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Ask HN: Best developer laptop under $1700?
38 points by factorialboy 1399 days ago | hide | past | web | 68 comments | favorite
I'll use Ubuntu / Debian based Linux. Looking at System76, any other options?

What kind of developing and what are you looking for in terms of specs?

I run Xubuntu on a 13" MacBook Air, which is only ~$1100 and does everything I need. For web developers, I feel like the Air is almost the default option. That your budget is so high (“under $1700” would seem to include the vast majority of laptops) suggests you may be doing something that needs serious CPU/GPU performance, in which case our goals are different.

For me, portability was paramount (otherwise why get a laptop?), so I wanted it lightweight and no bigger than 13". Second, I wanted it to have an SSD so it'd be fast. I had read that replacing hard drives with SSDs makes a huge difference in responsiveness and that turns out to be absolutely true. All other specs (CPU, RAM, ...), I didn't care about because I felt confident they would be good enough.

Those goals narrowed it down to either one of the PC ultrabooks (which System76 does not make, unfortunately) or the Air. Out of the PC ultrabooks, the ThinkPad X1 Carbon was the best contender, and w1ntermute's comments in this thread: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=4849781 have convinced me that if I were buying a laptop today, I'd probably pick the X1 Carbon over the Air. Either one's great, though, and supports Ubuntu just fine.

Does ubuntu/xubuntu work well on a macbook? Any problems? Can you dual boot with OS X? Do you need to like go into conf files to make it work well or is it just an install and everything works?

I commented on this a couple days ago: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=4849092

In short, it works great. A few very minor annoyances I haven't fixed yet. You can dual boot with OS X using rEFIt: http://refit.sourceforge.net/ You do need to dip into config files just a little bit to get the fans working properly and to make the touchpad not suck.

I know you said you don't need serious performance but a decently spec'ed MBA goes for about $1700. That's with 8GB RAM, the i7 processor and 256GB SSD. You can do web development on a lower end MBA but large compiles or even using bigger IDEs like Eclipse calls for the extra RAM and processing power.

Thanks for offering a different perspective. To me, the basic MBA — which outperforms my previous machine in every spec — clearly has more computing power than I could conceivably need. I never thought of it as low end, but compared to the options you describe, it certainly is.

I can't seem to get a good display with any Ultrabook.

The Asus UX32VD has a 1920x1080 resolution. I have one and love it. You'll have to change the default HDD to an SSD, and upgrade the RAM to 10GB though.

Jeff Atwood also has one - his review is here: http://www.codinghorror.com/blog/2012/09/the-last-pc-laptop....

Also have it and did the same upgrade. It seems the only (or one of the few) upgradable Zenbooks. Others have SSD or RAM soldered on the board. Needed some special screw drivers though (torque 5) in order to open it.

Ubuntu is running on it, has some quirks currently, but runs quite well, although I had to remove the splash from the UEFI boot options to have it boot from a USB stick. Without any special power saving options used (like having the dedicated graphics chip turned off) I get between 3 and 4 hours of battery. Once I have time I will try to tweak the Linux a bit to consume less energy, turn a few things off (keyboard backlight, bluetooth, lower screen brightness) , I should be able to get up to 7 hours of battery or so. On text-mode only I might even get more.

The screen is really bright and has nice colors.

Only thing I didn't like was the trackpad, so I'm mostly on keyboard.

What is your battery life like?

Asus Zenbook Prime now has full HD 1080p screen IPS FHD (1920x1080): http://www.asus.com/Notebooks/Superior_Mobility/ASUS_ZENBOOK...

Going to throw this out there, you decide if it is viable:

You can use a Nexus 10 or iPad with Linode or other VNC software, and a bluetooth keyboard/mouse. It is also possible to rig a tablet with an ethernet connection directly to a host Mac/Linux/Windows device to eliminate any performance issues that a wifi connection might present, although for this to work effectively the device needs a USB 3.0 connection (some newer tablets are sporting this), both for speed and full duplex communication. Android supports IP over USB (even outside of the debugger, but requires some trickery if I remember correctly).

  Cheap: ($400-$500)
  Potential to use satellite connection (if whatever tablet you are buying supports it).
  9+ hours of battery life in some cases.
  2560x1600 resolution (slightly less for iPad 3).

  lag/performance issues
  portability (carrying more pieces)
Other than that, you kind of have to prioritize what is most important for you. In my case, portability is not such a big issue, as long as the device can easily be set up in a hotel room or office I am set. This means I don't really need to limit myself to devices that are battery-powered, and I have considered using a Mac Mini with a portable monitor/keyboard, or even modding a 21 inch iMac to fit in a suitcase (I am unfortunately limited to Apple devices as I do a lot of work with iOS). The performance difference between my iMac (27) and Macbook Air is night and day (and both are new).

In general, there are many hacky ways to avoid buying a laptop, and I recommend it because laptops are often over-priced and under-powered.

I'm totally keeping my eye on this as an option. If you're an Emacs user, than a native port of Emacs+TRAMP will let you edit your files locally, making lag much less of a concern, and let you function when your network connection is problematic.

The Logitech K810 keyboard is reviewing very well[1], so my plan is to get a Nexus 10 + a K810 as soon as the Android Emacs port matures enough to be useful. Right now it has problems with Tramp and external keyboard handling.

The thing about most development is that it's so bursty. While editing you don't need much CPU, but when you recompile or spin up your stack or run your test suite, more CPU translates directly into less wasted time. And even though laptop CPU's appear to be catching up to desktop CPU's, desktop CPU's are still a lot faster. I highly recommend overclocking, current Intel CPU's have so much margin. Don't be aggressive about overclocking: a single reboot will kill any gains you got from the extra 100%. But modern Intel Desktop CPU's with a K suffix can conservatively overclocked 1GHz or so.

My recommendation: split your $1700 in half, half on a cheap laptop and half on a killer desktop. $850 easily buys a killer desktop if you don't include the cost of a monitor or Windows license. Then use tmux and your editor's equivalent of emacs-tramp on your laptop so you can seemlessly transition from laptop to desktop.

1: http://www.androidpolice.com/2012/11/27/logitech-bluetooth-i...

I would add "having to carry two things around now" to that list. That is what keeps me from adopting a setup like that.

fixed :) Although I should add you can create any number of mods that convert the pieces into one cohesive device, although obviously that is not for everybody.

What tablets support a satellite connection?

Google "4g tablets" -- looks like the newest gen iPad does, the Galaxy Tab 10.1, among others. ("Satellite" connection may be a slight misnomer here, depending on how you factor in proxying from cellphone towers).

Sorry but this is just crazy talk.

Neither a Nexus 10 or iPad has an IDE which is mission critical for getting anything done e.g. refactor, debugging. Then you have the issue of having to be online to get anything done which with a laptop isn't a requirement. And after all that you still are without the ability to properly take advantage of source control e.g. git local branches.

I personally run my entire stack of Nginx, Java, Redis, ElasticSearch and Cassandra all on my laptop and it works just fine with our without an internet connection.

My suggestion is that if you can't afford a new machine then go on eBay buy a second hand one and put a $99 Samsung 830 SSD in it.

I thought it might be too! But there are some people that swear by it (have even ditched their Macbooks in favor of an iPad). Neither of them does have a good text editor (at least yet), but you are not limited by the native platform when using a VNC solution. Also, as mentioned if you keep your host device connected to your tablet, your VNC connection is always alive.

All that said, it really depends on how you personally need to work - there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

Personally, I would never use a tablet to get work done, although I have been thinking of ways to effectively turn them into supplementary monitors (2560x1600 for $400? I'll take it).

You don't need $1700 for a laptop to develop on. Especially if it's going to be Linux-based. Get an SSD, a midrange CPU, and 8 gigs of RAM. The rest is totally personal preference and has no real impact on development. What hardware you're running is almost completely irrelevant for most development jobs.

Yep, I completely agree. Don't buy into the hype. The one thing that I do recommend is to have a keyboard you like, those are much harder to swap out. Everything else is easy to find on the mid / low end including usb 3 ports. My setup (Lenovo) with a 256g Samsung 830 (same drive in macs) and 8 gigs of ram running on a second gen i5 cost about $650 and that was a year ago.

Agree... I have an i5, 8gb of ram with an SSD for $500. Save the $1200. Look for Thinkpads on Ebay & just buy the SSD and extra RAM separately. 4gb of ram is $20 at my local store.

I recommend you to buy the SSD and the extra memory at Crucial. The price is very competitive and the hardware very good. I have both 8 gigs of memory and 128 SSD and I'm very happy with it.

The other think, that is a personal preference, is the size of the keyboard and the keys. There are some laptops that have a small size of a key and this is not the best kind for programing. The Lenovo keyboard are one of the best out there (well, in MO, but it's the opinion of a lot Lenovo owners) and you shuld really give it a shot.

I recommend you the series X of Lenovo and the X230[1] if you want a small but powerful laptop (12.5''). This is the one I'm using and I'm very happy with it. And if you want something bigger take a look at the X1 Carbon[2]. If you buy the SSD and the extra memory in Curcial instead of Lenovo you will save some bucks.

[1] http://shop.lenovo.com/SEUILibrary/controller/e/web/LenovoPo... [2] http://shop.lenovo.com/SEUILibrary/controller/e/web/LenovoPo...

A criteria for me would be a good display resolution

It would be for me too, but that's mostly personal preference. I like the biggest damn screen I can get so I can fit more code on it (my home laptop is an 18.4" 1920x1080). But you can code just fine on a generic 13" screen, too, you'll just scroll more. (and my home laptop never travels, so it doesn't matter that it's a billion pounds).

Macbook air 13", just uninstall Mac OS and install Ubuntu. I switched from PC Laptop to Mac and will never look back. OS aside, the hardware is phenomenal, easily the best hardware on the market. The ultrabooks are catching up but they're still nowhere near the air.

I've been doing all my dev work on here and have been impressed with the snapiness of the processor and SSD.

Good luck!

I wouldn't say easily the best hardware in the market. The zenbook prime outclasses it in raw power, though the touchpad gets bad reviews.

I'd also give OSX a fair shot if you buy a Macbook Air. Most of your linux tools are available for it.

Most of your linux tools are available for it.

Basic tools are available, like 'ls' and 'grep'.

Getting anything a little less popular requires what I would term "jumping through hoops," as is the case with many Python dependencies I've encountered. It's especially horrible if the thing needs to be compiled. For a platform where the hardware always conforms to one of a set of fixed profiles, it's bizarre that there isn't a binary package manager for these things.

May have been true on the past but Homebrew (http://mxcl.github.com/homebrew) has improved the situation immensely

> it's bizarre that there isn't a binary package manager for these things.

There are three!

* Fink

* Macports

* Homebrew

There are countless articles on the internet on which one is better than the other. The summary is that it depends on how closely you want the environment to look like Linux.

Macports installs everything from source. That is, it is not a binary package manager.

I've made the switch and haven't looked back. Anything I needed from Linux, I've found in OS X somewhere.

Well that depends on how much attached you are to GNU tools, as OSX provides the BSD versions.

I've been using OSX for 3 years now, and I still ssh to a linux box to do date calculations with date

$ date -d "next sun" $ date -d "+3 years +2 months +3 hours -15 min"

% brew install coreutils

All commands have been installed with the prefix 'g'.

% gdate -d "next sun"

Sun Dec 9 00:00:00 CST 2012

Hope this makes your day.

FYI, macports has supported binary packages for a while

Yeh no. I am actually deploying onto OSX Server and have had to install countless Python modules for Munin alone. It is just the same as on Linux especially with pip.

Fair point. To clarify, I meant build quality more so than power of internals (though the internals are nice too!).

There was a rave review of the Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A by Jeff Atwood recently


The zenbook has a 1.7 GHz processor. Most ultrabooks have processors with speeds 1.5 to 1.8GHz, which might not be the best for development. A T430 with SSD would be a much more compelling dev laptop.

It looks like the T430's best resolution is 1600x900. The ZenBook is 1920x1080, 1.44 times as many pixels. This is the main reason I'm thinking about getting the ZenBook.

I have a Zenbook and love it. Would recommend the UX32VD over the UX31, as you can upgrade the SSD and the RAM. (Jeff Atwood actually uses the UX32VD - he gave the UX31 to his wife.)

Going through Craigslist/eBay/Amazon, you can get a 17" MacBook Pro 2011 + 256GB SSD for about that price. Slap Ubuntu onto the 2nd partition or just wipe it completely. I personally enjoy development mobility and need to crunch data so I need the horsepower.

Alternately getting a 13" Macbook Air + a 27" LCD (Catleap/Yamasaki/Shimian or another Korean flavor) + Apple display connector works beautifully as well, having the options of mobility as well as a good home office screen.

The 17" isn't what I would call portable ;) The thing is a wall of metal!

Actually you get used to it pretty quick. I regularly use it in bed for coding, surfing websites etc. I think it just looks intimidating.

The best bit though is that it doubles as a breakfast tray for those Sunday morning bacon, eggs and coffee.

Asus S56CA + 180GB SSD + extra 4GB RAM (it only has two slots and one of them comes with a 2GB memory).


Would be around $1000 and its a beast. It's powerful enough for everything you will want to do, battery is about 4.5 hours, and it has this NVIDIA Optimus technology that switches between a powerful GT 635 and Intel Ivybridge depending on your graphical needs so battery doesn't drain out that quickly. I play Counter Strike: Global offensive on high res and it works perfectly. 4 different VMs? The SSD handles it. Need to develop 3d stuff on Android? No probs. You'll need Bumblebee (OS project) to handle both GPUs but it's easy as pie to install.

Also its an ultrabook so pretty thin. Not as lightweight as I'd like it to be but still very portable.

I have a GT 555M and last time I checked, I was not able to use two external displays (one through VGA and one with HDMI) under Linux, even with Bumblebee. Also, I don't think you get much of the actual benefits from Optimus through Bumblebee. Mostly because of nVidia being douchy with their drivers.

My current solution is to boot to Windows and then work in Linux trough a VM. It works, but if I would by a new laptop for Linux today I would try to avoid Optimus.

Dell just released "Project Sputnik", which looks like a beast of Windows ultrabook repurposed for Linux.


I'm also looking for a developer laptop. I'm not too thrilled about my experience with OS X and I don't really feel compelled to dig through config files to make basic things like the fan work. Sputnik looks interesting, as it's configured with its own PPA for drivers specific to that machine, meaning that someone else is looking at those config files for your specific setup.

You might be stuck with Ubuntu and have to clean out some "instant cloud" features, though.

Fujitsu-Siemens Lifebook NH570 - The real power(but 18'') http://www.notebookcheck.net/Fujitsu-LifeBook-NH570-MF012DE....

Fujitsu laptops are fantastic and their support is amazing. However; low res... They need to spruce up the resolution to stay relevant. I would never buy anything else if they do.

I'm using my third Fujitsu now, never had a single problem and the first one i bought in 2004 still runs fine :)

I love their keyboards the most, but yeah, resolution isn't something they can be proud of. Been thinking of getting their new ultrabook, http://www.fmworld.net/fmv/pcpm1210/uh/spec/ (around $1400 USD) but resolution is only 1366×768, the same as the machine I already bought in 2010. And if you look closely, even external monitors via HDMI are limited to 1920×1080 which is just mean.

Lifebooks are amazingly awesome for non-Apple hardware, but yeah, low res has been letting them down for a while. The build quality is insanely good though.

They make one of the few laptops that still has a built in serial port which is good for custom hardware dev. And they are made in Japan.

For $1699 you can get either:

13" MacBook Air with 2.0GHz i7, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD, or

13" MacBook Pro Retina, 2.5GHz i5, 8GB RAM, 128GB SSD

Don't worry about the Air's CPU speed, the i7 actually Turbo Boosts to 3.2GHz, vs the Retina i5's 3.1GHz, plus it has an extra 1MB of cache. The choice is basically crazy good display vs larger SSD.

Try using Mac OS X (depending on the type of development you are doing). It can run almost anything Linux can, plus a lot of stuff Linux can't (Netflix, WebEx, MS Office, Photoshop). Don't pretend your laptop is a production environment, it will lead to problems, use Vagrant to run a realistic production environment.

Window management on OSX is utterly hideous if you're used to a proper tiling WM.

ThinkPad X1 Carbon.

$1700 is retina MacBook Pro territory!

The retina Macbook Pro would be a good choice, but I haven't seen a single review that didn't mention that the machine gets choppy even during web browsing. Apple should have never released a retina Macbook with only integrated graphics. It's a real shame because I really wanted a retina machine that was roughly the size and weight of a Macbook Air, but not if it struggles to run even the most basic of programs.

Any Apple v1 is usually going to have one downside. That's the rMBPs.

I was crazy enough to buy a v1 MBA. That thing ran so slowly due to overheating it wasn't funny. Now they're the most awesome portable notebook you can buy. :)

The v2 of a 13" rMBP might be the perfect laptop. :)

Yea, I know that it's technically a V1 for the 13", but you would think that Apple would have noticed that the discrete graphics on the larger model (which has only a slightly higher resolution) were barely getting the job done as it was.

I have high hopes for the next version, I'm hoping that they can work out the performance issues and at the same time implement retina screens into the actual Macbook Air product line.

Thinkpad x230

I've had one for a few months now and it's been excellent, good keyboard, great Linux support and really good battery life (with the 9-cell battery I can get 8hrs+). It's nice and compact, and pretty darn light, if a little on the thick side.

With 8gb of RAM, 128gb SSD, and a midrange Core i5 it runs about $1200-1300, but you could probably buy the RAM/SSD separately and save a fair amount.

The one weak point is the screen resolution (1366x768), but the screen is IPS and very good quality otherwise.

If portability is your primary concern go with - Macbook Air 13" or any Asus ultrabook's with i5 3rd generation and 13" screen size, considering you are fixed with Debian.

Your feature checklist should have 8Gigs or more expandable RAM + Excellent display resolution + Battery backup + at least minimum 128GB SSD.

A checkpoint - Most ultrabooks have many many driver issues, esp graphics, so do a research.

Best safe bet is to go with Mac Air 13", they run perfect! Worth mentioning the huge community of users.

You can get a thinkpad off of ebay for <700 that will run debian or ubuntu + compiz if you want it.

My next development laptop will certainly be thinkpad x1 carbon. 8GB of RAM and 256 SSD are enough for running development virtual machines. My current machine is good enough but i will buy it when they'll upgrade to Haswell CPU's and maybe some higher resolution screens.

Whatever you get make sure its display is high res enough. Coding in an IDE like Eclipse or Visual Studio on screen resolution smaller than 1080p is a pain. I still don't understand why most laptops nowadays still have 720p screens.

I recently learned about these guys: http://zareason.com/shop/Laptops/

If I were on the market for a dev machine today my choice would be between their UltraLap 430 and Dell's XPS 13.

Samsung NP900X3C, probably the best ultrabook. It has slightly higher resolution than the newest Air, matte screen, is slighly lighter and thinner.

My vote for the MacBook Air 13'. Hands down. I installed Windows 8 on it (bootcamp) and have Ubuntu running in a VM.

I have hp mini 1000 netbook, with Ubuntu + XMonad. Everything under $300.

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