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It’s hard to imagine, but only a little over two decades ago, laptops were far less powerful. And if you wanted to do anything intensive, you’d be better served by a more capable desktop computer. Luckily, that’s no longer the case nowadays.
Modern laptops are much more capable and have gotten to the point where they can reasonably perform the same sorts of tasks that desktops can. You can do a lot with the portable computers of today!
Many mid-range machines available today are highly capable, so even if you’re working with a budget, there’s a good chance you can find a laptop that (almost) perfectly suits your needs.
If you’re looking for the best laptop for programming, you’re in the right place! In this article, we put together an in-depth buying guide to help you select the best computer for your needs. We also provided our top recommendations for the best laptop for software development to help point you in the right direction.
3x Thunderbolt 4 USB-C (supports DisplayPort and charging)
1x 3.5mm headphone/mic combo jack
1x SD card reader
1x MagSafe 3 charging
WiFi 6, Bluetooth 5.0
The MacBook Pro 16” is Apple’s top-of-the-line offering in the MacBook Pro line of laptops. This machine is a beast, thanks to Apple’s proprietary M1 Pro and M1 Max chips. Appropriately configured (or even in just the existing unconfigured models), this laptop can handle everything you need to do with ease.
Of course, you’re still locked within the macOS ecosystem, so keep that in mind if your projects mostly require Windows. It’s worth noting that there are solutions for running Windows on Macs when necessary. Still, you may find Windows running suboptimally as Apple Silicon was developed and optimized specifically for macOS.
With how powerful the MBP 16” is, you may find that this machine’s internals are overkill for your needs. If this is the case, consider the 13” MacBook Pro or Air listed below.
The MacBook Pro 16” is an extremely capable laptop with powerful internals that can last you through years of use. You can purchase this machine now or wait until the new version comes out (likely sometime in 2023).
If you like the idea of the MacBook Pro 16” but don’t want such a large display, you can consider the MacBook Pro 14” instead (almost exactly the same laptop in a smaller form factor).
Extremely powerful with a slim and relatively light (for its size) weight
Memory: 16GB or 32GB base (with the 3080Ti model) upgradeable to 64GB
Storage: 1TB m.2 SSD upgradeable to 2TB
Operating System: Windows 11 Home – 64-Bit
Display: 17.3” IPS up to 100% sRGB
With RTX 3060: 165 Hz QHD or 240 Hz QHD
With RTX 3070Ti/3080Ti: 360 Hz FHD or 240 Hz QHD or 144Hz 4K
3x USB-A 3.2 Gen 2
2x Thunderbolt 4 USB-C w/ Power Delivery & Display Port 1.4
1x HDMI 2.1 output
SD Card Reader
WiFi 6E, Bluetooth 5.2
Razer is a well-known brand in the gaming industry. And although the Razer Blade 17 is technically a gaming-centered laptop, this machine is incredibly powerful in all sorts of applications.
The Razer Blade 17 is the perfect laptop for a programmer who wants to get into game development since you can also test your games using this machine. If you find it too big and bulky, you can consider the Razer Blade 15.
Apple’s MacBook Pro M2 is the middle ground between the MacBook Air and the higher-end 14 and 16-inch MacBook Pros. This powerful machine is small, portable, and has excellent battery life, making it one of our favorite choices for the best laptop for a programming student like you.
Small, light, and powerful
Amazing battery life
Well-built as is the Apple standard
Not enough ports
MacBook Air M2 is nearly just as capable (though lacking cooling fans)
Apple’s MacBook Air M2 features a new and improved design. The new MBAs no longer have the tapered design of the previous iterations and have a slightly larger display size than the earlier version.
We recommend the MBA M2 to programming students who want an ultraportable with fantastic battery life. This machine is easily one of the best programming laptops, especially if you want an ultra-portable machine.
The 13” MacBook Pro has cooling fans, making it possible for its powerful internals to run optimally. The MacBook Air M2 has similar internals but no fans. Thus, if you know you’ll be using your laptop for heavy tasks, you may want the 13” Pro for its fans.
Small, light, portable
New and improved design
Highly capable machine in an ultraportable size
Amazing battery life
The base version has a slower SSD, and you’d be better off with the 512GB version
The recently released Microsoft Surface Laptop 5 is a highly capable machine that features Intel’s 12th generation Evo CPUs, which are much more energy-efficient. The Surface Laptop comes in two sizes, 13” and 15”. You can choose the size you prefer, though the 15” model allows for more configurations than the former.
This touchscreen laptop is a veritable machine, but if you’re looking for a computer for game development, you may need to look elsewhere because the Surface Laptop 5 has no discrete GPU.
The ASUS ROG Flow Z13 is a convertible laptop that allows you to detach its keyboard. This form factor isn’t for everyone, but that doesn’t change the fact that this laptop is incredibly versatile while also being powerful. You can choose which CPU and GPU you want. There’s even a version that allows you to purchase the ASUS ROG Flow Z13 with a bundled external GPU, a powerful NVIDIA GeForce RTX 3080.
We highly recommend this machine as the best laptop for developers who want to work on video games.
Unique convertible design allows for the ultimate portability and versatility
Has discrete GPUs, and you can also use an external GPU
16” 1920×1200 IPS 165Hz, 100% sRGB, Dolby Vision support
1x Thunderbolt 4
1x USB-C with power delivery
1x USB-A always on
1x 3.5mm combo jack
WiFi 6E, Bluetooth 5.1
The Lenovo Legion 5i Pro is an incredibly powerful machine that comes in a nice, modern form factor. This machine offers a beautiful display, though you may find it slightly too bulky or heavy to bring around daily. If you want to develop video games but don’t want to deal with the ASUS ROG Flow Z13’s convertible design, you can opt for this laptop instead.
Last but not least is the HP Spectre x360 in 16” (2022). This machine is highly capable, has plenty of ports, and is battery-efficient, thanks to Intel’s Evo CPU technology. However, it’s not truly as configurable as other machines on this list. It’s also not the most affordable, but if you want a Windows machine with a gorgeous 3K screen, look no further!
Good battery life
Plenty of ports
No discrete GPU
What to Consider When Buying the Best Laptop for Programming
Many machines and devices are capable of handling programming activity. But of course, most users will want a versatile laptop to fulfill all their needs. If you don’t have a computer yet, that means you’ll have to buy a new one.
Fortunately, you don’t always need the most powerful laptop for programming students to succeed in your graduate program. You just need something modern and reliable that can compile, run, and test all your code and projects. You’ll want something fast because compiling and running code shouldn’t eat up all your time.
But what exactly do you need?
Below are some of the most important factors to consider when buying a good laptop for programming.
Before you even consider anything else, determine the amount of money you’re willing to spend on your new laptop. Defining this criterion will allow you to eliminate any machines that are out of your budget, effectively narrowing your decision pool.
Fortunately, you’ll likely find a good laptop for programming at most budgets. However, we recommend setting aside at least $600 to $800 to help you purchase a capable notebook that will be powerful enough to last you a few years.
Your laptop’s processor is its brain. The processor or CPU performs all the calculations and runs all the commands you give your machine. Naturally, the more powerful the processor, the better your computer’s performance.
Since you’re using your machine for programming, we recommend at least an Intel Core i5 or the AMD equivalent, the Ryzen 5. You’ll want a multi-core processor, though thankfully, the vast majority of processors today are multi-core by default.
The better your processor, the faster your code will compile and run, and the easier multi-tasking will be.
It’s worth noting that Apple’s Macs use their proprietary chips — Apple Silicon. Currently, Apple has the M1 and M2 available, with the M2 being the latest version.
Your graphics processor, also known as the GPU (graphics processing unit) or video card, is responsible for the image your laptop’s screen displays. Depending on the projects you intend to work on, you may be able to get away with the integrated GPU that comes with your processor. Intel has the UHD and Iris Xe, while AMD has Radeon Graphics.
If you intend to work on developing video games, you’ll almost certainly need a discrete GPU. Discrete video cards are separate components, the most popular ones being the NVIDIA GeForce RTX 30XX cards.
Macs running Apple Silicon do not have or need discrete GPUs, as the M1 and M2 chips already come with GPU cores. However, it’s worth mentioning that most developers who want to work on video games will most likely prefer a Windows machine.
Screen Size and Display
Laptops come in a few standard sizes, the most common being 13”, 15”, and 17”. The smaller the screen, the more portable your machine will be. On the other hand, the larger your screen, the more you can fit into it — both in the display and in the internal components. It follows that laptops with larger screen sizes also tend to have more capable internals.
You can also choose the quality of your display and its resolution (we recommend at least Full HD 1080P) and whether you want a touchscreen.
Random access memory, or just memory, is your laptop’s short-term storage. Akin to your short-term memory, RAM stores quick-access data and items from caches, files, and programs in use (or recently used). Thus, the more RAM you have, the better your machine will be at multitasking and the faster it can compile and run your code.
For a good programming laptop, we recommend at least 16GB.
Do you need more? That depends — how heavy do you expect your workload to be? 24GB or 32GB can be reasonable to a degree, but 64GB is usually overkill unless your work demands it.
As a programmer, you’ll need to select the best operating system for your needs. Choose one that is compatible with most, if not all, of the tools you need to use for your coding projects. You probably also want to select the OS best suited for your intended projects.
You don’t want a laptop running Chrome OS, but you’ll probably want one that runs Windows or macOS. You may also even want to run Linux, but unfortunately, not a lot of laptops come with it preinstalled.
You’ll want to consider storage when selecting the best laptop for coding. We don’t recommend going below 256GB, but we highly recommend at least 512 GB. 512GB gives you some wiggle room, so you aren’t constantly offloading your files and apps to other storage solutions. Of course, more is better, so you may even want to go to 1TB.
Most laptops nowadays have SSDs, which are faster, more reliable, and quieter than standard hard disk drives. Thus, we recommend you choose a computer with SSDs. Thankfully, almost all laptops today come with SSDs by default.
Not all laptops will have every port you need. For example, some ultrabooks may only have two or so Thunderbolt 4 ports that you’ll have to juggle if you want to plug in multiple peripherals and storage devices. So, if you don’t want to use a multitude of dongles or a USB-C hub, choose a laptop with the ports you need. Thankfully, many laptops have a variety of ports to choose from, including HDMI and SD card readers.
Laptops do one thing that desktops can’t — they’re portable. Unlike desktop computers, which are bound to your desk, you can take your laptop around with you wherever you go. That said, some machines are more portable than others.
If you know that you’ll need to carry your laptop around with you every day, you may want to select one that’s a good size and weight to make it less of a bother to bring. This is where your laptop’s screen size matters — choose a size that’s the perfect balance between portability and screen real estate.
Battery life is another thing worth mentioning. The laptops of today run internals that are far more efficient, which means longer battery life overall. Battery technology has also improved, adding even more run time between charges. If you know that you’ll be away from electricity and charging ports for most of the day, choose a laptop with long enough battery life to last you through your workday. It’s worth noting that some machines can charge using power banks if you think you’ll need them.
Your laptop will be more than enough for you as a programming student. However, if you know you’ll be working on projects on other platforms, you may need additional devices for testing. For example, if you’re developing apps for the iPad, it only makes sense that you have one for testing. You don’t always need a device, though — certain solutions and platforms available give you access to emulated and physical devices (remotely) to perform your testing.
Why Should You Trust The GradCafe?
At The GradCafe, we always aim to help equip our readers with the knowledge they need to succeed in their academic careers. We do this by providing accurate, up-to-date information that provides value and informs decisions, whether it’s something as crucial as selecting the best graduate programs or as minor as choosing the best planner apps for students.
Aligned with our goal to help you succeed, we’ve put together a list to help provide you with the best computer for coding that fits your budget.
How We Selected the Best Laptops for Coding
To put together our list of recommendations, we did a ton of research. We looked at performance benchmarks, brand histories, and product reviews to ensure each item on this list fits a programmer’s needs. We considered every factor listed in our buying guide above to provide a variety of options at all ends of the budget spectrum.
We also made sure to ask undergraduate and graduate programming students about their preferences to find out which computers they tend to prefer. Beyond the steps listed above, we also joined forums to ask other professionals about the tools they use in their trade.
Intel’s Core i5 processors are our recommended minimum for a laptop if you want to do some coding. If you prefer AMD’s Ryzen processors, that equates to a Ryzen 5. We also recommend staying with the current generation or at least within the last two generations of processors, as this can allow your laptop to last a few years longer before needing replacement.
How much RAM do I need for programming?
When it comes to RAM or memory, more is always better. For general-use laptops intended for your studies or other productivity work, we’d normally say that 8GB of RAM is enough, but 16GB is highly recommended. For coding computers, however, we recommend a 16GB minimum. More RAM (combined with a capable processor) means your laptop can compile and run your code more efficiently, saving you time in the process.
Choosing the best laptop for programming isn’t as complicated as you may think, so there’s no need to feel overwhelmed. As long as you’re taking your specific needs into consideration and looking for a suitable laptop that fits into your budget, you’re all set for success.
We hope that you found our buying guide and list of recommendations helpful during your hunt for the best laptop for programming students. Good luck!