For those of us who understand all those nice things we could never have without programming, it’s really important to find a proper machine to do their job. Especially if you choose to do your programming on the go, or simply take a bit of your work with you when you go home, to your office, on a trip, to a park, or wherever else. However, compared to gamers and workstation users, programmers are quite lucky when it comes to laptops. They don’t necessarily have to be that high-performance, although sometimes you do need a bit of oomph (especially when you’re running three Virtual Machines simultaneously), so your wallet will be thankful. Even better, if you make money programming, you can just buy whatever you want and get your money back by working a bit extra.
At any rate, we’re about to give you some practical advice. Here’s our list of the best laptops for programming we could find.
1. Asus F556UA-AB54 NB – Editor’s choice
The top pick in our book is this excellent Asus model, which has beautiful looks and a surprisingly good configuration. As far as design is concerned, this model is almost on par with the way more expensive ZenBooks, with a brushed aluminum frame, slim lines, and an overall premium feeling in spite of the relatively low price. The quality of the build is unquestionable, and it even has an FHD display, which is starting to become the standard.
Performance-wise, it’s an excellent pick as well. It features the latest-generation i5-7200U, 2.5GHz and up to 3.1GHz, 3MB cache – an ultra-low-voltage processor that will perform great while not draining too much power. It has no discrete graphics card, relying on the Intel HD 620 integrated chip instead, and we can tell you it’s doing a great job. Add 8GB DDR4 RAM and a 256GB SD, and you get, in our honest opinion, the perfect laptop for programming.
2. MSI PX60 6QD-002US
One of the premium builds of MSI; this particular model looks nothing like the gaming laptops MSI is now famous for. It’s unquestionably the classiest MSI laptop, being sold under the tagline “The Essence of Elite,” and it has particularly slim and light design, uncluttered by unnecessary details.
Just like most modern gaming rigs, this laptop is powered by a powerful i7-6700HQ, one of the best current Intel processors, 2.6GHz and up to 3.5GHz with Turbo Boost, 4MB cache, which comes with the integrated video chip Intel HD Graphics 530. It has 16GB RAM, as well as a 1TB HDD. If you want a bit more power than what our top pick can provide, this model will provide you with what you need.
3. Lenovo ThinkPad T560
In the same price range as our top Asus, this laptop looks absolutely nothing like it. In fact, the ThinkPad basic design hasn’t changed much in the last (many) years, resulting in a rather vintage-looking model. However, the ThinkPad T line is one of the best things Lenovo offers in terms of quality, endurance, and so on. In fact, as far as the overall quality is concerned, it may very well be above the MSI PX60. What’s more, it has a fantastic keyboard and the best battery life by far in this category.
The processor used is an i5-6200U, 2.3GHz and up to 2.8GHz, with Intel HD Graphics 520. This is accompanied by 4GB DDR3L SDRAM and a 1TB HDD. Overall, the performance will be more than enough for programming purposes, and the best thing is that, given the appropriate circumstances, the battery will allow you to go out for the whole day with a single charge.
4. Apple MacBook Pro MJLQ2LL/A
We had to include an Apple model as well, just in case you’re really into beauty, slimness, and overall lack of any viruses. It’s not true that MacBooks are for hipsters and people who brag about their money – in fact, there are many serious programmers, designers, photo editors, and businesspersons using them because of their amazing quality. Of course, that quality comes at a price, but it also comes with the best performance on this list, notwithstanding the MSI PX60.
This MacBook features an Intel Core i7, 2.2GHz and up to 3.4GHz with Turbo Boost, with Intel Iris Pro graphics. It has 16GB RAM, as well as a 256GB SSD, and it will work perfectly for more demanding programming tasks as well as photo/video editing and so on. In short, an excellent all-rounder.
5. Asus ZenBook UX330UA-AH54
The second Asus model on our list is part of the company’s premium line of ZenBooks, and it’s a tiny 13.3” model instead of a full-size laptop. However, sometimes you do need more portability, and this ZenBook is here for those times. What’s more, we think this is the prettiest laptop on this list, and it’s only 0.5” and 2lbs. Does this mean it’s not particularly resistant? Nope. Quite on the contrary, in spite of being much cheaper than the MacBook Pro, it’s built of aerospace-grade aluminum, and it even has Gorilla Glass 4 screen protection for its FHD IPS display.
The components configuration is in every respect identical to that of our top choice, with an i5-7200U, 8GB RAM, and 256GB SSD. It does have improved battery life though (well, not as much as the ThinkPad T560), and it’s incomparably more portable than any other model on our list. All in all, the best mini laptop for programming and many other tasks.
6. Asus F556UA-AB32
Another Asus model (we told you, didn’t we?), this model is half the price of the ZenBook. This means nothing, however, when you look at its nice design for such a budget laptop. There’s no way around it: it simply looks and feels premium, and it’s something no businessperson should ever be ashamed of bringing into a corporate meeting, even if they’re the CEO of Microsoft. We bet the CEO of Asus has one of these.
This excellent budget model is equipped with an i3-6100U, 2.3GHz, which comes with the integrated graphics chip Intel HD 520. It has 4GB DDR4, which is quite sufficient for this price range, and a 1TB HDD. Overall, we believe this is the best budget laptop for programming and, if you’re rather short on money, you can completely rely on it.
So, what do you have to pay attention to when buying a laptop for programming?
Undoubtedly, the most important part here. After all, you literally can’t do anything on your laptop if your CPU isn’t up to the task. However, is it necessary to get an overpowered processor, just in case?
The answer is no. The more powerful a processor is, the more power it consumes and the more heat it generates. Sure, it’s worth it if you use that entire power, but if you don’t, it’s only wasted money. For programming, just about any modern i5 CPU will do just fine, as well as many i3 models. You only need an i7 for super high-end applications, and you probably know already what to get if you’re at that level.
In a nutshell: any 6th or 7th generation i5 processor is perfectly good for a programming laptop. Try to aim for the ultra-low voltage models (i5-6500U or 7500U, at any rate ending with U) for lower power consumption. Why not an AMD? Simply because while their desktop CPUs are not bad at all, their mobile ones could use some improvement. Also heating issues. Pretty bad ones.
No, you don’t need a discrete graphics card for programming. You can get something like the nVidia GTX 950M, an upper mid-range graphics card with 2GB or 4GB GDDR5 VRAM, in a laptop under $600, but why pay for it when you don’t need it? Except for the cases when you deal with predominantly visual applications, you will never use it entirely, and it’s just a waste of space and battery life. Same goes for an AMD graphics card, plus heating issues.
Modern integrated graphics chips are on par with an older discrete graphics card. It’s the truth, no matter how hard some try to deny it. It’s all you’ll ever need for programming, so use your budget for a better CPU, battery, screen, storage, or whatever else.
That, unless you also use your laptop for gaming. In that case, a dedicated GPU is the way to go.
The more you can get for the price, the better – it’s that simple. 2GB are enough for reading, writing, and some light internet browsing. 4GB are good for doing these things at the same time, plus watching a movie and opening some extra Chrome tabs. From 8GB onwards, you enter the light-to-medium gaming territory, and 16GB will do for some serious gaming.
A laptop for programming should have at least 8GB. You will often need to run more applications at the same time, some of which may be quite taxing. Serious programming and running VR apps will go even further, and you’ll need 16GB, so keep the upgrade possibilities open. The type of RAM also matters – the newest one available for laptops is DDR4, which has superior speed and lower power consumption.
It’s an HDD vs. SSD battle, pretty much. The HDD has the advantage of being way bigger and cheaper, while SSDs are a lot smaller in physical size, harder to damage, less prone to errors, and, most importantly, incomparably faster than the fastest HDD ever.
Do you need an SSD for programming? Well, yes and no. Yes if you’re annoyed that your OS starts slowly and you often need to copy/move/operate with multiple files or large files, and you need transfer speed. No, if you’re just playing games. Contrary to expectations, an SSD doesn’t improve gaming experience, although certain loading times will be indeed reduced.
Take a look at the type of connection too. SATA and M.2 connectors are fast enough for an SSD to show the difference from an HDD, but the real speed improvement can only be seen with a PCIe connector.
Quite important, since it’s the one thing you’ll be looking at. For programming purposes, it’s best to get an FHD screen, otherwise known as 1920 x 1080 or just 1080p. It will enable you to see perfectly sharp images, and it’s probably as much as you’ll ever need.
Why not go for a bigger resolution? For three big reasons. One, a QHD or UHD screen consumes incomparably more power than an HD or FHD screen. Two, many apps don’t support scaling, meaning that on a UHD display you will see many Windows applications tiny and you can do nothing about it. Third, it’s the price. High-resolution screens are expensive and should only be a priority if you’re dealing with the visual arts.
Read the reviews and check for a display that doesn’t get your eyes tired too quickly. That’s the best way to go.
The battery life
This is entirely up to you. If you don’t really get much out of the house, then it hardly matters. If you do, indeed, like to go outside (a rather odd thing for a programmer), there’s a good rule of thumb for making the right choice: the lower the size and the overall performance, the higher the battery life.
The quality of the build
It may not seem like much in the beginning, but the little things matter in the long run. The keyboard is essential if you type a lot, which happens when you’re programming. Same goes for the touchpad, which is more sensitive than a normal mouse and not as easily replaceable. Same applies to the screen hinges, frame material, and so on. In order to make sure you’re getting the exact quality you expect, check the next important point.
No, it’s not superficial to take the brand into account, especially when it comes to electronics. It’s important to see what that specific brand focuses on because that’s where the quality will be. Here’s what we think of the top brands:
Apple: expensive, really. However, they have particularly great overall build quality, which is essential for such things as programming. They also are immune to 99% of the computer viruses, which is quite an important quality. We do recommend them if you can afford them.
Alienware: also expensive, they focus on hardcore gaming. They are excellent as workstations and for programming as well, but, unless you’re using some unimaginably demanding software, it’s just a waste of money.
Asus: they address all areas of the market with high-quality builds. They are slightly more expensive than others, but the overall quality is excellent. As far as laptops for programming are concerned, Asus does more than a good job. You will see more than one model on our list of favorites.
Lenovo: not as good overall quality as Asus. However, they do offer great components for the price, and the keyboard is hands down the best on the market, even on lower-end builds. As such, we think they can also be great laptops for programming.
Toshiba: while the components may be good for the price range, the overall quality is quite lacking. We don’t exactly recommend them, in all honesty, as we don’t expect too much resilience.
Acer: pretty much the same as Lenovo, addressing the mid-range and low-end markets with high-quality components. Their build quality improved a lot lately, though some components still have room for improvement. Recommended for programming.
Dell: really neat. While their lower-end laptops are not as good as, say, Lenovo, their more expensive XPS models are worth every single dollar. If you need a higher-end machine, Dell should be one of the top choices.
HP: see above.
MSI: surprisingly good for a new company. They are oriented towards high-end gaming rigs and workstations, but also have some more affordable and considerably more portable options. Excellent for more demanding tasks.
That’s about it for the “how to buy” tutorial. It’s important that you know these things because otherwise, you may very well pay for something you don’t need. Or, conversely, you could try to save money and not get some components that you do really need.