you find yourself cleaning your system for every last byte. For most, this means that you’ll need either to get a laptop with a large enough SSD to begin with or you’ll need to upgrade to a larger internal/external drive.
To understand what are your options, I’ll list out what should you expect within a given price range:
- Under $800: 1 TB HDD
- $800 to $1100 – 250 GB SSD
- $1100 and above – 500 GB SSD (sometimes + 1 TB HDD)
These are mostly lines in the sand to get a sense where the laptop market is right now. For example, there are some custom-upgraded laptops for $800 that come with 1 TB SSD and there are laptops over $2,000 that still don’t have one. But 90% of the laptops, especially the best ones with a balanced set of specs, do conform to these guidelines.
You could get a cheaper non-SSD model and upgrade it later on. Right now, 250 GB cost ~$90, 500 GB cost ~$150 and 1 TB are ~$330. Prices jump a bit when you consider PCIe M.2 drives that are even faster (not to be confused with SATA III over M.2 that offers no speed improvement).
Getting some external storage over USB 3.0 or Thunderbolt III is also a viable option. These days, USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt III (usually implemented with USB 3.1 Type C) offer great read/write speeds. They’re so good that putting all your code on an external drive is a good option. Though, I wouldn’t prefer it as there are some inconveniences when connecting multiple external devices or when switching to a different USB port.
Some 15.6″ and 17.3″ laptops could be upgraded with a very cheap $50-$60 1 TB HDD which could be used to store mostly static resources, personal media, and archives when the OS and all code sits on a smaller SSD.
Major requirement Processor and RAM
There’s no debate about it – 8 GB should be your minimum requirement for RAM. And looking forward, I’d advise getting 16 GB. Web development can demand a large set of tools that are not very memory efficient, to say the least. Sometimes it seems that a new blank tab on Chrome eats up 100 MB by itself.
Whether you’re rocking a LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP/Python/Ruby), a MEAN (MongoDB, Express, AngularJS, Node) or a Java setup, there’ll be plenty of things to eat your RAM reserves.
This problem can be made a lot worse if you’re a “tab freak” like me. If your open tab counter doesn’t drop below 10 for the most of your day – 8 GB might not be enough to avoid old tab refreshing.
16 GB of RAM is the norm in laptops above $1000. But there are a few delightful exceptions below that price point.
Again, nearly all 15-inch and 17-inch and some 13-inch models can be upgraded to 16 GB. But it would be best to find a notebook which doesn’t need an upgrade.
Intel Core i7 models are ubiquitous. The majority of laptops above $720 come with an i7 processor and with a good reason. Intel split i7 processors into 2 series: U (lower-end i7 with Ultra-low power consumption) and HQ/HK (high performance, HK being unlocked and the faster one of these two). Therefore, unless you’re restricted by your under-$800 budget, you should only consider Intel Core i7 CPUs.
What you should expect at every price range:
- up to $750: i3-6100U, i5-4300U, i5-4210H, i5-5200U, i5-6200U
- $750 – $1000: low-end i7: i7-5500U, i7-6500U,
- $1000 and above: higher-end i7: i7-4720HQ, i7-5700HQ, i7-6700HQ
Major requirement Screen
Panel and resolution
In most general terms, there are 2 types of panels out there in the majority of laptops: IPS and TN. Nobody needs to know what they actually mean or how they work (there’s wiki on IPS for that or a Linus video).
IPS panels are the SSDs of the display market. They’re a great improvement over TN panels due to their wider viewing angles and a deeper color range and contrast (for the most part). Whenever a laptop has an IPS panel, it is usually stated in its description as its one of the main selling points.
So, get an IPS panel and I have nothing to worry about? Eh, I just wish things were so easy. Sometimes there are non-brand IPS-like screens that outperform some IPS displays. These were a bit more common in 2014-15 when most consumers did not know what IPS meant. Then, some manufacturers did not want to pay IPS licensing fees for LG.
Also, there are some displays with the cheapest IPS panels that are barely any better than a decent TN display. To make these things clear, we’ll need to look into 3 main screen metrics to figure out how good any given screen actually is.
Brightness, contrast and color gamut
To save everyone’s time, I’ll just drop down the specs we’re looking for:
- brightness (max): 300+ nits (cd/m)
- contrast: 850:1 or stronger
- sRGB coverage: 80% or more
Be aware that the screen quality is usually the first one to suffer when a manufacturer has to cut costs. Therefore, often cheaper laptops, especially with 15 or 17-inch displays, will not have a good screen.
What would be nice-to-have?
Minor requirement Lightweight
Weight is primarily linked with the size of a laptop but there can be 2 times the weight difference between the lightest and the heaviest laptops in the same size category.
|Weight, lbs (kg)|
|13-to-14-inch||2.2 (1.0)||3.0 (1.4)||4.5 (2.0)|
|15-inch||3.9 (1.8)||5.0 (2.3)||7.5 (3.4)|
|17-inch||6.0 (2.7)||7.5 (3.4)||10.5 (4.8)|
I do not prioritize battery life. But I will give a big leg up for laptops with 5 hours of battery life or more. It’s especially helpful whenever going to workshops, coding meetups and conferences. The absolute best laptop for web development would be light but for many programmers, this is not a crucial need. That’s why it’s a minor requirement and can be, at least somewhat, ignored to get a better deal.
Minor requirement Good keyboard
Backlit keyboard is a nice addition to round out a laptop. Though, it might be entirely an optional addition to a laptop as most web devs are touch typists anyways.
Finally, as Lenovo has moved to their own variation of chicklet keyboards, most keyboards look and feel about the same. I do appreciate a good keyboard – whenever I can, I plug-in a mechanical keyboard even when working on a laptop. But even I don’t notice too big of a difference in keyboards in modern laptops.
What are the best laptops for web development
The first and the least expensive option I’d recommend is this 13-inch Dell Inspiron. Also, this is the smallest notebook on my list.
Overall, it is one of the absolute cheapest laptops to offer an i7 processor. Sadly, there is no SSD in this one. At the same time, there are no well-rounded options with an SSD at this price range, so asking for an SSD might be a bit much. But Dell somewhat addresses this issue. Inspiron comes with a hybrid hard drive. That means it has an SSD-like buffer of memory which makes a big difference when dealing with OS boot-up times. These hybrid drives (SSHD) are a good compromise for a budget laptop.
Next up, is the opposite of the Dell Inspiron – HP Envy 17t. This model would suit you best if you need a desktop-replacement workstation and you’d love a lot of screen space. If getting an external display limits you too much, 17.3″ laptop is a great way to still have enough screen estate to comfortably split the display into 2 or 3 areas. I find it a bit more problematic when working with medium-sized laptops.
This laptop makes a few reasonable compromises in order to keep itself under $1,200. Firstly, it has a large enough SSD for all needed software for web development and for a few projects you’re currently working on. At the same time, you’re likely to end up storing your personal media, games and your project archives on the spacious 1 TB HDD. I am working with this setup right now. Not going to lie, 90% of the time my SSD stays 90% full and I have to move my older downloads to the HDD from time to time. But overall, 250 GB is enough for web development – I am still able to store all of my codebase and all my tools on the SSD.
I presented this laptop as a desktop replacement and that usually means you should not expect it to be suited for carrying around. But this model has a surprisingly good battery life of ~7h 30min on WiFi.That is very rarely found on workstation-level 17-inch laptops. It is also one of the lighter which makes it less of a pain to carry than nearly any other 17″ laptop.
This is one of my favorite ZenBooks and the best one for web development. First of all, it has great specs – performance-oriented i7-6700HQ processor, 16 GB of RAM, 500 GB of PCIe SSD and a dedicated mid-range graphics card. It also doesn’t skimp on the qualitative benchmarks – it has a bit above-average battery life and its screen is gorgeous (though the average brightness of 250 nits is not ideal for outdoor use).
Asus ZenBooks, just like Dell XPS laptops, are very common in the programming world. That means there’re plenty of guides on how to make them work with your favorite Linux distro. You could even make a hackintosh out of it.
If you’re not going to develop on Linux, you should seriously consider OS X. I love Windows more than almost any other guy. But you have to consider that Windows is not ideal for working on the web. Especially, if you’re a front-end developer, a MacBook might be your best choice since it offers as many (if not more) graphic design tools as Windows while still giving enough options for development like Linux distros.
This MacBook is the one I’d recommend simply because of its performance. Apple’s notebooks are not a great deal for their specs for the most part, but their top-of-the-line models pack very similar hardware to other competing brands. If you’d like to have the closest thing to a MacBook while still staying true to Windows/Linux combo – Dell XPS 15 would be your best bet.
If you’re a student, check out the regularly updated Computer Science laptop guide.