Laptop Recommendations for a New Software Developer

If you’re new to developing or maybe thinking about getting into programming one of the things that might come to mind is which computer should you be using. I run thedevlife, an account on Instagram and get asked the question very often: What laptop do you recommend?

There are a few factors that you need consider that will help you make this decision simpler. The most significant factor will naturally be your budget. If you have a lot of money or enough money to buy whatever laptop you want, then you will have to do a bit more thinking before you make a decision, although the reality is most people have a budget. Regardless of whether you are on a budget or not, here are the other factors you need to consider.

Gaming Laptop

In some situations programming will not be the only activity, maybe you are a gamer. In my humble opinion, if you’re not going to be moving a lot, I recommend you purchase a gaming desktop. This way you will get more bang for your buck, hardware tends to be cheaper for desktop computers. You can also perform upgrades, later on. Years later that computer will still be fully functional and able to run the latest video games, not to mention you’ll still be able to code on it also for years to come. However, if you must take your computer with you, then your best and only option has to be a gaming laptop.

No Gaming Required

If a desktop is not an option and you won’t do any heavy gaming, the best option for me would be a MacbookPro. I personally would not like to haul a gaming laptop around. Gaming laptops are usually heavier. When choosing a laptop, one of the criteria I really look for is being able to open it up and instantly start using it. I don’t like waiting for that laptop to boot up. I don’t want to wait a minute or two before I can start coding. This is one of the reasons why I like Macs, you pretty much open them, and you are ready to go. Another reason why I prefer Macs is that they have excellent battery life. If you do not want to spend that much money on Mac laptop, choosing a Windows PC with an SSD (Solid State Drive) can give you the almost instant boot up times. SSD used to have a hefty price tag on them, but as of late they have become more affordable. You would be saving some money and not sacrifice much of the performance. I would definitely recommend avoiding mechanical hard drives.

Screen Size

You might think bigger screens are always better, but not on laptops. I used a 17-inch MacBook Pro for a while, and it didn’t work out for me. The bigger the screen is, the more significant the form factor of the computer will be which might not be a big deal at the beginning, but over time it becomes a burden. Too small is not good either. I have tried 14 or 13-inch screens, and I discovered there just wasn’t enough real estate for me when programming. I think a 15-inch MacBook Pro is where the sweet spot is. Screen resolution, that’s another thing. Some people spend the extra money on a 4K screen but keep this in mind, sometimes you can’t really take advantage of all the pixels. If you run your screen at native resolution, you won’t be able to read the small text, and the power consumption on your computer will go up which in turn will reduce the battery life. I recommend you aim for a 15-inch screen with a 1080p resolution.

Power

As far as laptop performance when you are developing, you don’t need a lot of power, unless you will be creating a video game. For the most part, you will either be doing web development, mobile development or back-end development. For these functions, I think a laptop equipped with a mid-range CPU, like a Core i5 with 8Gb RAM would do the job. There is a caveat if you will be doing mobile developing targeting iOS, you will be required to use a Mac. This does not mean you need to get the top of the line MacBook Pro, but you will have to invest in an Apple computer.

Get More For Your Money

Seven or eight hundred dollars should be able to buy you a machine good enough for programming. A strategy that has worked out very well for me (if you don’t mind a used computer) is looking at laptops that are designed for business companies the Dell Latitude, HP Elitebook or the Lenovo ThinkPad T-series. The reason I mention this is that companies usually buy these models in bulk numbers. Employees get laid-off, or computers are upgraded company-wide. The surplus or “old” laptops get sold on either eBay or Amazon where you could get an excellent deal. I currently own a ThinkPad T560 with 16Gb or RAM, 256Gb SSD, 15-inch touch screen and a Core i5 processor. I purchased it a couple of years ago on eBay. It is still in perfect working condition, and I paid only $600 with two years left on the manufacturer’s warranty. At that time when I purchased it, the next generation ThinkPad T570 were available for $1,600.00 with similar specs. You can still find deals similar to this if you spend some time looking which could save you a lot of money.

Summary

There is no perfect laptop. There is no “one size fits all” when it comes to laptops. I have personally used anywhere between 10 or 15 different models of notebooks throughout my career, and my top choice is a 15-inch MacBook Pro. No matter what, I honestly believe you will have to do some experimenting of your own to find out which model works best for you, but keeping what I mentioned above in mind, should give you a sense of direction of where to start.

If you are new to the developer journey this article might also be helpful: Tips on how to become a software developer

A Mac vs. PC Experiment for Developers

Talking about Mac vs. PC could trigger a perpetual and heated discussion for both sides. Before I continue, I should clear some things out. Some of you might already be jumping at the bit to correct me. I understand that technically a Mac falls under the personal computer category, so let me give you a few more details about this experiment. I know there are a lot of users who are very passionate about Linux, Unix or other flavors of operating systems other than Windows and MacOS. I apologize in advance; it is not technically accurate to group all non-MacOS operating systems in the “PC” bucket along with Windows. I’m sorry about that, but for the sake of this experiment, I figured it was the best option.

About a year ago I showed my naivete by asking on my Instagram account @thedevlife why developers preferred Macs to do their work. You see, I made the mistake of assuming Macs were more popular. As you might have guessed, I did receive my fair share of messages full of intensity, for lack of a better word. These came mostly from Linux fans who rightfully felt left out. Recently, a young developer who I admire made a post on Instagram making the same assumption. I made that assumption because pictures of Mac computers are trendy on social media and somehow create the illusion that Macs are more popular in development. This erroneous assumption was the main reason that prompted me to run this experiment on Instagram.

The goal of the experiment is not to show that either side is better, it is not an experiment about hardware either. I am not sure what the primary goal for the research was other than the curiosity to know why developers chose one over the other.

These are the results.

1 Hour
6 hours
9 hours
11 hours

When the Instagram story ended 4061 viewed the story and 3203 people voted, the final percentages were 38% for Mac and 62% for PC. Unfortunately, I did not get a chance to capture a screenshot closer to the 24 hours a story post lasts.

Reasons in favor of Mac

  • Macs tend to hold their value better
  • Simply because they have used a Mac longer than a PC
  • The user interface is better
  • Is needed to code in Swift and develop iOS applications
  • Windows sucks
  • Beautiful design
  • Easiest way to use a computer
  • Better file structure
  • AirDrop is really helpful
  • No automatic updates
  • Terminal environment
  • Some applications are made only for Mac
  • Easier configuration
  • No driver problems
  • Better battery life
  • Mac is more adequate for UI/UX Design

Reasons in favor of PC

  • A PC is what employers provide at the respective workplace
  • Linux is free
  • More affordable than Mac
  • Windows is a better platform for gaming
  • Windows 10 is stable
  • Better memory management
  • Needed to work with .NET Framework
  • Bigger developer community for Windows
  • More applications
  • More options on hardware
  • Easier to crack a program on Windows
  • Love for Visual Studio IDE
  • Windows is more mainstream in respective city

Many of the reasons shared are debatable and can start a discussion for decades, but please remember these are personal reasons for choosing one side of the other. There are a plethora of reasons why either side was elected, but looking at the results shows that I was indeed mistaken by assuming Macs were popular among developers. Macs might be more popular in some regions, and Mac users might feel more confident to share pictures of their system on social media, but those numbers don’t necessarily represent the number of developers using Mac vs. PC.