Why you don’t need a new computer to code

I’ve been seeing a lot of content/posts/videos online about the best laptops or PCs for programming in 2022. This is something that I expect from large corporations trying to sell their newest flagship products:

I expected more from content creators that are apparently on your side, they claim they want to give you the best tips and tricks for boosting your productivity to become a more efficient and accomplished programmer. Although, I’ve realised that the world of ego boosting from likes, and affiliate links has ruined any chance of getting real technology tips from most content creators online. (This is not to say there isn’t some good guys out there)


System Comparison

I want to start with a quick system comparison, I’m going to pitch my old laptop which I still use for programming against a few top tier productivity laptops on sale today. Our reference machine will be the Acer Aspire 5750G which I’ve been using for 5 years now. (Read more here) Note that we are only taking into account things that will directly impact productivity for programming. Battery life, screen resolution etc are not taken into account.

LAPTOP MANUFACTURERACERMICROSOFTAPPLE
MODELAspire 5750GSurface Pro 7MacBook Pro
RELEASE DATEJan 2011Oct 2019Oct 2021
PRICE (AT REALEASE) €79913991999
CPU MODELi7-2630QMi5-1035G4Apple M1 (2021)
RAM8GB @ 800Mhz8GB @ 3733MHz16GB @ 4266Mhz
STORAGE512GB SSD256GB SSD512GB SSD
Laptop Spec Comparison
Acer Aspire 5750G
Microsoft Surface Pro 7
Apple MacBook Pro M1

It is important to note, that the value of the Surface Pro and MacBook Pro are basically the same as their release dates, however the value of the Aspire 5750G would be around €100/€200 if you could find someone selling one nowadays. Which would actually make the laptop more valuable for its parts than as a functional laptop.

The first thing I wish to talk about is Ram. The Aspire is quite obviously at the bottom of the pack during a direct comparison, as it has the lowest ram speed, however for it’s use case paired with this older processor it doesn’t prove to be a problem in practice.

We can use cpubenchmark.net, widely considered the best CPU comparison site online, to compare our processors which use data based on thousands of reviews and their own comparison processes. Below are the spec comparison of each processor and their respective scores.

(Left – Acer Aspire 5750G, Middle – Microsoft Surface Pro 7, Right – Apple MacBook M1)

You may look at this and immediately say, well the Apple M1 has a score of 15k and the i7-2630QM from the Acer is only 3.5k (where higher score is better), but to be fair to the Apple MacBook Pro M1 it is a very impressive machine and in a different class even than the Surface Pro 7.

I think a more valuable comparison of similar classed machines from their time would be a comparison between the Acer Aspire and the Microsoft Surface Pro, which means a comparison between the i7-2630QM and the i5-1035G4. If I was to mislead my less educated audience I could jump to the conclusion that the i7 has a base clock of 2GHz and thus is a much better CPU than the i5 with a 1.1Ghz clock, but comparing the clock speeds of two CPUs with different architectures is futile. What is interesting is that both CPUs are 4 core and 8 threads, which is the standard almost now, but back in 2011 the i7 would have been a very high end laptop processor.

Lets look visually at the results, I find it makes it easier to understand the disparity between the contenders.

CPU Comparison Graph

We can see a visual representation between the low tier outdated i7 from the Acer Aspire, the mid tier i5 from the Surface Pro and the top tier Apple M1 from the MacBook Pro. We can roughly see that every time you drop down a tier you’re halving your processors power roughly. For me, a laptop from 2011 which is worth much less than €200, even competing with a modern mid range laptop which costs around €1399 is absolutely astounding.

Not Convinced?

Time for some *shudders* anecdotal evidence… I know, I know, anecdotal evidence isn’t really evidence but this is my blog not yours so I’m going to include it anyway. I’ve been using my Acer Aspire 5750G for about 5 years, granted I did update from a 128GB SSD to a 512GB SSD, and I have opened it many times to clean out dust, replace thermal paste etc but it has performed solidly the whole way through.

At its peak, I was running top grade engineering software such as SolidEdge and Altium Designer, as well as Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Audition, all of this software ran without a hitch. They definitely would have performed better on a newer up to date machine, but they worked perfectly fine. Next, I branched into web development and programming in C/C++ and Python, I found any program I ran relating to any of these ran much better than the Engineering software I mentioned previously.

I’m currently writing this blog post on my Acer Aspire 5750G from 2011. I have 12 Chrome tabs open, Spotify open, Discord running the background and my emails open, the laptop has not so much as flinched. Yesterday while coding I was running Visual Studio Code, Chrome, Spotify open in the background, while watching a coding tutorial, testing code while doing all of this was just fine and completely usable. And to do all of this I did not need to spend €1399 on a Surface Pro or €1999 on a MacBook Pro M1.

Don’t be tempted to think I’m just a cheapskate that doesn’t want to spend money, I recently built a new productivity/gaming PC which is great, super fast and shiny. It is without a doubt 100x better than my laptop at so many things, as would the Surface Pro 7 and the MacBook Pro M1, but here’s the catch, it’s no better when it comes to programming. It’s slightly faster at compiling and slightly faster at loading new web pages when I’m testing web apps, but it’s barely noticeable.

How can I make my current laptop/PC last longer?

Below is a list of bullet points to help to elongate the life of your current computer, “boost your productivity” and “get better performance”.

  • Purge your startup apps (PC will boot faster)
  • Replace your HDD with an SSD (Programs and files will load faster)
  • Keep your PC/Laptop cool (Will reduce likelihood of thermal throttling which slows CPU)
  • Back up important files/program and do a fresh OS install (Removes old junk files and corruptions)
  • Switch from Windows to Linux (Linux runs much lighter than Windows, frees many resources)
  • Replace thermal paste/pads (Increases thermal conductivity between toasty components are their coolers)
  • Upgrade your RAM (More capacity to hold current processes in faster memory)
  • Stop apps that are running in the background (Stops wasting resources on apps that you aren’t using)

Conclusion

So what’s the point of all this?

Am I a crazy guy that doesn’t want you to have nice new shiny things? No.

Am I trying to stop you giving money to tech companies? No, I couldn’t care less what you do with your money.

All I’m trying to do is point out that anyone online that tells you to buy a brand spanking new laptop or PC to “be the best programmer” or advertises “best laptops for programming 2022” are full of shit.

You don’t need to go to the extremes that I do, using a 10 year old laptop (even though it’s perfectly fine). If you want a new laptop or computer go for it, but keep in mind a brand new laptop may not be noticeably better than a laptop that is a few years old.

Consider upgrading your current machine, give it some TLC, do some of the suggestions from above and you may be surprised how you can fall in love with your current tech all over again. Don’t fall into the trap of “I need the top of the line tech to be the best programmer”, because it’s a lie fuelled by companies to make money, “influencers” to get likes and assholes who don’t know anything about technology to sound smart.

On the flip side, you also need to know when to stop, as a general rule of thumb I’ve found (do your own tests), anything before 2nd gen i5 and i7 isn’t worth upgrading, same with AMD FX chips, just give it up and get something new.

For now, I’ll keep using my 2011 Acer Aspire 5750G until it can’t perform how I need it to, even if it isn’t sleek and new and shiny.

Written by Joel Gray

24/01/2022

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