Meanwhile, programming is more than just a hobby to me – it’s my primary job. I have been working mostly on my laptop for the past 5 years and I take my time when upgrading my hardware. That’s why I didn’t want to rush out a guide for best developer laptop.
In this post, I’ll guide you through my train of thought while looking for the best programming laptop, which developer laptops I recommend and why.
What is your coding lifestyle?
Before you proceed, you should evaluate how you see yourself using this laptop.
Here’s a little graph I made for locating what laptop category should match your needs.
Programming laptop comes down to two key requirements – performance and mobility. If you need only one of them – congratulations – you’re in the clear! There’s quite a few great programming laptops if you don’t try to “have it all”. But if you need performance and portability – well… finding the best one won’t be easy, especially if you’re on a tight budget (under 1300$).
- Powerhouse – Performance is everything
- Convertible/hybrid/2-in-1 – Flexibility is my top priority
- Classic laptop – Balanced laptop with great value
- Ultrabook – I’ll pay extra for the best of both worlds
For example, laptop for me is my main workstation. That’s why I prefer having superb performance (so no
convertibles and regular laptops). I also lean towards having a lot of screen space for multiple windows and I don’t mind adding 1-2 pounds of weight if that gives me significant performance boost (so no ultrabooks). Finally, I live/work in 3 different cities throughout the year and having a dedicated external monitor setup for each place just isn’t practical. That’s why I have 17.3″ laptop though 15.6″ laptop wouldn’t too bad if it had enough juice in it.
From my experience, a laptop for programming depends on what kind of a developer you are:
- Coding on a laptop – bulky and powerful laptop (15″ – 17″)
- Coding on a dedicated PC/Mac – ultrabook for coding on the go (13″ – 15″)
Requirements for the best programming laptop
Hard requirement At least FHD resolution
I mercilessly eliminated laptops under Full HD (1920×1080) if they’re over 14″. I did that because:
- FHD screens are only marginally more expensive than not-FHD
- It provides more flexibility if you work with graphics or UI
- It simply looks better
- It’s 2015
Hard requirement At least 8 GB of RAM
With RAM prices slowly falling and Chrome tabs piling up – extra memory will definitely come in handy.
Apart from that, having a healthy RAM overhead will let you get away with way more stuff running at the same time.
From my experience, any amount of delay while switching between tasks can quickly kill productivity. That’s why I have all my tools and processes running all the time in the background. Apart from the tools I work with I have Apache & MySQL, Node.js & MongoDB, multiple Ruby and Python processes and hundreds of files being monitored for automated compiling in the background.
But even for what I listed, 8 GB should be enough. So why you might need more?
- A few heavyweight environments i. e. Visual Studio
- Way-way-way too many tabs in browser/IDE
Combine that with technology (and sometimes even workplaces) changing quickly – you might not be able to say that you won’t need 12 GB of RAM in the next 2-3 years.
Hard requirement SSD or 1 TB of storage
SSDs have drastically shaken up the laptop market – everyone is jumping on the SSD boat (and soon it will happen with M.2/PCIe drives).
That’s because SSDs thrive when they’re faced with a lot of small files. In other words – exactly what most of you and I are dealing with every day Anything close to “the best developer laptop” would have it.
Unless you’re looking for a cheap Chromebook for your favorite Linux distro, you probably can afford 1 TB HDD or 256 GB SSD. Luckily, fast internet, on-demand media and cloud storage helped SSDs to overtake HDDs – excessive storage now isn’t a requirement for most people – even developers.
There’re a few ways to solve this problem. Most obvious – throw money at the problem until it disappears. Ain’t that fun! Just get yourself a 500/1000 GB SSD or 2 drives: an SSD for OS/software/code while leaving games/downloads/media on a separate HDD. If you’re not sure – get a large enough laptop (15.6″/17″) that has multiple SATA/mSATA/M.2 connections allowing you to add more storage if needed.
Most of the laptops I’ve included in the suggestion list have an SSD – this investment pays great dividends in performance and general user experience. Though, many of the models here come with various drives; therefore you can opt-out from SSD hype-train if you want to.
If you have enough money to live on the “cutting-edge”, you could go for SSD through PCIe (or M.2). These SSDs have the best response time and random reads/writes compared to any SATA III drive.
Worth noting, if you’re a programming student, not getting an SSD is still one of the ways how you could save money. In university and your codebase will stay lean and fast to navigate even under non-SSD disk so don’t sweat it if you’re afraid you’ll have to lay down 1000$+ just to start writing code.
Soft requirement Modern processor
You can’t spell Computing without CPU.
In all seriousness, having a decent processor is important but definitely not as important as it was 3 or 5 years ago. These days you don’t NEED a high-end CPU to crunch your code.
Whether you need a top-of-the-line CPU depends entirely on what you’re going to work on. Obviously, if you’ll need to deal with C-ish type programming languages all the time or you work on video/audio – don’t cheap out on a processor – it’s probably the most important part for your work. But for almost everyone else – from web developers to computer science students – having mid-range CPU is entirely OK.
That’s why I simply discarded only the low-end processors that are truly not capable of providing anything close to comfortable coding.
Soft requirement Dedicated graphics card
Making bad suggestions on what laptop to buy is getting harder every year. Remember the times when integrated graphics were beyond terrible and would stutter even when playing an HD video?
2012 2013 2014? Yeah, during that pre-historic era.
Luckily for all of us, integrated graphics are getting a lot better with every generation (basically a fancy way to say “every year”). For example, HD 6000 is as good as dedicated mobile graphics cards were 3 years ago (that’s actually pretty good compared to what Intel used to offer).
If you’ll work with game development/3D rendering, having a dedicated graphics card should be a priority.
Just don’t get caught up believing you need a workstation-grade graphics card like Nvidia Quadro. No, you don’t. And if you’ll need it, your workplace most likely will provide you with a top-notch machine which would blow out of the water anything a laptop could offer.
The last thing to note – you’ll most certainly need a dedicated graphics chip if you’ll be playing new-ish games.
Soft requirement Long battery life
This requirement depends A LOT on your lifestyle and which of the previously mentioned notebook types would fit you best.
If you want a desktop replacement and you don’t see yourself using it outdoors, on the go or in lectures – then don’t bother about it. I myself fall into this category. Either I’ll be working close to a the power socket or I don’t REALLY need a laptop on that occasion. In my case, battery life is not a priority – it’s just a “nice-to-have”.
On the other side of the spectrum, you’ll find everyone who needs a day-long battery life. Not many laptops can reach this, especially if you don’t fancy dropping screen brightness to its minimum. In this case, you’ll need to open your wallet if you want to have a high-end component.
And if you’re in a mood of making compromises – look for 5-6 hours of battery life with Wi-Fi.
Optional requirement IPS Panel
- TN panels – those old-ish screens that require sitting right in front of them to see color accurately
- IPS panels – just picture a screen of an Apple device
IPS panels are superior to TN panels in every meaningful way. That’s why, just like SSD drives, they have become the industry standard and you clearly should get one… unless you’ve a really limited by your budget and would rather spend every penny on hard metal like CPU, GPU and RAM.
Ah TN panels, we’ll miss you… but not in a good way. More in a rotary phone type of way.
How I compiled the list
To compile (heh) this list I went through 30 top Google results on best laptop for developers, new arrivals in mainstream shops and a researched list of laptops that will be released. Also, I went through my older posts and checked if there’re laptops worth pulling into this post.
Most laptops were not included based on them not passing basic requirements and/or bad reviews or common problems with particular models.
After that, I simply went through their specs, benchmarks, battery life test results and screen brightness/contrast measurements.
Then I added all of them to a sheet, applied some dank math and calculated how every laptop measures up against every other. You can view and comment this spreadsheet now. Or if you’re really cool, you can download it in JSON.
After that comparison, I evaluated best laptops one by one – checking reviews, model-specific characteristics and their Linux compatibility.
It sometimes surprises me how many (especially young) developers have a bitter taste in their mouths when a MacBook is mentioned. I sympathize with their point-of-view as I myself was raised in an all-PC and all-Windows household. It somehow seemed that why would anyone bother buying a Mac, when PCs are that much cheaper, they are easy to upgrade and they dominate the software market? Why would you ever get a Mac over the PC master race?
Many coders hold MacBooks as best laptops for coding. And they might not be exaggerating – Mac OS is really good when it comes to development. Their environment is very similar to Linux (as both are based on UNIX), they have a lot of development tools (many of them are Mac OS exlusives) and they are friendly for developers and regular users.
Also, you might simply NEED a Mac for developing iOS apps. You could develop on a Hackintosh but that might be too troublesome in many cases (and it is against their End User License Agreement).
In many cases as a developer you’ll end up choosing another OS over Windows. Unless you’re working with Microsoft stack (i.e. C# developers) – you’ll find Linux/Mac OS easier to work with in the long-run.
And if you’ll likely be moving to another OS, why not just go straight for a MacBook?
Overall, MacBook Pro scored the most of all the laptops in this list. Does that mean it’s the best developer laptop? Not quite. It’s also the most expensive one and for sure it’s not the best pick if you’re concerned about the price.
It covers all bases: amazing performance, stunning Retina screen and a well above average battery life. Surprisingly – weight is the only category where you can clearly find better laptops in this list – but all of them simply have smaller screens.
MacBook Pro 15 for programming
If you’re going for a MacBook – you might as well go for the best one. Anyone who’s on the MacBoat and has the pockets deep enough – should set their eyes on it.
To whom I wouldn’t recommend this MacBook Pro? To those who don’t want to spend over 2000$ for a laptop. Duuhh! What’s next Einstein? Well, if you want an amazing 15″ MacBook – it’s a great pick and not just because it’s a Mac.
If you simply need a fast and light MacBook Pro and you see no reason to pay extra for the best MacBook out there – this is laptop was designed for you.
This laptop can be compared side-by-side to Asus Zenbook ultrabooks. Particularly UX303LB model. In this case, it is very clear that you’re paying ~500$ extra for Mac OS and a few small things that Apple has perfected (like trackpad).
MacBook Pro 13 for programming
Another MacBook Pro? Why not MacBook Air? Why not recently released 12″ MacBook?
In simple terms – other MacBooks suck. Let me explain. MacBook Air and 12″ MacBook each cost ~1200-1300$ which is not that cheaper than this model.
12″ inch model still seems a bit too restrictive for a developer laptop – especially when this model demands a USB C port adapter to connect to an external monitor -.- . And since it comes with a slow processor – so it’s off the table.
And MB Air offers only 4 GB of RAM. Yes, Mac OS can make more out of 4 GB of it than a Windows PC could. Even with that in mind 4 GB is not enough for comfortable work over the long term.
Well, and if you have a strong enough reason to want this laptop over other MacBooks – then you probably have your mind made up – good luck.
Ultrabooks are the embodiment of two characteristics that were very rarely seen together just several years ago – great performance and mobility (read as “lightweight laptops with great battery life”).
For me, personally, the idea of an ultrabook sounds even too good to be true. They sound like a “laptop but better”. Thankfully, they usually cost more and, by their definition, are limited in their screen size – now I can at least justifying buying a non-ultrabook. They started out as an Intel marketing campaign to promote laptops with new fast CPU chips with low power consumption. Now, many people, including me, use it as a catch-all for a particular laptop profile.
The surprising and mind-boggling thing to me was that ultrabooks started off as elite and expensive laptops and now they’ve expanded to include a lot of affordable, lightweight and sleek laptops. The only caveat, and a big one in this case, is their limited performance. Not that they’re bound to be slow, but you’ll need to pay a few hundred extra to match performance of non-ultrabooks. If you have the budget – they might just be the best laptop for you to code with.
All of the components are above average, the screen has a Retina-like screen, 512 GB SSD, great battery life and everything else you could ask for from a 13″ laptop. It seems that Zenbooks tend to have a rather underwhelming screen contrast, but if that’s the only thing I’ve to complain about – you probably know it’s good laptop.
For those, who want even more power and prefer a larger 15.6″ screen – Asus ZenBook Pro UX501 would be a more expensive equivalent. It is more suited if you’ll be using this laptop for as your main development workstation.
Asus Zenbook UX303LB for programming
Overall ZenBooks have a good relationship with Ubuntu (and there are tutorials for many other Linux distributions). One thing to note – webcam, touchpad, and battery saving optimizations do not work out of the box.
I recommend this laptop if you want a small and sleek laptop with good performance that is future-proof.
Finally! A great laptop under $700! It might not lay golden eggs, but considering the price tag – it’s pretty close.
Let’s start off on a low note – it has a sluggish processor and a graphics chip that doesn’t have you playing games in its plans.
Now, the only way is up! It comes with an IPS screen and a Full HD resolution, which normally wouldn’t be that impressive, but for a 13-inch laptop, it looks very crisp.
Finally, it packs an above average battery while weighing under 3 pounds (1.2 kg). You think all 13″ laptops weigh this little? For comparison – it weighs less than the latest 13″ Apple Air.
Asus Zenbook UX305FA for programming
Just like the Zenbook above, it has a detailed section on installing Ubuntu and a few more popular distributions have their own documentation. One thing to note – webcam, touchpad, and battery saving optimizations do not work out of the box.
It has 256 GB SSD and 8 GB of memory – which is a bit surprising for a cheap-ish ultrabook. The screen is bright, but it doesn’t have a good contrast – though that is just a minor drawback from my experience.
Sadly, the processor is limiting and you SHOULD NOT get it if you want good performance for multitasking or gaming. So why would I even recommend it? Well, it’s still great if you want a light and rather a cheap laptop which feels great to work with if you need to code on the go. It lies in the middle between chromebooks and fast ultrabooks.
Harder. Better. Faster. Stronger. What if I don’t really care about taking your laptop somewhere. If you too are OK with 17-inch laptops or just a bit more bulky 15″ laptops – you might find yourself in this category.
This class is filled with gaming laptops and workstations. Counter-intuitively I advise steering away from workstations. To put it simply, anything that’s “business class” costs more and for the wrong reasons. If you won’t render 3D animations or motion graphics – you have no practical reason to get a workstation-class laptop. If you really need a workstation-class PC, I would be surprised if your workplace isn’t giving you a dedicated Mac Pro or a monster PC.
Suggestions in this category will get have 15.6″ screen as a minimum. They will have top notch processors and graphics cards.
Though do not get in a mood to read a list of all time best gaming machines that will blow your socks off! This post is not about that. I’ll focus on the best laptops for their purpose.
This Asus Republic of Gamers model has a lot of horsepowers, storage, and a surprisingly decent battery life. What is more, it is even excellent if you want to spend your time off on playing the latest games. It doesn’t come with an above-FHD screen, but that shouldn’t be your requirement unless you have a concrete reason why you’d need it. Though it comes with the standard caveat of weighing quite a bit.
ASUS ROG GL551JW for coding
It packs plenty of overhead with Intel Core i7-4720HQ processor and 16 GB of RAM which should be enough for most of what you could throw at it. Usually anything over 12 GB right now is a premium amount of memory – you’ll only need it if you tend to end up with 50 tabs in your browser (not an exaggeration, #storyofmylife) while running multiple servers, having your favorite graphics programs minimized in toolbar and every single tool you use for coding open “just in case”.
If you’d like a lighter and a cheaper laptop with very similar specs by sacrificing an SSD and battery life – take a look at Acer Aspire V15 Nitro VN7-591G-70RT.
I just had to include a 17″ laptop – I just love these larger screens as I can have multiple windows on it without feeling claustrophobia.
To begin with, 17″ machines tend to end up as a very long-term PCs. It is a natural result of 3 properties of these powerhouses:
- components that will be fast for years to come
- extra slots for additional memory and storage
- less hassle to repair/replace components
This model embodies all of these characteristics.
Just recently Asus has released a new and updated model – ASUS ROG G752VL-DH71 which is mostly equivalent. It comes with a matte display, a sleek and “edgy” frame design and a few additional gaming features. I included this model instead because it is A LOT cheaper – I would recommend getting the newer G752 if you really dig the new design. And if you want even better performance with a lot of M.2 SSD storage – you might be better off getting a custom MSI GE72 Apache Pro-001.
If you’d like to take a look at a different brand with similar specifications, maybe you’ll fancy MSI GE62 Apache Pro.
ASUS ROG GL551JW-DS74 for development
It has enough storage for multiple environments – so it will be easy to setup a dual-boot setup with Windows and Ubuntu (or another distro).
Be aware, that you should explore smaller models if you need a laptop you’ll need to carry day-to-day. For example:
- if you want a fast PC that you’ll often out for work – get a 15.6″ model
- if you want a large screen and you’ll need to the laptop out for short coding sessions (like university/workshops/coffee shop) – get a 15.6″ model AND an external monitor and keyboard while you’re at home
Convertible laptops are probably a lot less relevant to programmers compared to more casual users.
Call me old-fashioned, but I still find having dedicated devices better suiting their use – I still prefer working on a laptop and reading on a Kindle while checking email on my phone. It seems to be correlated with developer’s lifestyle.
Now, after you finished reading my rant and you still would like to explore 2-in-1s – you probably have a good reason. So just for you, I selected these top-notch laptop transformers.
2-in-1s usually suffer from “Jack of all trades, master of none” complex. That’s why I had to make sure that at least one of the convertibles I included would be actually good even if it wasn’t a convertible and you never ever bothered to take it away from its keyboard.
Yoga 700 is great at just that. It is practical man’s hybrid. It comes with 6th generation Intel Core i7-6500U processor, a dedicated Nvidia graphics card and the model I’ve linked has 256 GB SSD which should be enough these days. Just don’t download games that take up 50 GB :)
Finally, it comes with a few perks like a touchscreen that should work hand in hand while you’re on Windows. Also, it comes with 3 USB ports which are a pleasant surprise for a 14″ inch hybrid.
Yoga 700 for coding
I have taken a bit of a leap of faith by including this laptop since it is new and there hasn’t been proof that it works with Linux. A few other Yogas have their own guides on common problems and how to deal with them so I hope something soon comes out for Yoga 700.
I included this model for a good price/performance ratio which would be great even for a non-hybrid. Despite that, if you are not planning to use the touchscreen and you do not need the laptop in its tablet form – then there are better deals than Yoga 700.
Remember that you might not be able to buy it from most shops (or even online shops) for most of November. At the time you’re reading this, most models might still be only available at Lenovo’s online shop.
Now, I wouldn’t recommend other hybrids, at least for their performance-mobility-price ratio. Since I focus on programming laptops, I only include a laptop if it is good enough for its properties and not its abilities outside general use and programming.
I understand you might have a different point of view. That’s why you could consider other hybrids.
If you prefer working on Windows, you can look into Microsoft Surface Pro 3 and Microsoft Surface Book – these two have been gathering all the hype recently.
Surface Pro requires recompiling the kernel to make it work properly with Ubuntu. Meanwhile, Microsoft Surface Book might require even more workarounds. That’s why you should look into Surface Book if you’ll work exclusively on Windows or having Virtual Machines is enough for you.
From when having a regular laptop became old-fashioned? Why if it doesn’t flip, bend and doesn’t like its screen to be touched – it’s not an interesting laptop?
These laptops are a good budget option and even if you can spend a bit more on a laptop than most people – you’ll probably get the best balance for the buck than in other categories.
Finally, a good laptop for programming for a reasonable price. This one is for you if you want a simple notebook without any major drawbacks and with a solid performance and battery life.
It comes with a good processor, decent dedicated graphics chip (which by its performance is just above integrated graphics).
There’s a chink in Acer’s armor – no IPS display. Now, if that’s a deal-breaker for you or not – that’s your own decision. If my budget was under 750$, then I wouldn’t care too much about it. Yes, it’s annoying to have shifted colors while not looking straight at the screen but guess what – 99.9% of the time I’ll be looking straight at it.
Acer Aspire V 15 for programming
If you’ll need to have it dual booted with Ubuntu (or any other distro) and Windows, you should check this QA on AskUbuntu – just in case you’re not familiar with possible problems with UEFI/boot managers when dual-booting. After you’ve done installing and you don’t have Wi-Fi available, there’s a forum thread for fixing Wi-Fi.
For the most of it, Dell i7559 is just a better version of Acer Aspire V 15. It is equivalent in terms of RAM, CPU, screen resolution and battery life. On top of that, it has comes with a lot better graphics card, (small) SSD drive and a glorious IPS screen panel.
Dell i7559-763 for programming
One thing to note – judging by individual reviews, this Dell seems to have a noticeably shorter battery life while on Linux.
If you want a machine for your favorite Linux distro – Chromebooks could be a viable option. To make it clear -, I would strongly discourage Chromebooks for most people if it’s going to be their main coding machine.
If you want a laptop for programming on the go – on a coffee shop, on a lecture theater or on a boat (why you wouldn’t) – then Chromebook might just be a laptop for you. I will not go too into depth into Chromebooks as they probably deserve a post on their own but here’s the quick no-BS guide:
If you want a small 11.6″ inch Chromebook – go for Dell Chromebook 11. It is one of the cheaper Chromebooks and it still passes all the tests with flying colors.
Finally, if you want a larger 15-inch inch Chromebook – Acer Chromebook 15 C910 would be a great pick.
Some of you might be wondering why I left out Google Pixel out of this – shouldn’t the company that made an OS be the one that makes the best Chromebooks for it? Yes and there’s no “catch” about this – Google Pixel is the best Chromebook overall. The problem I have with it is its price. It starts from 999$ for a very basic Pixel.
If you have missed it – here’s the link to the spreadsheet of the given suggestions and more. Don’t hesitate to comment here or in the spreadsheet if you want to ask a question, share your experience or suggest a new entry to the list.
Good luck coding!