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The best laptops for programming in 2021

The best laptops for programming in 2021
MacBook Pro 14 (Image credit: Apple)

The best laptops for programming won’t magically transform you into the next Larry Page, nor will they drape you in the wealth, success, and sweater collection of Bill Gates. Annoyingly, inspiration remains a result of humans and not machines, and usually, it’s some other human, and they post on Stack Overflow.

However, that doesn’t mean your choice of device is irrelevant. A lackluster machine can place hurdles in the way of even the most competent of programmers. Whether you’re developing software, mobile apps, games, or for the web, the right laptop can do one thing above all — maximize your productivity.

We’ve compiled a selection of machines to help you achieve just that: maximum productivity for the task at hand. Whether you’re looking to cut down the time you spend compiling code or kick-start a new hobby, say “Hello, World!” to our selection of the best laptops for programming.

What are the best laptops for programming?

One of the best laptops for programming is the Apple MacBook Pro 14. Thanks to the company’s latest silicon, the new M1 Pro and Pro Max chips. During our testing, we saw the Pro 14 go toe-to-toe with some of the highest-rated AMD and Intel-powered laptops and win handily. It’s a lightweight powerhouse that can handle all of your programming needs.

Another fantastic laptop to suit your programming needs is the Dell XPS 15 OLED (2021). Dell has several configurations available to suit the XPS 15 OLED to practically any programming project and is an overall excellent machine to boot. Its 11th Gen Intel Core CPU delivers incredible performance, and it keeps the same premium build we expect from the XPS family of devices.

If you’re on a budget, it’s hard to beat the price to performance ratio offered by the Acer Swift 3. Kitted out with an AMD Ryzen 7 4700U CPU, Acer’s laptop is capable of some serious computing power. In our benchmark testing, the Swift 3’s processor blew away the competition, including several premium laptops. If it’s raw power you need, there are few sub-$1000 laptops on the market that will suit you better.

The best laptop for programming

(Image credit: Apple)

1. MacBook Pro 14

The best laptop for programming

Specifications
CPU/GPU: Apple M1X (Pro)
RAM: 16GB/32GB/64GB
Storage: 512GB/1TB/8TB
Display: 14.2-inch, 3024 x 1964
Size: 12.3 x 8.7 x 0.6 inches
Weight: 3.5 pounds
Reasons to buy
+Impressive M1 Pro chip+Great thermal management+14-hour battery life+Stunning display
Reasons to avoid
-Expensive

In a time where internet speculation is rife, bringing out a product that meets up to people's expectations is a burdensome task. However, Steve Jobs once said 'people don't know what they want, until you show it to them.' And, with the reveal of Apple's new range of MacBook Pro laptops, anybody looking for a portable programming powerhouse can consider themselves very much shown.

The M1 Pro chip housed within might play second fiddle to the M1 Max, but when it comes to performance it's up there with the best laptops available. Our benchmark testing saw the MacBook Pro 14 dominate, with its 10-core processor demolishing the scores of top-tier Intel and AMD-powered laptops. Configurations also allow up to 64GB of RAM, 8TB of lightning-fast SSD storage, a 16-core Neural Engine, and a 32-core GPU. If your programming needs require some serious performance, there are few mountains that the MacBook Pro 14 can't get you to the top of.

As is customary for Apple products, if it sounds out of this world then the price tag is going to be also. Although the MacBook Pro 14 has a $1,999 base price, more powerful configurations can push that number up to an eye-watering $5,899. While the real crown jewel in the MacBook Pro 14 is the M1 Pro chip, several other improvements may help to soften that price for you. The most notable of which is the 14-hour battery life, a dazzling 14-inch display, a fantastic keyboard and improved port selection that includes a full HDMI port and an SDXC card reader.

See our full MacBook Pro 14 review.

The best all-around laptop for programming

(Image credit: Dell)

2. Dell XPS 15 OLED (2021)

The best all-around laptop for programming

Specifications
CPU: 11th Gen Intel Core i5/Core i7/Core i9
GPU: Iris Xe/NVIDIA GeForce RTX 3050/3050 Ti
RAM: 8GB/16GB/32GB/64GB
Storage: 512GB/1TB/2TB M.2 NVMe SSD
Display: 15.6-inch, FHD+/2.5K OLED/UHD+
Size: 13.6 x 9.1 x 0.7 inches
Weight: 4.3 pounds
Reasons to buy
+Incredible performance+Numerous configuration options+Great programming potential+Slim, premium design
Reasons to avoid
-Expensive

Dell’s XPS 13 currently tops our list as one of the best laptops available. The runaway success of the 13-inch powerhouse has been something to behold, but the rest of the XPS family isn’t too far behind. The XPS 15 OLED is one of those family members, and it’s yet another extraordinary machine. Stacked with powerful components, the XPS 15 OLED is all gas and no brakes for tackling just about any computer-related task.

Configurations allow the XPS 15 OLED to be outfitted with an 8-core 11th Gen Intel Core i9-11900H CPU and an Nvidia GeForce RTX 3050 Ti GPU. Pair this with up to 64GB of RAM and a 2TB SSD and you have a machine that can cover the entire spectrum of programming needs. Everything from machine learning to games development is workable with a laptop this powerful, but it will set you back a pretty penny.

You can shave down the price for the XPS 15 OLED by opting for an FHD+ panel instead of the OLED or UHD+ options. It may also improve the battery life of the laptop as our review model, fitted with the 3.5K OLED panel, managed just 6 hours and 58 minutes of uptime during testing. If battery life isn’t so important and your budget can stretch to it, the Dell XPS 15 OLED could be your programming platform of choice for years to come.

See our full Dell XPS 15 OLED (2021) review.

The best 2-in-1 laptop for programming

(Image credit: HP)

3. HP Spectre x360 14

The best 2-in-1 laptop for programming

Specifications
CPU: 11th Gen Intel Core i5/Core i7
GPU: Intel Iris Xe
RAM: 8GB/16GB
Storage: 256GB/512GB/1TB
Display: 13.5-inch, 1920 x 1280 IPS / 3K2K OLED
Size: 11.8 x 8.7 x 0.7 inches
Weight: 3 pounds
Reasons to buy
+Striking design+Long battery life+Comfortable keyboard+Powerful performance
Reasons to avoid
-Limited to 16GB of RAM

Balancing form and function is hard, but you wouldn’t think so looking at the HP Spectre x360 14. Call me skeptical, but any laptop that looks this good leads me to wonder what it’s trying to distract you from. However, this laptop is far more than a pretty face.

Under the hood, the Spectre x360 14 sports an 11th Gen Intel Tiger Lake CPU with integrated Iris Xe graphics. This kind of power, especially when paired with up to 16GB of RAM and 1TB of SSD storage, makes the Spectre an easy recommendation for anyone looking for a laptop that packs a punch for programmers. If you enjoy working away from a desk, there’s even more good news, as the Spectre x360 14 impressed us with a battery life of over 12 hours in testing.

The Spectre’s 2-in-1 design is a benefit to anybody looking to develop apps with mobile devices in mind. With a quick fold, the vivid, edge-to-edge 13.5-inch panel becomes an impressive touchscreen tablet. This is great for quickly showing off a prototype or getting a feel for how your project works in real-time. HP’s laptop also impresses with a comfortable keyboard and a generously sized touchpad.

See our full HP Spectre x360 14 review.

The best business laptop for programming

(Image credit: Lenovo)

4. Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon (Gen 9)

The best business laptop for programming

Specifications
CPU: 11th Gen Intel Core i5/Core i7
GPU: Iris Xe
RAM: 8GB/16GB/32GB
Storage: 256GB/512GB/1TB SSD
Display: 14-inch, 1920 x 1200, 16:10
Size: 12.4 x 8.7 x 0.6 inches
Weight: 2.5 pounds
Reasons to buy
+Best-in-class keyboard+Powerful performance+Plenty of ports+Great battery life
Reasons to avoid
-Configurations can get pricey

Lenovo’s ThinkPad X1 Carbon has been a favorite of ours for some time -- we awarded it a rare 5-star rating on its original launch in 2018. It was the best business laptop on the market, and Lenovo has done well to maintain that standard with each new iteration. Now in its 9th Generation, the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon is hitting those 5-star peaks again thanks to some improvements to its processor, display and battery life.

The ThinkPad X1 Carbon keeps all the things that made the original ThinkPad so great and tweaks it to near perfection. A best-in-class keyboard, a durable lightweight chassis, a generous supply of ports, and a great aesthetic all make a reappearance. New to this revision is a powerful 11th Gen Intel Core CPU with Iris Xe graphics, a new 16:10 14-inch display, and an improved battery life which blew past the 15-hour mark in our tests.

Configurations also allow for up to 32GB of RAM and 1TB of SSD storage, and what results is the best ThinkPad X1 Carbon to date. More still, you get a very competent machine for programmers of all branches to make use of. Its impressive battery can keep you working on the move, and you’ll be able to code in comfort for hours thanks to one of the best laptop keyboards available.

See our full Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon (Gen 9) review.

The best Apple M1 laptop for programming

(Image credit: Apple)

5. Apple MacBook Pro (13-inch, M1, 2020)

The best Apple M1 laptop for programming

Specifications
CPU: Apple M1
GPU: Apple M1
RAM: 8GB/16GB
Storage: 256GB/512GB/1TB
Display: 13.3-inch, 2560 x 1600
Size: 12 x 8.4 x 0.6 inches
Weight: 3 pounds
Reasons to buy
+Powerful M1 chip+Great for iOS/macOS/ipadOS development+Impressive battery life+Comfortable magic keyboard
Reasons to avoid
-Limited to 16GB of RAM

Apple’s ARM-based M1 chips are a game-changer, and the M1 MacBook Pro is a fantastic device for practically any computing task, programming included. A few compatibility issues remain for developers running programs on the ARM-based M1 chips. However, with each month, more and more of these issues are resolved. Emulators, virtual machines, and homebrew support have all seen significant improvements over the last year, making the newer Apple devices more and more compelling.

While you will be constrained to a maximum of 16GB of RAM, this is more than enough to perform most tasks, especially when paired with the awesome eight-core CPU. The M1 Chip catapults Apple’s MacBook ahead of the pack, delivering performance that leaves contemporaries, like the Dell XPS 13, behind. Also, the M1 Chips thermal efficiency and MacBook Pro’s active cooling system ensure you can take advantage of this power for longer, without worrying about wear and tear damage under the hood.

While setting up Windows on an M1 MacBook is a bit more in-depth than simply using Boot Camp, it is still possible to do using Windows on ARM. However, the M1 MacBook remains a fantastic platform with no need for a secondary boot if you’re a web developer, or someone looking to develop for Apple platforms. 

See our full Apple MacBook Pro (13-inch, M1, 2020) review.

The best sub-$500 laptop for programming

(Image credit: Acer)

6. Acer Aspire 5 (2020)

The best sub-$500 laptop for programming

Specifications
CPU: 10th Gen Intel Core i3/Core i5
GPU: Intel UHD/NVIDIA GeForce MX250
RAM: 4GB/8GB
Storage: 128GB/256GB/512GB SSD
Display: 15.6-inch, 1080p
Size: 14.3 x 9.9 x 0.7 inches
Weight: 3.7 pounds
Reasons to buy
+Great for students or aspiring hobbyists+Very affordable+Full selection of ports+Full-sized keyboard
Reasons to avoid
-Below-average battery life

If you’re a student, or interested in learning how to program, you don’t need the most expensive or high-end laptop to get started. The Acer Aspire 5 is an Intel-powered laptop that will have you covered for the basics while leaving you plenty of room to grow. Even better, with the right configuration, you can pick it up for a fraction of the price compared with other laptops on our list.

Our review featured an Acer Aspire 5 outfitted with a 10th Gen Intel Core i5 CPU, and while it got the job done, this is where the low cost of this laptop makes itself apparent. While you’ll still be able to program, anything CPU-intensive or requiring 3D rendering may become a struggle because of the slower clock speeds and integrated Intel UHD GPU. The laptop is available with up to 8GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD, which is more than enough to start off with.

If you need it now, and you need it on a tight budget, the Acer Aspire 5 is worth looking into. It gives you everything you need to get programming — just don’t expect blazing speeds. It’s fine for light work and will suit beginners well enough, though for larger projects it may end up becoming a drag on your productivity. If you can afford it, aim a little higher. However, if your back is against the wall, the Acer Aspire 5 is one of the best laptops for under $500 currently available.

See our full Acer Aspire 5 review.

The best 17-inch laptop for programming

(Image credit: LG)

7. LG Gram 17 (2021)

The best 17-inch laptop for programming

Specifications
CPU: Intel Core i7-1065G7
GPU: Iris Plus
RAM: 16GB
Storage: 512GB SSD
Display: 17-inch, 2560 x 1600
Size: 15 x 10.5 x 0.7 inches
Weight: 3 pounds
Reasons to buy
+Lightweight design+Large, colorful, high res display+Excellent battery life+Full-sized keyboard
Reasons to avoid
-Expensive

The LG Gram 17 is a great machine. It’s light, large, and loaded with quality components. A standout feature is its sizable 17-inch, 2560 x 1600 display. The display’s 16:10 aspect ratio affords some impressive screen real estate, and its 109.3% coverage of the DCI-P3 color gamut is well above the category average of 82.9% — making it super colorful.

However, the display isn’t the only thing of merit thanks to the 11th Gen Intel Core i7 CPU and integrated Iris Plus graphics housed inside. Pair this with 16GB of RAM and a 1TB SSD and you’ve got a decently powerful laptop that can cover many programming-related tasks. Keeping the color accurate, vivid display in mind, you also have a machine well-equipped for tackling web design and development projects.

Further positives for programmers come from the full-sized, island-style keyboard, an impressive 14-hour battery life, and a total weight of just 3 pounds. While most other 17-inch laptops suffer in portability, the LG Gram 17 maintains the same weight as 13-inch devices like the MacBook Pro. This makes LG’s laptop great for on-the-go programming and showcasing projects in person.

See our full LG Gram 17 (2021) review.

The best laptop for 3D game development

(Image credit: Alienware)

8. Alienware m17 R4

The best laptop for 3D game development

Specifications
CPU: 10th Gen Intel Core i7/Core i9
GPU: NVIDIA GeForce RTX 3060/3070/3080 6GB/8GB/16GB VRAM
RAM: 16GB/32GB
Storage: 256GB/512GB/2x512GB SSD
Display: 17.3-inch, 1080p
Size: 15.7 x 11.6 x 0.9 inches
Weight: 6.8 pounds
Reasons to buy
+Excellent graphics and performance+Mechanical keyboard+Bright, high refresh rate display+Lightning-fast SSD
Reasons to avoid
-Expensive

Alienware makes some of the most impressive (and expensive) gaming laptops on the market, but playing games isn’t all they’re good for. The Alienware m17 R4 is a genuine powerhouse of computing. Thanks to an impressively powerful CPU and GPU combo, Alienware’s laptop can readily take on the demands of modern programming, including game development. While it might be overkill for your 2D rogue-like indie platformer, the sky's the limit with a machine like this.

The Alienware m17 R4 has some impressive configurations available that hit their peak with an overclockable Intel Core i9-10980HK Comet Lake processor. The top-tier configuration also features 32GB of RAM, dual 512GB SSDs, and a mighty NVIDIA GeForce RTX 3080 GPU with 8GB of VRAM. This kind of power ensures the only bottleneck you’ll face during development will be the type that champagne flows from during your launch celebrations.

However, raw power isn’t all that Alienware’s portable behemoth offers. There’s also the sizable, 17.3-inch display that provides fantastic 1080p clarity with an ultra-smooth 360-Hz refresh rate. Rounding things off is a full-sized, low-profile mechanical keyboard with Cherry switches, ready to deliver a fantastic typing experience.

See our full Alienware m17 R4 review.

The best budget laptop for programming

(Image credit: Acer)

9. Acer Swift 3 (2020, AMD Ryzen 7 4700U)

The best budget laptop for programming

Specifications
CPU: AMD Ryzen 7 4700U
GPU: AMD Radeon
RAM: 8GB
Storage: 512GB SSD
Display: 14-inch, 1080p
Size: 12.7 x. 8.6 x 0.6 inches
Weight: 2.65 pounds
Reasons to buy
+Incredible performance+Great multi-tasking+Great price-to-performance ratio
Reasons to avoid
-Limited to 8GB of RAM-Dim display

The term ‘dark horse’ is the most fitting description you could give to the Acer Swift 3. In our benchmark tests, the sub-$1000 laptop was blowing away competition left right and center, some of which cost nearly three times as much as Acer’s budget buy. The secret? A Ryzen 7 4700U processor.

AMD’s CPU is an eight-core, multi-tasking monster and offers an incredible performance boost over the Swift 3’s Intel counterpart. It’s perfect for programming and exactly the type of CPU you want on hand as your projects grow larger and compiling takes longer. If it’s all sounding a little too good, that’s because we haven’t yet mentioned the RAM issue.

The Acer Swift 3 comes with upwards of 8GB of RAM, which is nothing to sneer at. The problem here is that while that’s sufficient, it isn’t very future-proof. If you’re already thinking that an after-purchase upgrade would do the job, think again. The Acer Swift 3’s RAM is soldered in, and not upgradeable. Luckily, not all programming tasks require huge amounts of RAM, and you could feasibly get by with what’s on hand. As budget-buys go, the Acer Swift 3 is the best deal you’ll find if you want premium performance without the premium price tag.

See our full Acer Swift 3 (2020, AMD Ryzen 7 4700U) review.

The best Windows laptop for programming

(Image credit: Microsoft)

10. Microsoft Surface Laptop 4 (15-inch, AMD)

The best Windows laptop for programming

Specifications
CPU: AMD Ryzen 7 4980U
GPU: AMD Radeon
RAM: 8GB/16GB
Storage: 256GB/512GB
Display: 15-inch, 2256 x 1504
Size: 13.4 x 9.6 x 0.6 inches
Weight: 3.4 pounds
Reasons to buy
+Great performance+Long battery life+Impressive 15-inch display+Comfortable keyboard
Reasons to avoid
-No discrete graphics option

We will remember the Surface Laptop 4 as the moment Microsoft’s AMD gamble paid off. The launch of the Surface Laptop 3 with a Ryzen 5 3000 series processor at its core left most people wondering why Microsoft didn’t just stick with the more powerful Intel chips. Then, as the Surface Laptop 4 began rolling out with an AMD processor in tow once again, people got their answer.

The AMD Ryzen 7 4980U CPU housed within the Surface Laptop 4 isn’t one to drag its heels. It doesn’t just contend with Intel’s similarly priced chips; it routinely outperforms them. AMD’s Integrated Radeon graphics join the octa-core processor along with up to 512GB of storage and 16GB of RAM. Microsoft’s notebook makes mincemeat of multi-tasking and is great for some of the more CPU-intensive tasks that programming can entail.

One of the few drawbacks of this laptop is its integrated GPU, which won’t be of much use for graphics-heavy projects. However, the Surface Laptop 4 makes up for this with its impressive 12-hour battery life, a comfy backlit keyboard, and a sizable, 15-inch display. It’s a great buy if you’re a Windows-familiar looking for a sleek, well-rounded laptop to program with.

See our full Microsoft Surface Laptop 4 (15-inch, AMD) review.

The best laptop for multi-platform programming

(Image credit: Apple)

11. Apple MacBook Pro (16-inch, 2019)

The best laptop for multi-platform programming

Specifications
CPU: 9th Gen Intel Core i7/Core i9
GPU: AMD Radeon Pro 5300M/5500M
RAM: 16GB/32GB/64GB
Storage: 512GB/1TB/2TB/4TB/8TB SSD
Display: 16-inch, 3072 x 1920
Size: 14.1 x 9.7 x 0.6 inches
Weight: 4.3 pounds
Reasons to buy
+Improved Magic Keyboard+Up to 8-core Core i9 CPU and 64GB RAM+Great for multi-platform development+Fewer compatibility issues than the ARM-based M1 chip
Reasons to avoid
-Configurations can get pricey

Although Apple has just released a new M1 Pro/Max-powered 16-inch MacBook Pro, the 2019 revision of Apple’s impressive laptop still holds strong as one of the most versatile devices currently available for programming. Thanks to its 9th Gen Intel Core i7/Core i9 processor, 2019’s MacBook Pro doesn’t suffer any native compatibility issues that developers may face from the newer ARM-based M1 chip.

With Apple’s IDE, Xcode, being exclusive to Mac devices, owning a Mac remains the only option to those seeking to develop for iOS, iPadOS, and macOS without having to rely on cloud services or virtual machines. Apple’s Intel-based MacBook Pro can also run both Windows and Linux, making this laptop a fantastic do-it-all device for programmers to target multiple platforms.

You can outfit your MacBook Pro with up to 64GB of RAM, far more than the 16GB maximum that M1 Macs currently offer. There are also configurations available that offer SSD storage ranging from 512GB up to a whopping 8TB. Adding to an already stacked lineup, a bright and colorful 16-inch retina display offers ample screen real estate thanks to its 3072 x 1920 resolution. It’s powerful, it’s pretty, and it shouldn’t be overlooked for its enduring programming potential.

See our full MacBook Pro (16-inch, 2019) review.

Best mobile workstation for programming

(Image credit: HP)

12. HP ZBook Fury 17 G8

Best mobile workstation for programming

Specifications
CPU: 11th Gen Intel Core i5/i7/i9, 11th Gen Intel Xeon
GPU: Intel UHD, Nvidia RTX A2000/A3000/A4000/A5000
RAM: 8GB/16GB/32GB/4GB/64GB/12GB
Storage: 256GB/512GB/1TB/2TB (x4)
Display: 17.3-inch, 1920 x 1080 FHD / 3840 x 2160 UHD
Size: 15.69 x 10.52 x 1.06 inches
Weight: 7 pounds
Reasons to buy
+Numerous configurations available+Dazzling CPU/GPU performance+Impressive 17-inch, 4K touchscreen
Reasons to avoid
-Runs hot-Very expensive

The HP ZBook Fury 17 G8 is expensive, noisy under stress, has a relatively short battery life and isn't likely to win any beauty contests. It also produces a lot of heat. Think rocket exhaust in your lap levels of heat. So why on Earth did it score so highly in our review? In a word, power. In a few more words, my god, so much power.

Who cares what your laptop looks like, or how easy it is to lug around when it has enough computing power to one day potentially rise up and enslave all humanity. The HP ZBook Fury 17 G8 is the ultimate mobile workstation solution for programmers looking for a desktop alternative. HP's powerhouse is available in several configurations, but it tops out with some incredible future-proof components including an overclockable 11th gen Intel Xeon CPU, discrete Nvidia RTX A5000 graphics with 16GB of VRAM, 128GB of RAM and upwards of 8TB of SSD storage.

However, that particular configuration isn't likely to find its way into the digital shopping cart of the average Joe anytime soon — primarily because of its $10,000+ price tag. That being said, there is a wide range of configurations available for a much smaller price that will still allow you to walk away with a pretty beastly machine. It isn't one for the hobbyist, but if you're in serious need of a mobile workstation to handle the most demanding of programming tasks, this is it.

See our full HP ZBook Fury 17 G8 review.

Best premium 2-in-1 laptop for programming

(Image credit: Microsoft)

13. Microsoft Surface Laptop Studio

Best premium 2-in-1 laptop for programming

Specifications
CPU: 11th Gen Intel Core i5/i7
GPU: Iris Xe/Nvidia RTX 3050 Ti
RAM: 16GB/32GB
Storage: 1TB/2TB SSD
Display: 14.4-inch, 2400 x 1600, 3:2, 120Hz
Size: 12.7 x 9 x 0.75 inches
Weight: 4 pounds
Reasons to buy
+Great battery life+Impressive display+Comfortable keyboard+Hinge design
Reasons to avoid
-Pricey

For most programming tasks a 2-in-1 laptop can be fairly redundant. However, if you are programming with touch, gestures, or mobile devices in mind then owning a decent convertible allows you to quickly test your project with very little fuss. The Surface Laptop Studio is Microsoft's premium 2-in-1 experience, offering a great balance of form, function and portability. More importantly, its ability to handle demanding workloads, paired with the option of discrete Nvidia RTX graphics, makes it a fantastic programming device.

Picking up the Microsoft Surface Laptop Studio can cost anywhere between $1,599 and $3,099 depending on which configuration you go with. The base model is already well equipped for programming thanks to an 11th Gen Intel Core i5 CPU with integrated Iris Xe graphics, 16GB of RAM and 256GB of SSD storage. However, if your project requires a little more 'oomf', configurations top out with an 11th Gen Intel Core i7 CPU, discrete GeForce RTX 3050 Ti graphics, 32GB of RAM, and 2TB of SSD storage.

There's plenty of computing power on hand, and thanks to the Surface Laptop Studio's unique hinge design there's some real versatility in how to use the device. And, while the keyboard on the Surface Laptop Studio isn't full size, it still delivers an impressive and tactile typing experience that is great to use for long stretches of use.

See our full Microsoft Surface Laptop Studio review.

How to choose a laptop for programming

Choosing a laptop can be a confusing experience, and choosing a laptop for a specific purpose can complicate things further. If you are picking a laptop with programming in mind, you’re going to need a powerful CPU, a decent amount of RAM, and a fast solid-state drive (SSD). However, to get the best experience, a decent screen and keyboard are also important.

We’ve rounded up some of the most common questions people have asked when looking to invest in a laptop for programming. Our goal is to give you the best answers possible, helping to explain what to look for and why. Even though our answers focus on the general standard, there’s no harm in aiming beyond these specifications. After all, a more powerful CPU, more RAM, and a larger SSD can never hurt. However, there’s no use blasting a spider with a shotgun when a rolled-up newspaper works just fine.

How much RAM do I need for programming?

The amount of RAM in your device is massively important for programming, especially if you’re dealing with larger projects or running multiple programs at once. 8GB of RAM is the base requirement for most programming needs, though 16GB is typically a more ideal configuration (especially so for Mac users who have to deal with the RAM-hungry Xcode). More intensive programming tasks like game development and machine/AI learning can further require between 16GB and 32GB at a minimum.

Running your device on just 4GB of RAM isn’t out of the question, especially for light coding, web development, or hobbyists. But if you have to deal with memory-intensive IDEs, emulators, or virtual machines, be aware there will be a noticeable effect on performance and compilation speeds.

What is the best CPU for programming?

The CPU of your laptop is vitally important for quickly compiling your projects and ensuring multiple applications run smoothly and efficiently. If there was any component to skimp out on when deciding on your next machine, it’s not the CPU. For most programming needs, at a minimum, you’ll want to pick a laptop with a quad-core CPU and with as high clock speeds as possible within your budget. 

There’s room for debate about which laptop CPU is the best, and each one does have its own strengths. However, outside of machine learning and AI programming, the Intel Core i5/Core i7, AMD Ryzen 7, and Apple M1 range of chips are all capable of handling most programming tasks.

SSD or HDD? What size hard drive do I need?

Choosing the right hard drive for your laptop is a much simpler affair. A decent SSD can dramatically improve your workflow. Everything from booting up your device to compiling your code is substantially faster when using an SSD, meaning you wait less and work more.

The amount of storage you require depends entirely on the size and scope of your projects. A reasonable starting point is 256GB, giving you plenty of space for assets, operating systems, and personal files. If you ever require more storage, most laptops with an SSD are easy enough to upgrade. There are also plenty of great external HDD and SSD options available if that’s not the case.

Full HD or 4K? What size display do I need?

A laptop’s display might not seem like an important thing to keep in mind when looking for a new device to program on, but don’t underestimate its impact. Screen real estate is massively important when juggling multiple windows or overseeing larger chunks of code. Most 13-inch and up screens will be enough to program on, but there’s no harm in seeking a larger screen if you don’t mind the hit you’ll take in portability.

With choosing between 4K and Full HD panels, an FHD 1080p panel will give you a decent amount of screen real estate and crisp, easy-to-read text. A 4K panel will offer larger resolutions and potentially more on-screen space. However, 4K panels also cost more and will drain your laptop’s battery at a much faster rate.

Does the type and size of the keyboard matter?

Programming is primarily going to involve a lot of typing, so it’s important to find a laptop with a quality keyboard. Things like key travel, layout, and spacing are all important in determining how comfortable a keyboard will be to use, and from a programming viewpoint, having a full-sized keyboard on hand is always a boon.

Additional features such as back-lit or mechanical keys can help improve your typing experience further. However, what’s most important is that the keyboard remains comfortable over time, and is durable enough to handle a lot of use. Much of what makes a great keyboard can come down to preference, so knowing what you want from a keyboard in advance can certainly make this decision much easier.

What else should I look for in a laptop for programming?

Programming isn’t often a one-person job, and it may be worth checking if your desired laptop includes a built-in webcam for communicating with team members, clients, or collaborators. There’s also no harm in using an external webcam. In fact, with more people engaging in virtual conferences and meetings, manufacturers have been releasing some of the best webcams to date. However, having a built-in webcam is great for increased portability, or if your desired device has a limited selection of ports available.

Another thing to pay attention to is whether the laptop supports external displays by offering HDMI or Mini DisplayPort connections. If you’ve seen any Hollywood movie that attempts to depict coding, you’ll understand that the more screens you have that rain down a cycle of lime green letters and numbers, the more impressive your programming potential. 

In the real world, having an additional monitor or two available maximizes your screen real estate and allows you to write your code on one screen while executing it on another. It’s incredibly handy, and it’s great for productivity, allowing you to create a real workstation environment around your laptop. If the laptop you want doesn’t include these ports, fear not. Some of the best USB Type-C hubs and the best laptop docking stations do a great job of supplying the power and ports needed to support additional monitors.

Finally, if you’re a coffee shop coder or a drifting developer, pay attention to the battery life of any laptop that catches your eye. Try not to base your decision on the manufacturer’s claims, as real-world uptime can often vary wildly from their estimates. Instead, pay attention to hands-on accounts from reputable reviewers for a more real-world assessment of a device’s battery life. 

At Laptop Mag, we test devices to see how long they can perform continuous web surfing over Wi-Fi at 150 nits of brightness. This gives a fairly reasonable real-world estimate for how long a device can last for most day-to-day operations, and we keep track of the top performers on our list of laptops with the best battery life. However, it’s important to point out that several programming tasks are much more intensive than simple browsing, and can drain your battery at a much faster rate than our testing.