Developer looking for high-performance portable dev laptop
November 19, 2013 10:44 PM   Subscribe

I'm a software developer who is finding himself more and more in need of a very powerful, very portable machine. Here are my requirements:
  • Under 5 lbs (key-- I don't want this to be a brick)
  • i7 processor
  • 8 GB RAM (with 2 slots for upgrade to 16 if desired)
  • 512 GB SSD, or smaller SSD with HDD secondary drive
  • NO HP. Their repair rate is terrible, their customer service is worse. They're the one brand I will not buy for PCs.
Now, I've checked out the new MacBook Pro and I can spec it out this way, but it'd cost 3k. I'd insist on 16 GB for the MBP as I would be running parallels and doing windows dev with visual studio, and would dedicate at least 8GB for that environment. What I want to know is, does such a machine exist other than the MBP?
posted by pennstatephil to Computers & Internet (27 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
 
A Lenovo Thinkpad T440 or T440s would come close -- I think they come with 16GB SSD + 500GB HDD as standard, but it would be easy to swap the HDD out yourself for a 512GB SSD; that's what I did on my T430s. However, as far as I can tell they have 4GB RAM soldered in and one additional slot, so would max out at 12GB.

The T440p is a little heavier (but still well under 5lb) and can go to 16GB. Only one hard drive (no mini-SSD), so swapping in a 512GB SSD would be a necessity. Specced with the cheapest i7 and 8GB RAM, it comes in at about $1450, plus ~$400 for a SSD from newegg.
posted by pont at 11:21 PM on November 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm also a developer and have just gone through the same process.

I discounted the MBP because the lack of support for switchable graphics means the battery would be severely affected, which ruins its appeal (that and the price).

I had most of the same requirements, but also needed a 1920x1080 screen or higher and wanted a discrete graphics card for mid-level gaming. I also wanted a 4th gen Intel processor for improved battery life.

I did quite a bit of research and in the end went for an Acer Aspire V7-482 (14") (owners' discussion thread).

The specs vary slightly depending on where you buy it, but the things in common are:
- i7-4500 processor
- 12 GB RAM
- NVIDIA GT750M
- 14" 1920x1080 touch screen
- ~2kg / 4.4 lb weight

Mine came with a 1TB HDD and 24GB SSD cache (although I've heard of pure SSD models now available). There are instructions in the thread linked to swap the SSD cache for a larger capacity MSATA SSD drive. I added a 256GB drive which I use as my primary and use the 1 TB HDD for movies etc.

Downsides are a crappy trackpad, and ok, but not excellent battery life. An external mouse negates the first issue and the battery life is good enough for me (varies a lot depending on usage, from 3.5 hours to 6+ in my limited experience).

Acer wasn't my first choice, but overall, I'm very happy with it, it's pretty small, good specs, great screen, and plays games well too.

(on preview, I didn't go for the Lenovos, as there weren't any 4th gen Intel models available where I am, and none of them had full HD screens)
posted by Gomez_in_the_South at 11:27 PM on November 19, 2013 [4 favorites]


To answer your memory requirement, the Acer V7-482 also has 4GB RAM soldered on, and one upgradable slot with 8GB installed. Will 16GB modules be available in the near future?

I *think* the price in the US is around $1 300, excluding additional SSD. I see there are also i5 versions that are lower specced, so double check that when shopping around.
posted by Gomez_in_the_South at 11:37 PM on November 19, 2013


Was about to suggest looking at gaming laptops, since they scratch the expandability/customizability itch quite well, but I think you'll have a tough time finding something that fits in your weight class. These look promising, though:
http://www.ibuypower.com/Store/Battalion-101-Ultra-Thin-M1771-2
http://www.originpc.com/workstation/laptops/eon13-s-pro/

I have no experience with either one, though.
posted by Aleyn at 11:48 PM on November 19, 2013


Before you commit to a MacBook, get your hands on one and try editing something with it.

For me, the Apple keyboard layout is a total show-stopper.
posted by flabdablet at 1:32 AM on November 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


Also: the school I netadmin has bought nothing but Acer desktops and laptops for the past 7 years, their build quality has always been fine, and service via the reseller we use has always been prompt and efficient. I don't think an Acer machine would give you too much grief.

I agree with all your prejudices about HP equipment, by the way; flimsy, poorly designed crap the lot of it. Such a pity, because HP used to make great equipment before Carly Fiorina happened to them.
posted by flabdablet at 1:37 AM on November 20, 2013


I discounted the MBP because the lack of support for switchable graphics means the battery would be severely affected, which ruins its appeal (that and the price).

This only applies if you're sticking to running OS X but it's trivial to install something like gfxCardStatus (free) to get manual control over this stuff. I had to install it as certain games refuse to work with the dedicated GPU, oddly. I now keep it on integrated only except when I need to plug in to my desktop screen.
posted by wackybrit at 3:06 AM on November 20, 2013


it's trivial to install something like gfxCardStatus (free) to get manual control over this stuff
I should've clarified, I meant when running Windows via Bootcamp. I read that due to some low level access being restricted, Windows can only see the Nvidia GPU.
Sorry for the derail.
posted by Gomez_in_the_South at 3:17 AM on November 20, 2013


Dell XPS 15, $2299 with 16GB RAM/512GB SSD, sub-4.5 lbs. They're really nice machines (I say this as I just bought a new Retina MBP, but the new Dell XPSs are truly nice machines).
posted by The Michael The at 4:28 AM on November 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


Here's another cheaper option:
http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=34-152-408

It's got a 128GB SSD plus 750GB HDD (7200RPM). Not sure if it has two memory slots to upgrade or not. 4.4lbs, and is $1300.
posted by Grither at 4:32 AM on November 20, 2013


MBP 13" with i7 processor, 16G ram, 512MB SSD is only USD $2200. How do you get $3k, or do you have other requirements you didn't state?
posted by FrereKhan at 4:43 AM on November 20, 2013


MBP 13" with i7 processor, 16G ram, 512MB SSD is only USD $2200. How do you get $3k, or do you have other requirements you didn't state?

Looks like the OP wants 15", which you can still spec out with i7/16/512 for $2500.
posted by The Michael The at 4:51 AM on November 20, 2013


If it's only the price of the Macbook Pro that's worrying you, get a Feb 2013 refurb. That's one generation back from the current one. Here's an example of specs from the refurb site:

Refurbished 15.4-inch MacBook Pro 2.8GHz Quad-core Intel i7 with Retina Display
Originally released February 2013
15.4-inch (diagonal) Retina display; 2880-by-1800 resolution at 220 pixels per inch
16GB of 1600MHz DDR3L SDRAM
768GB Flash Storage
NVIDIA GeForce GT 650M with 1GB of GDDR5 memory

$2,459.00
posted by nevan at 5:14 AM on November 20, 2013


Hi Hive-Minders -- thanks so much for your thoughtful responses so far. As far as the MBP goes, the 3k comes from the highest-end 15 in model (ME294LL) with AppleCare. Total price: $2948 (which I rounded off).
I guess that's another good question-- do the mac users in the house have applecare on their machines, and if so, have you found the peace of mind helpful, or not worth the $350? I've heard such good things about applecare, and since it would be my first mac, I would benefit from it.

Also, I didn't realize the 13 in models could be configured with the i7! The selection page lists them all as i5, so I figured that was a limitation of the smaller ones. Is 13 in enough screen real estate for effective coding?

A refurb is a pretty fantastic idea, too... what were the main improvements made between last gen/this gen?
---
As for the Acer-- I found the Aspire V7-482PG-9884 which looks pretty damn good, and only $1300! I'd probably wait for black friday to see if it gets even lower...
---
The dell is also an impressive contender, but at that price, I almost think I might as well get the mac so if I decide to do any iOS development down the road, that's an option.
posted by pennstatephil at 6:59 AM on November 20, 2013


Here is my suggestion, try a refurbed 2012 i7 macbook pro that clocks in at ~1200. Why? Because you can completely upgrade it to 16 GB of RAM and then swap out the hard drive and optical drive to any configuration you want. My personal config is 16GB of RAM, 256 SSD and 1 TB hybrid drive.

I was able to get Applecare for the direct from Apple refurb. Here is the link to the question I asked on refurb choices and what I need to order.
posted by jadepearl at 7:17 AM on November 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Whoops, I left out the lenovo (which I didn't mean to do-- I was really hoping the x1 carbon had better upgrades available).
The T440 spec'd out with the i7, 12 gigs of ram, and a 512 gig ssd comes to $2050, which is actually not bad for what it is, but it's still to the point where I would strongly consider a MBP unless there was a killer black friday deal on it.
posted by pennstatephil at 7:17 AM on November 20, 2013


Be aware that the Dell XPS family apparently has some cooling issues. Might be just QC but that's a very thin case and they are hard to get right.
posted by flabdablet at 8:17 AM on November 20, 2013


Do you have a relative in college? The discounts that apple offers for college students on laptops are large (15-20% iirc) If you are willing to do a bit of legwork you might be able to get a relative to buy an MBP for you at a substantial discount.
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 8:35 AM on November 20, 2013


I've owned macs for a long time, and I always spring for the AppleCare. Like any other insurance, you may not need it, but if you do, it's great. Even better if you live near an Apple Store.
posted by leahwrenn at 8:51 AM on November 20, 2013


While the 13" rMBP can be configured with an i7- it's a dual core and not a quad core part like the 15" i7. For me, that's a deal breaker on the 13" model.
posted by jeffch at 9:30 AM on November 20, 2013


I own that macbook pro, however i have the 256gb/8gb ram variant. It is the nicest computer i've ever owned or used. It replaced a 17in model of the previous style. There's nothing i miss from the old one, at all.

The one thing i haven't seen recommended is a clevo/sager. A clevo w740su is a 14 not a 15, but you get an IPS 1080p screen, quad core i7, iris pro GPU, and a 500gb samsung 840 evo SSD for $1300. it weighs about 4.5lbs

If you browse around the clevo/sager section of that site there's cheaper ways to get to those specs if you're willing to go a teensy bit over 5lbs. Personally, i think this configured with that SSD is way cooler in general, and 3.5lbs.

Note that both of these models support m-sata SSDs. You could easily spec one of those and a secondary HDD as you mentioned and really shave the price. The gigabyte, i think, might even come stock in that configuration(specifically as i remember, 128gb ssd+1tb hdd) on some other sites for closer to $1200-1300. Deals on wheels.

Just browse around that site and check out your options from those OEM brands. They're cheaper for what you get for your money, and especially with clevo/sager are surprisingly high quality. Not like, thinkpad quality... but certainly "older dell latitude when they weren't made like shit". It's also worth noting that most clevo/sager resellers have amazing customer support, and offer extended warranties for fairly cheap. By amazing, i mean like "call and get a real human on the phone in america immediately, overnight shipping, fast turn around" sort of thing. I've heard tales of people sending in a unit with a problem the shop had seen several times, and being offered the option to either upgrade that component(IE flaky GPU, flaky SSD, etc) to a newer model at no cost, or a significantly up-spec newer model for super duper cheap.

If someone gave me an acer for free i would sell it. I have never, ever had a good experience with any of them i've seen from the netbooks to the low-midrange models up to the fancy "G" series. They're just... not built well. I put them in the same category as HP.

Something i would seriously consider though would be a 2012 version of the retina macbook pro 15, with the 512ssd and 16gb of ram. You should be able to score one of these for $1500~ used or maybe even a bit less. Note that everything but OSX is kinda... spotty in it's support for the mega-resolution screen, and that the system runs quite warm when non-virtualized windows is running due to being stuck in dedicated GPU mode. It does however, virtualize windows beautifully. A friend who does a lot of dev work just got his employer to buy him one specifically for this exact use case(CPU intensive dev in a windows VM) and says, and i quote, "it runs windows faster than most of the actual windows machines i've tried".

I will also note that none of the clevo laptops, or others that i've tried out feel as nice as the MBP. It feels like it's constructed from two solid pieces. The screen and the most of the rest of the machine, and the removable bottom place. And those two pieces feel like they're welded together or at the very least attached like the door on a german luxury car. I have yet to pick up a similarly specced, comparable machine that didn't flex/creak a little bit and just feel less... solid. It's also the thinnest machine by far that gives you the specs you want, although others match or even exceed it in weight(especially the gigabyte, at a full pound lighter) they do it at the expense of at least perceived integrity.
posted by emptythought at 4:11 PM on November 20, 2013


Got a little ahead of myself there and spaced on this existing. The price will likely be more retina macbook than towards the other end however, and it's also 5.5lbs.

The specs are intriguing though(rMBP resolution screen as an option for one), and it will be really really well built. It will also run quietly under load, which i can't really say for a lot of those clevo/sagers or likely the gigabyte. Really, anything but the rMBP will likely be loud if you care about that.
posted by emptythought at 4:15 PM on November 20, 2013


I'm unsure what kind of product you are programming for, but for me, I uses a MacBook Air 11' to write programs for web applications (Magento) and a OS X RSS app. (Not sure how good Visual Studio will be at a small screen.) I do have to resize the entire Xcode window to fill the entire screen, and I do have to regularly hide panels, but I find it usable.

I like the 11-inch laptop for the portability, and have used it on long bus rides.
posted by applesurf at 4:26 PM on November 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Be aware that the Dell XPS family apparently has some cooling issues. Might be just QC but that's a very thin case and they are hard to get right.

That thread is from 2010. Presumably people are talking about the new XPS 15 which was released a few weeks ago.

I've just got one which I use for windows dev and I like it a lot. Fast, light, fantastic screen. If you want "rMBP but runs windows properly" this is it.

Be careful about just looking at "i7" for the processor and calling it done. Most laptops under 15" (including the 13" rMBP I believe) only have a dual core i7, rather than the quad core you'd get in the 15" rMBP or other larger laptops. On top of that, most small laptops use the "U" series processors from Intel, which use less power, but are a little slower than a similar "M" series mobile processor. The U series don't come in a quad-core at all. This may or may not matter to you.

My previous laptop was a Lenovo X1 Carbon, which had a dual core "U" processor, and while it was fine most of the time. It could chug a bit in VS with Resharper and other plugins running.
posted by markr at 5:21 PM on November 20, 2013


I decided that since I wasn't gonna use this for gaming or graphics heavy stuff, I'd spec out a 13 inch Macbook air. i7 dual core, 8 gigs of ram, 512 GB ssd, extremely portable, and a grand less than the pro. By all means, though, continue the suggestions for other knowledge seekers!
posted by pennstatephil at 8:30 PM on November 20, 2013


I decided that since I wasn't gonna use this for gaming or graphics heavy stuff, I'd spec out a 13 inch Macbook air. i7 dual core, 8 gigs of ram, 512 GB ssd, extremely portable, and a grand less than the pro. By all means, though, continue the suggestions for other knowledge seekers!

I'm not sure what comparison you're making for a $1000 difference, but if you spec out a MBP Retina 13" with the same as that Air (i7/8GB/512GB), it's only $150 more than the Air and just as portable. I'm typing this out on one right now. This one is the standard i5/8GB/256GB config, and is still by leaps and bounds the best computer I've ever used. Haswell plus Mavericks is just an amazing combo, and this thing travels every bit as well as an air, but has a mind-blowing display.

Also, yes, get AppleCare. It's only $183, not $350.
posted by The Michael The at 4:55 AM on November 22, 2013


I'm not sure what comparison you're making for a $1000 difference, but if you spec out a MBP Retina 13" with the same as that Air (i7/8GB/512GB), it's only $150 more than the Air and just as portable. I'm typing this out on one right now. This one is the standard i5/8GB/256GB config, and is still by leaps and bounds the best computer I've ever used. Haswell plus Mavericks is just an amazing combo, and this thing travels every bit as well as an air, but has a mind-blowing display.

Also, yes, get AppleCare. It's only $183, not $350.


It was the 13 in air vs the 15 in pro -- at the time the 13 in didn't have retina (according to apple's store site). Fully upgraded processor and ram on the 15 MBP is ~2800. Fully upgraded processor and ram on the 13 in air is ~1850. Both with 512 gigs storage. That's my 1k.

And according to the shop, apple care is $250 (and it was $350 for the 15 in pro when I was looking); sounds like maybe you're getting a discount.
posted by pennstatephil at 1:13 PM on December 20, 2013


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