I’m often asked by engineering students what are the best laptops for PLC programming. I’ve been reluctant to do an article such as this due to the fact that technology changes at such a rapid rate.
Couple this with the fact that just about every website on earth does product reviews on laptops (if you don’t believe me do a quick Google search). However, I decided that now is the right time to do one with so many exciting laptops on the market.
Before we get started I would like to apologize in advance to all the Mac folks out there. We will not be reviewing Macbooks in this article as I have not seen them make their way to the automation floor for the purposes of PLC programming or other automation type programming as of yet.
There are several reasons for this, namely PLC programming software compatibility issues, however this can be overcome using Boot Camp and dual booting with a Windows operating system loaded.
This article will review top performing Windows based laptops balancing cost, power, durability and most importantly cater to those of us in the programming and engineering world.
In order to choose the right laptop, there are some key features that you’ll want to consider in order to make an educated decision. They are:
- Processing Power (CPU)
- Memory (RAM)
- Hard Disk Drive
- Screen Size
- Battery Performance
- Available Communication Ports
- Operating Systems
It should be noted that most programmers or engineering students will need to run multiple software packages. This can include, PLC Programming software, HMI development software, CAD software, and multiple operating systems to support legacy systems via virtual machines.
In addition to this, portability and battery life is an important factor as well in choosing the best laptop for PLC programming.
What is the Best Laptop for Programming?
It is difficult to pick one clear winner when it comes to the best laptop for PLC programming or the best laptop for engineering students for that matter. But of course, this is why you’re here.
All laptops reviewed have their own set of pros and cons. However, one laptop did emerge as the clear winner in terms of performance. That is, the Acer Predator Helios 300. While this laptop is tremendous in terms of spec’s and features, the downside is it also comes with a heavy price tag.
However, if you’re an engineering student on a budget or a field tech not wanting to spend big money on a field laptop then continue reading. There are plenty of top-performing laptops for around $1000.
Best Laptops for Programming
- CPU: 12th Generation Intel Core i7-12700H 6-Core Processor (Up to 5.0GHz)
- GPU: NVIDIA GeForce RTX 3070 Ti with Max-Q Design with 8 GB of dedicated GDDR6 VRAM
- RAM: 64GB DDR5 2933MHz Dual-Channel Memory
- Storage: 2TB PCIe SSD (2 x M.2 Slots | 1 Slot Open for Easy Upgrades) & 1 – Available Hard Drive Bay
- Display: 2K QHD 240Hz Display
- Output: 1 x HDMI 2.0, 1 x Mini DisplayPort, 2 x USB 3.2 Gen 1 (Type-A), 1 x USB 3.2 Gen 2 (Type-A), 1 x USB 3.2 Gen 2 (Type-C).
- Weight and Size: 39 lbs, 15.89 x 11.02 x 0.97 inches
- RGB: 4-Zone RGB Backlit Keyboard
- CPU: Intel Core i7-10870H 2.2-5.0 GHz
- GPU: NVIDIA GeForce RTX3070 8GB GDDR6
- RAM: 32GB (16G*2) DDR4 3200MHz ; 2 Sockets, Max Memory 64GB
- Storage: 2TB NVMe SSD
- Display: FHD (1920×1080), 300Hz 3ms, IPS-Level | 1920×1080 16:9
- Output: 1x RJ45, 1x SD (XC/HC), 1x (4K @ 60Hz) HDMI, 1x Mini-DisplayPort, 2x Type-A USB3.2 Gen1, 1x Type-A USB3.2 Gen2, 1x Type-C (USB3.2 Gen2 / DP), 1x Type-C USB3.2 Gen2x2
- Weight and Size: 39 lbs, 1.08 x 15.63 x 10.57 inches
- RGB: Per-Key RGB gaming keyboard by SteelSeries
- CPU: 10th Generation Intel Core i7-10870H (8-Core, 16MB Cache, up to 5.0GHz Max Turbo Frequency)
- GPU: NVIDIA® GeForce RTX 3070 Laptop GPU 8GB GDDR6 VRAM
- RAM: 16GB DDR4 2933MHz Memory
- Storage: 1TB PCIe M.2 SSD
- Display: 6-inch FHD (1920 x 1080) 300Hz 3ms 300-nits 100% sRGB color gamut
- Output: 1 x MicroSD-Card Reader, 2 x USB 3.2 Gen 1 (Type-A), 1 x HDMI 2.1b with HDCP 2.2 Output, 1 x Mini DisplayPort 1.4 Output, 1 xThunderbolt™ 3 Port, 1 x Alienware Graphics Amplifier Port, 1 x Killer™ Networks E3100x Gigabit Ethernet NIC 1 x USB 3.2 Gen 1 Type-A with Powershare Technology
- Weight and Size: 50 lbs, 10.86 x 14.19 x 0.78 inches
- RGB: 4-zone RGB N-Key rollover and anti-ghosting technology.
- CPU: Intel Core i9-13900H
- GPU: NVIDIA GeForce RTX4080 Max-Q 8GB GDDR6
- RAM: 32GB (16G*2) DDR4 3200MHz ; 2 Sockets, Max Memory 64GB
- Storage: 1TB NVMe SSD
- Display: 6″ Thin Bezel FHD, IPS-Level 240Hz 3.5ms close to 100%sRGB | 1920×1080 16:9
- Output: 1x RJ45, 1x (4K @ 60Hz) HDMI, 3x Type-A USB3.2 Gen1, 1x Type-C (USB3.2 Gen2 / DP)
- Weight and Size: 9.52 lbs, 22.32 x 4.25 x 15.31 inches
- RGB: Per-Key RGB gaming keyboard by SteelSeries
- CPU: 12th Generation Intel® Core™ i7-12850H (12 MB Cache, 4 Core, 8 Threads, 2.80 GHz to 4.70 GHz, 17.5W)
- GPU: NVIDIA® T500, 2 GB GDDR6
- RAM: 32 GB, DDR5, 3200 MHz, dual-channel
- Storage: 1TB PCIe SSD, Gen 3 PCIe x4 NVMe, Class 40 SSD
- Display: 15-inch, FHD 1920 x 1080, 60 Hz, anti-glare, touch, 45% NTSC, 250 nits, wide-viewing angle
- Output: 1 x RJ-45 Ethernet port, 1 x USB 3.2 Gen 2 Type A port, 1 x USB 3.2 Gen 2 Type A port with PowerShare, 2 x Thunderbolt 4 USB-C ports with Power-in, 1 x HDMI 2.0 port, 1 x Universal audio port
- Weight and Size: 5 lbs, 14.09 x 9.13 x 0,56 inches
- RGB: No, Single point, backlit keyboard
- CPU: 14th Gen Intel® Core™ i9-12900H (Up to 5GHz)
- GPU: NVIDIA® GeForce® RTX 3060
- RAM: 16 GB DDR5 SDRAM
- Storage: 1TB SSD
- Display: 6″ FHD display 1920 x 1080 300Hz FHD anti-glare
- Output: 1 x Thunderbolt 3 ( Type-C), 1 x Mini DisplayPort, 3 x SuperSpeed Type-A, 1 RJ-45, 1 x HDMI 2.0a, S•D Multi-Format Card Reader.
- Weight and Size: 4 lbs, 0.9” thin
- RGB: 4 zone RGB keyboard
- CPU: 12th Generation Intel Core i9-10750H 6-Core Processor (Up to 5.0GHz)
- GPU: NVIDIA® GeForce RTX 3070 Laptop GPU 8GB GDDR6 VRAM
- RAM: 16GB DDR5 2933MHz Dual-Channel Memory
- Storage: 512GB PCIe SSD + available M.2 slot for easy SSD upgrades
- Display: 6″ Full HD 144Hz, 100% sRGB, 4.9 mm bezel, factory calibrated
- Output: 1 x Thunderbolt™ 3 (USB-C), 3 x USB 3.2 Gen 2 (USB-A), 1 x USB-C 3.2 Gen 2, 1 x Gigabit Ethernet, 1 x HDMI 2.1 output (Up to 4K 120Hz)
- Weight and Size: 6 lbs, 9.25 x 13.98 x 0.78 inches
- RGB: Single-zone RGB Powered by Razer Chroma™ anti-ghosting keyboard
How to Choose the Best Laptop for PLC Programming
CPU Processing Power
I am not here to bash AMD processors at all, in fact, their line of processors will surely get the job done. However, I have always been an Intel fan and have used their chips in several OEM laptops ranging from HP, to Lenovo, to Dell to Asus, and have had no issues whatsoever with them.
Intel consistently outperform AMD in any benchmark tests I have reviewed online, and their speed and reliability are second to none.
Without a doubt you should be considering an Intel i9 Processor in your next programming rig with an Intel i7 Processor at an absolute minimum if budget is a major constraint for you. Your clock speed on these chips should be at least 2.8 GHz with 3 GHz or more being ideal.
That said, Intel’s next-gen chips are getting faster, more robust and more portable, packing the power you would typically only find in desktop PC’s or multi-thousand dollar gaming rigs such as the one I eluded to previously.
Provided you are buying a newer laptop (or one of the laptops I reveal at the end of this article), clock speed is likely not going to be an issue.
Check out this YouTube video from Intel Newsroom that does a good job visualizing how Intel combines performance CPU’s, discrete graphics and HBM2 (High Bandwidth Memory) to enable thinner, lighter, smaller form factor laptops ideal for today’s controls engineers.
Determining Your Memory (RAM) Requirements
RAM is another important consideration when purchasing your next programming laptop. This becomes increasingly important when you need to run one or more virtual machines (VM’s) at a time when servicing equipment.
I don’t know how many times I’ve been called to a customer’s facility for one job only to be asked after the job is complete, “hey do you mind looking at this machine for us before you go.”
Of course, when I say OK and go to the machine it is running an Allen-Bradley PLC5 with an old Cutler Hammer Panelmate HMI display.
At this point, the only option is to fire up the old Windows XP Professional virtual machine and pull out the serial cables (and USB to Serial Converter)…come on I know many of you know what I’m talking about.
Having said that, this may be a good time to point you to my article Essential Tools Every PLC Programmer Needs.
Each virtual machine is going to be allocated CPU resources as well as memory resources in order to run efficiently. What you don’t want to do is run into a situation where you are starving the host machine because you’ve over-allocated resources to the VM guest.
Or on the flip side, under-allocated resources to the VM guest simply because you don’t have sufficient resources on the host to do so.
My general rule of thumb when it comes to situations like this is, I’d rather be looking at it than for it! Meaning I’d rather have a little more than I need than not enough – a general principle I follow in all aspects of my life.
Buy a laptop with a minimum 16 GB of RAM.
Not All Hard Drives Are Created Equal!
Hard Disk Drives (HDD’s) are an often overlooked aspect of any laptop build. However, HDD speed’s can quickly become a bottleneck for your machine.
Often laptops you see advertised at some of the “big box” stores (to remain nameless but two words and first letter in both words is a “B”) that on the surface boast some pretty good hardware spec’s…plenty of RAM, good processor, good screen sizes and all for under a $1000! Seems like a steal right?
What almost all the ads you see from these stores fail to mention is the HDD speed. Now, I’m going to be talking Solid State Drives (SSD’s) in a minute, however, if your entertaining a laptop with a “run-of-the-mill” spinning disk, be wary of the revolutions per minute (RPM) the HDD spins at.
Almost all the laptops I have priced that are coming in under the $1000 price point with spinning disks have a slow 5400 RPM disk drive. THIS WILL BE A BOTTLENECK! Stay away from a 5400 RPM and ensure it has at least a 7200 RPM HDD.
If your budget just can’t afford to buy a laptop with an HDD speed of 7200 RPM, or better yet an SSD, then buy the laptop for the other hardware and consider upgrading the hard disk to an SSD straight away.
I recommend the Crucial MX500 1TB 3D NAND SATA 2.5 Inch Internal SSD. I bought two of these guys on a Black Friday blowout sale (one for my laptop and one for my desktop) and have been very happy with their performance.
Without question if you want to give your new machine or even your existing machines a big speed boost consider installing an SSD.
Solid State Drives have no moving parts which means they are orders of magnitude faster and more shock resistant.
This makes SSD’s very desirable in some of the harsh environments PLC programmers find themselves.
Which Laptop Screen Size is Best?
Screen size is one of those personal preference type spec’s. I don’t recommend you go any smaller than 15 inches on a laptop for programming.
I find this screen size to be the sweet spot and absolute minimum for both ease of troubleshooting and portability while onsite.
If you don’t mind the extra weight (and price tag that goes along with it) consider moving to a 17 inch screen. Your eyes will thank you and it makes traversing lines of code that much easier.
Consider the Communication Ports
All “old-time” PLC programmers will tell you to make sure your laptop has a serial port! Let me tell you right now…FORGET THE SERIAL PORT!
You will pay more money to add that old 9-pin D-Sub Serial Port on your laptop when all you need is a good USB to Serial Converter such as those found on Amazon.
Couple that with a Female-Female Null Modem Serial RS232 Cable and you’ll be communicating with most PLC Processors and any other devices that support the RS232 communication protocol.
The other advantage of going USB to Serial is that you’ll be able to map your “serial port” into any virtual machine. One of the limitations of most VM’s is they can’t port over physical devices such as those found on PCIx cards.
Therefore, USB is a great option to bring physical devices into your VM.
The other point I would make regarding communication ports for your next programming laptop is to ensure there are plenty of USB ports!
I would say 3 x USB ports is an absolute minimum to connect any peripherals you will need while troubleshooting a piece of equipment on site. With 4 or more USB ports ideal.
Speaking of USB ports, most newer laptops will support the 3.0 standard which is great when plugging in removable HDD’s, flash drives etc. Be sure whatever laptop you purchase has at least one of these 3.0 ports or more.
Note that USB 3.0 ports are backward compatible with USB 2.0 and even the older USB 1.1 standard. So if you’re laptop only has USB 3.0 ports (indicated by the blue connector on them) don’t worry, it will connect to any legacy USB device you will encounter in the field, provided you have the appropriate drivers of course!
Not All Batteries Are Created Equal!
As you’re probably aware, power sources onsite are sometime hard to come by. Therefore, having a long-lasting reliable battery for you laptop is critical. The laptops today are getting much more efficient on battery consumption as is the battery technology itself.
All batteries will have the ability to convert chemical energy into electrical energy, however, not all batteries are created equal.
When comparing battery packs on laptops it is sometimes useful to check the ampere-hour (Ah) rating. This will give you a good indication of how the battery will perform and allow you to compare “apples to apples” when shopping for your next laptop.
One word of caution, advertised battery life never seems to be as long as what is claimed. How long your laptop battery will last will depend largely on the type of load you are putting on the machine.
While the battery in a given laptop is not a high priority on my list, it is worth mentioning here. Right now lithium-ion (also known as Li-ion) cell batteries are common place in new laptops which hold roughly twice the capacity of the nickel-cadmium batteries of old.
If extended battery life is a priority for you, then I recommend you steer clear of the 17″ laptops with top-speed processors. The additional screen size and power sucking processors will surely drain you battery in shorter order.
The other option is to carry a portable battery charger, such as the PowerOak Ultra High Capacity 50000mAh Power Pack. This will give you additional battery life when needed and is a great accessory to have on hand!
Operating System Considerations for Programmers
As I said previously, most industrial automation software is designed to run on Windows-based PC’s…sorry Mac people.
Having said that, I have heard of people running PLC programming software, in dual boot mode on MacBook Pro’s with good performance and success.
Generally, automation software lags behind operating system (OS) releases. This is for good reason!
Automation systems and software favor reliability first and foremost, which is one of the major reasons most automation software vendors will not test new operating systems right out of the gate.
Rather, they will wait until the OS itself is tried and tested before certifying any compliance to run their software.
I run Windows 10 Professional (I’ve not migrated to Windows 11 yet) on both my office desktop and field laptop. I then run Windows 7 Professional and Windows XP Professional in a virtual machine.
If you are considering purchasing a new laptop, be mindful that most of them are coming stock with Windows 10 Home Edition.
This version of Windows is not conducive to automation software like Studio 5000, RSLinx, just to name a few. So you will need to upgrade the machine to Windows 10 Professional.
I generally format my new machines anyway to eliminate all the “bloat-ware” that comes pre-loaded with any new PC or laptop.
I hope you have enjoyed this article, and I do encourage you to become a member of our growing community of professional engineers, technicians and technologists, Register Here!
Also, check out our YouTube Channel to see some great videos…and don’t forget to like and subscribe to our channel!
Lastly, if you run into any problems in your day-to-day engineering activities please be sure to check out our Live and Interactive PLC Forum!
And if you so desire, assist other community members by replying or offering helpful information to the questions or challenges they may be facing right now!