Ask the Laptop Advisor: What's a Good Laptop for a Developer?

Does a developer need anything special in a laptop? Comfort, more than anything.
By , Last updated on: 12/3/2014

Today’s question has come to me many times over the past year and a half in many forms. But it was Mahtab Alam’s version that finally convinced me to take a crack at it:

I want to buy a new laptop. I am an engineering student so I will be doing all the programming languages like C, C++, java and will be using more than one OS -- Linux and Window 7. So I need a long battery life and an affordable price.

I’m no programmer, but here's what makes sense to me: You will be spending a lot of time on your computer. While price is certainly important, don’t skimp on your tools. This machine will become an extension of your brain and your fingertips, so you want something that you, personally, will be comfortable with all the time. It’s like a musician chooses one out of thousands of guitar designs, or a slugger picks his favorite bat.

Picture yourself in a few months, when you’re up at 4am, in your 16th straight hour of pounding out a project on a deadline. You’ll want to love your computer at that point.

Enough waxing philosophical. Here are a few practical tips gleaned from developer message boards:

  • You should get a machine that is more powerful that you need it to be. I’m not sure exactly what kind of work you’ll be doing, Mahtab, but any compiling or loading time that you can save is time worth paying for. So you can probably get away with using an i3 processor and 2GB RAM, but treat yourself to something with an i5 or i7 and 4GB or more. It’ll save you some frustration in the short term, and hours in the long term.
  • You can dual-boot Windows and Linux on just about any machine, so you don’t need to worry about specifics there. You will need to partition your hard drive, though. Here’s a handy post from Lifehacker on setting up a dual-booting system, and here’s a good forum post on the advantages of dual-booting.
  • You’ll want a comfortable screen. Programming on a netbook is a recipe for eye-strain and neck-aches. But a 17-inch display cuts the portability and battery life pretty significantly. Aim for the middle, like a 14- or 15-inch model. Ideally, you’d want a standard, 4:3 aspect ratio, but those are becoming hard to find, so you’ll probably have to settle for a 16:9 or 16:10 widescreen format. Get used to scrolling. Alternatively, you can buy a larger external monitor for home use. 26- and 32-inch monitors go for reasonable prices these days, and most laptops have HDMI outputs (or at least DVI). It’ll cost a few hundred extra, but again, think about the comfort and convenience level.

With all that said, there are still literally dozens of machines I could recommend, but based on the criteria above, I think the Acer Aspire Timeline X is a good place to start. It packs an Intel Core i5 processor, 4GB RAM, an 8-hour battery, 15.6-inch display, and an HDMI output -- pretty much every spec that you'd want, and it's good-looking too. Use it as a starting point and poke around for some other machines until you find one that really resonates with you.

Programmers, feel free to chime in with hints and guidelines of your own if I missed anything. Until next week.

~ The Laptop Advisor

Do you have a question for the Laptop Advisor? Please feel free to submit it in the comments section below, or to editorial@digitaladvisor.com. We can't send personal responses, but we may select it for next week's column.

Previous Columns:

4/4: Can I Just Get a Word Processor?

3/28: I'm Switching From PC to Mac.

3/22: What's a Good Laptop For a First-Time User?

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