Hardware & Software Requirements for Web Programming

Q: What features do I need in my laptop?

Steven asked,

Was wondering if this computer would be a good fit for your club?

I think it will work for the club. However, I'll make a few comments that might help you. In general, what I looked for when buying a laptop specifically to do web programming, I wanted:

  • a screen with as many pixels as I could afford (mine runs at 1900 x 1200) to work productively with many windows open at once, and a graphics card good enough to handle that screen resolution (you don't need a high-powered "gaming" graphics card, but might want to enable special desktop effects like window transparency, and sometimes the base graphics card won't support that),
  • 3+ GB RAM (I have 3 GB) to allow running many programs at once (occasionally Aptana, Firefox, and VirtualBox? can eat up 1 GB each!) without slowing down (the computer will run unusably slow if you run out of RAM),
  • a relatively fast processor so when you're running something that takes a long time you don't have to wait as long (I've got a dual-core Intel T9300, which is maybe twice as fast as a single-core Turion),
  • integrated wireless network adapter (makes it far easier to use the laptop while traveling),
  • integrated mic (to make it easy to talk hands-free with my clients & contractors on Skype),
  • hardware that was reported to work well on Ubuntu's hardware compatibility list, because I've got all the web development software I need for free in Ubuntu (I've got a Dell Inspiron 1720, and the similar Dell Inspiron 1520 used to be sold & certified to work with Ubuntu installed, but I still went into a Circuit City and tried running the Ubuntu Live CD (on the Ubuntu installation CD) on the laptop to make sure it worked before buying one). Ubuntu runs well on a large amount of hardware now, and the hardware compatibility list is undergoing changes that render it relatively useless at present, so it may not be necessary to check it before buying. But, I'd try Ubuntu from a Live CD or Live USB before the return date after buying your laptop to be sure you have the option to use Ubuntu if you want. The main things to check are whether you can get the screen resolution you want (maybe after installing a proprietary but free graphics card driver), and whether the wireless network adapter and sound card work.

Most other features don't matter much for web development. The features listed above made my computer cost around $1,500 in 2008. On the screen resolution, RAM, and processor speed I didn't aim for the bottom or middle of the scale, but for the top, because I knew my productivity would depend on those features. I have a hunch you might end up discovering that a $500 laptop is underpowered, but a $1,000 one, or a cheap processor but with lots of RAM, might work well.

Q: Can you recommend some suitable laptops?

I found the array of options confusing when I was looking for a laptop too. I was looking for features almost identical to a "desktop replacement" laptop, minus a couple features I didn't need. Here's how I narrowed down the options.

  • Choose a manufacturer. I chose Dell as the manufacturer because in the past their hardware has been certified to work with the drivers available in Ubuntu.
  • Choose a product line. I figured out the differences between Dell's product lines, which were basically the Inspiron (plastic case, pretty, features home users want, slightly cheaper), gaming (now Alienware; high-end, garish design, for home users), Vostro/Latitude (harder plastic case, ugly, features business users want), Studio/XPS/Precision (metal case, pretty, features business executives want, more expensive). Even at the church my office is more like a home office, so I didn't need the business features, didn't need the high-end graphics & sound cards for gaming, and each line provides about the same range of display resolutions & processor speeds, and the Inspiron 1520 was certified with Ubuntu, so the Inspiron line was the right one.
  • Choose a customized system. Dell lets you build your own system by picking the parts you want to go into it. I started by looking at their special deals to get an idea of what features the base systems' configurations contain, then I selected the features I wanted here to fit my needs--you can upgrade the screen, and downgrade the hard drive, sound card, camera & battery to save some money. So, here are three systems I would recommend:

Q: Should I upgrade my RAM or buy a new computer with a faster processor?

That's a decision you have to make yourself, but I can give one way to help you know whether more RAM would help you. Either 1) more RAM or 2) a faster processor will make your computer be faster, but in two different ways: 1) RAM is memory used by the programs that are currently running. So if you open enough programs (or enough windows) you will eventually run out of RAM. When you run out of RAM, your computer slows down to a crawl all of a sudden and becomes mostly unusable because it's so slow--is that what's happening to you? If so, if you add enough RAM you can make it so (normally) you won't run out of RAM anymore, and you may not need to buy a new computer. 2) Your processor speed affects the computer differently--it makes your computer run at a certain speed UNTIL you run out of RAM. So getting a faster processor will make your normal use of the computer faster, but will not make as radical a difference as adding RAM will if you are running out of RAM. So if the processor speed is the problem, then it's probably worth it to buy a new computer. It's possible to upgrade a processor in many laptops, but it's costly, and it's probably wiser to get new surrounding hardware that is designed to work with a newer processor.

Q: What software do I need?

Steven also asked,

Also, do I need Office or can I use freeware for those tasks?

No, you won't need Office. All the software you'll need is free. Though I expect some people will not like my decision on this point, I recommend everyone use the Ubuntu operating system by installing it in VirtualBox? or on a 32+ GB USB flash drive. The reason is that all the software you need is available for free (and even automatically updated) in Ubuntu. You can do web development just as well on Windows or a Mac, but because I have a good handle on what software to use, and how to install it all easily, on Ubuntu, I'm only going to put my effort into supporting that platform. Specifically, all you have to do is install Ubuntu, then run a configuration script to install & configure all the specific software you need. The steps to do this are described here.

Last modified 6 years ago Last modified on 10/20/11 19:12:22