Best Laptops for Computer Science (2023 Hardware)

Before I started college…

I bought one of the most bad ass laptops with the latest graphics card and processor.

I thought…

The best laptop for computer science would be something with the latest hardware because computer science  is all about improving computer technology and that would naturally require the best hardware right?  

Wrong…

A computer scientist or a computer science student does not need anything more than a commodity machine to do that.

The most popular laptop for computer science would be something like a MacBook Air because it is a UNIX system, has all programming languages natively installed, the quick access to a terminal and other reasons outlined below.

Most cheap computers and laptops you have come across have all the power you need. 

Now…

Don’t get me wrong. Im not saying the best laptop for computer science is going to be a cheap 150 dollar Chromebook from walmart (though it is definitely an option, I will explain later why).

I want to make to it clear that UNLESS you need this laptop for other purposes like gaming or 3D work (3d game design), you don’t need to focus on graphics cards or processors.

Instead…

You should focus on ergonomics.

By this I mean, the keyboard, display, battery, portability, etc.

Because you will HAVE to stare at code for long periods of time and making it out of a computer science program isn’t just about becoming a good programmer, there’s a LOT of difficult math classes you have to get through and you want to be as productive and efficient as possible with your time hence why it’s a good idea to buy somethign you can bring everywhere.

If you are not convinced about my recommendations please  check out the last section where I go over the typical curriculum of a computer science program

Best Laptop Specs for Computer Science

Obviously, there is a minimum “CUT” in regards to hardware otherwise things are going to be slow even with just notepad open.

Although this minimum cut can easily be found on laptops above 350 bucks (8GB + SSD) , we’ll mention it here for the sake of completeness because it isn’t virtually available on every modern laptop.

RAM
#1 spec to look out for.

8GB: You need at least this much. Not necessarily for software and IDEs but it’s more like a min requirement to multitask on Windows 11 with ease (approx 4GB) the spare RAM (4GB) will let you launch Android Studio, Eclipse and any other IDE with ease too.
4GB: Not enough for Windows 11 or Windows 10 Home. Fine for w
indows in S mode, Chrome OS , Mac OSX and Linux.
16GB: Only useful to launch SEVERAL virtual machines. Basically for software testing for actual computer scientists.

One VM (one Linux distro for learning purposes ) will run just fine with 8GB.

Solid State Drive
This has been the best invention since the wheel as far as computer science is concerned. It makes large files and IDEs open in split seconds (it used to take MINUTES before). Virtually available on every laptop (you should still double check!).

CPU
If you get 8GB RAM + an SSD, you’ll automatically get a fast CPU for coding and for Windows 11 to run with zero lag. Here are the ones to avoid in case your budget is below 300 bucks:

Celeron, Pentium, MY/Y5/Y3 , AMD A9/A6/A4 and even worse ARM/MediaTek/Atom Chips.
 

All the above are fine for Linux systems and Chromebook systems though. Not good for Windows Home so don’t waste your money. 

GPU
They’re useless unless you do research in parallel programming (or elective classes in Image processing and computer graphics) .

AI (Artificial Intelligence) & MC (Machine Learning) also benefit from a GPU as the extra ‘shaders’ or ‘cores’ act as additional processors for all the data crunching.

Display

Like I said you’re going to be staring at this thing for long long periods of time. You have to watch out for eye strain and you also want to make your workspace as comfortable as possible: 

Resolution: FHD or QHD. These are easier on the eyes and let you work in split screen mode super useful to see more chunks of code at a time and to follow code logic.
Finish:  Anti-Glare or a Matte screens are safer for your eyes too but they’re rare to find. You can use an accessory though called “anti glare matte screen”.
Size: You want a 13” display because they’re way more portable. 15” only if said laptop is lightweight (<3.5lbs).

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Top 5 Best Laptops For Computer Science Students

Every laptop in this list meets the minimum requirements outlined above but they may or may not be super portable. Nonetheless they will all have great keyboards and a decent display.

Please be sure to read the descriptions because if you find the price on the links too expensive there will be links to cheaper alternatives or I’ll talk about a few tips on how to find some alternatives. 


1. M2 MacBook Air

Best Mac Laptop for Computer Science 

  8-core Apple M2 Chip

  8GB-24GB RAM Unified Memory

   10-core Apple M2 Chip GPU

  256GB-2TB SSD

  13.6” Retina Display 2560 x 1664

  2.7

  14 hours 

Like I’ve been saying for the past 3 years and in every update of this post. In 2023, the MacBook Air is still, hands down, the best laptop for computer science hands down.

You don’t necessarily have to go for the M2 or M1 MacBook Air. We’ll get to that but first let us discuss why the MacBook Air is still the best laptop for computer science:

Many reasons actually:

  1.  You can run three operating systems if you have a MacBook: OSX, Windows & Linux. Here’s the tutorial on how to set it up.
  2. OSX (the operating system of Macs) , being a Unix based system, can run Linux packages.
  3. Compatibility with  every piece of software regardless of operating system. Need to install .Net or Visual Studio? It’s only one restart away.
  4. Natively installed programming languages and IDEs (Java, Python, Xcode). You don’t have to spend hours setting up an IDE and your programming workspace area.
  5. You can program for Android and Apple devices. Again because you have access to both Operating systems.

Now all of this applies to every MacBook, even the M1 & M2 MacBook, despite not having a x86 chip, support Windows through Parallels as shown here

These are the reasons why you’ll see everyone using a MacBook in a hackathon or a programming conference. In fact, you’ll even see 95% of your teachers (CS teachers) using one too.

There’s two extra advantages of going for the latest M1 or M2 models though:

Not deal breakers over the older models but if you’re going into data science and want to research with machine learning during your junior or senior, it is a definitely a nice addition.

  Hardware Tips

The truth is the M2 and M1 Chip are kind of overkill for computer science students, you may find them useful if you’re an actual programmer doing research on computer science topics like machine learning , data crunching or any parallel processing task (due to the efficiency & speed of all cores in it).

If you are a freshman computer science student you will find the older models (selling for 350 to 500 bucks if you go for the 2015 MacBook Air) just as useful and saving yourself nearly 700 dollars in the process. As you can see below, the average 13 ” MacBook Air (2017) is several times cheaper as of 2023:

If money is not an issue and you do plan on doing some research during your last years, you should buy the latest M2 MacBook Air. The M2 chip may come in handy when you have to compile large sets of data as it’ll be capable of doing it much much faster. For this to happen though, you should configure your M2 MacBook Air to have at least 16GB RAM. 

How about much older models? 2015 MacBook Air?

As far as coding and class assignments are concerned even the 2014 MacBook Airs will do. There’s only one instance it may be too slow for you to code and that is if you happen to work in App development because the older models rarely come with 8GB RAM. Now although 4GB RAM will work for App development using XCode for iOS devices, the moment you step into Android Studio (through BootCamp) you will lag massively. So if app development for both operating systems is something you have in mind, I advice against any MacBook Air with less than 8GB whether it’s a recent or an older model.

How about the MacBook Pros?

I’d say they’re only going to be if you’re a computer scientist doing research with networks as the extra # of cores and the extra RAM (supports up to 32GB) will come in handy when you want to simulate networks with several virtual machines. Also the extra hardware from the MacBook Pros (mostly the RAM really) may come in handy when you want to work with extremely large sets of data for data crunching in data science.

The above applies for every laptop that can support 16-32GB, not just the MacBooks.

  Display & Design

There’s one more reason why the MacBooks (especially the MacBook Air) is so popular for programmers and computer scienctists and that is their form factor and overall thin-design.

Since 2008, the MacBook Air has remained thin and it’s been the thinnest laptop until a few years ago (the ASUS ZenBook is slightly thinner). Nonetheless, it is still thin as paper and the 11” models (older) can weigh as low as 2.2 lbs! With the M2 & M1 models, despite all the power in it, staying below 2.7lbs.

How is this useful? Well think about it. If you have a device this thin, that means you are going to take it with you everywhere and just like a phone, you’re going to use it everywhere you go. You can use it while you commute to college, while you eat in the cafeteria and you can even use it while you wait outside the classroom for the professor to come to the lecture. a phone. 

Battery: Warning!

It’s all meaningless if you can’t turn it on because you are short on battery and that’s actually a very common problem for windows laptops. Not a problem with the MacBook especially the newer M1 & M2 models which can (as long as you use it to youtube videos & coding) last you up to 14 hours! That means one charge per day is ALL you’re going to need.

The older models can hold up to 12 hours of battery or so. That’s if you get a brand new ‘old’ version of a MacBook which is very unlikely, if you buy a refurbished laptop say from 2017 chances are the battery is only going to last you ~8 hours or so. Still pretty good considering that’s how much battery you get out of Windows machines on average.

Be sure to check the battery cycles if you buy a refurbished model

Keyboards: Best on the market!

Yet another reason why programmers LOVE the macbooks.

Programmers and computer scientists are picky about keyboards because once they’re out of college all they do all day is coding and programming their eyes out either for research or actual work. . 

What makes this keyboard so awesome?

It’s extremely responsive. In fact, I’m typing this review with a MacBook Pro, which basically has the same keyboard design as every MacBook Air & Macbook Pro released for the past 10 years and it is a joy to type as I only need a slight touch for the characters to register making my typing speed shoot through the roof. They’re clicky too, I can hear some ‘pounding’ but it’s very very subtle that for some it may feel like they’re almost silent. This applies to every model so it is not limited to the newer models. Even the backlit feature is available on the oldest model, the only difference with the newer (post 2019) models is the ‘touch ID’.

Display: HD+ vs Retina Resolution

Higher resolutions let you see more lines of code which makes it easy to spot bugs and move forward as you get a better sense of a code logic when you have a larger view of the whole structure.

Most windows laptops only have FHD and the older (pre-2019) MacBook Air models only have the HD+ resolution, the newest models , including the M2 MacBook Air, have a retina display which is basically x2 the resolution of FHD display. You also want this much resolution for say working with a manual, tutorial and place it next to an IDE (to code), this can be done with any resolution but it’s just better with higher resolution.

Retina resolution:  This is the main reason to go for the newest models and pay the extra cash. 2020-2023 MacBook Air.

Refurbished Models: Worth it?

If you’re going to buy the older models (especially pre-2020 models), they’re all going to be refurbished. There are no new ‘older’ models even in the Apple Store. However, believe or not, they will last you just as long as a brand new model and that’s for two reasons:

  • MacBooks are built like tanks. Not only can they sustain several drops but they’re built to last you years and years and that’s the reason why you will still see people selling 2008 MacBooks. I’d say the average life span is 10 years. So if you buy a 2017 MacBook Air, expect to last you till 2027.
  • Quality Control Process: All refurbished models you find on amazon or the apple store go through a selection process that carefully looks for faults that may affect its lifespan.
  • You get a 90-day warranty too which is plenty of time to find out if there’s something wrong with it. The newer models give you a 1-2 year warranty.

2. Surface Pro 9

Best 2 in 1 Laptop for Computer Science

  12th gen Intel® Evo Core™ i5 or Core™ i7

  8GB-16GB RAM DDR5

  Intel Xe Graphics

  128GB-1TB PCIe NVMe SSD

  13” IPS ‎2880 x 1920

  1.96lbs 

  +10 hours

This is one of the many portable windows devices that can match the portability & power of the latest of the MacBook Air, I wouldn’t say this is a good option for actual research and working in a company but if you are a student , it becomes one of the best (or even a better) option than the MacBook Air.

Why is that?

  2 in 1 Tablet-Laptop

Because it is a laptop and a tablet:

  • The tablet mode (which is the default mode) works just like an iPad where you can write and take notes with the stylus.
  • With the integration of OneNote (a Microsoft’s software for organizing and taking notes), you can replace all of your school supplies (pens & notebooks) by simply storing everything in it.
  • You can download textbooks in pdf and take notes on top of them digitally through the stylus
  • If you’re given the PDF slides, you can add your professor’s input on it through audio clips and your very own notes
  • Lastly, if you want to code or type a report, you just attach the keyboard and voila you’ve got a laptop too.

 Performance

Now because it can turn into a tablet doesn’t mean the system is going to be the same as an adroid or apple device, it still runs on Windows 11 Home so it’s basically a computer that can turn into a tablet, rather than the oppossite.

Surface Pro 9: 

In fact, the latest Surface Pro 9 is much much faster than ANY windows ultrabook released before January 2023 because it’s got the 12th generation Core i7 CPU and which most other notebooks only have the Core i5 at best.  This isn’t a reason to buy the surface pro 9 though, that much CPU power is going to be kind of useless if you’re a student. I’m just mentioning it here to re-assure this is a real computer, not a weak tablet. 

If you do decide to buy the Surface Pro 9, I’d advice you to minimize hardware (choose the lowest storage & lowest  ram , 256GB & 8GB) to save yourself hundreds of dollars.

Older Models:

The lowest configuration of the Surface Pro 9 has a Core i5 + 8GB RAM + 256GB SSD which sells for about 900 bucks. That’s still quite a lot of money compared to what the older Surface Pro models can cost.

As the name implies there have been 9 released of the Surface Pro. You don’t have to go back to the first version of the Surface Pro. I would go as fast as the 6th version of the Surface Pro, ideally the 7 if on a budget.

While every configuration of the latest Surface Pro ( 8 & 9 ) has enough power & RAM to run Windows 10 or Windows 11 and all the multitasking you have in mind with zero lag, that may not be the case for the much older models so here’s some tips if you can only afford the older models:

Core M3 Processor
This is found on the Surface Pro 3 and Surface Pro 4. They are not necessarily bad but the problem is that if they only have 4GB RAM, they’re pretty much useless a Windows 10 and Windows 11 take up that much RAM leaving nothing for IDEs , eMacs and any other software you use to code. 

Core i5 Processor 8GB RAM
This is ideally the minimum to aim for. As long as you have this combo, you’ll have plenty of speed to be productive and to multitask all you want even with 50 tabs open at the same time. You can also run at least one virtual machine with this much RAM. This is also the bare bone minimum hardware you need for App development and Data Science applications. 

Core i7 Processor w/ 16GB RAM
This is unnencessarily too much unless you’re doing research or plan on gaming on your laptop, it’s not going to be useful. It’s just a waste of money and battery too because Core i7 CPUs use a lot of energy.

 Display & Design

The most interesting part of the Surface Pro models is that they’re only 12.5” inch and although that may seem small, they have higher resolutions than even the MacBooks so the lack of space will be offset by the extra screen space the high resolution display brings.  You’ll still get all the benefits you do with FHD 15” display : more lines of code to see at once, having two windows next to each other for multitasking purposes , etc.

The best part I would say is that they’re the most portable and lightweight devices, in fact, you can even use one of these while standing up outside of the lecture room taking notes or going over the previous classes slides just like you would with a phone.

Keyboard: 

Lastly, the keyboard behaves pretty much like the MacBook’s keyboard but there is one problem though and it’s actually a problem with every single 2-1 device  that has to have an external keyboard attach to it: unless you use the laptop mode on a hard surface, it’s going to be flimsy. You may not be so productive if you want to code say when you’re sitting somewhere and having the Surface Pro on yor lap. Latest models try to offset the issue more and more so if using the Surface Pro on your lap is common to you, then invest on the newest models ( 8 & 9) .


3. ASUS ZenBook

Best ASUS Laptop For Computer Science

  Intel Evo i5-1240P

  8GB LPDDR5

  Intel Iris Xe Graphics

  512GB PCIe NVMe SSD

  14” 2.8K OLED 90Hz

  3.06lbs

  10 hours

The ASUS ZenBook, ever since it was released, has tried to mimic the MacBook Air in every department. It’s succesfully done so and in fact, like I said before, it is slightly thinner. Now let’s talk about what’s different and what’ the same about the ZenBook.

 Hardware

The hardawre is not goign to be as fast as the M2 MacBook Air. If we are talking about pre M1 & M2 MacBook Air models, the ASUS ZenBook models of those same years (ASUS ZenBook 2017 vs MacBook Air 2017)) are quite faster. Today, the latest ASUS ZenBook has a 12th gen Core i5 and a 12th gen Core i7 as two options, neither of them is faster than the M2 Pro Chip but it doesn’t really matter. As far as computer science classes are concerned and even for research purposes, the difference is minimal. 

 Design: MacBook Air vs ASUS ZenBook

What’s next only applies to the latest ASUS ZenBook and the latest M2 MacBook Pro.

Here’s what’s still the same: This year’s ASUS ZenBook is just as heavy as the MacBook Air: ~ 3lb but it still remains a bit thinner (only by a few mm at best), neither of them is a deal breaker so we can say they’re both pretty much the same thing so far. The keyboard is also of high quality, similar to the air and so is the sound system.

Here’s the advatage: the display. The resolution is the same resolution (almost) used on the Surface Pro 9 which is higher than the one used on the MacBooks and if you pair that with the 14” display, you’re going to get significantly more screen space to multitask and code. 

Here’s the bad side : the battery. Having a 12th gen Core i5 CPU & a very high resolution display with more pixels (due to the larger screen size) only means that the battery is not going to be nearly as good as the MacBook Air (15 hours). Add the fact that Windows 11 consumers al ot more energy than OSX and you can expect 8 hours at best. Though this is still plenty for a full day of work but the moment you launch heavy apps for a little while like gaming, it’ll be reduced to 5 hours or even less.

Good news is that the ASUS ZenBook is about 400 dollars cheaper than the MacBook Air with the only trade off, as far as hardware is concerned, being the battery


4. ASUS 14.5″ OLED VivoBook

Best Dell Laptop For Computer Science

  Intel Core i7-12700H

  12GB LPDDR4x

  Intel Iris Xe Graphics

  512GB SSD

  14.5” 2880 x 1800 120HZ

  5.5 lbs

  ~8 hours

Last year’s update included the Dell XPS 15 as one of the best laptops for computer science and the only reason I listed the Dell XPS was because of the resolution, you can find the 4k resolution display of the dell laptop we went over last year down below:


Unfortunately, they are not extremely expensive. This year I will list the ASUS VivoBook instead which has a 2.5k resolution display. 

  2.5k resolution displays, also known as QHD, are a much cheaper alternative for those who want to maximize screen space beyond FHD, and they’re quite common on ultrabooks in 2023. 

The ASUS ZenBook we just went over, for example, has a 2.5k resolution (higher than the MacBooks) and much higher than most Windows laptops (FHD). So if you already know to code (perhaps you are a programmer already before or after college) and want to keep coding hard, you don’t have to spend 2k dollars for a much bigger screen space. 

The 2.5k + 14.5” here is going to be a massive upgrade from the FHD displays already.

 Best Hardware

Unlike, the  ASUS ZenBook, the ASUS VivoBook, the latest model, has a gaming CPU. You can tell this by the “H” letter and actually this is a very common CPU used on the latest gaming laptops. Yes, it is that powerful.

Now the good news is that this CPU although its definitely OVERKILL for computer science classes, it’s going to have a much easier time if you want to play AAA games and they’re going to look better on this laptop due to:

  • The RAM is 12GB
  • The integrated GPU is faster
  • The 120Hz refresh rates + 2.8k resolution display

Gaming is not a reason to choose the VivoBook but I thought I’d just mentioned the differences in power. As far as computer science is concerned, this much hardware will let you run more virtual machines at the same time and this can be useful for software testing purposes (backwards compatibility). If you are developing software or games, you can test them out on different versions of Windows and you can also have more Linux Distros (as virtual machines) opened simultaneously.

 


5. Acer Aspire 5 A515-56-347N

Best Cheap Laptop For Computer Science

  Intel Core i3-1115G4

  8GB RAM DDR4

   Intel UHD Graphics

  128GB NVMe SSD

  15” IPS full HD 

  4.19 lbs

  8 hours

  WiFi 6

This laptop sells for about ~340 dollar, it’s the cheapest laptop for computer science you’ll find:

Same laptop as last year’s model with two upgrades:

  •  RAM is upgraded to 8GB as opposed to 4GB from last year: this means you no longer need to buy an external RAM and do the upgrade. 
  • Windows 11 S: last year’s model had Windows 10 in S mode but like always you can do the upgrade FOR FREE and this time you already have the RAM to support the Home version of Windows so all you have to do click “UPGRADE” in control panel.

Hardware: CPU & SSD

It’s still got the 11th gen Core i3 CPU and the SSD, not nearly as fast as the 12th gen Core i3 but still for computer science purposes, it’s all you need because you’ve got the SSD on it (virtually all laptops in 2023 do anyway) and the 8GB RAM too, both make a much bigger difference when multitasking and running heavy tasks.

If you can’t even afford a 340 dollar laptop, you can go for this very same model with the Ryzen 3 3200U CPUs, they’ll be slightly cheaper. On the other hand, if you want a 12th gen Core i3 CPU for X reasons, you can give up the display (HD+ instead of FHD) and  get it for the same price as shown below:

If you can push your budget a bit higher (~100 dollars more), you can get the 12th Core i5 + 8GB RAM + FHD display as shown below:

Less than $300 Laptops: Install Linux

If you can’t afford none of the laptops we just went over and only have less than 300 bucks (200-250 bucks) or even less than that. There’s a solution to the problem. You can buy ANY laptop or ANY chromebook you’d like (chromebooks are way cheaper than windows laptops) and install Linux on it. Even if you’ve got a very old CPU and 4GB RAM , your laptop will STILL FLY with linux. I’m attaching a tutorial on how to do it below.

Another good option is to go for the 11 inch MacBook Airs, which despite the 4GB RAM and the very outdated CPU, are STILL quite fast for reasons we explained above in the MacBook M2 review, they sell for as low as 190 bucks as shown below:


You don’t need to install anything on it, as OSX is already a UNIX system and will run all programming languages you want and even run Linux packages as we explained already.


How To Choose A Laptop for Computer Science 

Before we talk about hardware specifically,  we’ll go over the typical curriculum of the CS Program and the software used in each of these classes. This is done to re assure YOU that the recommended hardware that follows is on point.

The Computer Science Program

Before that, go to your department’s website and check if they have anything to say about laptops. They will outline what kind of laptop you should be after or may even give you access to laptop deals exclusive to your school. You will also find tutorials on how to install Linux on a system, how to install BootCamp on Mac, etc, proving what I’m about to tell you it’s 100% accurate.

Classes

Most classes aren’t even about programming or writing code. Overall, classes have a focus on math and algorithm principles rather than programming. 

This means you will be not be required to bring a laptop for the vast majority of your classes.  Students do anyway but only for note taking purposes.

Drawings: Within computer science theory and math classes, there’s going to be a lot of drawing and graphs so you will still have to rely on a good old fashioned notebook.  This is the main reason why I also recommended grabbing a 2-1 in laptop.

Quizzes/Exams:  No single quiz/exam I’ve had taken required me to bring a laptop or to type some code in it. Virtually all quizzes will require pen and paper and the same can be said about exams.

Core-Electives: There will be one or two electives that will require you to bring a laptop. Most of the coding you’ll do it’s always going to happen at home.

Labs: You’ll have to complete the lab assignment in lab hours. Sure, you will need a computer to do this but labs are full of computers. So you don’t need to bring a laptop here either. You will need your laptop to complete the lab after though. 

Assignments: The lab assignments aren’t hardware heavy either. You’re not going to be compiling the next MS Office, FireFox or Windows. In fact, what you’ll code can be compiled even on a smartphone. 

Software/Programming Languages:

Most computer science students will only need:

  • IDE for coding during the beginning, especially when coding for specific devices.

The following classes are taken out of a typical cs curricula as shown in New York’s Tech University

Course Description Software
Introduction to Computing Learning advanced coding skills (might be for a device or even a robot) Python
Object Oriented Programming As the name suggests… Java
Data Structures and Algorithms You’ll learn what these are in OOP. Java
Computer Organization  Learn how computers work with C . Optional
Digital Design Lab Design and implement digital devices DAQ Board software
Design Operating Systems Build an operating system with labs and/or projects C
Computer Networks (Elective) development of network applications. C/C++, Java, or Python

The total curricula is made out of 32 classes and only 6 require you to write code.

IDE (Integrated Development Environment)

Most  CS programs do not require you to install specific software to complete these assignemnts, they will just require you to use a programming language and these are available in all operating systems and you can even program on ipads too. 

This means opens up the possibility of choosing among all kinds of systems of all budgets. 

Rarely, a professor will require you to use an IDE like Eclipse to say program in C++, IDEs are the only exception to this, they may or may not be available in OSX or Linux, but you cannot go wrong with any Windows laptop withi 8GB RAM. All IDEs are compatible with Windows.

That type of professor will only show up during the first few semesters, after your second year, you will have complete freedom on what device or IDE to use to code.

Hardware Demanding Projects

In reality, there isn’t going to be any projects or assignments that require you to use very powerful hardware found on very expensive laptops UNLESS it’s some sort of project for animation or game development (Unity) where a dedicated GPU will speed up your workflow.

There’s also data science courses which may require a bit of extra RAM and CPU power to run code on large pieces of data much faster.

These two cases: game development and data science, will only be a concern during the last year of school IF you decide to take on these elective classes. 

Remote access

Remote access is like using AnyDesk or TeamViewer to fix your dad’s computer remotely. 

You can remotely access those powerful computers at your school from the comfort of your room. So you can run any software that can’t run on your laptop.

ChromeBook + Remote Access

You can use ANY laptop or even a tablet to remote access your school’s computers. But the best cheap laptop for computer science in this situation would be a Chromebook. They’re only 200 bucks on average and are not high quality like the MacBooks but once you install Linux because they will turn them into the ultimate programming environment.

Once you get linux install, you ALSO get  access to hundreds of IDEs including Eclipse and Android Studio. You’ll also be able to run ANY type of heavy software through remote access for classes such as the two mentioned (animation + data science).

Old MacBook Air + Remote Access

Same can be said about the 2015-2017 MacBook Airs, they only sell for about 200-300 bucks and are still way faster and more code friendly than any windows laptops. Unlike a Chromebook, you don’t have to install anything. OSX is just a variant of Linux and all the programming languages you’ll need are already natively installed.

Recommended Specs for Computer Science

If you have a budget higher than 350 dollars, you have the option of choosing a Windows laptop. The issue with Windows laptops is not lack of power for IDEs since they don’t require anything special but the operating system Windows 11 or Windows 10 which does not run WELL on some budget machines ~350 or below.

Also note that

IDEs ONLY run on full blown operating systems. That means Mac OSX, Linux and Windows 10/Windows 11 Home

And not on Chrome OS (hence why you must install Linux, read section below) or Windows 10 in S Mode (does not support any .exe file).

If you can just choose either a MacBook Air (cheap version) or ChromeBook (w / Linux), you don’t have to worry about hardware because their operating systems run well regardless of hardware (unlike Windows). 

Everything that follows applies to windows machines ONLY!

1. CPU

IDEs can run on pretty much any CPU even those made 10 years ago. Windows 11 however will only run well on recent CPUs and you have to make sure that CPU has been specifically made for laptops. 

Laptop CPUs vs Tablet CPUs

When you have a high budget +350 dollars, you don’t have to worry about this but anything below 350 bucks will most likely have a “TABLET CPU” on a laptop. In other words, CPU that are much weaker and are only good for Windows 10 S or Chrome OS . They usually go by the following names:

Celeron, Pentium, MediaTek, Atom, Intel Core with a Y and M letter somewhere.   Non-Ryzen AMD CPUs

The CPUs above may not be outdated ( most are) but they are still weak for Windows 10 or 11 Home. They’ll do just fine for Linux OS (ChromeBooks) and Windows 10 S though.

Minimum CPU for Windows Home or Professional

Intel

CPU Base Turbo Cores
i3 10050G1 1.2 3.4 2
i3 10100U 2.1 4.1 2
i3-1115G4 3 4.1 2
i3-1215U 3.3 4.4 2/4
i5 1115G4 2.4 4.2 4
i5 1240P 3.3 4.4 12

AMD

CPU Base Turbo Cores
Ryzen 5 5500U 2.1 4.4 6
Ryzen 5 4500U      
Ryzen 5 3500U 2.1 3.7 4
Ryzen 3 5300U 2.6 3.8 8
Ryzen 3 4300U      
Ryzen 3 3300U 2.1 3.5 4

The Core i3 and Ryzen 3 are the bare minimum while the Core i5 and Ryzen 5 on the table have the ‘perfect balance’ of CPU power and battery.

I would avoid any CPU outside of this list especially those with the letter “H”. Ex: Core i5 11300H.  They have too many cores, too much clock speed, that’s only useful either for gaming or data science.

Any of the CPUs on the list (they are found on 350-500 laptops) are ALSO sufficient to:

  • Run Android & iOS IDEs and emulate phone apps
  • Connect to AWS Servers to run time-consuming code (data science)
  • Compile extremely large pieces of codes (~1000 lines) w/ zero issues

Core i7 & Ryzen 7

I know you want to look cool with the Core i7 or Ryzen 7 tag on your laptop and you don’t mind the price tag because you’ve got a lot of money but do know this:

  • These CPUs need more energy and thus they will have 3-4 hours less battery than Ryzen 5 Core i5 laptops.
  • They also need more space for temperature to be kept under control which means either:
    • The laptop has to be bigger (thus weigh more)
    • The laptop has to have outstanding design (this means they will be ridiculously expensive).

There is one instance where they are a good choice (if you have the budget) and that is if you find them on an ultrabook (very thin lightweight laptop like the Dell XPS or LG Gram) AND said laptop has a much better display (higher resolution 2k or 4k) than the average core i5 or ryzen 5 laptop.

2. RAM

This is WAY more important than CPU but the reason why I did not talk about FIRST is that if you choose a laptop with the recommended CPUs (Core i5 or Ryzen 5) you’ll automatically get the RAM (Type & Size) you need. 

4GB: The problem with Core i3 and Ryzen 3 laptops is that sometimes they may have 4GB only which is not enough memory for Windows 10 or Windows 11 Home. It is fine for any other OS like Mac OSX, Linux, Chrome OS, Windows 10 or 11 in S mode though even if you’re adding a heavy IDE. 

8GB: This is the minimum for a speedy workflow with Windows 10 or 11 Home or Professional.  Windows Home or Pro takes around 4GB these days and you’ll be left with 4GB RAM memory and this is PLENTY for all the IDEs and software the usual computer scientist needs to run side by side. 

16GB: This is too much for computer scientists but it comes by default with some really good ultrabooks laptops. It is a good number for animation software and data science though.

3. Storage

Picking the wrong storage is only an issue if you have a budget under 350 dollars too.

Solid State Drives vs Hard Disk Drives

If you’ve got a budget under 350$, there’s a high chance you will come across laptops with hard disk drives.

HDDs used to be standard 15 years ago but now they are absolutely too slow for anything. Solid State Drives, depending on how many lanes they use and how they are connected, can be up to x17 faster. 

As long as your laptop has an SSD, your computer will be fast, regardless of the type of SSD connection (SATA III vs PCIe) or how many lanes it has (2 , 3 or 40)

These are the benefits of ANY solid state drive:

  • Booting up Windows in seconds
  • Searching for a piece of code or word within the entire computer in seconds
  • IDEs will start up instantaneously (used to take minutes with HDDs)
  • Since there are no moving parts, it uses less energy thus less battery

Storage Capacity

Not an issue for computer science. Even 128GB will last you a lifetime, that is, as long as you use your laptop for coding only.

4. GPU (Optional)

There are two types: integrated and dedicated GPU. Integrated GPUs come by default (Ex: Intel something…)and that’s all you need for computer science.

A dedicated GPU ( usually by the name of NVIDIA, Radeon)  is totally unnecessary unless you plan on gaming with your laptop. Even if not, try to avoid laptops with dGPUs because you’ll have less battery (5-6 hours less) and you will be more likely to game which will lower your GPU significantly.

Now there are two instances when they do become very handy….

Game Development

You’ll need software like Unity. Basically 3D animation software in addition to all the programming backbone and those require a dedicated graphics for fast viewport you can find more details on my animation post.

Data Science & Parallel Programming

Within the CS curricula, there may be some ellectives on parallel programming and data science topics that will require you to learn how to write code that can use the GPU to accelerate compilation and thus increase processing power. You can read more about it in my data science post.

5. Display 

A display is obviously not optional. In fact, if you want to be productive I would invest most of my budget (after making sure you’ve got 8GB RAM) on a good display as the amount of screen space is correlated to how fast you can finish code.

This is especially important…

If you are a first or second year computer science student since you’ll be staring at your code for hours and hours when you’re first learning how to code and when you’re looking for bugs. 

It is much easier to spot bugs and write good code if  you have more space because you’ll be able to see more code at the same time to follow code logic and check the overall structure of each section of your code.

How do you increase screen space?

You don’t have to buy a gigantic laptop with a 17” display, it’s all about resolution.

Resolution

It increases the amount of screen space by reducing the size of letters and icons which includes the entire Windows interface, menus and so on.

Thus the more resolution you have, the more pixels there are to fit in more objects or space. 

1377 x 768 (HD): Doable but not ideal for coding.  Only useful for a back up device that’s super portable. It should not be your main tool of work because you’ll have a hard time with long chunks of code which will make you scroll up and down all the time AND long lines of code which causes a lot of white space at the end of code.

1600 × 900(HD+): This is much better and common on very portable machines. Unlike HD resolution, there won’t be much space at the end of the line (this is wider) but you’ll still have to scroll up and down depending on how long your code is. 

1920x 1080(FHD):  Whether you are still a student or a computer scientist, this is the ideal resolution. There’s enough pixels to eliminate white spaces in double line codes (there won’t be double lines unless a statement is super long) and you will only have to scroll down sparingly to fix bugs. If you are a student, it is likely your assignments won’t go past 100 lines of code which means there won’t be ANY scrolling down if you use the whole screenspace to code. 

2k and 4k resolution:  Found on MacBooks and premium ultrabooks, not necessary but a very very nice ‘extra’ feature worth every penny. I would in fact invest my money on QHD resolution display rather than a latest 12th gen CPU or the latest GPU, both useless for coding speeds. You’ll not only have enough space to see all your code at once but also enough to have documentation, tutorials right next to it. 

Battery

This is just as important as having 8GB RAM and a modern CPU, you want a long battery so you can code anytime you want even on the go. Here are a few tips on how to get as much battery as possible: 

  • If budget is not an issue, Windows Ultrabooks ( less than 3lb thin laptops) have approx ± 10 hours.
  • All MacBooks (unless refurbished) have +10 hours.
  • Budget windows laptops 350$-450$ (core i3, ryzen 3) ± 8 hours.
  • Chromebooks have +10 hours (virtually every chromebook).
  • Any laptop with a dedicated GPU will only have 2 hours at the most.

Hardware vs Battery:

  • CPU: weaker CPUs will consume  LESS energy.
    • Core i3 & Ryzen 3 can output +8 hours
    • Core i5 & Ryzen 5 will only output 8-10 hours if they’re on ultrabooks (3lb laptops).
    • Core i7 & Ryzen 7 consume too much energy (less than 6 hours battery)
  • SSD
    • A laptop with an HDD will eat up more energy.
    • SSDs consume less energy (more battery)
  • Display
    • TouchScreen displays eat up a lot of energy.
      • Only exception would be 2-1 laptops which have 9 hours of battery
    • High resolution displays will eat up more battery
      • FHD consume energy but it isn’t detrimental to battery life
      • QHD consumes energy and will limit the best laptops to approx 8 hours
      • 4k displays will limit battery to 5 hours
      • HD & HD+ (very low resolution displays) increase battery life significantly (Ex: ChromeBooks).

 

Operating System

I dont think you’ll be required to use an operating system unless you take a class on Linux systems thus it is really up to you which one to use. 

Windows

Every IDE and every ‘commercial’ software has a windows version, that’s the best part about windows.

However…

The open source packages (written and published by computer scientist) are not always available for Windows (only about 40%).

This is not an issue however because you can always install Linux through a virtual machine and run any open source package in it. 

LINUX

All computer scientists use Linux. You will have to use Linux at some point so you might as well get used to it even if you don’t have to install packages right now because all research and open source software is always published for linux system.

You can either install Linux as VM right after you turn on your lapto for the first time OR you can just use Linux altogether (ditch windows entirely) and the best way to do this (to get used to Linux) is by installing Linux natively along Windows through a dual-boot system as shown in this link.

Mac

OSX can be just as good as a Linux system for CS students & scientists. It comes down to preference.

Linux is a lil’ harder to get to used and will definitely take a bit more time but it’s much less expensive than OSX (you can install Linux and it will run fast on pretty much anything).

OSX is much much more intuitive, easier to learn and supports all programming scripts, languages & packages found on Linux  but it’s more expensive. This is because OSX is basically a variant of Linux, both are unix systems with software ready to install & control of the entire system  through the terminal. 

OSX is more code friendly: Natively has a compiler for C, C++, Python, Objective C

Last Comments

If I had to start all over again, I would probably used a Linux based system (a laptop I can install Linux on) so I could get used to the OS and start installing useful packages for programming and research as the entire computer science department’s research basically run on Linux system and open source tools available for Linux.

However, I know how difficult the first years maybe and the last thing you want is making things more complicated than they already are.

So instead of using Linux 100% of the time, you can do either of the following (if you want to get started with Linux already):

  • Buy a windows laptop and install Linux as VM
  • Buy an OSX laptop (MacBook) and try to use the terminal whenver you can.

Author Profile

Miguel Salas
Miguel Salas
I am physicist and electrical engineer. My knowledge in computer software and hardware stems for my years spent doing research in optics and photonics devices and running simulations through various programming languages. My goal was to work for the quantum computing research team at IBM but Im now working with Astrophysical Simulations through Python. Most of the science related posts are written by me, the rest have different authors but I edited the final versions to fit the site's format.

Miguel Salas

I am physicist and electrical engineer. My knowledge in computer software and hardware stems for my years spent doing research in optics and photonics devices and running simulations through various programming languages. My goal was to work for the quantum computing research team at IBM but Im now working with Astrophysical Simulations through Python. Most of the science related posts are written by me, the rest have different authors but I edited the final versions to fit the site's format.

One thought on “Best Laptops for Computer Science (2023 Hardware)

  • March 29, 2022 at 11:27 pm
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    Awesome article! Appreciate that you went well into detail about the practicality and reality of a laptop hardware. I got myself a thinkpad X13 with 5600U CPU (Ik its overkill, but it helps when I need to run a minecraft server in the background 😉

    Reply

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