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,
- Processing Power (CPU)
- Memory (RAM)
- Hard Disk Drive
- Screen Size
- Battery Size
- Communication Ports
- Operating Systems
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 New Dell XPS 15 for some time now. 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.
Best Laptops For PLC Programming – 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. They 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 in your next programming rig with an Intel i5 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.
Best Laptops For PLC Programming – Memory (RAM)
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 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.
Best Laptops For PLC Programming – Hard Drives
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.
Best Laptops For PLC Programming – Screen Sizes
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 Book 2 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 8th Generation i7 Processor, 16 GB of RAM, 512 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 13.5 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 my field laptop is 17″. If you don’t mind the extra weight (and price tag that goes along with it) consider moving to a 17″ screen – it makes navigation and maneuverability throughout various software packages that much easier.
Best Laptops For PLC Programming – Comm 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!
Best Laptops For PLC Programming – Battery Size
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. True 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!
Best Laptops For PLC Programming – Operating Systems
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.
For this reason, I still run Windows 7 Professional on my field laptop, with a Windows XP Professional VM. I’ve been hesitant to move to Windows 10 on my field laptop right now because Windows 7 just works! The last thing I want is to be fighting software in the middle of the night because of some compatibility issue that decided to rear its ugly head.
That said, I have migrated to Windows 10 Professional on my office desktop PC and have been able to successfully run the primary Rockwell software I use in the field. This will include RSLogix 5000 (version 20.04), Studio 5000 (version 30+), FactoryTalk View Studio (version 10+), RSLinx (version 3.9+), and RSLogix 500 (version 11+).
If you elect to “play it safe” and run Windows 7 Professional on your new laptop, chances are you are going to have to reformat your new machine to eliminate Windows 10 that in almost all cases will be pre-loaded. I generally do this anyway, whether I’m re-installing Windows 10 or going back to a Windows 7 image to eliminate all the “bloat-ware” that comes pre-loaded with any new PC or laptop.
Best Laptops For PLC Programming – Top 5
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 new Dell XPS 15 is a powerful laptop with a compact form factor. It boasts an 8th-Gen Intel Core i7-8750H 6-Core Processor, and 32 GB DDR4-2666MHz RAM. It has a stock 1 TB SSD and a 15.6″ 4K screen that’s being driven by an NVIDIA GTX 1050Ti 4 GB GDDR5 video card.
All this processing power at a price point that can’t be beat. I’ve been a long time fan of Dell computers and this one is no exception. All this makes it my number one pick in the list of the best laptops for PLC programming.
Now the Acer Aspire E15 is not the most powerful laptop in my list of the best laptops for PLC programming, however, the sticker price on this guy is going to shock you for what you are getting. 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!
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 plaent. If it wasn’t for price, this Envy would be in my #2 spot without a doubt. I personally own this laptop and have been extremely happy with its look, style and performance.
Boasting an 8th generation i7 quad-core processor with 16 GB of RAM and two HDD (one 1 TB HDD, and one 256 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.
Asus has been making a name for itself in the world of laptop computers for some time now and the VivoBook is among its greatest achievments. At a perfectly sized 15.6 inch 4K touchscreen, those who engage in any kind of graphical design will surely appreciate. 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.
Rounding out last but not least spot is the Asus ROG Strix Gaming Laptop. No list would be complete without throwing in one of these bohemiths and this list is no exception. This is a big and heavy laptop designed to replace a desktop PC. 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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If you enjoyed this article be sure to check out some of these good reads too:
- How To Become A PLC Programmer
- What Is Industrial Control Systems Security?
- How Much Does A PLC Programmer Make
- PLC Versus Microcontroller – What’s In Your Plant?
- Essential Tools Every PLC Programmer Needs
- Difference Between DCS And PLC
- How To Implement A ControlLogix PID Controller
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Author: Fred Graham
Hi, Fred here, I am the founding member and site moderator here at PLCGurus.NET. I’d like to be the first to welcome you to the site. I have over 20 years in the Industrial Automation and Control Systems field. Be sure to Register Today!