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Ask HN: Which developer laptop should I buy?
114 points by tapan_pandita on Jan 20, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 112 comments
Hey HN,

I am looking to buy a new laptop. My primary OS will be ubuntu. Which laptop would you guys recommend? My main criteria is that it should be light and work without any hiccups with ubuntu.

I've been looking around and it seems a lot of developers prefer Lenovo X220. The new carbon X1 looks good too. Does anyone have any experience with them?

Has anyone tried running Ubuntu (dual boot or otherwise) on a Macbook Air? Does it work without any issues?

Any of the new touchscreen laptops worth checking out?

My budget is around a 1000$ but I wouldn't mind spending some more if it means getting the best machine.

Thanks for your suggestions!

ThinkPad T530 or W530 with the 1920x1080 screen upgrade. The W530 is marginally heavier but cheaper in some configurations and takes 32GB instead vs the T's 16GB. Install an aftermarket Samsung 830 (not 840) SSD if you have the money. The 840 uses cheaper flash chips than the 830, which is a top quality SSD.

ThinkPad build quality is unrivaled. The keyboard is almost as nice as my HHKB. The hinges are rock solid. The keyboard has drainage ducts. Everything is designed to be serviced.

I've got a couple recent ThinkPads - (T400 + W520) - running Linux, and love them.

My favorite thing is the removable CD/DVD bay, where you can stick in a hard drive caddy and put different 2.5" drives in there.

Nice for super-fast (internal SATA) backups to multiple drives. 500G of databases, video, etc. Or for installing an alternate O.S. - so if you want to try a BSD or Linux on its own root drive instead of a virtual machine, it's an easy way to swap out drives.

Also because they're so popular, parts are easily replaced. I typed-through the keyboard on my 2-year-old T400S, wearing the matte finish & letters off the keys, and it was only $40 to go to some random shop in Singapore and get them to put a brand new T400S keyboard on it.

$30 for a replacement monitor off of ebay since t400 will work with some t6x parts.

> ThinkPad build quality is unrivaled. The keyboard ...

Having briefly owned (and subsequently returned a W520), I found the keyboard tolerable at best, and the trackpad was an utter disaster. I hear Lenovo build quality is not what it used to be back around the T61 days.

Most people who regard Lenovo quality as best of the best have never used a Panasonic Toughbook. Oh my God - the keyboard on a CF-53 is the best ever if you're a Vim fan. Also: Gobi-2000, 36" drop rating 6 times, something like 200+ lbs crush rating meaning you can stand/jump on it, you can run water through the keyboard without issue, pick it up by the carry handle and swing it around haphazardly, and has interesting BIOS functions like Concealed Mode, hardware on/off wireless switch, easy swappable hard drive. It is a TANK, and did I mention the haptic feedback on the keyboard is just incredible. Because the feeling doesn't get better than this. You cannot say the same about Lenovo.

That said I just picked up a System76 Bonobo Extreme, because it's such a pain dealing with my CF-53's 1366x768 resolution all the time, and I wanted a future proof workstation that confidently runs Linux. System76 maintains Debian packages to get the little things right. I think you need a higher res setup for long hours, and maybe a lower resolution machine for working on-the-go. If I could do it over again, I'd go with the Bonobo Extreme (17") for my main workstation, complimented with a Toughbook CF-C2 if I wanted lightweight, CF-53 if I could handle the bulk, or CF-19 top of the line w/ GPS if I had an extra $5,000 laying around. Haven't used the Bonobo Extreme yet, but I'm really anxious to see how well Ubuntu does when it gets commercial hardware support and a high performance GPU. At $2500 the BE wasn't cheap, but then again the only other machine I'd look for in that price range is an Apple, and their walled garden approach just kills me. Still I'd probably go with Apple over Lenovo even if I weren't a die hard Linux fan; I can deal with Linux in a VM. Would only deal with Lenovo as last resort.


It's tough alright. http://www.panasonic.com/business-solutions/marketing-materi...

No wonder they managed to fit a really good keyboard into a huge chassis like that.

Yes, thanks for pointing out the fully rugged CF-31. Have an upvote.

From what I've read 840 Pro beats it and uses half the power:


"The Samsung 840 Pro is a revolutionary SSD in terms of steady state performance, beating out the competition easily in our trace based testing. The low latency and high sequential speeds are among the best we have recorded. The power consumption figures prove that this SSD would be just as much at home in the latest Ultrabook as in an overclocked gaming rig."

The W530 looks like an absolutely lovely machine... I am tempted to get one myself as I am planning on moving state side and wanting something to replace my desktop for development.

I have had my W530 for a few months and it is the best laptop experience I have ever had. The power brick is a beast, the only downside. I use the NVidia card in dedicated mode (Optimus disabled) and would recommend the T530 for someone wanting to use integrated Intel graphics. I use it as a desktop replacement, with a Samsung 830 (which is rock solid) in the main drive slot and the original 320GB 7200RPM drive in a media bay HDD adapter.

I haven't upgraded from 16GB to 32GB yet, but I like having the option!

The main downside, besides the weight, is the 170W monstrosity of a power brick. The performance is amazing and Ubuntu support is decent: NVIDIA Optimus doesn't seem to work and suspend is flaky, but those are the only problems I've encountered.

I'll add to the chorus regarding the W5xx series. I have a W510 here that is 2 years old, and has been used heavily all that time. I also have a W520 that is 1 year old, similarly used, and has also traveled overseas a dozen times. No problems with either (both used for various Linux distros). Prior to Lenovo owning the brand, I owned IBM ThinkPads for years. I can testify to over over 15 years of their reliability.

I've got a W520. It's a great machine. Love the keyboard!

Now for problems. Hopefuly some of these things were fixed in W530?

* Bezel is huge!

* Larger 170W power supply is very heavy, doesn't work in airplane power outlets. Smallish power cord often pops off.

* Installing Crucial M4 SSD for me has resulted in BSODs (on windows). Dual booted to linux mint 12 and that also corrupted. Google for SSD W520 BSOD. Eventually gave up and went back to stock HDD.

I have a thinkpad T410s and I'm really happy with it. It has the ruggedness of the T series but is considerably lighter and more portable. I couldn't image using another laptop any time soon.

Good powerful and light developer laptops include:

The Lenovo X230. Downside: Only a 1366x768 screen.

The 13" Vaio S. Upside: Pretty much the lightest full-power 13.3" laptop, 1600x900 screen, a comfortable keyboard, $880. Downside: None? The screen is only pretty good, instead of being a high end, high color gamut screen? It lacks a Thinkpad keyboard. It has HDMI instead of DisplayPort. This is a good general purpose laptop.

The Lenovo T430s: The downsides relative to the 13" Vaio S is that it has a worse quality screen, it's slightly bigger at the same resolution, and has worse GPU, as if that even works on Ubuntu. The upside is that it has a Thinkpad keyboard and the DVD player can be replaced with a hard drive bay or battery, and it has a mini-DisplayPort port.

The 15" Vaio S: The lightest 15" laptop option in your price range, at 4.45 lbs. You can get a quad core processor (without VT-d support, though, and I'm not sure about staying under $1000), and it has a 1920x1080 IPS screen (with orange tint problems).

I'm told the Vaio S's work fine with Ubuntu. However, you should carefully check forums online to make sure of their hardware support.

If you want to consider ultrabooks, the X1 Carbon is worth checking out, but a version with 8 GB of RAM is expensive with marginal benefit compared to, say, the 13" Vaio S, or the ASUS UX31A for that matter.

I'm a fan of Thinkpad keyboards but if I had to own only one computer, it would be the 13" Vaio S, because of the GPU and better screen, and (to my subjective opinion) better size. If you don't care about GPU at all, and if you don't care about screen color or viewing angles that much, a T430s is a good bet. Both are below the threshold for me where descreasing the weight further doesn't matter.

I would suggest the new Retina MBPs, but apparently it is ["a sod to get working"](http://www.hackermusings.com/2012/08/booting-linux-on-a-reti...)

When I ran ubuntu on my (relatively old, 2009) MBP earlier this (edit: last) year it was an OK experience, but the multitouch gestures weren't on a par with OS X. Battery life was fine, hardware support other than multitouch was also fine, sleep on lid close was great, etc. no problems.

I'd recommend an Air from your description, nice and light, and Apple make the best hardware by far, especially if you do have the $1000 it costs.

my MBP (Late 2011) is running Ubuntu under parallels perfectly.

What is the opengl version supported in the parallels guest?

Mine is currently reporting 1.4

Sorry if this sounds ignorant, but it's not meant to be.

I was wondering why people choose to install Ubuntu when OS X is already a great UNIX? I genuinely want to know since I consider myself as being close to an intermidiate developer and find that OS X is great for all my UNIX needs and if there is a tool I'm missing, more than likely, homebrew already has it. So what am I really missing? Why do people install Ubuntu?

Ubuntu (and other Linuxes) has better package management, more UNIX tools by default and better tooling for certain types of development. For people who target Linux it's easier to build binaries for it.

It's also open and you're able to change it, tinker with it, mold it. You actually know where everything is. It's generally a lot cleaner as well: Apple litters the entire filesystem with stuff you don't know where it came from, or what they affect.

I believe faster boot times are also a factor, some people can get their Linuxes to boot nearly instantaneous. Perhaps battery life as well.

I use OS X and am happy with it because I don't demand any of that to be productive/enjoy my system, but I can certainly enumerate things I don't like about it and would rather have the "native" FreeBSD approach or a Linuxy one.

Some OS X tools try to make up the difference (homebrew, like you said it), but like any race where you start behind you're not gonna win. Especially since the other competitors have decades of experience.

OS X is basically a tradeoff. Some people aren't willing to trade away too much, or have personal choices which are more important to them than to you or me.

That said, I'd try to get Linux running natively on a Mac if I had that inclination, not under Parallels or some other emulator. That just feels the opposite of "clean" to me.

Thank you, that was really helpful. Maybe I will give ArchLinux a try. I've heard nothing but good reviews. Nothing better than first hand experience, right?

I love OS X though. The thing I like about it is, yes it does have UNIX but it is also user friendly and has a ton of awesome apps and access to the Mac App Store.

1. apt-get. While mac comes with several unix tools, they are old and limited comparing to what comes with linux. Many grep or find options are missing for example. Setting up new linux account the way i like takes one command and few seconds on ubuntu, while installing dev software on mac is way more complicated. Possible maybe, but its a waste of my time. Also compiling from source is great way to introduce subtle bugs related to exact version of your libraries and env config - which are terribly hard to debug or google for. Another example: Sshfs is terribly broken on mac, while works flawlessy on linux. Same for many other tools. 2. Software i develop will run on linux. Developing it on mac will create several problems and surprises, which lead to more bugs. From this perspective any deviation from linux is bad. 3. I love kde. Its highly configurable, working exactly the way i like. Mac feels very limited in comparision. 4. Its easy to find people that know every detail of linux, and can help with any problem, even if it means debugging kernel or digging into library syscalls. I've solved many application issues this way. Even though some of such tricks work on mac, people learned them because of openess of linux, and this is natural env for experimenting.

I've tried mac few times and always run back to (k)ubuntu. Its great hardware and its definitely better than windows, but all lowlevel "unix stuff" is not a match for ubuntu.

I thought about giving you a quick list, but in 2013, it's far easier to just show you. (Or rather, let you show yourself.) Install VirtualBox and give Mint with the MATE desktop environment a spin, `apt-get install` any dev tools or new versions (what version of Python does OS X ship with these days?) that aren't already there. (Mint is a better Ubuntu than Ubuntu currently is, in my opinion: http://www.linuxmint.com/download.php)

Ignoring disliking apple and closed source, OSX is pretty much out of the running just because I can't put a tiling window manager on it.

It is easy sometimes to assume that all versions of linux are the same. Some linux programs that work on one distro dont necessarily work on others or dont work with the same effectiveness. One key example of this that I run into all the time is valgrind. It works on OS X, but I often get errors due to some action that I am trying being unsupported.

> Sorry if this sounds ignorant, but it's not meant to be.

No need to apologize for the ignorance you are seeking to dispel.

After a lot of deliberation, I just picked up a Lenovo x230 for about $950 pre-tax. Running Linux flawlessly was one of my primary criteria for purchase. It arrives tomorrow so I'll comment then when I know whether or not I've made a terrible mistake.

I think the touchscreens are just gimmicky toys. Useless to me. But since Intel soon won't let you call your thin laptop an "Ultrabook" unless you include one (and Windows 8), and non-developer consumers are obsessed with tablets and consuming Internet with their fingers, it's getting difficult to find new hardware without one.

I wrote about how I arrived at my choice, among others including the $1500 Dell XPS 13 Developer Edition (Includes Ubuntu), the $350 Asus Q201e (Includes Ubunutu), the $500 Asus Q200, the Samsung Chromebooks ($250/$550), and a $150 used Asus 1015PX Netbook: https://plus.google.com/106336989542410513415/posts/avV5eL1P...

I also considered momentarily the $900 ZaReason Ultralap 430 and the $670 System76 Lemur Ultra. I would have liked to support Linux-only vendors, but both at 14" were too big for my preferences. I tried an Asus 1025CE but the recent Atom CPUs require crappy proprietary video drivers from a Linux-unfriendly vendor, it was a mountain of pain to try to make it work.

One comment: If you buy a custom machine from Lenovo.com, ignore the lies they tell you about shipping dates and just assume it will take 30-45 days at least.

I just experienced substantial delays on a new Lenovo machine, too. Great machine (W530) after the wait, but the delays were unexpected and not welcome.

Lenovo always shipped well before the delivery date for me (around 3-5 business days) for custom laptops. Then again, I'm in the UK...

Lenovo's been having problems with that for the past 6 months.

I just got a Thinkpad T530 though without the full HD display. It goes to 1600x900 which is the minimum acceptable resolution in my opinion and on the 15" screen that gives you quite a bit of real estate. I've been a Thinkpad user for many years now and they never fail (almost, the T61p had a limited life span due to a faulty Nvidia chip but that problem wasn't limited to Thinkpads).

My criteria when I buy a laptop is (in that order): 1. Does it reach the min acceptable resolution of 1600x900? 2. Does it have a Matte screen (non reflective)? 3. Will it run my editor, a web server, two databases, a few other server apps and daemons and Chrome with many tabs open including some heavy Javascript apps.

I've had the T530 for over a week now, and it doesn't disappoint. My only complaint at the moment is that the power supply is a 135W one and its very big. I'm looking into using my T61p power supply which is 90W (but same voltage), so that might solve it.

Having said all that, I was very much tempted by the new Ultrabooks, in particular the X1 Carbon and the Asus Zenbook but in the end resolution, matte and screen size won.

I would highly recommend the ThinkPad X1 Carbon. I'm typing on it right now and the keyboard is a joy. See my first impressions of it here: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=4848375

I'm also on a X1 Carbon right now, got it only a month ago. Works great with Debian linux, although I compiled my own 3.7 kernel as the default 3.2 in debian had occasional lockups.

I wanted an ultrabook-style machine, i5, 4gb of ram, no cd/dvd drive, ssd only (no hybrid), decent screen res (1080p s a bit too big, 1600x900 is spot on), and most importantly a great keyboard. The x1 carbon was the only machine I could find that matched my specs, it has the best laptop keyboard I have ever had the pleasure of typing on. Highly recommend.

EDIT: The X1C has the first trackpad that I actually enjoy using, I usually have trouble due to sweaty hands, but so far this trackpad hasn't had a single problem and I have been able to get multitouch gestures working via synaptics.

If I had to think of negatives it would be the lack of ethernet/vga/hdmi without adapters, but at least they use 'standard' adapters (display port->hdmi, usb->ethernet).

It feels weird when I see people mention the trackpads on thinkpads. I feel totally locked in to thinkpads because I can't see myself ever buying another laptop that didn't have a trackpoint.

The trackpoint is also amazing, and I know exactly what you mean. I have never really been able to use trackpads so have always stayed near laptops that have trackpoints.

The X1 carbon is the first laptop where I enjoy using the trackpad. It is odd for me too. I still often use the trackpoint, but for scrolling around web pages I often end up using the trackpad (sometimes with the trackpoint buttons which are right above it).

Toshiba and Thinkpad seem to be the only vendors that seem to still include trackpoints.

I wish I could get the X230 without a trackpad at all. I leave mine disabled in the BIOS.

Just wanted to point out that I had a macbook for a couple years on Linux. When it died, I decided to try other ones. I was very disappointed for lots of different small reasons - but can be summarized as "it felt cheap". Cheap trackpad, not great touch on keyboard, no backlight on keys. Anyhow, 3 weeks ago I bought an air.. formatted everything and put back Arch on it and loving it. It's a few hundred bucks more than your 1000$ but I think it's worth every penny. Some like to say (and I believed them) that you can have something as great for half the price.. but that's just not true. It may be cheaper, but they've screwed on parts that are not necessarily obvious.

Why limit yourself to a $1,000 budget? If you're writing code, that's a small percentage of your yearly income. If a more expensive laptop makes you 5% more productive, it's worth buying purely for economic reasons.

Sometimes there are cashflow issues and opportunity costs. Perhaps saving $200 on a laptop and investing it in advertising would give an even better return? Or perhaps the OP already has a desktop computer to use for the majority of coding work?

Besides, unless you are doing something especially intensive; once you get past a certain threshold (decent screen,disk and RAM) the returns start to diminish. Is having a laptop that is half an lb lighter, has an i7 instead of an i5 or an nvidia GPU vs an intel GPU really going to help you ship rails applications faster?

What the OP doesn't say is this going to be a desktop replacement or not which makes a lot of difference.

Remember most professional code writing is going to be done on a full sized desktop with 2 or 3 screens - a laptop is a second machine is for when you are out and about.

Good point, but I'm not sure I agree with your second sentence. At every place I've worked at since 2008, most devs used laptops and plugged them into monitors and keyboards. I'm sure other places are different, but it makes a lot of sense to go laptop-only.

Except for GPU performance, modern laptops are pretty much on-par with desktops. Laptops cost more, but people with desktops usually own laptops. Having two machines creates the annoyance of switching between them. It's small, but it's there. For most devs, it makes more sense to buy one really nice laptop instead of a nice desktop and a mid-range laptop.

My current set-up is an 11" Air that I connect to a 27" screen. If I want more real estate, I could buy another 27" display and chain it. It's stupidly fast: 2Ghz Core i7, 8GB of RAM, 256GB SSD.

Oh and while I enjoy using big screens, I find my most productive times are when I'm on a plane. The lack of distractions and the knowledge that I won't be interrupted for hours helps me stay focused.

I don't want to come across as insulting the intelligence of everyone who doesn't buy expensive laptops. The right combination of environment, mindset, and knowledge are worth more than any fancy hardware. When it comes to tools, use what you love and don't pay much attention to cost.

Well different strokes. The problem with desk top replacement laptops is that you need to spend more on the laptop and all the docking station kit takes up desk space where as a midi tower can go under the desk.

And whilst Mac airs and displays are nice "hand on heart" I could not justify the extra expense to an employer or the share holders (whose money it is) when compared to an equivalent PC and a cheapo laptop (shared between the team) for the times when I need to be mobile.

And the problem for going mac air only is that people will stereotype you as hipster wannabe if you not careful.

He says he might spend more, but does it really make that much difference?

I picked a new machine for my job a couple of days ago, so this is still fresh on my mind. Keep in mind that this is from the perspective of the UK (US is generally MUCH cheaper, oftentimes machines cost 50% of what they do here).


First, my criteria for the new machine are:

- Portable, screen size between 12" - 14", preferably as thin & light as possible

- SSD (No weird HDD/SDD hybrids)

- Reasonable resolution. 1080p here is overkill, 1366x768 leaves something to be desired

- No graphics card, I don't have a use for it, excess power usage & heat, another part that takes up space, adds weight, can break and needs driver support

- No optical drive (same reasons)

- Battery life 5+ hours

- Reliable brand. Good ones are Apple, ASUS, Samsung, Toshiba, Lenovo. Sony maybe but only with expensive models. Acer & HP are immediately disqualified. I really like Dell for some stuff (monitors, towers) but they seem to have a bad reputation for making reliable laptops.

- Good value for money. I really dislike over-spending even if it's not my own money

- Good Linux support

- Solid build quality

I don't care that much about performance. Sandy/Ivy Bridge is generally fine for me, and for the stuff that I care about (mainly reading/writing text) raw CPU power doesn't matter that much.

This filters things down quite a bit and brings us to the following models:

- Macbook Air 2011 (including this as it's a very similar machine to the 2012 but with apparently better Linux support)

- Macbook Air 2012

- ASUS Zenbook

- ASUS Zenbook Prime

- Lenovo X1 Carbon

- Samsung Series 9 900X3D

- Samsung Series 9 900X3C

- Lenovo X220

- Lenovo X230

Another requirement is dual external monitor support. Doing this on a laptop and under Linux turned out to be quite the tricky problem and the issue that probably consumed most of my time spent. For laptops with only 1 display out, there are 2 ways of working around this:

1. USB to HDMI adapter. Basically an external graphics card. This requires USB 3.0 for bandwidth reasons (USB 2.0 gives 35 MB/s. 1080p @ 32bpp is 8 MB / frame, meaning single-digit FPS rates at most) which disqualifies the MBA 2011 since it only has USB 2.0. Even with USB 3.0 from most of what I could find, these things are not really supported under Linux and probably best to avoid.

2. Matrox DualHead2Go. This is a cool invention that pretends it's a 3840x1080 display to the OS and then splits the signal digitally into 2. Costs about 120 GBP, but with not letting the OS know that it's actually 2 displays, also comes the OS not knowing that it's actually 2 displays: Fullscreen doesn't work properly for a lot of applications. And even though this could be made better through some window manager trickery, that feels like hacks, piled on top of more hacks. I also don't want to carry around this box just to drive 2 external monitors.

So, that means all laptops with only 1 display-out are out! (The X1 Carbon actually has a USB 3.0 Port thing with 2 DVI outputs but it seems to depend heavily on drivers (they only support Windows and are "working on" Mac support) so I've excluded it) Leaving us with:

- ASUS Zenbook

- ASUS Zenbook Prime

- Samsung Series 9 900X3D

- Samsung Series 9 900X3C

- Lenovo X220

- Lenovo X230

I used the Zenbook Prime and Samsung 900X3D in-store and initially liked the Zenbook Prime keyboard more than the Samsung. However more research reveals that ASUS seems to have big quality control issues with these (endless stories about shipping and re-shipping faulty units). This seems to be an especially big problem with the touchpads & SSDs of the original Zenbook. Also in the UK, they only carry one almost maxed-out Zenbook Prime configuration with SSD, which costs about 1500 GBP (linked above). A more sensible (albeit still expensive) configuration is also available, however only from Germany. Going through the order flow, the delivery time from Germany is listed as 3-18 days. Ordering an item like this where lots of people have complained about quality issues from another country seems to be asking for trouble. In addition to that, support under Linux seems to be non-straightforward https://help.ubuntu.com/community/AsusZenbookPrime, and I'm not thrilled about 1080p on a 13" screen.

The Samsung Series 9 looked great from everything I could see. It's super light and yet solid. However since it is so thin the keys lacked notably in pitch. It's uncomfortable to type on (and I went multiple times over multiple days). In comparison I enjoyed typing on the Macbook Air much more even though it's similarly thin. The keyboard seems like an afterthought on the laptop. Since typing is really what I care about the most and I've gone through the pains of having a laptop with a keyboard I don't enjoy typing on with the model I'm currently writing this email on, this also seems like a sub-par choice.

So the Lenovo X220 / X230 is the last laptop standing! There are 2 choices here (or really 4 with the tablet versions), they are all pretty much twice as thick as any other model, though similar in terms of weight (others 1.1-1.5kg, X220 / X230 1.3-1.7kg depending on configuration). I think the X220 is the better choice here even though technically "discontinued". They're both standard voltage CPUs (compared to some of the ULV CPUs on other units) so performance is easily enough for my needs. In addition to that the X220 seems to be the laptop of choice for Ubuntu kernel developers http://www.hnsearch.com/search#request/all&q=x220+uds , while I've read about a lot of people having problems with the X230 and the Linux 3.2 kernel (Ubuntu 12.04 and Debian Wheezy). Also with the X230 they've switched from their traditional ThinkPad keyboard design to a chiclet-style keyboard for reasons that are not ultimately known to me, though probably some combination of standardisation (every other major vendor has been using them for years), cost-reduction, ability to add back-light, size reduction and other factors. In terms of typing experience there isn't a lot of data online, with some people saying it's "good" on both and others decrying the typing experience on the X230. I think the X220 is slightly preferable, especially considering how much cheaper it is now. The standard X220 goes for 600 GBP and 825 GBP for the tablet version while the X230 goes for 1100 GBP and the tablet version for 1700 GBP. All of these with HDD and thus requiring adding about 200 GBP extra for a SSD. So it seems that the X220 wins in almost all regards. The X230 does have slightly less weight (I think about 100-200g), and faster CPU/GPU performance but those factors are negligible to me. I think I like the tablet version on the X220 more as comes with an IPS screen and I can see myself use the laptop in "tablet mode" a lot.


In the end I picked the X220 and ordered it off ebay (new). The gist seems to be that unless you want to run a bleeding-edge Linux kernel I would recommend staying away from new (3rd gen Ivy Bridge e.g. i5-3xxx) laptops such as the ASUS Zenbook Prime / Lenovo X230 / Macbook Air 2012 as there's frequently issues w/ them.

I think my one quibble would be with your advice to stay away from the 3rd-generation processors - I suspect that the HD4000 graphics in most of them will be significantly better over time, and any kernel issues are likely to be ironed out in fairly short order.

The discussion I've seen on the keyboard difference seemed to be along the lines of the new keyboards still being best-in-class, but they are different so if you're shifting from one of the older ThinkPad keyboards you might object but nobody else should have problems.

Also of note is that the X230 (and all of the xx30 models, I believe) have mini-DisplayPort rather than whichever HDMI connection. I know the T430 also has a standard VGA adapter so it should be possible to drive at least 2 external displays; it's not clear whether the mini DisplayPort on them is DisplayPort++ which would in theory allow you to drive dual monitors fairly easily if they supported DisplayPort as well as HDMI.

UPDATE: For running multiple external monitors it's probably going to be at a fixed location where a dock is a possibility. In that case, Lenovo's Series 3 docking stations are worth looking at (http://support.lenovo.com/en_US/product-and-parts/detail.pag...). The smallest has VGA only, the Mini Dock has VGA+DVI+DisplayPort but only runs 2 at a time, the Mini Dock Plus has VGA+2xDVI+2xDisplayPort and "many systems, including those with NVIDIA Optimus, allow for up to three ports on the dock to be used simultaneously."

I'm typing this reply on an X230 right now. There were some really annoying issues with Fedora 17 and Ubuntu 12.04; the iwlwifi driver would lock up and bring the machine down with it randomly under Fedora, and the Linux 3.2 kernel from Ubuntu would just randomly hard-lock for no discernible reason. After upgrading to Ubuntu 12.10, though, everything seems to be really solid. I haven't had any random kernel crashes or lockups since the upgrade.

The keyboard, though, is flawless. I like it a LOT better than the Apple keyboards - I'd been using various different MacBooks for the past few years, including pretty much every model of Air, 13" and 15" Pro. The X230 keyboard is way better. I can't compare with the keyboard on the X220 since I don't have one, but I certainly have no complaints. (I wish there were a laptop with Cherry keyswitches, or buckling springs, but apparently nobody else thinks it would be worth the massive cost increase.)

Hm. Mechanically would it be possible that the vibration of those nifty clicky keys could cause problems in a device with an integrated HD?

It's probably possible. But if they only used SSDs...

Yup I specifically mentioned that this was only an issue with older kernels.

Regarding the keyboard I'd happily take a 10th gen (or however many iterations Lenovo/IBM has done on their keyboards) over their 1st gen chiclet-style. Might be just as good, might be better or might be worse, I'll gladly go with the thing that has a load more reviews and also received many awards being cited the "industry gold standard".

The problem with some of the above is ram. I think 4gb is too little if you spin up virtual machines while developing. The previous version of Zenbook had support for 8gb, but now only 4gb?

Some of the Zenbook models have one of the RAM sticks on a slot, so one could easily upgrade to 10GB, however losing the dual-channel.

Thanks for this, really helpful piece. I wanted to mention that I use a Matrox dual-head at work and it is a complete pain to work with, especially under Linux. It is possible to split displays virtually on Linux with a piece of software called Xinerama. Though I work on a virtual machine (over VNC due to the... quality of my workstation) where this does not work.

I've been looking for a laptop so I can do my job using an acceptable environment and your post really helped, thanks!

Happy to help. Yeah I saw Xinerama. In the end that might've worked, but I wasn't sure how well this worked in practice during everyday work and whether there'd be driver issues with the external USB graphics card. I also heard about some issues about generally swapping monitor configurations (i.e. using the laptop at home and then bringing it into the office) and how it can be a pain so I decided to stay away from slightly "hacky" solutions like that.

Great writeup, looking at basically the same models currently and this helps tremendously! So you are using a second monitor over USB3 ? Whats your experience with it ?

Thanks. Always happy to help. That was the result of 3 days full-time (~16 hours / day) research, so it was good sharing instead of letting it rot among my "Sent items".

I'm actually starting at my new job today (in 11 hours). So the jury is still out on what the machine is like. The X220 has a DisplayPort and VGA out, so no need for driving monitors over USB.

There's a guy in my office with a USB 2 to 1080p VGA adaptor which seems to work fine, at least for basic web / office app usage. It's just a generic unbranded piece of kit from a local computer store.

I wouldn't get a laptop with less than 1920x1080 display personally. Prefer 8GB ram for running VMs as well.

Just a nitpick, you can use a thunderbolt to hdmi connecter for the MBP, right? I use one myself.

Remember to check http://www.ubuntu.com/certification/desktop/ for laptops certified to work with Ubuntu. This is an easy way to ensure compatibility.

> Has anyone tried running Ubuntu (dual boot or otherwise) on a Macbook Air

There's a very good resource here: https://help.ubuntu.com/community/MacBook

I've recently installed freebsd (as the only OS, no dual boot) without any hickups what so ever. Full disclosure: It was an older macbook, about 4-5 years old, and I can't tell if it works for or against its chances of running Ubuntu.

I was surprised that it went about so easily, I must admit.

If wanted, I could write a blog post on my exact instructions, but all in all, you may need a tiny bit of OSX at hand to get the install going (seeing as a MacBook Air does not have a bootable device, such as a CD/DVD drive).

So in conclusion, Ubuntu on a MacBook Air should be very possible: https://help.ubuntu.com/community/MacBookAir4-2 with the only exception of Thunderbolt

I run Ubuntu on my 11" 2012 Air and have pretty much given up on it. Sleep is a major issue - closing the lid will _most_ of the time have the machine sleep, but it will also inexplicably come out of sleep without the lid having opened. It's not much fun to find your machine has halted in your bag due to a drained battery. There are other issues too - the trackpad sensitivity is wonky (can be fixed but like all things linux will require some digging), and Ubuntu can't detect the resolution of my external Dell display (potentially a monitor issue rather than the laptop, I don't know. It works flawlessly in OSX). The Air seems to run hotter in Ubuntu and the battery life is also shorter, although not significantly.

The only thing I miss from Ubuntu in OSX is apt, but homebrew is functional if not as elegant.

I use a 13" Air (3,2) - 2010 model - and I have been running Ubuntu since getting it in 2010 (OS X is still installed, but very seldom used). Much the same story as squidsoup, apart from the sleep issues (it's been acting up _very_ occasionally for me, one or two times since I got it).

My trackpad is very sensitive, prior to 12.10 I used the "multitouch" driver, which doesn't seem to be maintained (I got it from the mactel ppa [1]), so now I use the "synaptics" driver which seems to me more configurable but I haven't experimented much.

That said, I've gotten used to it and it's still a better trackpad than any non-Apple laptop I've used. I would like to find a good config for this laptop, though!

It tends to run quite hot. The battery still lasts over five hours, after more than two years daily, heavy use. That's impressive.

Edit: The only thing that was really cumbersome with Ubuntu on this was installation: I installed from USB and Apple makes that really difficult, as you can't boot off USB unless you're Apple. Instead, you have to partition the disk and flash the installation image to the disk (and you have to write it to one of the first few partitions, which I didn't at first).

[1]: https://launchpad.net/~mactel-support/+archive/ppa

If you're going to run ubuntu as a primary OS, the Bonobo Extreme is worth investigating from system76.

I have a high-end Latitude E65* without any issues, and a Thinkpad W530 that is also working well - both are running CrunchBang. I didn't encounter any software/Linux-specific issues on the Dell that weren't on the Thinkpad. The Thinkpad feels nicer, but it cost a lot more.

The system76 machine costs less than both (spec for spec), but I haven't used one. That said, they only build ubuntu machines - which might be right up your alley. If you want to save a little money, they have cheaper models in the 15.6" size too.

I will go for a good linux-supported ultrabook with a lot of RAM and a decent SSD. Look at the ASUS ones.

Look here, BTW http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3719720

I'm running Ubuntu on a Thinkpad X230 (with the IPS screen), and loving it. The windows 7 install it came with was the usual crapware trainwreck, but not really my problem - the Ubuntu install was quick, smooth and trivial.

It's a lot zippier than I was expecting, and even the intel 3D was surprisingly quick.

My only real niggle is the trackpad - it seems to jump multiple pixels at a time under ubuntu, and feels very rough. I suspect pointer acceleration is being applied more than once, although I never use the trackpad so I've not investigated in any depth.

The Asus Zenbook is great, and fits within your budget (a number of options starting from $700-$1200). One of the first ultrabooks to support Ubuntu well. We use these at work.

It's pretty great, but the clickpad is a love it of hate it affair

I don't know about the later generations, but 100% agree with you regarding the first-gen. The click pad and keyboard are atrocious. I finally disabled all the additional [dis]functionality of the click pad to make it a track pad, it's somewhat tolerable. I'm waiting for the day the keyboard breaks so I can remote into this machine and never physically interact with it again. I should have purchased an Air.

I just went through this a couple of weeks ago, looking for a personal laptop to do some independent work on. I'm a huge Thinkpad fan, and both of my desktop keyboards are Thinkpad USB trackpoint-only keyboards, so that should tell you something about my biases...

Anyhow, I wasn't looking for something particularly portable, my work laptop is an X200 (pre-trackpad) which is the perfect travel companion. Unfortunately as others have noted the X-series is plagued by minimal resolution, so I wanted something with a much larger screen. We issue X230's and T430's at work, so I am very familiar with them. I'm not a huge fan of the 430s, it's size I want, but they don't offer it with a FHD IPS screen.

So I ended up buying a T61P with the 1920x1200 screen off ebay for $230, and put 8G RAM in it (unofficially supported by the 965 chipset, check thinkwiki.org for more information). It's in near perfect shape except for loose hinges! Installed Xubuntu 12 on it and everything works wonderfully. All the secondary channels are lousy with T6x's, spare parts are plentiful and Thinkpads have the BEST factory repair manuals bar none.

So pretty damn happy for <$400 invested.

If you wanted to run dual/triple monitors, take a look at the Advanced Dock, you can install a PCI-e? card in it. Right now my ghetto "triple" head setup is my x200, t61p, and t60 ($50 with the 1400x1050 IPS!) all running synergy, so I can at least have multiple reference sources open on the x200/t60 while working on the t61p and copy/paste between them.

If you do get a Thinkpad, seriously consider looking at the used market, they're usually crazy cheap used.

I have been running Precise Pangolin on a Samsung series 9 15" (NP900X4C) for a while now (with Xmonad, too). It works wonderfully and all the external hardware I've tested (Logitech HD webcam, USB headphones, ...) have worked fine. Only recently, I've been hitting a hard wall trying to use WebGL (for Acko.net's MathBox, specifically). Despite trying for the past two weeks, I could not get this to work and have resorted to dual-booting to Windows 7 (where WebGL does ... just work). This seems to be an issue with Intel HD 4000 graphics under linux (which System 76 laptops and the Lenovo X1 Carbon have in common). It was not obvious from the RedHat website whether RHEL suffers this, so I've sent them an email (but no reply yet).

If anyone knows an actual fix (i.e. not just the various things suggested in obvious search results), I would buy you a beer. But, yeah, replacing this machine with a System 76, or re-partitioning and dual-booting, or buying RedHat are all options I'm willing to consider, so there's that. Other than WebGL, I heartily recommend the Series 9 laptops (I had a 13" series 9 previously, as well).

Whatever you do, do NOT get anything with Windows 8 on it. I got a beautiful Acer Aspire M which has a great screen, backlit keys, decent CPU, less than 5 pounds, 15" screen, ultra-thin, you name it. The pain of getting Linux to run on it, I can't even begin to tell you.

Worst part is, I like it so much that I would buy one again (if I could get Windows 7) without hesitation.

I bought a Thinkpad X1 Carbon with Windows 8, had no issues getting Debian on there (minus having to manually upgrade kernels as 3.2 was a bit old and was causing issue).

Although the Carbon also support non-EUFI booting which made it easier, it shouldn't be that hard to get linux running with EUFI. What caused you trouble?

I am typing this on a Toshiba Z935 that shipped with Windows 8. Wasn't a terrible pain to fix that (Quantal now), but if I had wanted to dual-boot, it did look like it would be more of a headache.

Unless of course you're planning on using Windows 8 as your only OS.

I've been using the Dell XPX 13 with Sputnik. Got the laptop off Ebay with 256gb SSD for about $800. Been pretty happy with it.

As a user of X31, X41, X301, I expect that X220 or X1 will give you resistance to direct spills on the keyboard, and accidental dropping to the floor and convenient experience. But wouldn't try any GPU development there. If you want fast compile times you may also want to move something with faster CPU - X series always had slower ULV.

I purchased a Dell XPS-13 through the Sputnik program ( http://dell.com/sputnik ) and Ubuntu was pre-loaded, it worked fine. I did not like the mouse much, but I don't like any of the touchpads - I bought it specifically for the Sputnik program, not the hardware - but I found it overall to be very nice and useable. I am generally a ThinkPad fan.

It was fast, could run development environments in VirtualBox well, had a long battery life, etc. Even the speakers and microphone where better than I was used to for Skype and etc.

Unfortunately it was stolen before I ever had the chance to get involved the Sputnik stuff. It was kind of expensive as laptops of that size go, and I have to decide if I should get another one or not.

There's a database of desktops and laptops compatibility on https://friendly.ubuntu.com/ which helped me to decide which laptop to buy a while ago. I ended up buying a Dell Inspiron N4050 at that time, zero regrets.

I have an x220 with both touchscreen and pen running Arch/xmonad. I almost never use the touch capabilities, though I use the pen a fair amount for screen annotation and photoshop. I like pens but if you are a serious developer on a laptop you are in text/keyboard mode most of the time and just don't need a touch screen, imo.

Also, love the keyboard. I use the extra slice battery for it and get about 10-11 hours per charge on that slice plus the standard battery (real world, though I think they make a claim for more).

I have a great lenovo charger that includes usb ports, but sadly I think they discontinued it. I use it constantly for charging my mobile devices even when not charging the laptop.

I am currently looking for an ultrabook but for the last couple of years I have used the following setup:

* (Acer) eMachines E732Z bought on clearance for $400

* Drive bay adapter + SSD to replace the DVD drive

* Upgraded to 8GB/RAM

Total is <$800AUD (even less because the SSD was a spare)

x220 (8gb with samsung ssd, ips) running ubuntu. works fine, but i'm thinking it's way over your budget. x220 has been around long enough that refurb or second hand is probably a good deal...

[edit: huh, look it's now x230...]

I got my x220 refurb last spring for under $700. I love it -- very portable and the battery life is ~6-7 hours. I run Arch Linux [1] and haven't had any issues, so you should be good to go with Ubuntu.

[1] https://www.archlinux.org/

Actually the fact that you run Arch Linux _can_ have an effect. Arch being a rolling release distro, you pretty much always have an up to date kernel. I've experienced issues (broadcom wireless for instance) on ubuntu that were due to the use of an older kernel. The issues magically disappeared once I compiled a newer kernel. Not a difficult task, but since it took me some time to track down a solution, I thought it was worth mentionning.

They are over your budget, but I would still consider the Asus UX31A (the A is important) or the Asus UX32VD, both the models with full HD 1920x1080 IPS displays. The UX31A comes with SSD, but the spindle HDD in the UX32VD (it also has a small SSD soldered in) can be easily upgraded to SSD. Also, the UX32VD has an NVIDIA GPU.

When you're programming, you don't want to be held back by a bad and low resolution (anything below full HD) screen. Also, there are a number of positive reports of getting Linux going on both these models.

My Asus UX31A died after 2 months for no reason.

Lots of others with same issue on forums.

Asus refused to give it international warranty so I had to ship it back to the states from Israel, and now awaiting repair.

System 76. Just Google it. They bare built specifically for Ubuntu and are within your price range. Their laptops are actually Clevo/Sager remade to work perfectly with Ubuntu.

Since you're planning to run Ubuntu and for $1000 the only thing you can get from Apple is the low-end 11-inch Macbook Air (64 GB HDD), I'd suggest to go for a Thinkpad. I've had nothing but great experiences with Thinkpads in my company, even the low-end ones.

Then again, maybe it's worth to give OS X a try - you can run the same software as you can on Linux but you can also run all the Mac software which is just so much better than anything else out there with a GUI.

Several people commenting here have X220s. Anyone have one with the IPS panel? Is it worth it? I hate how the colors on my laptop shift as my viewing angle changes.

Mine has an IPS panel. It looks great from any angle, but it suffers from a mild ghosting effect when some colours are displayed [1] [2], mostly dark-blue colours. I didn't notice it for the first time until I upgraded to Windows 8, which uses this colour on the lock screen [3]. I have no idea whether this problem is fixed in Lenovo's newer IPS displays, but I find it barely noticeable and rarely a problem.

[1]: http://forums.lenovo.com/t5/X-Series-ThinkPad-Laptops/Faint-...

[2]: https://www.pcworld.com/article/237105/article.html

[3]: http://techtogeekz.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/windows_8_...

I too have an X220 with the "HD" screen. It looks great. The only issue is the awful resolution, but it's the same with the regular panel.

I should probably mention that it runs Arch Linux without issue.

I've got one of these, with the IPS panel. It is fantastic. I find it better than my MBP, to be honest.

The X220 IPS panel is highly prone to developing pressure marks, even when babied. Also, it's low resolution (same as the TN panel).

I would not recommend it.

IMHO, for non-compute bound developers the single most important thing on a development machine is high resolution.

Both the Dell Latitude e6500 and the Lenovo Thinkpad T500/W500 are 15", high-end Core 2 Duo machines with WUXGA (1920x1200) screens. You can probably snag one on Ebay for $300-$400. Add in an SSD and max out the ram for another couple hundred dollars would be my suggestion.

That's the best developer machine short of a Retina MBP.

edit: updated Thinkpad models, added header.

I just got the System 76 Lemur Ultra a few weeks ago. Intel i5, 128GB SSD, 8GB RAM. It's amazing. Ubuntu works perfectly. All hardware works perfectly. Their support is top-notch and almost instant. With shipping, total was like $860.

Peace of mind going forward with new Ubuntu releases is priceless.

No Lenovo, it just sucks. Some friend of mine and I have Lenovo devices, most of them got problems in short. Maybe it just happens in China, but all I want to say is "lenovo sucks"! Seems ASUS Ubuntu Netbook fits you most, but I prefer Macbook Air+Mint Cinnomon.

Any machine can be made adequate for programming. Hack at it. So the only concerns I have left are: design, portability, durability. This thing is moving bits from space to space! It goes on subway adventures and inter continental. Macbook Air with Fedora Linux.

X220 here (with SSD), happy with it.

I'am on a Asus Zenbook Prime ux31a with ElementaryOS Luna(Cool Ubuntu Distro). It's a 13,3 Ultrabook with a 1920x1200 Resolution. I'am a webdeveloper and always on the go. Somepeople say it is a Macbook Air Clone but it is not ;)

i payed about 1050 euro for my version

It's 1920x1080 (Full HD).

Asus N56VJ-DH71 15.6-Inch - not an ultralight but not a monster either. Personally I want the fastest cpu I can get even at the expense of battery time. Less than a $1000 with a proper cpu. Just swap in an ssd and go.

Wait for the upcoming WQHD Samsung Series 9. [0]

[0] http://www.engadget.com/2012/08/31/samsung-series%209-wqhd-u...


I recently bought a Toshiba Portege Z930, running Linux Mint 13. I just had to upgrade kernel to have it working without any problem (before I experienced some random freezes). I am very happy with it.

Cheers, Mat'.

I have Ubuntu 12.10 on my Portege Z935, it works well, if not perfectly. I have mixed feelings about the hw itself, however - the trackpad isn't too great, esp. the buttons. A good machine to use the mouse of you choice with, if it isn't in your lap.

I just got a macbook air (13" 8GB). It's very nice and fast and well designed. I probably won't run Linux on it, but if I do I'd just do it in VirtualBox.

Get last years Vaio Z. It trumps everything in this thread and can be had for about 1k if you scrounge eBay. It has every single thing you want and beyond.

I really like my Sager laptop with a OWC Mercury Pro SSD in it. I've had really good Linux support with it. [Baring NVidia Optima].

I know that some of the Mac crowd love the small-screen options and my previous laptop was a 12" 1280x800, but I can't imagine working routinely on a screen that small in either inches or resolution these days.

The biggest question is how are you going to be using it? Mostly at a desk with an external monitor as well? On airplanes in coach? Any client presentations?

What I ordered earlier this year is a Lenovo T430 with the resolution bumped to 1600x900 ($+50) on a 14" screen; they now also have the T430s (slim) and T430u (ultrabook) which are both thinner and lighter. If you want larger, the T530 lets you go up to FHD (1920x1080) but at a significantly higher cost.

Looking briefly now, the T430u drawbacks include a limit of 8GB (probably a single slot), no mSATA or WWAN slot, and a display of 1366x768 with no choices. That last would've disqualified it for me immediately.

The T430s weighs a bit more and has more options, but also starts around $950 and that extra money really only buys you about 12 ounces less weight. I was looking hard at budget, so it also wasn't an option.

I'd recommend the T430 with a third-generation processor (specifically for HD4000 graphics). There's a nvidia option using Optimus, but I'm not sure how good it is under Linux (or whether it really buys you much performance). Bump the screen to 1600x900, bump the Wifi up to the 3x3 option (both things you can't really add later and which don't add that much to the cost). DO Add the fingerprint reader; smart cards and color sensors only if they fit your needs. Also add the backlit keyboard - you can't get it later, and when you need it it's really kind of nice to have. Also add Bluetooth up front. If you're ordering one, start with the lower model (not the "with Faster Processing" one), you can upgrade the CPU during the selection process but not downgrade it from the more expensive starting point. Starting from the lower model also lets you get Windows 7 (Home or Pro) instead of Windows 8 if you're going to keep Windows at all and don't like the Metro UI.

I stuck with the smallest HD and stock 4GB, adding another SODIMM to go to 12GB was dirt cheap, and I'm easily able to run KUbuntu in VMWare Player under Windows 7 Pro. You can replace the optical drive with a HD caddy for under $20 and have a second SATA III drive; you can add either WWAN -or- a mSATA drive (SATA II), there's some form of caching that can be set up with mSATA but I didn't bother. If you're going the full disconnected user route, you can add assorted battery options to get you up to (theoretically) 30 hours, 6-8 is easily feasible by just upgrading the stock battery - I haven't seen the "up to 9.7" with the 6-cell battery but I suspect that going to a SSD would be a big part of that.

After you get it, set up a power-on and hard drive password in the BIOS and configure the fingerprint reader under Windows to let you bypass those with a swipe. Throw on TrueCrypt and encrypt the entire drive as well.

One caveat with the newer ThinkPads, they did fiddle with the keyboard but it's still great. The big key I miss is the Menu key (right-click equivalent), but you can emulate it with Shift-F10 on Windows.

Physical keys that aren't present and workarounds: Context Menu/right-click = Shift-F10 Break = Fn-B SysRq = Fn-S ScrLk = Fn-C Pause = Fn-P

And finally the page/screen forward and back buttons were replaced and the pageup/pagedown buttons moved to be with the cursor keys.

I've been loving my Zareason Ultralap. Ships with your choice of linux distro, and is thin enough to impress the Macbook kids..

Linuxshopper.com is a pretty cool site for browsing compatible machines.

Lenovo Thinkpad - accept no exceptions.

very happy with x1 carbon

I've got Ubuntu 12.04 on a W510 and am very happy. Thinking about upgrading to X1 Carbon since the W510 is heavy.

Can you share more info about your experience setting up/using Ubuntu on the X1 Carbon? Any issues?

15" Retina MacBook Pro.

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