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Best laptops for programming and coding in 2022

There are so many factors to consider when choosing the perfect computer for a programmer or software developer. We break them down and offer suggestions to suit different preferences

As IT professionals know very well, a good laptop is unmatched in delivering the best quality of work. Of course, a tablet and desktop PC also have distinct qualities. However, there is nothing quite as useful as having the comfort of a high-powered computer that is also easy to carry around. Hence, although the other two devices are useful, it’s the humble laptop that is like no other hardware.

Programmers, coders, software developers, and engineers are professions that depend greatly on the quality of a laptop. From keyboard and port options to processing power and the type of operating system, several factors come into play when choosing the perfect laptop for a professional programmer or coder. Even display size should be taken into account – after all, can you imagine trying to find a coding error on the 7.1 x 4.3-inch screen of a GPD Pocket laptop?

However, the most important quality when searching for the best laptop for programming and coding is its ability to make work not feel like work. This means that the perfect device needs to combine all the most helpful features with being a pure pleasure to use – without constant lagging, heavy lifting, or bad design.

Taking all of these issues into account can seem like an overwhelming task when you have limited time to find a new laptop. Hence, IT Pro has collated some of the best offerings on the market, based on the most common programming, coding, software development, and engineering needs.

Display size

The size of the display will make an enormous difference to certain developers. More specifically, it will matter more to those with smaller external displays, or no external displays at all.

If using a laptop, most programmers opt for at least one external monitor in addition to their laptop’s built-in screen for maximum productivity. However, some programmers own multiple external displays and don’t need to have their laptop open at all, having it simply act more like a mobile tower computer rather than an all-in-one workhorse.

Laptops typically come in sizes ranging from 13 inches to 16 inches, but the short answer is bigger is better in nearly all cases. Looking at multiple lines of code between project files can be tricky on smaller screens and running a simulator on the same window can make for an uncomfortable experience if coding just on the laptop itself.

If you go for a smaller display, make sure you have a good amount of screen estate in your overall set-up, such as one or two external 27-inch displays. They don’t need to be expensive, 4K panels – programming values space over resolution.

Type of keyboard

There are so many factors that differentiate one keyboard from the next, and what keyboard is considered best can be quite subjective. The type of key switch, size of the keyboard, and how much you can customise it also come into play so, above all else, it’s worth getting hands-on with a variety of keyboards before you buy to find your favourite type of configuration.

What’s more objective, though, is the need for a comfortably sized keyboard. Key switches come in myriad different styles but keyboard sizes typically have just the two: keyboards with number pads and those without them. You will often find the number pads on laptop keyboards go unused in programming and they can, in certain installations, offset the keyboard away from the centre of the display, which can be off-putting if using the laptop’s keyboard to type regularly, rather than an external board.

Key switches also vary significantly between laptops and keyboard manufacturers. Membrane keys are most commonly found on less expensive office keyboards while mechanical keys come in different sensitivities and levels of tactile and audible feedback. The latter are trendier but are found less commonly on laptops and need to be thoroughly tested before buying as they can be an acquired taste.

Processing power and storage

Software or web development isn’t typically the most compute-heavy workload when compared to job functions that involve things like video editing and running data analyses, for example. Regardless, the likelihood of having multiple applications running at the same time, as is the case in most office environments, will demand high-performance hardware such as CPUs and RAM to get the job done efficiently.

It’s also worth considering the amount of storage space you will need and the type of storage required. We recommend going for as much storage as you can afford and choosing solid state drives (SSDs) over traditional hard drive disks (HDDs).

SSDs have historically been much more expensive than HDDs but prices have dropped considerably in recent years and the slightly pricier type of drive will allow you to access the files you need at lightning speed, comparatively speaking.

FAQ

Do I need a large screen for programming?

Bigger isn’t always better, but when it comes to coding, a large amount of screen real-estate can be incredibly useful. Not only does it allow you to see more lines of code at once without endless scrolling, it’s also great for multitasking - so you can have your preferred IDE open in one window, and StackOverflow right alongside without having to waste time switching back and forth.

On the other hand, this doesn’t necessarily mean you need to buy an enormous laptop in order to work efficiently. Given that coding often involves long, continuous sessions, many programmers may choose to work with sophisticated customised desk setups, often keeping their laptop docked and connected to multiple monitors, along with an external keyboard and mouse for maximum comfort.

If this is your preferred mode of working, it may not be worth investing in a larger laptop, which are almost always heavier and more expensive than smaller rivals. On the other hand, those that spend more time away from their desks may appreciate the extra flexibility. 

In general, we feel a 14in or 15in laptop represents the optimum balance between portability and screen size for most developers.

Should I buy a laptop with a numberpad for programming?

As with the size question above, this mostly comes down to personal taste and the approach you take to your code. Some more traditional programmers find it easier to use a numberbad for navigation within an OS, as well as for executing certain commands and operations. Others, however, may have trouble using these methods if they haven’t developed the necessary muscle memory.

Full-size keyboards with included numberpads are common sights on larger laptops, but for those that want the same functionality without having to lug around a 17in behemoth all day, external keyboards - and even standalone external numberpads - provide a convenient way to replicate this with minimal hassle.

Which OS is best for programming?

It’s become something of a trend that developers have to use Apple MacBooks to do their programming, and there are many reasons that coders might want to use Apple’s laptops - they’re elegantly designed, with strong performance and a smooth, UNIX-based OS that dovetails neatly with many languages and systems they’ll be using. They’re also a must-have for any developer looking to create software specifically for Apple’s ecosystem, as the necessary coding and testing tools are exclusive to its software.

However, macOS is by no means the only option when it comes to programming. Microsoft Windows is the most widely used operating system in the world, and since the addition of Windows Subsystem for Linux, its versatility has increased dramatically. FInally, there’s Linux itself, which - despite the ever-present spectre of compatibility issues - remains a popular choice for developers looking to completely immerse themselves in the world of programming. To get the best overall coverage, our advice would be to pick up a Windows device, and either dual-boot Linux onto it, or use the inbuilt Linux tooling to customise your workflows - unless you’re an Apple-specific developer, in which case a Mac is probably the way to go.

The best laptops for programming

Apple MacBook Air (M1, 2020)

Best Mac for programming and coding

MacBook Air open on a table

IT Pro

MacBook Airs have been Apple’s answer to the ultra-portable notebook for several years now, but with the addition of the company’s in-house processor, the M1 chip, they are now serious contenders for professional workloads too.

All that extra power gained in recent years has not raised the price of the series of notebooks either. Starting at $999, the MacBook Air will suit almost all programmers, coders, and software developers, with all major IDEs able to run on it without any issues.

If you’re a mobile developer using the Swift or SwiftUI programming languages, you'll need a Mac to program for Apple’s ecosystem, as Xcode is not available on other operating systems.

CPU

8-core 3.2GHz/2.1GHz Apple M1 chip with 8-core GPU

RAM

16GB

Screen

13.3in 2,560 x 1,600

Dimensions

304 x 212 x 16.1mm

Weight

1.29kg

Price when reviewed: £1,374

Read our full Apple MacBook Air M1 review for more information.

Dell XPS 15

Best for those looking for high quality

A photograph of the Dell XPS 15

IT Pro

Dell’s XPS range has always been the main rival to Apple’s line of MacBooks and for good reason. The XPS line consistently packs incredible performance into a small, aesthetically pleasing form factor which also brings with it a stunning display, every time.

The latest 15-inch model is up there with the very best MacBook rivals and the display is one of the standout features. A stunning 4K OLED panel displays everything in crisp detail but it does impede battery life. In IT Pro's tests, the machine managed a little more than seven hours when rivals last markedly longer. However, developers don't often do any lengthy work on batteries. Programmers are usually stationed at a desk, hooked up to multiple external monitors and mains power, but it's something to consider, nonetheless.

Another key selling point for the XPS 15 is its fantastic performance, which was just shy of the scores posted by desktop workstations, as well as its upgradability in the memory and storage departments.

CPU

Intel Core i7-1180H

RAM

32GB

Screen

15.6in, 3840 x 2400 touchscreen

Dimensions

354 x 230 x 18mm

Weight

2kg

Price when reviewed: £2,040 exc VAT

Read our full Dell XPS 15 review for more information.

Microsoft Surface Laptop Studio

Best for those looking for a top 2-in-1

A photograph of the Microsoft Surface Studio Laptop in Stage mode

Unlike many 2-in-1 machines on the market, the Microsoft Surface Laptop Studio is truly fit for business. One of the best devices of its kind that IT Pro has ever tested, the tablet-cum-laptop offers decent performance and 17-hour battery life to boot.

The real business benefit is its omni-capability - it functions not only as a tablet and a laptop but also as a bespoke presentation system thanks to its clever Stage mode. So whether it's building the next big feature for your application or website, or presenting your hard work to the higher-ups, the device is versatile enough to bring solid performance in many working setups.

The performance of the Microsoft Surface Laptop Studio is good, but don't expect it to be beating the MacBook Pros or the Dell XPS 15 any time soon, however, it should be plenty suitable for programming. Running real-time simulators for tasks like app development may degrade the performance a little though, so if that's a core part of your workflow then perhaps consider something more powerful.

CPU

Intel Core i7-11370H

RAM

32GB

Screen

14.4in 2,400 x 1,600 touchscreen

Dimensions

323 x 228 x 19mm

Weight

1.82kg

Price when reviewed: £2,399

Read our full Microsoft Surface Laptop Studio review for more information.

Asus Chromebook CX9 (CX9400CE)

Best for those who need a Chromebook with style

A photograph of the Asus Chromebook CX9 on a table

Chromebooks aren't often the first option that's likely to spring to mind for developers looking for a work machine, but increasing Linux support in ChromeOS is making it a more and more feasible option. If you are looking for a Chromebook for coding, then you can do much, much worse than the Asus Chromebook CX9. 

Being among the more expensive Chromebooks available on the market, you would expect strong performance and it does indeed deliver, but not in excess. The performance is solid, but there are other far more powerful laptops on the market that are worth considering if pace is your priority. That said, in our tests, we ran into no issues running multiple applications concurrently and what's more, the CX9 runs quietly and cool.

The battery life on the CX9 is fine. It beats a lot of the high-powered machines in this list but not by a considerable margin with a score of 10hrs 47mins, and many programmers will favour power over battery life given the task at hand. Still, it's a highly capable device that delivers decent performance, all bundled into a strong and light chassis. If it has to be a Chromebook, then make it this one.

CPU

Intel Core i7-1165G7

RAM

16GB

Screen

14in 1,920 x 1,080

Dimensions

322 x 205 x 16mm

Weight

1.15kg

Price when reviewed: £1,084

Read our full Asus Chromebook CX9 (CX9400CE) review for more information.

Razer Book 13

Best for those looking for a near-perfect all-rounder

The Razer Book 13 on a desk

Keumars Afifi-Sabet/IT Pro

Renowned for its dominance in the gaming space, Razer's first attempt at a business-focused laptop does away with the gimmicky gaming features (RGB lighting is still an option, though) and delivers outstanding performance that lends itself perfectly for programming.

We struggled to find a fault with the Razer Book 13 in almost any metric when we reviewed it in 2021. Everything from the premium build quality, and the hardware performance, all the way to the keyboard which struck an ideal balance between mechanical and muted switches, was superb.

The Razer Book 13 even bucks the trend when it comes to battery life. With no noticeable trade-off between performance and longevity, the machine ran for 10hrs 48ins in our tests - much longer than the XPS 15 - making it perfect for the typical working day. 

CPU

Intel Core i7-1165G7

RAM

16GB

Screen

13.4in 1,920 x 1,200

Dimensions

296 x 199 x 15mm

Weight

1.4kg

Price when reviewed: £1,317 exc VAT

Read our Razer Book 13 review for more information.

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Titanium Yoga

Best for those seeking a joyous typing experience

A photograph of the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Titanium Yoga on a table

This list wouldn't be complete without a ThinkPad - the business notebook. This isn't simply a check-box inclusion, though, the keyboards on ThinkPads have traditionally been a delight to use and the X1 Titanium Yoga's is no exception. 

The breed of users who seek out excellent typing experiences will appreciate the fast, crisp buttons on the X1 Titanium Yoga's keyboard, and the actuation is so fast the keys practically bounce back after being pressed. The device is slim and light too while keeping a sturdy chassis. Weighing in at just over 1kg, it's among the lightest in its product category and remained quiet and cool throughout our time with it.

We must say that the X1 Titanium Yoga's performance leaves much to be desired, and the trackpad that sits under the fantastic keyboard disappointed with a rough coating and required too much force to click. For this reason, programmers may want to opt for something a little more capable of heavy workloads.

CPU

Intel Core i7-1160G7

RAM

16GB

Screen

13.5in 2,256 x 1,504 touchscreen

Dimensions

298 x 232 x 11.5mm

Weight

1.15kg

Price when reviewed: £1,814 exc VAT

Read our full Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Titanium Yoga review for more information.

How we test laptops for programming

Like every laptop we review, the units on this list have been put through a number of tests to measure their technical performance across a range of categories. For display testing, we use a colorimeter and the open source DisplayCal measurement software. This allows us to check the contrast ratio and maximum brightness, as well as the colour accuracy and reproduction.

This is done by testing what percentage of a given colour gamut the display can represent, as well as measuring the average Delta-E rating, showing how closely those colours match the target hue. We generally test against the sRGB colour gamut, but for certain laptops, we may also test against the DCI-P3 and Adobe RGB gamuts, if the display has been specifically calibrated for them.

To measure a machine’s performance, we use a suite of custom benchmark tests, which simulate a series of different workloads: a single-core image conversion test, a multi-core video encoding job and a stress test where both the previous tasks are run simultaneously while also playing back a video.

Each test gives us an individual result, which are then combined to form an overall score. This is usually the main result we’ll quote as part of a review, but we’ll also discuss individual test results where relevant. These test results are supported by Geekbench 5’s single and multi-core benchmark tests to identify any anomalous results, as well as AS SSD’s storage speed benchmarks.

Battery life is another important area of testing, which is measured by playing a looped video in airplane mode with the screen set to a consistent brightness level, and measuring how long it takes the battery to deplete. This allows us to compare battery life between machines in a consistent manner, but doesn’t necessarily give an indication of real-world longevity, so for this we track the battery life over the course of our testing period, measuring how long it lasts when used for real-world workloads of varying intensities.

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