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The Best Laptops for Computer Science
January 24, 2020
If you’re going to build applications and code programs to run on computers, you’ll need a computer to do it. Laptops are ideal for a computer science student as well as a computer science professional for a variety of reasons.
Oftentimes, you’re working in a mixed environment where solitary tasks and quiet, self-guided work is occupying part of your time. Then, you head off to class or the meeting room where collaborative, group-based work is occupying the rest of your day.
Whether it is in a computer science college course or in a working environment, having a portable computer that can be brought from your solitary space to a shared one is incredibly helpful. That way you can code your own section of a project and then work with a group to integrate and edit together.
Choosing the right device for the job requires identifying the main needs of a computer science user and finding the machine with the specs to meet those needs. But budget matters too. The best laptop for college computer science must come in at a price point you’re comfortable with.
These are the most important factors in making your decision about buying the best laptop for computer science (as well as the best laptop for computer science majors).
Graphics are not as important for coding as they are for gaming or video editing. But running those programming sequences will take processing power. The focus should be on the CPU rather than the GPU when picking the best laptop for computer science masters.
Compiling and testing code is a processor-intensive task. You’ll also want to have a dual-boot setup that will run Windows and Linux. For this reason, you’ll want an Intel® Core processor setup over an AMD® one, when possible, for the best Linux support. And remember, in a dual-boot setup, the rule is to always install Linux after Windows.
While you may be able to make do with an Intel Core i5, we recommend that you target an i7 for best results when you shop for your laptop for programming.
Computer science majors and coders are going to spend a lot of time typing. Having a laptop with a full-width keyboard with well-made, durable keys, satisfying feedback and weight that’s durable enough to withstand heavy use is, fittingly, key.
Recommended: Full-sized keyboard
Memory and storage
In general, more is always better when talking about both memory and storage. When you can choose more, get more. For RAM, 8GB of memory is a minimum. As a general rule for comp sci students, we recommend 16GB.
For storage, bigger is better. But increasing the hard drive capacity is also increasing the overall cost, so your budget and comfort zone need to intersect.
You’ll most likely want to aim for hard disk drives (HDDs) with at least 512GB and preferably more, for instance, 1TB, if possible. You may not need these amounts if you’re going with laptops with solid-state drives (SSDs); these are often more costly, but they are faster and usually more reliable than HDDs. You probably won’t need a 1TB SSD, at least as a student
Recommended: 16GB RAM and at least 512GB HDD or 256GB SSD
Serious graphics power is always nice to have, especially if you’re interested in getting some gaming in during your downtime, but it isn’t your main concern. A fast graphics processing unit (GPU) is more important than the highest-end graphics card, and both NVIDIA® and AMD offer the latest generations of processors with more than enough options from which to choose.
Recommended: Discrete GPU
Best laptops for computer science
Now that you have an idea of what to look for, here is our list of the top three laptops for college computer science majors and computer science professionals, in ascending order of price, from lowest to highest.
1. HP ENVY 17t laptop
First on our list for dedicated computer science use is the HP ENVY 17t laptop. It’s an elegantly designed, lightweight, and attractive laptop that serves as a desktop-replacement in terms of power with the added benefit of a slim laptop’s portability.
It’s one of the few desktop replacement style models on the market that doesn’t have a focus on gaming and graphics processing. But it still has a beefed-up amount of quality in all the other areas. This makes it ideal for the computer science pro, who will be largely coding in simple text interfaces, but who will need the processor power under the hood to compile and test code.
Standard DVD read/write drives
A nice feature of the HP ENVY 17t is an increasingly vanishing one from laptops: it comes standard with a DVD read/write drive. The ability to read from and write to (and sometimes boot from) both CDs and DVDs is a thing that computer science users will value more than an average business or home user.
There are times when assets or software are on physical media, or code needs to be delivered on this form of physical media.
While workarounds exist, like saving to thumb drives or uploading to a Dropbox, for instance, having the ability to read and write from discs can be a real help in many circumstances.
Vibrant color display
The HP ENVY also sports a truly lovely, high-quality 17.3-inch 4K display with vibrant color, great brightness, and crisp image detail. Its slim design still offers a full-size island-style keyboard with integrated numeric keypad, all of which is backlit.
The keys give good pushback, too, and have a satisfying action to them. This will be an asset for hours-long coding marathons.
Solid power, memory, and storage
The configuration we're recommending is the 2.7 GHz Intel Core™ i7-7500U processor and 16GB of RAM, and 256GB solid-state drive for the operating system with a 1TB, 7,200-rpm HDD for mass storage. This setup will provide adequate processing muscle to compile and run programs. But since this is a customizable laptop, you can tweak your specs to match your needs.
As a benchmark, our configuration will run with no slowdown while performing memory and processing-intensive multi-tasking work like running 20 browser tabs and streaming live audio and video.
Processor and graphics: Intel Core i7-10510U (1.8 GHz, up to 4.9 GHz, 8MB cache, 4 cores) plus NVIDIA GeForce® MX250 (4GB GDDR5)
Display: 17.3-inch diagonal Full HD WLED UWVA (1920 x 1080)
Memory:16GB DDR4-2666 SDRAM (2 x 8GB)
Storage: 1TB 7,200 rpm SATA; 256GB M.2 SSD
Optical drive: DVD-Read/Writer
Keyboard: Full-size backlit island-style keyboard with integrated numeric keypad
Dimensions: 15.94 x 10.47 x 0.88 inches
Weight: Starting at 6.14 lbs
2. HP OMEN 15t laptop
The HP OMEN 15t laptop, while technically built for gaming, happens to hit all the checkmarks that a computer science pro needs in a laptop. And it has the added benefit of being able to reliably run games at top speed, with all the high-quality settings turned up.
Perfect for testing, coding, and gaming
This isn’t just handy for blowing off steam in an “all work and no play makes Jack or Jill a dull coder” kind of way. Depending on the type of development a computer science major or new professional may be doing, having a testing environment of a high-end gaming system on the same machine you’re developing on can be a crucial help.
And help it will, with the HP OMEN’s impressive performance. The HP OMEN 15t is able to run the newest online arena battlers at full speed and frame rate at maximum resolution; with that power under the hood, compiling code is a breeze.
No missed keystrokes
The HP OMEN features a full-size island-style keyboard. The keyboard, like the unit itself, is a sight to behold: It’s got 4-zone RGB lighting and 26-key anti-ghosting technology.
Despite what it sounds like, anti-ghosting is not about proton-packs and capturing Slimer or defeating the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man by crossing the streams. Keyboard ghosting is when a single keystroke or sometimes several keystrokes are "lost" in the input stream by way of a keyboard's inability to process simultaneous signals.
This is a problem encountered mostly in gaming, where multiple button presses and rapid input are constant, but its presence on a development computer ensures that all keypresses get registered without omission.
When rapidly typing in the midst of a focused session of coding, where input errors will throw the program off, the anti-ghosting feature set of the HP OMEN provides assurance that no keystroke will go unregistered and untyped.
Ports aplenty for development and testing needs
The HP OMEN 15t ships with an extensive range of I/O ports. They include a single USB 3.1 Gen 2 Type-C with Thunderbolt 3, USB 3.1 Gen 1 Type-A, two USB 3.1 Gen 1 Type-A, an RJ-45 Ethernet port, a headphone/microphone combo jack, a mini display port, SD card reader, and an HDMI out.
Again, the Venn Diagram overlap of "gaming requirements" and "computer science development needs" overlaps quite nicely. If you are developing software or programming for features that require such outputs or inputs, having those ports present for immediate testing is invaluable.
Designed for power
Battery life isn’t the HP OMEN’s strong suit, it is designed for power, not efficiency. Expect a decent five hours of battery life from continuous use when unplugged.
Processor and graphics: Intel Core i7 9750H (2.6 GHz, up to 4.5 GHz, 12MB cache, 6 cores) and NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1650 (4GB GDDR5 dedicated)
Battery recharge time: Supports battery fast charge: approximately 50% in 45 minutes
Dimensions:14.17 x 10.24 x 0.78 inches
Weight: 4.92 lbs
3. HP Spectre x360 convertible laptop
If Moore’s Law teaches us anything, it is that there really is no such thing as a truly “future-proof” computer; wait long enough, and your high-end purchase, with its power and features, will eventually become outmoded.
Excels across all modes
That said, with the HP Spectre x360, you’ll be waiting a considerable amount of time for that moment to roll around - far more than with other laptops on the market today. To begin with, it is a 2-in-1 convertible laptop so it functions as both a tablet and a laptop.
It excels in either mode, and is ultra-portable and a dream to type on. Although it has a small and thin form factor, the design and engineering still allow for a full keyboard with great travel and heft to the keys.
The HP Spectre x360 is a computer that simply shines in all categories and is especially useful for the computer science professional (or aspiring professional). The reason is that it is dynamically customizable from a command center to control performance, fan speed, and noise and external temperature.
Spectacular battery life
We often see the word “boasts” when reading about a particular piece of hardware and its specs. So often, in fact, that the word kind of loses its meaning, in this context. But the HP Spectre x360 can truly boast about its spectacular battery life: up to 17 hours and 30 minutes before needing a recharge.
Loads of power in a smaller footprint
With an all-new engineering and redesign, the HP Spectre x360 is thinner and more elegant than its previous incarnation, while outperforming it. Even at this smaller size and footprint, the x360 running a 10th Generation Intel Core i7 outperforms the last-gen model with a similar configuration with an Intel 8th Generation CPU. This, along with the battery life and refined design, make the HP Spectre x360 a stand-out machine.
Ideal for computer science users
It’s not a gaming powerhouse like the HP OMEN. However, as we outlined in the introduction, for the type of work most computer science programmers will be doing, the ability to run games is a pleasant plus, but not a main focus for the computer science user.
The power and speed are going to be more than enough. And it is much more portable and flexible, running cooler and longer than similarly powerful machines.
Elegant and thoughtful design details
Switching between laptop and tablet mode occurs seamlessly and without hitch or stutter.
The thoughtful placement of the x360's power button elegantly avoids problems. It sounds like a minor detail until you're using such a device. It's not fun or funny when you're trying to get work done and are interrupted by a sudden and unexpected shutdown due to less-than-thoughtful power button design.
You’ll find that kind of attention to detail in all aspects of this device.
Processor and graphics: Intel Core i7-8565U (1.8 GHz, up to 4 GHz, 8MB cache, 4 cores) and NVIDIA GeForce MX150 (2GB)
Display: 15.6-inch diagonal 4K IPS micro-edge WLED-backlit (3840 x 2160)
Memory: 16GB DDR4-2400 SDRAM (2 x 8GB)
Storage: 1TB PCIe NVMe M.2 SSD
Keyboard: Full-size island-style backlit keyboard
Battery life: Up to 17 hours and 30 minutes
Expansion slots: 1 microSD media card reader
Dimensions: 4.22 x 9.84 x 0.76 inches
Weight: 4.81 lbs
About the Author
Jolene Dobbin is a contributing writer for HP® Tech Takes. Jolene is an East Coast-based writer with experience creating strategic messaging, marketing, and sales content for companies in the high-tech industry.
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