The best laptops for programming

Coding means different things to different people. When it comes to finding the best laptop for programming, there are a few things to consider. The heart of programming in any language is not particularly demanding – you’re only writing lines of text, which any computer should be able to manage. However, it’s always nice to have some horsepower under the hood. 

More memory will mean today’s heavyweight Integrated Development Environments (IDEs) such as Visual Studio will run buttery-smooth, and it becomes easier to make changes when working with complex website layouts that have huge amounts of background code. Large, complex programs compile faster with a faster processor. 

And while burning the midnight oil for hours when working on a large project, comfortable ergonomics make a big difference, so you’ll be grateful for a great keyboard and decent screen.

What’s more, if you think your new idea is going to be the next big hit on Apple’s App Store, you need a laptop running MacOS to use Xcode, Apple’s IDE that’s used exclusively to develop applications for the iPhone, iPad and Mac. Similarly, if you’re considering working with game development, within an environment such as UnrealEd or Unity as part of your project, you can’t ignore graphics performance either. 

Here’s our pick of the best laptop for programming, suitable for a range of budgets.

Dell XPS laptop

01. Dell XPS 15-9570

This reasonably priced 15-inch Windows laptop is a great all-rounder

CPU: Intel Core i5, Core i7 or Core i9 | Graphics: Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050 | Memory: 8GB-16GB | Storage: 256GB-2TB SSD + 1TB HDD | Ports: 2 x USB 3.1, 1 x USB-C (Thunderbolt 3) w/ PowerShare, 1 x HDMI 1.4, SD card reader | Size: 35.7 x 23.5 x 1.7cm; W x D x H) | Weight: 1.8kg | OS: Windows 10 Home

Large 4K screen
Excellent performance
Poor webcam placement
Middling audio output 

Using a larger 15-inch laptop such as this Dell XPS 15-9570 rather than a 13-inch model for coding makes plenty of sense. It gives you space to lay out windows in your IDE, or see a full-sized GUI for a high-resolution phone or tablet app. In code view, it means you can fit as much text as possible onto a single line, so it’s easier to run through your application.

There’s enough space to split the screen, with code on the left and a preview of your app or webpage on the right, which will save some serious time when reloading your work.

In addition to the large 4K screen, the XPS15 offers strong performance. Compilation times will be accelerated if you opt for a six-core model, and the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050 Ti gives this machine some 3D grunt in game design tools as well. For more information, take a look at our sister site TechRadar's Dell XPS 15-9570 review.

Asus Zenbook laptop

02. Asus Zenbook UX-430

Portable and affordable, the Zenbook is a great laptop for programming

CPU: 2.4-2.7GHz Intel Core i3-i7 | Graphics: Nvidia GeForce 940MX | Memory: 4- 16GB | Storage: 128-512GB | Ports: 1x USB 3.1, 1x USB-C, 1 x USB 2, 1x Micro HDMI, SD Card Reader | Size: 32.4cm x 22.5cm x 1.59cm (WxDxH) | Weight: 1.25kg | OS: Windows 10 Home Pro

Lightweight and slim
Available in four colours
No quad-core option
Geforce 940MX is slightly limited

Despite dated stereotypes of programmers being stuck in bedrooms and offices, many coders see the profession as highly sociable – whether it’s working together on group projects, or attending one of the numerous workshops and conferences that exist all over the country.

In that case, you might prefer an alternative to the larger laptops we’ve suggested and instead, put portability at the top of your wish list. The 13-inch Asus Zenbook UX-430 is an ultraportable option – weighing just 1.25kg and measuring 15.9mm – without a massive price tag. However, even though the Zenbook is slim and well priced, it has a specification that’s still great for coding work.

2018 Apple MacBook Pro

03. 2018 Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch (2018)

A superb all-rounder Mac laptop

CPU: 2-4 Cores | Graphics: Intel Iris Plus 640-655 | Memory: 8-16GB | Storage: 128GB-2TB | Ports: 2x USB-C (Thunderbolt) | Size: 30.4cm x 21.2cm x 1.5cm | Weight: 1.37kg | OS: MacOS

Macs are the only option for iOS development
Portable but powerful
Touch Bar may be of limited use
Quad-core option significantly raises the price tag

While Apple’s MacBook and the now-ancient MacBook Air are the most portable Apple laptops in the range, the 13-inch MacBook Pro received a tasty update this year that makes it our first choice for working with Xcode to develop apps for iOS and MacOS when on the go.

Quad-core eight-generation Intel CPUs are now an option, delivering across-the-board performance improvements, making this MacBook both portable and powerful. While it might weigh slightly more than the aforementioned MacBook models, the performance boost will be worth it when running taxing processing tasks, such as heavy-duty coding projects.

And since Macs can run Windows just fine via bootcamp or in a virtual machine such as Parallels, you’ll be able to use your Mac to develop apps for any platform on Earth.

Google Pixelbook laptop

04. Google Pixelbook

An excellent Android development platform capable of running full-fat Linux

CPU: Dual core Intel Core i5- i7 | Graphics: Intel HD Graphics 615 | Memory: 8-16GB | Storage: 128-512GB SSD | Ports: 2x USB-C | Size: 22.1cm x 29.0cm x 1.0cm | Weight: 1.1kg | OS: ChromeOS

Sublime design
Full Android app support
Poor audio performance
Stylus sold separately 

For Android developers, a Chromebook might seem a natural choice for the best possible integration with Google’s software and services, with full support for running Android software natively. However, Chromebooks are designed to be highly affordable, with available features and performance suffering to bring the price down.

While a cheaper Chromebook can still work fine for those who are new to coding (especially children just learning coding skills, for example), the Pixelbook has been designed to compete with the bigger boys in laptops. It still runs ChromeOS, which supports Google’s Android Studio development tools, but the hardware is right up there with a standard Windows laptop. As of writing, full Linux support is in beta as well.

You get a dual-core Intel Core i7, 8GB or 16GB of ram and up to a 512GB SSD, with a high resolution 12.3-inch QHD display, delivering 2,400 x 1,600 resolution. It also folds down into a tablet, as per 2-in-1 Windows devices, used in conjunction with an excellent stylus. The brushed aluminium design is absolutely unrivalled by the cheaper Chromebook models as well, with a very comfortable chiclet-style keyboard, and plenty of ports.

Lenovo ThinkPad P1 laptop

05. Lenovo ThinkPad P1

Professional-grade premium performance

CPU: Six Core Intel Core i7 / Xeon | Graphics: Nvidia Quadro P2000 | Memory: 8-16GB | Storage: 256GB-4TB | Ports: 2x USB-C (Thunderbolt), 2x USB 3, SD Card, HDMI | Size: 36.2cm x 24.6cm x 1.8cm | Weight: 1.7kg | OS: Windows 10 Home / Pro

Incredible performance in a slim chassis
One of the best displays on a laptop
Wired ethernet has shifted to a new ‘mini’ standard
Not vastly cheaper than Apple’s premium models

Rounding off our pick of the best laptops for programming is the ThinkPad p1. With this model, Lenovo has taken the kind of computing experience most of us assume is only possible with a desktop workstation housed in a large box under a desk, and not only made it portable, but squeezed it into a form that in thickness, is close to an Ultrabook.

It’s the only laptop of this size that offers professional-grade Xeon processors, with up to six cores, an Nvidia Quadro P2000 graphics card and up to 64GB of memory. You can stuff it with up to 4TB of nVME SSD storage, and opt for a 15.6-inch 4K display that’s not only touch-sensitive, but colour-accurate too. It’s a great general-purpose workstation, capable of all kinds of visual design work and heavy lifting processor-intensive tasks. 

Of course, it works great for coding as well. That’s partly thanks to Lenovo’s excellent keyboard design, but in general, the ThinkPad P1 is superbly built, including a semi-rugged chassis that can survive light knocks, a very healthy selection of ports, retaining two original USB Gen 1 ports, as well as two newer, Thunderbolt capable USB type C ports and HDMI. Make no mistake, if it’s raw performance you want, this is the laptop to go for.

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