The Perfect Developer Laptop?


| February 13, 2014 | in

I have been using a laptop as my primary machine since about 1998. I have traditionally bought the fastest, biggest screen, biggest hard drive, most RAM beast I could find. I started with Apple laptops and then made the switch to Wintel after a few years. I usually bought a new machine every year or so. But for four and a half years I used a Dell Precision M6400 with its monstrous 17″ 1920×1200 screen and nearly 10 lb weight. It was a beast and it was solid. The keyboard is still the best laptop keyboard I have ever used.

With the release of Windows 8, I was determined to buy a laptop with a touchscreen. I initially was set on finding a 17″ screen, but Scott Hanselman convinced me that 15″ was the way to go. I settled on one of two choices: An Asus which as far as I can tell has never shipped, and the HP Spectre XT TouchSmart. I bought the HP and it worked great. It had a dual core processor and at 5lbs it felt light as a feather compared to my trusty Dell.

That was my first non-Dell for a long time. But I had grown tired of Dell’s lack of innovation. I didn’t want a big beast, and I wanted a touchscreen. So it was goodbye to Dell.

A year later, I found myself developing some code that required a Haswell processor (AVX-512 instructions) and an Nvidia GPU. I happened to hop on Dell’s web site (old habits die hard) and discovered the Precision M3800 as a new offering. The specs looked tasty: 15.6″ touchscreen with 3200×1800 resolution (whoa), 16GB RAM, Haswell processor, and about 4lbs. I ordered one and then started looking for a SSD. I settled on the 1TB Samsung 840 EVO in a 2.5” form factor. I promptly ordered it and it arrived quickly, sitting in a box eagerly awaiting the Dell (which was in short supply at the time).

Eventually the Dell arrived and I popped it open to install the SSD. To my great surprise, where I thought I would find the existing 512GB SSD I instead found the space consumed by the battery. The SSD was in the mSATA form factor. Looking more closely at the specs and options on Dell’s website revealed the facts: you can order it with a 61w or a 91w battery. The 61w is smaller and leaves room for a 2.5″ drive.

“No problem,” I thought, “I’ll just find a 1TB mSATA SSD.” I remembered reading about them on Some quick checking revealed that a newcomer was the sister product to the 2.5″ Samsung 840 EVO that was sitting on my desk. Various websites had benchmarked it as one of the fastest SSDs and the price was good. So I ordered one and installed it without a hitch.

I used Paragon’s Hard Disk Manager to copy over the partitions from my existing SSD in the HP and in the process converted from MBR to GPT and enabled UEFI booting. The Dell booted on the first try and was up and running.

I was very curious how the high DPI experience would be. To my surprise it’s been mostly seamless. The screen is beautiful. I run it at 165% and I can easily spend hours in Visual Studio, Outlook, and Excel with no eye strain. The computer is very fast – it runs our CPU-intensive code just as fast as our desktop dev machines. It compiles way, way faster though – thanks to the Samsung SSD.

I can run tons of virtuals (although I have to ping-pong back and forth installing/uninstalling Hyper-V because the Intel perf tools I use for my AVX assembly tuning don’t work with virtualization enabled).

Cold boot time is a few seconds (way, way faster than my iPad, but I don’t cold boot anything very often). Wake up from sleep is less than a couple of seconds. Sleep is instant. It’s just as quick to grab the laptop to check email as it is with my iPad. In fact, I don’t really grab my iPad anymore for things like that. Having a real keyboard and access to all my stuff means I just grab the laptop, check something, and close it back up – all in less than a minute.

Battery life varies so much depending on what you do. For me, tasks like writing code in Visual Studio, checking email, and reading stuff on the web typically give me five hours or so. I just plug in at the office and run on battery at home.

The keyboard is pretty good. I’m still getting used to the lower profile that is now prevalent on most of today’s laptops. The track pad has been very good (although I still hate the CPU gobbling Synaptics software that all track pads seem to use). The track pad buttons are positioned well. My main complaint with this machine is the lack of dedicated Page Up/Page Down/Home/End keys. They are mapped as Function-arrow keys. HP managed to put dedicated keys on their keyboard and it’s the same form factor as the Dell. Given that this machine is positioned as a workstation, I am bummed by this choice by Dell.

There is an Nvidia GPU that can be used for GPU code. You can configure Nvidia or Intel globally, or on a per-app basis. I have it set to Intel when on battery and Nvidia when on AC.

I spent a little time back on my old Dell beast to experience things for comparison. Even with the physically smaller screen, I can view more lines of code, more emails, and more cells with the new Dell because of the higher DPI screen. It’s so crisp that I can read smaller text just as easily as larger text on the old Dell. I use my laptop for many hours at a time with no breaks, and I use it in total for a LOT of hours a day. I do not feel any effects of eye strain so I’m convinced I have things set at a comfortable size for me. The fact that I get more effective screen real estate with a smaller physical size is great.

The machine feels very solid. I can hold it on the corner with the screen open and I don’t sense any flex in the chassis. Everything feels well attached and high quality.

You can find the detailed specs on Dell’s web site but here’s the summary: Intel Core i7-4702HQ (quad core 2.2GHz, 3.2GHz turbo, HD Graphics 4600), 15.6″ 3200×1800 screen, 16GB RAM, Nvidia 2GB Quadro K1100M, 0.7″ thick, 4.15lbs, HDMI 1.4a, Mini DisplayPort 1.2, 4 USB ports (3 USB 3.0), and a backlit keyboard.

I look at both Dells and what I see is a ton of progress. Half the weight, less than half the physical size, twice the speed, twice the RAM, twice the storage, twice the battery life, and half the price.

Dell knocked it out of the park with this one. If they change the keyboard, it’ll be the perfect dev machine, hands down.

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