Laptop Buying – For Developers

About a year ago, I caught on to Dell’s refurbished laptops over at Dell Outlet and since then I’ve purchased a total of three four laptops from there and each one has worked out great.

My first purchase was a Dell Latitude E6400 which I used as a primary development machine as I was traveling heavily.  At the time, as configured, the laptop that I acquired was over $500 cheaper than a brand new laptop from their business channel with the addition of a 15% off coupon (which they throw out there all the time; you can check their Twitter stream for updates).  That’s a huge savings.  I used it to run Visual Studio 2008 and VMWare 6.5.  It was plenty good, but with the rollout of Visual Studio 2010 and SharePoint 2010, I definitely noticed a HUGE decrease in performance.  It was excruciating.

I was torn between upgrading the E6400, which I had for less than a year, by adding another 4GB of RAM and an SSD or getting a new laptop, but it just so happened that my mom needed a laptop for some contract work that she picked up.  So I turned to Dell Outlet again and picked up a Core-i7 packing Latitude E6410, purchased an extra 4GB of RAM (total of 8GB), a Muskin Calisto Deluxe from Newegg (a Sandforce based SSD), and a second drive tray from NewModeUS for somewhere around $1600 (note that this includes almost $80 from shipping and taxes from Newegg and NewModeUS) after using a 15% off coupon for the laptop.  It’s a great value considering configuring the same laptop from the business channel would have cost around $400-500 more.

The E6410, with the 8GB and the Calisto SSD, is able to lay down some serious computing power.  It handles my SharePoint 2010 Enterprise VM without a sweat.  Visual Studio 2010 is far more usable now as well.  As I almost never use my DVD drive, I swapped it out for a Western Digital Scropio Black (at $80 for 7200RPM, 320GB, it can’t be beat in terms of price/performance) and store all of my large files and VM images on the second drive.

I’ve also purchased an E4310 for my wife this year.  My experience with the E-class Latitudes from Dell Outlet has been so overwhelmingly positive, that it was a no-brainer.  It’s a great little machine for the road warrior developer and now that I’ve felt the heft and the size, I’d seriously consider it myself (although it doesn’t have an option for a Core i7 CPU — i3 and i5 only) as NewModeUS also has a drive tray for the E4310.  She tends to use laptops for far longer than I do 😀 Her last one lasted her about 5 years now so I hope that this one can last at least as long.

Refurbished? I’m not really sure what this means.  It’s pretty broad I guess, but considering that I got my E6410 in July and the laptop itself was released only in April or May, I figured that it had to be in pretty good shape.  How much wear could a laptop accumulate in two months?  My guess is that the refurbished laptops fall into one of a few scenarios (just my guess):

  1. Ordered too many — perhaps a hiring freeze or some employees were let go before IT was notified.
  2. Not needed anymore — perhaps a company went bankrupt or went out of business?
  3. Some malfunctioning component — maybe the power supply didn’t work or the video card was wonky and the whole chassis was returned.
  4. Misconfigured — IT department receives shipment and finds that a batch of the laptops were misconfigured with the wrong CPU or missing other features.

I don’t know the answer and I don’t know why my laptop is “refurbished”, but for all intents and purposes, when I pulled it out of the box, it was brand spanking new; no wear to speak of.

Dell E64xx.  I’d like to take a moment to reflect on these laptops.  I spent quite a bit of time looking into the offerings from HP as well.  In particular, the HP EliteBook 8440w and 8540w which I was also considering.  Ultimately, having had my experiences with the E6400 the first time and seeing the build quality of the E-class Latitudes, it was hard to justify shelling out the additional premium for the HP units (the pretty consistent 15% off coupons for the Latitudes at Dell Outlet are a big incentive).  Given that the performance difference between the two would be largely marginal, I stuck with the E-class laptop once I found out about NewModeUS (Dell doesn’t let you configure a laptop with two 2.5″ hard drives the way I wanted it configured and it was one of my key criteria as I keep several multi-GB VM images on my laptop).

Overall, these laptops have been a joy to work with.  Far better than that Lenovo T series laptops (which my sister purchased herself despite my suggestions and which I use for some clients).  The screen is bright, the connectivity is great (though no USB3, it does have eSATA and a DisplayPort connector), the keyboard is excellent (especially with the backlighting), the web cam and microphone are excellent, it has a pointer “nipple”, and the build quality is top notch.  I regularly pick up the laptop one handed and there’s little discernible flex; the chassis is very rigid.  I also like that the system is so easy to customize for the do-it-yourselfer.  This allows you to buy a cheap chassis (focus on the CPU) and simply just replace the RAM and the HDD.  The entire underside (a thin, magnesium alloy plate) is held in by one screw (to my surprise).

Even with the Core-i7 onboard, it isn’t any noisier nor does it run appreciably hotter than my Core 2 Duo packing E6400.

I’ve also come to really like the overall design of the E-class Latitudes.  They’re relatively thin, simple, and classy looking.  Much better looking than the Lenovos.

Dual Core or Quad Core? I struggled with this for a while as I was heavily considering one of the quad core Core-i7 processors.  However, I’m glad I chose the dual core.  I’ve found the performance to be excellent and the price, heat, and battery life trade-offs to be the big win.  Generally speaking, in development, it would seem that your limiting factors are the disk speed and RAM rather than the number of physical cores.  Given that the dual core CPUs have faster physical cores than the quad core CPUs, my feeling is that one is probably better off with the dual core Core i7 CPUs for a development laptop.

There was some good discussion on a thread over at with great insight on the topic.  Highly recommended read for developers in the same quandary as I was on dual core vs. quad core.

At the time, I was also thinking that having a quad core would help in terms of the VM (I was getting terrible performance on my SharePoint 2010 VM) by being able to assign two cores to the VM, but the VMWare documentation seems to advise against this (can’t find it now, but there was a whitepaper on this very topic) in most scenarios.  In practice, with the 8GB of RAM and the SSD, the dual core Core-i7 has proven to be more than enough.

Suggestions for Developers. For any developers looking to get your own laptops or for small development shops, I’d definitely recommend looking at Dell Outlet and the E6410 and E4310 laptops.  Wait for the 15% off coupons and you’ll get yourself a steal.  For the time being, unless you plan on getting the top of the line quad core Core i7 and you aren’t concerned about heat or battery life, I’d stick with the dual core Core i5 or Core i7 CPUs.

Here’s what I would do (once I’ve got a 15% off coupon code):

  1. Buy the chassis with the best CPU and ancillary features that are important to you (web cam, battery size, BlueTooth, Windows 7, x64, etc.) that you can find in their database.  For the most part, disregard the HDD, even if it comes equipped with an SSD.  You can kind of disregard the RAM, but look for something that has 4GB in one slot.
  2. Buy a Sandforce based SSD (the Calisto is a great SSD — I’ve already purchased two of these).  You can check as amazing deals do occasionally surface.  Target at least 120GB.
  3. Buy an extra 4GB of RAM from Newegg.
  4. Buy a drive tray from NewModeUS for your chassis (do note that the drive tray is an actual SATA interface — WIN!).
  5. Buy a Western Digital Scorpio Black HDD and plug that into your new drive tray (Amazon has good prices if you have Prime).  Use this drive to store you large files and your VMs (store your source files on the SSD for speed).
  6. Buy an external enclosure for whatever drive you take out of the chassis.  I’ve used the ACOMDATA Tango enclosures (see my review at the link) which supports eSATA.  Use this as an external drive or for backups.
  7. Do a clean install with the SSD as the primary.
  8. Once you have you system reinstalled, be sure to change the write caching policy to improve performance on the disk in the tray.  Follow these steps:
    1. Right click on Computer
    2. Select Manage
    3. Click Disk Management
    4. Right click on the disk and select Properties
    5. In the Hardware tab, select the disk and click Properties
    6. In the new dialog, select the Policies tab
    7. Here, you should enable write caching and you can also turn off the Windows write cache buffer flushing if you want.  Since it’s essentially an internal drive now (unless you plan on hot swapping it) with battery backup, it should be pretty safe (but do so at your own risk!)

Write caching configuration

I’m not sure how the Seagate Momentus XT hybrid drive does in terms of large files that you’d be working with in terms of VMs, but I’ve had pretty good success with the Scorpio Black.

Suggestions for Dell. Get some better web developers.  Seriously.  The Dell Outlet site is barely usable.  It was terrible before they fixed it up, but they’ve somehow made it prettier, but much harder to use — I wouldn’t have thought that possible given the state the site was in when I first used it.

With a bit of patience (waiting for the coupon), luck (finding the right configuration for your needs), and elbow grease (upgrading a few components yourself), you’ll have yourself a killer development machine at a great, budget friendly price.  My E6410 is now my primary and only development machine.

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