Best Laptops for Programming 2020 (Jan. 2020)

For developers and Computer Science students, laptops are the most necessary tools. But choosing the right laptops is not an easy task, so it’s important to make an informed decision. In this article, we’ll guide you through the best laptops in the market and how to find one.

Best Programming Laptop for Programmer – Apple Macbook Pro

If there is one best laptop for programming, then it must be the Apple Macbook Pro. The Apple Macbook Pro comes with two version: 13 inches and 15 inches. For those who prefer working on a large workspace, always choose the 15 inches version. But if you prefer to carry your laptop around, I suggest you to get the 13 inches version, because it’s much lighter: 3.4 lbs compare to 4.8 lbs of the 15 inches version, and that’s not including the charger and other accessories.

Talking about specs, the Apple Macbook Pro offer highend specs that suits almost all needs: Intel Core i5 or i7, 8GB or 16GB RAM 1866 MHz LPDDR3 RAM, high speed SSD from 128GB upto 512GB, Intel Iris Graphics 6100, latest OS X El Capitan. The 13 inches Apple Macbook Pro offers a display with 2560×1600 pixels resolution, meanwhile the 15 inches version offers 2880×1800 pixels resolution, and both of them are Retina display. For those who don’t know much about computer, with those specs, you can do anything, from high level programming to 3D rendering without any problem.

But Apple Macbook Pro is not about specifications, because you can always buy a Windows laptop with the same specs with much cheaper price, or higher specs with same price (take Alienware laptops for example). Apple Macbook Pro, or any other Apple products, is about satisfaction and user experience.

Apple designs their products carefully to the tiniest details. Apple Macbook’s case is a full body aluminum case. It’s smooth, a little rough. The laptop is incredibly well balanced: you can open the lid with just one hand. For your information, most laptops won’t open if you use just one hand. The Apple Macbook Pro features a chiclet keyboard and one of the largest touchpad on the market. But don’t worry, even with that large touchpad, if you accidentally touch the touchpad with your palms, the Apple Macbook Pro is smart enough to recognize that. The Apple Macbook’s touchpad also offers multi gestures to utilize the large surface.

Great hardware must come with great software to use its maximum potential. The Macbook Pro comes with the latest Mac OS: OS X El Capitan. Many tests reveals that on many cases, Macbook Pro can be 4x faster compared to a Windows laptop with the same specs.

For those who use Microsoft Office and wondering whether the Macbook Pro can run Microsoft Office or not? Fear not, there is Microsoft Office for Mac that includes: Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote. And even if you want to run Windows, you can do it too on Macbook Pro: you can use virtual machine or run Windows directly on Bootcamp.

If your work relates to *nix system (Unix or Linux), Apple Macbook Pro has the awesome compatibility with most of the *nix softwares.

Best Laptop for Programmer Runner Up: Microsoft Surface Pro 4

A lot of people will argue: “But Surface Pro 4 is a tablet”. Actually, that’s not true, and it’s also not wrong. Microsoft Surface Pro 4 is a hybrid device between tablet and laptop. So what makes Surface Pro 4 a great laptop for programmers?

Let’s first start with the specs: the Microsoft Surface Pro 4 can easily satisfy any requirements, from low end range with Intel Core M, 4GB of RAM and 128GB of SSD, to high end range with Intel Core i7, 16GB of RAM and 512GB of SSD. Everything is stuffed in a device that is 1.6 inches thick, and weighted at 1.69 lbs. Amazing, right? The screen is 12.3″ and offers resolution at 2736 x 1824 pixels. The battery can easily last 9 hours, even with heavy use. You also get full size USB 3.0 (which will not appear on the new Apple Macbook Pro), Mini DisplayPort, micro SD card, and a Surface Pen. You will need to buy the Surface Pro 4 Cover, and everything is ready to do all kind of programming.

The cover is also a keyboard, and can be easily attached and detached from the Surface Pro 4. You can also use a Bluetooth keyboard of your choice with Surface Pro if you feel like Surface Pro 4 Cover is not for you. The fold-out kickstand is super convenient, you won’t need another case to make your tablet stand.

With the Mini Display Port, you can plug in 2 external monitors at the resolution of up to 4096 x 2304 pixels. And with the Microsoft Surface Dock, you can plugin another external monitor, and that makes 3 external monitors in total.

In my opinion, not only computer science students but also programmers will use this device to the fullest: taking notes, mind mapping, etc. with the use of the Surface Pen. When you’re finishing your ideas, you can plugin the Surface Pro 4 Cover, plugin several external monitors and start coding.

Although the Microsoft Surface Book is a great device for programming, but we feel like the device is just another high end laptop, and it does not offer any advantages over the Apple Macbook Pro. That’s the reason we’re not including the Microsoft Surface Book into the list of best laptops for programmers.

Best Programming Laptop Under $1000

Laptops under $1000 can be considered medium-high budget laptops. When buying laptops under $1000, you can expect to have at least 8GB of RAM, 256GB of SSD storage, and full HD screen. The processor is not really important in this case, because most laptops in this range will have Intel Core i5.

What you should be looking for when buying medium-high budget laptops are: build quality, keyboards, touchpad, screen, and battery life. You should expect at least 5-6 hours of battery, but that also depends on your type of work. Build quality should be rather good, the case should be firm, no weird noise when you shake the laptop lightly, etc. Keyboard and touchpad should be comfortable to use. Screen must be Full HD (1920 x 1080 pixels).

Best Programming Laptop Under $800

Down to the $800 budget range, this is what you consider medium budget laptops. Medium budget laptops may have the same specs as medium-high budget laptops: Intel Core i5, 8GB of RAM, 128GB or 256GB of SSD, Full HD screen. But there will be some sacrifices, such as build quality, touchpad and keyboard. Laptops in this budget are usually larger than medium-high budget laptops, so you’ll see a lot of 15.6″ laptops in this section. Some people will ask why the hell do larger laptops are cheaper? Larger laptops means more space to put in electronic components, and also larger electronic components are cheaper than smaller ones. Laptops in this budget usually have lower build quality, touchpad and keyboard are less comfortable to use.

Best Programming Laptop Under $500

Last but not least, the under $500 league, also known as low budget laptops. Low budget laptops are usually large, have low build quality, low battery life, and low quality keyboard and touchpad. Even though you can expect high specs for laptops in this range (Intel Core i5, 8GB of RAM), but laptops with lower specs in this budget are actually worth to buy because they have better build quality, and good keyboard, take Lenovo Thinkpad T450 for example.

What to look for when buying a laptop

Hard Drive: The most important component

Hard drives are where computers store permanent data, in contract with RAM (Random Access Memory) are used to store temporary data (eg. data you use when opening a program). Operating systems are stored in hard drive, so are you programs and files. The faster the hard drive, the faster your computer boot up. That also applies to your programs and other files.

There are 2 basic types of hard drives at the moment: Hard Disk Drive (HDD), and Solid State Drive (SSD). SSDs are much faster at both writing and reading compare HDDs but at the cost of price: SSD is much more expensive than HDD, and have less storage when compares to HDD at the same price. We did some tests to compare: the machine is a Macbook Pro 2015, the HHD is Fujitsu 120GB 5400RPM, and the SSD is OCZ Vertex 120GB.

There is also Hybrid SSD (HSSD): combination between HDD and SSD. HSSD uses a conventional HDD for main storage with a integrated SSD, usually at the size of 8 to 24GB of storage to cache frequently used files for faster access. This results in faster loading time (but not as fast as normal SSD) and large room for storage. The price of HSSD is not much more expensive than a normal SSD.

In my personal experience, always get a laptop with SSD, it’s worth the price. If you can’t afford SSD, get laptop with HSSD. You can always buy external storage device or use cloud storage to compensate the lack of storage on SSDs. The price of external storage devices and cloud storage services has been declining in recent years, that makes those devices and services affordable.

RAM: How much is enough?

RAM stands for Random Access Memory. RAM is a fastest storage device in you computer, and it’s used to store data that require very fast access speed. Normally, RAM is used to store data when you open an application, and RAM is freed up when you close that application. Operating Systems also cache frequently accessed files into RAM for quicker access.

Depend on what your requirements for work or study, but in my personal experience, 8GB is the minimum amount of RAM you should get. But you should get more than 8GB of RAM if you can. Even when you’re low on budget, always get the laptop with the highest amount of RAM, trust me, you won’t regret later. 8GB of RAM is enough for both daily activities and studying or coding: you can open several tabs on Chrome or Firefox; you can open your favourite IDE or text editor; you can even run 1 or 2 virtual machines.

In case you need to run a lot of virtual machines (let’s say more than 3), or you need to run programs that require a lot of RAM (CAD programs, 3D programs, etc.) then it’s a good idea to get more than 12GB, ideally 16GB of RAM will be enough for most cases. Don’t get more than 24GB of RAM, your laptop’s battery may suffer from that.

Brands and other specs on RAM do not mean much, and do not affect much to RAM’s performance.

Some laptops won’t allow you to upgrade RAM because RAM are soldered to mainboard. Normally slim laptops have this kind of RAM to achieve its slimness, such as Apple Macbook Air, Apple Macbook Pro (latest generation), Lenovo Thinkpad X1, etc. Meanwhile, large form laptops will allow you to upgrade, you just need to purchase the right kind of RAM (usually comes in smaller form than desktop’s RAM) and plug into your laptop. You may need to read manual or specs of a laptop to find out whether RAM is up-gradable or not.

CPU: The heart of a computer

CPU stands for Central Processing Unit, and is the heart of a computer and is responsible for processing information. Think of CPU as the engine on your car. The faster the CPU, the faster your computer is.

CPUs are measured in Hertz, usually at Gigahertz (Ghz), the bigger the number, the faster the CPU is. Modern CPUs are usually clocked between 1.5 Ghz and 4 Ghz. Slim laptops tend to have lower speed, usually at 1.5 Ghz to 2.4 Ghz, while larger laptops, such as workstations, may have enough power for faster CPUs.

Nowadays, CPUs have multiple cores inside, usually 2 or 4 cores. Again, slim laptops usually have only 2 cores, while larger laptops may have 4 cores. More cores do not mean more power, it means your computer can process more streams of data at the same time (the number streams of data equal to number of cores). Most modern programs can utilize multiple cores to speed up.

There are also differences between cheap and expensive CPUs. Let’s take Intel Core i3 and Intel Core i5 for example. Intel Core i3 usually has up to 2 cores, while Intel Core i5 may have up to 4 cores have much higher speed. Intel Core i5 also have higher L1, L2 & L3 cache, which you don’t need to know, and result will be faster processing time.

To conclude, get fastest CPU you can get. An Intel Core i5 is ideal, but Intel Core i3 will do the job just fine. Unless you require serious processing power, don’t get Intel Core i7, because this CPU requires much more power and hotter than Intel Core i5 and Intel Core i3. AMD’s CPUs, in my opinion, are not worth buying (at least for laptops).