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Windows developer machines

Published by marco on

A friend asked me for my advice on buying a Windows developer machine. In case anyone else is thinking about doing it, here’s my $.02.

What about a desktop?

I’ve got a desktop at work. It’s easily the fastest machine in the office. The hard drive’s a bit loud though. I’m being upgraded by my vigilant crew to an SSD in the near future, though. Otherwise, if you don’t need portability, you’ll get the most bang for your buck in a desktop.

You’re also more likely to be able to find something that can drive multiple monitors, if you’re getting something for a home/developer setup.

What about a MacBook Pro?

My friend mentioned that they have “2 native mini display / thunderbolt ports” but that the really good ones “run around $3k”. I responded,

You can knock the price down a bit by buying RAM elsewhere and installing it yourself. You can do so without voiding the warranty and Apple RAM is criminally overpriced relative to the rest of the market.

Will Visual Studio run slowly in virtualized mode? Are there compatibility issues?

Compatibility shouldn’t be a concern, actually. I worked for a quite a while with Windows XP and then Windows 7 under VMWare on OS X and it wasn’t so bad, even a couple of years ago. I’ve got a 2.66 i5 quad-core (no hyper-threading) and 8GB of RAM. Even running virtualized shouldn’t get in your way.

  • Windows 7 was noticeably faster than XP
  • VS2012 is noticeably faster than VS2010
  • VMWare 5 is much faster than VMWare 4

I did most of my development on Windows XP/VS2010/VMWare 4 and didn’t die of it. Just saying’.

How much RAM?

My friend noted that at the sites he’d checked, “[a] lot of machines top out at 8GB ram (which is probably enough ram)”. I responded,

It’s not. You’re a developer. You need to at least be able to expand to 16GB. No compromise on that.

How many CPU cores?

He went on to write that “a number of them don’t have quad core processors.”

Yeah, right. No compromise on that one either. If you only have one machine, make it one with a quad-core i7 with hyper-threading (8 logical cores).

What about weight? Will it break my back?

A decent developer notebook is going to weigh in at around 6 pounds. Even the MacBook Pro 15" model is 5.6 pounds.

Do I need a touchscreen?

If you’re buying a machine for development, forget combining it with a touch-screen. Get a cheap, separate pad instead.

Shopping for a Windows notebook

We’ve[1] been buying from Lenovo for a few years now and their notebooks are quite nice. For example, there’s the ThinkPad W530 Laptop – More Storage (Lenovo.com):

- Around $1600
- Nice screen (full HD)
- fast disk
- fast CPU
- ridiculous graphics (2GB VRAM; should be able to drive a few large screens)

There’s also this one—ThinkPad W530 Laptop – High Performance (Lenovo.com)—higher-end and costlier:

- Around $2300
- 16GB RAM
- large SSD (180GB)
- other specs same as above

If you go with an SSD option, 180GB should be more than enough for work/OS. Any backup, videos or music you have can just go on an external drive or, even better, a NAS or external cloud storage (I have an NAS for music, movies, pictures and backups for my home network).

The downside on both of those options seems to be the video output options. See below:

 Thinkpad W530 ports

There’s a Mini Display Port and … a VGA. I guess the VGA is for the highest compatibility with projectors/beamers.[2] Those are the portable workstation models, though. We generally buy from the T-* line. Let’s take a look over there.

Ah, that’s better. Here are the ports: Mini Display Port, Display Port AND HDMI.

 Thinkpad T430 ports

And, above that, the ThinkPad T530 Laptop – High Performance (Lenovo.com) is the high-end T-model:

- Around $1600
- 8GB RAM (upgradeable to 16GB)
- large SSD
- ridiculous graphics (1GB VRAM)
- other specs same as first one

What about a desktop and a laptop?

Maintaining two machines isn’t such a big deal these days, but you have to be somewhat disciplined and organized. You’re going to end up running the system updates twice. There’s no avoiding that. And you’ll have to keep all of you dev software updated because Windows *still* doesn’t have anything approaching a package manager or global update solution (except for the toys in the Windows Store).

That said, I keep very little data locally on my machines—and certainly nothing that isn’t just a local cache of data stored elsewhere. Everything’s either in source control or on shared drives.

That said, having a single powerful laptop on which you do everything is attractive because you don’t have to stay so disciplined in your work.

Final recommendations?

The Apple MacBook is obviously an option and the hardware is impeccable. You get more bang for your buck from Lenovo, I think, especially if you don’t want OS X. I would try to see if you can find yourself a T530 that meets your needs. I wish they would stop wasting space and weight with that stupid DVD drive though.

We’ve had relatively good luck with Lenovo and they make some very high-end laptops. Their machines feel solid and look decent. The trackpads, as with all Windows-based laptops, suck ass. If you want a good trackpad, buy an Apple; there’s no way around that.

[1] We meaning my company Encodo Systems AG.
[2] I didn’t know this, actually. I was mystified as to why a modern laptop includes VGA until my work colleagues cleared things up for me.


#1 − Ports


Number of ports: Don’t forget the port-replicators aka Docking-Station. Depending on the notebook model you are using you can get a docking-station for that. Depending on that docking-station you are using you get more ports then on the notebook itself. As you docking-station normally is there where your big screens are, they are connected to docking-station. So ports of the docking-station count too.

VGA: I use it often when on customer site and get “a screen” (if I am lucky a 24", sometimes smaller). Most of the time the customer IT have only VGA-cables or maaaaaybe a DVI (which I can’t plug into my Lenovo notebook) at hand. No display-port-* cables. So I still need a VGA port these days ;-(