I’m often asked by students or fellow colleagues, 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).
Before we get started I would like to apologize in advance to all the Mac folks out there. I 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 software compatibility, however this can be overcome using Boot Camp and dual booting with a Windows operating system loaded.
What I want to do in this article is review Windows based laptops on the market today that will balance cost, power, durability and most importantly cater to those of us in the industrial automation and controls world.
In order to do this, there are some key components and features that we will need to consider in order to filter our list of top picks, such as,
If you’ve been wondering what are the best laptops for PLC programming, please continue reading.
It should be noted that most controls engineers (PLC Programmers) in the field today will be required to run multiple software packages which will include, but is not limited to, PLC Programming software, HMI development software, CAD software, SCADA software and multiple operating systems to support legacy systems via virtual machines.
In addition to this, portability is an important factor for me. Yes, you can get gaming laptops that have equivalent processing power to a desktop PC, however, until recently these machines were often big and bulky with large power requirements. With advancements in technology this is changing.
If you’re willing to fork out a few dollars to pick one of these high end machines up, I’ve had my eye on the 2020 HP Pavillion 15. This guy is jammed pack full of power and is going to find the top spot in my, “Best Laptops for PLC Programming” list below.
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 i7 Processor
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.
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
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 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.
Back to memory (RAM) requirements. I recommend buying a laptop with a minimum 16 GB of RAM. Now I’m not going to get into the nitty-gritty details of DDRx types. As I said above, if you decide on one of the laptops I have selected in this article (keep reading) you need not be concerned with this. Rest assured that these machines will be running high performance, high bandwidth memory.
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
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.
Screen size is one of those personal preference type spec’s. I don’t recommend you go any smaller than 15″ on a laptop, I find this screen size to be the sweet spot and absolute minimum for both ease of troubleshooting and portability while onsite.
Going smaller than 15″, in my opinion, makes tasks such as PLC programming, HMI design, and even CAD markups quite cumbersome.
I recently had a student that insisted on using her own personal Microsoft Surface Pro 7 for a CAD course I was teaching…and for good reason too I might add. This little machine was packed full of power, it boasted an i7 Processor, 16 GB of RAM, 256 GB of SSD storage with a battery that seemingly never died.
The only real limitation of the Surface Book was the screen size. At only 12.3 inches the student struggled with navigating and maneuvering the software which ultimately slowed her down.
Admittedly, she was a little disappointed she couldn’t leverage her new toy, however, from a portability while onsite tool or for quick presentation type functionality, this little guy is awesome!
All that said, personally I recommend any field laptop be no smaller than 15 inches. If you don’t mind the extra weight (and price tag that goes along with it) consider moving to a 17 inch screen – it makes navigation and maneuverability throughout various software packages that much easier.
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
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!
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
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 generally format my new machines anyway to eliminate all the “bloat-ware” that comes pre-loaded with any new PC or laptop.
Well I hope I’ve given you some things to think about before purchasing your next controls laptop. Now it’s time to roundup what I think are the best laptops for PLC programming right now.
Full disclaimer, I’ve not owned or tried all these laptops, however, based on my knowledge of computers, experience in the field of automation and controls, and knowing what I personally look for in a programming laptop, these are my top picks.
The 2020 HP Pavilion 15 is an absolute powerhouse when it comes to a compact and portable laptop. It’s powered by the latest 10th generation quad-core by Intel with 4 cores, 8M Cache and up to 3.90 GHz. It also boasts an impressive 15.6 inch touch screen with micro-edge WLED in full HD.
You can check the latest pricing on Amazon.
It also boasts 32GB of DDR4 RAM at 2666MHz. Running intensive rendering software or multiple virtual machines at the same time will be a snap with this laptop. It also come stock with a 2TB PCIe SSD + 1TB HDD…impressive to say the least. This machine is just blazing fast!
It comes with 2 USB 3.1 Gen 1 Type-A port a media reader slot and an impressive Fast Charge battery. HP claims their battery will charge up to 50% in as little as 45 minutes. A nice feature when you’re on the road travelling or commissioning equipment. Simply plug it in over lunch and you’re good to go for the rest of the day.
The only downside is it comes stock with Windows 10 Home Edition (I don’t know why they do this). So you’ll need to upgrade the OS to the professional version.
I have been a long time fan of HP laptops as well for many years, even back in the Compact Presario days! And for good reason, HP is one of the most renowned laptop manufacturers on the planet.
You can check the latest pricing on Amazon.
Boasting an 8th generation i7 quad-core processor with 32 GB of RAM and two HDD (one 1 TB HDD, and one 512 SSD) running your most demanding applications and having large data storage is a snap.
This is a bigger laptop at 17 inches so battery life will not be as long as some of the other laptops listed here. If you are okay with the shorter battery life and slightly heavier machine, then this is an ideal choice in our pursuit of the best laptops for PLC programming.
This extremely affordable laptop boasts an 8th Generation Intel Core i7-8550U Processor, 8 GB Dual Channel Memory and a 256 GB SSD all expandable to what you need. It advertises up to 15-hours of battery life…WOW!
With a 15.6″ Full HD display and 2 GB of dedicated GDDR5 graphics memory this machine will be a titan in the field and the complete opposite on your wallet!
Running an i7-7700HQ processor, it has 16 GB of RAM and comes with 1TB of HDD and 256GB SSD for storage. The screen is powered by Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 1050 GPU which will easily run the most demanding 3D rendering applications.
A solid choice and gets our #4 spot in our pursuit of the best laptops for PLC programming.
That said, I wanted to include it here in our list of best laptops for PLC programming because some of you out there may be looking for your field laptop to double as your office computer as well. This laptop will not disappoint in that capacity.
It has a huge 17 inch G-Sync display with full HD resolution and 120Hz refresh rate. Allowing it to easily render even the most demanding 3D animations. It boasts an Intel i7-7700HQ with an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 (8 GB DDR5) graphic co-processor…sweet! 16 GB of RAM stock expandable to 64 GB!
The drawbacks to this laptop as a field machine is it’s big, bulky, heavy, and a power consumer. Also, this laptop is not cheap, however, if it is going to double as an office desktop PC it may be cost effective from that standpoint.
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