Ask LH: Are 13-Inch Laptops Suitable For Programming?

Ask LH: Are 13-Inch Laptops Suitable For Programming?

Dear Lifehacker, I’m thinking about buying a new laptop for programming (primary web development) and my eyes have fallen on the Dell XPS 2015 (1920×1080). It seems awesome in every aspect, but I am a little bit worried about the 13″ screen. The resolution seems fine, but 13 inch seems really small (I’ve only used 17″ and 15″ laptops.) Long story short: Is 13″ Full HD too small for programming? Thanks, Downsize Dabbler

Dear DD,

I’m tempted to say absolutely not… so I will.

There is an element of personal taste at play in choosing a laptop for any kind of in-depth work where you’re staring at the screen, and obviously being able to have multiple windows onscreen can be beneficial depending on your development environment.

But that’s not the same thing as saying that a 13-inch laptop will be “too small” for programming. With a Full HD display though, if your eyes can take it, you can always push the resolution up to maximise screen real estate.

It’s feasible to program on just about any screen at all. What’s more, there’s so many other ways to extend your screen real estate, whether it’s virtual desktops or connecting up via wired or wireless methods to an external display. You could even benefit from the smaller size as it’ll be easier to carry around with you for development on the go.

But this is very much a matter of personal taste; smaller laptops also often have smaller keyboards or trackpads, which may not be to your taste if you’ve previously only used larger devices. Any Lifehacker readers have development preferences when it comes to laptop selection?

Cheers Lifehacker

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  • 😀 Dear DD, I am going to go for the flipside, I am going to say ABSOLUTELY!

    Reasons why:
    I have had a 15 inch Macbook Pro for some years now, but needed something that was more portable and not such a pain to get around. I settled on a 13 inch Macbook pro and I honestly don’t have issues with it and have worked days at a time on it… plus it is just that much more portable.

    As Alex said, it will come down to a personal matter of taste, but I can say from experience, it is a lot easier to go to a 13 inch screen than you might think.

    Just my 2c 🙂 but I say give it a go.

  • Not really a programmer – but in relation to portability, it sounds like it would be ideal. Plus if you’re using it frequently in certain places (home or office) why not add a 2nd screen via HDMI or the like? I do at home with my laptop all the time, it’s awesome having a huge screen to use at full HD.

  • I had a 15″ MacBook Pro and it was great for development, a 10″ netbook was too small and a 12″ was a bit tight, it might work well for you. I know people who use a Surface Pro 3 for dev work happily.

    One option you might consider is a portable external screen e.g. 15.6″ USB powered and only 800g though it obviously adds bulk and about $300

    I’m on the hunt for an upgrade and the portable dual monitor is very tempting 🙂

  • I’m going to vote no if it’s based on working on the laptop screen only. As mentioned, the smaller keyboard size could also be an issue. If you want something ultra-portable that more often than not will have the option of an external display and peripherals it could work.

    It might depend on what programming you want to do. A decent IDE will let you configure your code window to display larger text, which might be fine for smaller scripting-type projects. If you want to develop “proper” applications, you may want multiple code windows open simultaneously – especially for side-by-side comparisons – as well as a project/asset tree, debugger/console output, a form designer, etc. which could get very squinty.

    I would definitely recommend try before you buy. Pop into a local computer store that has 13″ HD laptops on display and see if your eyes are up to the task.

  • You’ll probably be fine if your eyes can take the smaller screen. If you’re working from home or an office it’s likely you’ll have a full sized monitor to plug into anyway.

    I do find it a little hard to work on solely a laptop screen, but most development software now has ways to hide the side menus so you have plenty of space for coding.

  • For me the usable resolution and aspect ratio are the biggest deciders these days.

    I used to use an 11″ Macbook Air for any development while I was away…last year that included 5 weeks working in bali. I was really happy to get back to a 15″ MacBook Pro – that was in part due to performance but the wide screen dimensions and resolution made work feel a lot harder.

    This year I’m running a 12″ Retina MacBook which is far superior for me as it can scale to much higher resolutions (and has a better aspect ratio) without looking too small.

    Make sure it’s going to be powerful enough for you too…build times really matter, though if it’s for the web development or even if using a native framework like React Native – you should be good to go on most machines.

    @zak’s right about the keyboard, try and spend some time with it if you can.

  • I have been developing on a desktop for long, never really done much development work on a laptop. I wouldn’t go for a laptop unless I am always on the run, invest on a good desktop with multi monitor setup.

  • i dont get the “13″ Full HD” part, 13″ is 13″ physically, the text size displayed will scale it to the size you feel comfortable with.

    13″ or bigger, all down to personal comforts.
    resize your programming software’s window, cover your screen so that it’s in the same dimension as the laptop you want to get, work on it for while and see if you are comfortable with it.

  • I have the New macbook 12 inch

    I program on it

    there are some benefits. To truly be able to comfortably program on this screen size, you need to hide all menus and just have the text editor open. This allows me to completely focus on single source files.
    then when I get home I can start playing with the integration and other stuff

    so pros and cons from my perspective

  • Go for it. I made the switch from 15″ MBP to a 13″ and I love it. I’d been using a 15″ for the last 8 years and started a new job and got a 13″ and really enjoyed so when I upgraded my own home machine I got a 13″ as well. I use it to write code and develop apps with no issues at all.

  • I’m a full time web dev (Full stack…)

    I have a 13″ series 7 Samsung ultrabook with 1080p display. It’s by far the best size laptop I’ve ever used. Portability is great for lugging around to client meetings etc, the HD display is great for working on the go. The screen is sometimes maybe a little to small when chopping up artwork, but I ideally do this type of work at the office with bigger screens.

  • We have Developers and Analysts who sit on both sides of the fence in my office. Either the small laptop for ease of use during travel or the big one for those who live on their laptops.

    99% of it is personal taste and habits.

    Personally I run a huge beast of a laptop – despite the weight and size I’m more comfortable working on docs or code on the bigger screen. Travel (especially planes) does suck though.

  • This is always going to come down to personal preference, and to some degree your tools.

    Having used both 13 and 15 inch development PCs you can do both successfully, but If you’re using Visual Studio or some other heavy IDE, the screen can get a little cramped on a 13 inch but is workable. Regardless of which you choose, you’ll probably want a second monitor anyway.

    Where the 15 inches do win, is that you generally can’t get 16GB of RAM on a 13 inch. (Dell XPS 15 / Inspirion 15 7000 / Macbook Pro)

  • 13″ running at Full HD can work for development, if your eyes are up to it and presuming you use the laptop on the move a fair bit. Mine are, but I’ve had a couple of people at work have trouble reading text on the screen of my laptop. Of course larger is a better experience, but the portability factor of 13″ makes up for it in my mind. Much easier to use in smaller working spaces such as on a train, or in a busy cafe, or even on your lap in your loungeroom.

    However, if you’re largely using it plugged in, and without access to an external screen, then I’d go bigger.

    I did look at the XPS 2015 as an option when getting mine a few months back, but decided that I’d get better performance and value out of a Metabox build(take a look at the W230SD line). The keyboard is the best I’ve used on a laptop, so take that into account if you’re going to be using it on the go, too.

  • How much screen realestate does vi take anyway?

    Back in my day, programming on 12″ mono monitors with 25×80 characters was a luxury!

  • I use a 13″ MacBook Pro for my development at work and home. Full screen the app and start coding. With Mac OS 3 finger swipe left and right I no longer need multi-monitor, and the full screen mode hides the toolbars. I went from a 4 monitor setup at home, and a 2 monitor setup at work, to a single 13″ screen. I am actually finding it easier now as there are less distractions. I was always glancing at my opened email on one screen, and losing windows that randomly open on a different screen.
    I also have Parallels running Windows 10 for Windows development.
    I use PHPStorm and QtCreator, however if I was using Visual Studio it would get rather cramped.
    So its not really 13″. It’s resolution, your IDE, OS features and personal preferences on how you work.

  • The plus side of a smaller screen is that you can always work on the go and move your laptop anywhere without breaking a sweat. If you have an iPad or Android tablet (you know, like everyone else?), you can set it up as your secondary monitor, that honestly is a better solution that a 15′ or 17′ screen.

    BTW the Dell XPS 13 is awesome!

  • I sit on the portability side, my Asus u36sd has a proper i7 (not ULV) and SSD and is hooked up to a monitor & BT KB/mouse if I am at the same location every day. But where it excels is that I’m more likely to take it with me because it’s portable – which is the whole point isn’t it? I have a proper desktop for gaming and coding at home so it’s purely a work computer and not needed for multiple purposes.

  • I thought the whole idea behind Google Glass was: a screen built into your glasses. The effective size of the screen, distance from viewer, resolution… these were the next points in the design.
    Now Google Glass has died off, and we’re back to arguing about actual screens built into laptops. That’s sad.
    Personal opinion? My eyesight has degraded over the years, so a Retina screen would probably be a waste for me. I’m also in the habit of making text larger, so I can read it easily. So I’d prefer a 15″ screen, HD.
    How good is your eyesight?

  • Absolutely too small. I used to be fine with a smaller laptop (netbook even) for light email checking/browsing…until I actually tried using that laptop for prolonged periods of time, for real work where productivity is extremely important. It’s not just the screen size, also typing all day on a cramped keyboard and hunched over more… I travel for weeks, sometimes months at a time staying in hotels etc… I’m an editor for a major website and routinely need to have multiple screens open for research, doing edits from a DSLR camera in photoshop/lightroom/Premiere Pro… and the smaller size screens definitely wear on you. I think right now a 15″ with a retina/4k display is the sweet spot for prolonged work. If you’re going to be using the laptop a lot out of the house as your prime device, not tied to a desktop, no external monitor hook up options… get the 15 minimum. I’d even suggest a 17″… I thought the 17″ MBP was the best laptop ever made at the time, pissed they discontinued it… just my opinion. I’ve dabbled in programming also… you definitely want as much screen space as possible there! I think you need to have a wide screen with two windows open next to each other minimum to get work done that way… one for reference, one for code.

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