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Discussion on: Laptops For Developers

lumdermaku profile image
Lum Dërmaku

Nice article. Since i am really familiar with this subject, i'd really want to start a discussion here on this article of yours. Please don't take what i'll say out of context since i'm just trying to be helpful.

At the Display paragraph, by "big aspect ratio" you implied "taller aspect ratio", right? Something like 16:10 minimum would be great for any type of displays with whatever resolution and size. Also, f.e: a 15.6" diagonal display with a 16:10 ratio is bigger (for around 5.7%) than a 15.6" 16:9 ratio display, see XPS 15 9500 and last gen 7590 as examples. That extra vertical portion is very nice since you now have to scroll less because more content is fitted on the screen. What is also very important to mention is the absence of anti-reflectivity and anti-glare features like in matte displays. Although XPSes, Macbooks and perhaps other laptops with glossy displays have a layer of anti-reflectivity on top of the display, to be honest they really don't do much. This is something that people take for granted but in a bright environment like most offices, you'll end up looking at the reflection of your face on the display rather than at the content of the display. I see a lot of colleagues that strain their eyes starring at these glossy and small displays and don't admit that it isn't comfortable just because the laptop has a logo with a bitten apple and it is supposed to be good. Sure you can raise the brightness to counter-attack the reflections but if you're on battery, raising the brightness will raise the display's power draw and as a result you'll get way less battery life. Also, the small displays are actually an issue because of the eye-strain and i see my colleagues bend their backs over the laptop to come closer and look at the display more comfortably (for their eyes) but their backs really hurt. I understand the portability of these small laptops but a relatively small sacrifice in size and weight is necessary for your health.
Matte displays in modern laptops aren't in all cases SUPER matte like some Dell monitors of ~7 years ago or so. They aren't really as grainy as people say (i have one for my self) and they help a ton with reflections and glare. Oh and you can actually purchase matte screen protectors for your glossy-screens, they are usually very thin and don't interfere with the keyboard when the laptop is closed. This is a great investment for your eyes.
Color accuracy and color gamut coverage are also important for some, even though not that important since usually a UI/UX designer (or their peers) will decide what color a particular element of the app will have and you'll end up using only the hex codes anyway but a screen that has avg delta E <2 is ideal but in relation to higher color gamut coverage (depending if you work on sRGB - most devs, Adobe RGB, dci-p3, etc), higher contrast, better gamma values.

As of ram, dual channel ram is pretty much unavoidable nowadays, primarily because of the multiplied bandwidth (not as straightforward as that but you get the point). Looking for a laptop with a particular amount of ram should also be followed with dual channel support/configuration.

Storage, again very important to know what type of ssd interface you want, depending on how big your budget is. Sata 3 ssds are pretty much the standard in new sub 500$ laptops nowdays, in the form of 2.5" drives or m.2 2280 drives. Of course, with the recent launch+adaptation of Pciegen4 nvme SSDs, at least a pcie gen3x4 nvme ssd should be the standard in all new ~500$+ laptops and it kinda is with some laptops since last year.

Excuse me for pointing out almost everything you wrote but this is very important. The part where you talked about which laptop, it really isn't as simple as "hey, if you do video editing and coding, get a macbook pro". There are tons of factors that determine what you need for video editing and the last option there is in terms of "just get xxx laptop" is the macbook pro 16 (assuming this is what you referred to because of the price). The description is pretty vague since there are tons of requirements for a video editor but i can see why you'd recommend it.

Anyway, back to the coding part. The only reason you'd want to get the macbook air (assuming the base 999$ 2020 model) is if you really need the full macOs features for a 2020 macbook and if you have a .edu account for 100$ off. There really isn't any other excuse on why you'd want to get such an expensive laptop for what it offers. Besides its great build quality, great trackpad and good screen (for this pricerange and category), its cooling is really bad, its dual core cpu is... well, let's just skip this part, its ssd is just an nvme pciegen3x2 from ~5 years ago or so which doesn't even come close go gne3x2 speeds, etc. If you want to get the i5 10th gen quad core config, that way the price again can't be justified because of the existence of the 1st tier 2020 macbook pro 13 which by default comes with a quad core i5 10th gen (sadly comet lake not ice lage). For a ~100$ difference you'll get way more advantages than the Air.
Btw, how do you determine "the best"? It really should be reasoned since there won't ever be "the best" in terms of anything, even on the subject of software development. After you write which is "the best" you suggest, from a 999$ laptop you drop to a 659$ HP Pavilion which we don't even know its model? Then a 499% Thinkpad? Sure, Thinkpads have a great reputation and i agree with you, but which Thinkpad are you talking about? Then for video editing, again, you just mention the base model's price of the XPS 15 9500 without really getting into any detail. The base XPS 15 9500 really isn't close to ideal for video editing of any sort, if you're familiar with this stuff.

Here are some more accurate,modern and insightful suggestions for laptops for software development. First, we really should be dividing this huge topic in smaller portions. I believe that most of the developers around here are either web developers, mobile devs and software devs related to AI. We will exclude game devs and AI devs since in most cases it is highly dependent on the GPU their work needs so without getting too complicated, i'll write below what is suitable for all "most popular" software dev positions (from what i mentioned in the previous sentence).

We probably all know that the work we do, it doesn't really need a lot of resources and most of the times we choose a laptop based on extra, non-relatable requirements that are usually overkill and not necessary. F.e: for the work we do, an integrated gpu is totally fine, there's no need for any fancy dedicated/discrete gpu. Also, because of the core count ,at least a quad core cpu is necessary. Because of very different cooling designs of laptops (of even the same brand), a particular cpu is not guaranteed to perform the same as in another laptop. Apple tends to implement basic cooling designs in their laptops and leave the cpus pull more power (to try to keep the advertised frequencies for as long as possible) so they tend to stay at very high, concerning temps. The bigger 15.4" to 16" macbooks have always had the cooling issue where the components never perform even close to how they should. To explain this even further, the cooling designs that you see are designed to dissipate a particular amount of heat "efficiently" under an reasonable fanspeed. The cooling inside those laptops is not designed to cool 56W sustained from those cpus, that's why they throttle hard. They pull over 80W (depending on the laptop, cpu and configuration) for ~1 second to try to hit the advertised all core (or 1 core) frequencies (this is intel's fault because of the false marketing) and then drop to 45W-50W which is the tdp designed to reach the base clockspeeds, all of this while the temps are stupidly high (over 96C constantly). While the fans don't start spinning faster during ~2 minutes of continuous 100% all core utilization, the temps of course are high but even after they start spinning, the laptop cannot maintain higher power draw because of the limited cooling design. The smaller Macbook Pro 13s can maintan ~25W to 30W while trying to keep high clockspeeds (still not near its full potential) for a long time while keeping the temps in low 90s but this is after the fans have started spinning (after ~2 minutes of continuous 100% all core utilization). This fan behavior is either a good thing or a bad thing:

  • It is good because for short high-cpu utilization tasks, the fans won't ramp up at all and you won't annoy your coworkers or yourself and the cpu will stay at very high temps just for a couple of seconds (or even minutes) which isn't particularly bad for its longevity.

  • It is bad because you're not getting the adequate performance, the temps are too high and bad for longevity of the laptop(if you do this very frequently). Check Louis Rossmann and the amount of bricked macbooks that he fixes on a daily basis.

Anyway, since we got that out of the way, keep in mind that there are tons of laptops that don't have this approach. They usually stick to close-base tdp and have a fixed fan-curve, like a classic fan curve where as soon as the cpu hits a particular temp, the fans start spinning. The only laptops that have a similar approach to fans' behavior like Apple's (but not that aggressive) are the line of Dell XPSes. They don't take it to extreme but i think that their approach is better because the fans will start spinning a bit sooner compared to macbooks and as a result, the temps are a bit better in most cases - also because of better cooling solutions (exluding the XPS 13 9300 and 9310).

Good new laptops' prices are now in the range of 600-700$, and i'm talking of really good ones for their price, mainly because of AMD's Zen2 cpus - Ryzen 4th gen mobile.

Because the X86 ISA, we don't necessarily have to be limited to only intel cpus. If you pay attention to this stuff, intel is kinda behind in terms of innovation in the cpu area (the new Xe i-gpus seem very promising tho). While the apps that we use for software development (web devs and mobile devs) are not bound to particular hardware-wise advantages of Intel cpus (like in photo&video editing), we can also include some awesome AMD Zen2 cpu-based laptops. There shouldn't really be any issue with these cpus since, as i said above, they have the same ISA but because of architectural differences, in the past there used to be issues with Amd cpus in Android Studio's Emulator but they're been resolved since last year. In other aspects of software dev - web dev specifically, there shouldn't be any issues.

  • As a first recommendation, which is better than the macbook air (and 2nd tier macbook pro 13 2020) in a lot of aspects is the new Lenovo Ideapad S540 13 which comes with a metal build (and great build quaility overall), 16:10 13.3" 2560x1600 300 nit display, either a Ryzen 5 4600u or Ryzen 7 4800U (which i highly recommend) or you can get the intel + nvidia model - with a 10th Gen Commet Lake i5 10510U or i7 10710U and an Nvidia MX350 15W model. In the link above you have a great review & comparison of the amd vs intel+nvidia models. They have the same internals besides the CPUs and GPUs. You can even see that for the same power consumption, the ryzen 7 4800U performs way better, for a cheaper price. Its igpu also isn't bad at all but yeah, the Mx350 15w is better but not substantially. Fortunately, Lenovo raised the power draw (as it should be) and tries to maintain pretty high power consumption considering its size and cooling solution. Unless you need the benefits of an Intel cpu, that nvidia d-gpu and thunderbolt 3, there is no reason not to get the Amd model with that Ryzen 8 4800U. Yeah its screen is unfortunately glossy but at least its aspect ratio and resolution are awesome. The amd model has display port 1.4b in one (or 2, i forgot) of those usb c ports so you're getting full UHD@60Hz resolution. If you connect multiple UHD displays in this laptop, i'm not sure that it is possible unless you get the model with tb3 where you can conntect a dock to it and connect 2 uhd 60hz displays onto it, i guess with 1 port you can daisychain 2 uhd 60hz displays in 1 tb3 port, or maybe that is in only the new thunderbolt 4 spec. Anyway, you get the point i'm trying to make here. Also, its trackpad is glass (thankfully) and good for this pricerange and its keyboard is totally acceptable for most users.

  • As of another awesome recommendation is the new Lenovo Yoga Slim 7 Pro which for ~300$ more than the Ideapad S540 13, offers a lot more. it can be configured with a 14" 16:10 2880x1800 90Hz 400 nit display which is one of a kind, an r9 4900H (configurable 45W tdp and the best mobile cpu on the market at the moment), all metal build, simple and stylish and probably a lot will like it, a 61whr battery, and other great specs. Based on previous Lenovo Yogas and Thinkpad Yogas with metal builds, this one probably has great build quality but we have to wait and see. Similar to the Ideapad above, there's also the Intel+Nvidia model of this laptop - the Yoga Slim 7i Pro which comes with a weaker 11th gen Tiger Lake i7 1185G7, an MX450 25W and thunderbolt 4 ports. Again, similar story to the previous comparison. The issue right now (besides the 100Euro increase in price for the Intel+Nvidia model) is that Lenovo delayed the amd model because (this is what they told me) a delay in the delivery of some Intel parts. Now, amd has reported to have shortages of renoir cpus, mainly because of the high demand and because of Covid. If anyone wants this laptop, it will be worth it to wait for it.

  • The Surface Laptop 3 13 is still awesome, its taller 3:2 aspect ratio display stands out, its great trackpad and keyboard (although keyboards are subjective), its cooling design and cpu condiguration are good and respectable considering its dimensions and weight. The screen again, very reflective but it can be improved by putting a matte screen protector on it. For the price (compared to those 2 Lenovos), the performance is a bit underwhelming but not bad at all.

  • I wanted to also include the Huawei Matebook X Pro but because of its bad (passive) cooling design and outdated specs, its performance is sad considering its price but the new Matebook 14 has redesigned cooling, better Amd Ryzen 4000H cpus and overall it is not bad at all but i think that its touchpad is still plastic and i have no info about its batterylife.

  • The recently announced Asus Zenbook S UX393 is a complete redesign with a 3:2 display and overall it is great. Again, its performance is underwhelming considering its size.

  • Because there aren't that many laptops with screens diagonally 15" or bigger with 16:10 ratios, we are very limited to very expensive laptops in this category. There is the Surface Laptop 3 15 but its performance is not good for its price and its batterylife is very mediocre, in all other areas it is like a supersize Surface Laptop 3 13.

  • If you're willing to spend more money, the XPS 15 9500 is an awesome option. In laptops with bigger screens like this, because the most common viewing distance is ~50-70cm, you really need a display with a higher resolution because you'll be starring at text all day and not well-defined letters are kinda an issue. Even though the base display is a matte FHD+ display, its PPI is low and as a result you will see that everything isn't well defined. The problem is that you can get the UHD+ display config only if you also bump up the other specs which kinda forces you to spend more money but keep in mind that the UHD+ resolution will be a massive difference compared to FHD+. It is glossy, sure, and has an antireflective layer but again, just like in all macbooks, it doesn't do much and a matte screen protector would be a great investment. I already talked about the cooling design of the XPS line near the top of this comment but because of the better cooling compared to the macbook pro 16, as a result will perform noticeably better. Because it has a 10th gen cpu vs 9th gen in the MBP16, it shouldn't be counted as an advantage since as i already stated, Intel is behind in cpu innovation and 10th gen is pretty much identical to 9th gen, just a bit different base & boost clockspeeds but because XPS 15 also throttles, it will not reach its advertised speeds but it will perform better than the MBP16 equivalent. You're also forced to get a dedicated Nvidia gpu with it but because most of us don't need it in our day-to-day use, it is kinda a problem and you'll probably end up never using it. For more info, just check that review of it i linked above.

There are tons of other laptops, most of which have 16:9 displays which probably aren't an issue for most devs but i'm trying to end this comment here in the hopes that you had the chance to learn something here today and i thank OP for writing this post.

Maybe some day i'll end up writing a separate post about all of this info but since there's too much info, i'm kinda hesitating.

garvitmotwani profile image
Garvit Motwani Author

The laptops that you have suggested and the tips are awesome thank you

lumdermaku profile image
Lum Dërmaku

there is no way that you read all of what i wrote in less than 1 minute lol.

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garvitmotwani profile image
Garvit Motwani Author

I was just reading the articles