The high-end laptop market for engineering may be shrinking, as more work gets moved to the cloud, but there are still plenty of good options. Just like with gamers, engineers pose one of the toughest design challenges for laptop makers. Engineering applications need plenty of memory, graphics horsepower, and large screens — all hurdles in designing stylish, lightweight laptops. The result is something of a trade-off between performance and convenience. The only constant seems to be price. Laptops that can perform an engineering workload get more powerful every year, but usually don’t come down in price.
Not every engineer will make the same compromises, but there are a few laptops that stand out for use by engineers, depending on their specific needs. This year we’ve also included a couple options aimed a little more towards engineering students — who are usually on a more limited budget, and may also need something smaller and lighter. So what’s the best laptop for engineers and engineering students? Here are several excellent systems, newly updated for 2017 — one of which will get the job done for you.
HP ZBook 17 G3
Once again HP has delivered a state-of-the-art portable engineering workstation, with the G3 update to its well-regarded ZBook 17. The new model is about 25 percent lighter, faster, has more battery life, and comes with a wide array of GPU and display options. New this year are full support for touch, UHD displays, and Windows 10. For color critical tasks DreamColor is available, though it still doesn’t work with touch. The ZBook 17 G3 starts with an appealing base price of $1,500, but options drive that up very quickly. For those who want more portability and can give up the massive display, the ZBook 15 now weighs in at only 5.7-pounds. To cut down further on weight, you can give up some GPU performance and extensibility with either the 4.4-pound ZBook Studio or 4.2-pound ZBook 15u.
Razer Blade (with 7th Gen Core i7)
The Razer Blade was already a favorite of the Silicon Valley tech community, and the new version has updated to a 7th generation 2.8GHz Core i7-7700HQ and a state-of-the-art Nvidia GTX 1060 GPU. You can choose between a 14-inch HD and a 4K UHD touch-enabled display. The SSD is a high-performance PCIe version, available in sizes up to 1TB. The system still supports only 16GB of DDR4 memory — so those with larger memory requirements will be out of luck. Interestingly, Razer suggests the machine is beefy enough to handle VR applications, although probably not the most demanding ones.
The system is rounded out with a Thunderbolt 3 USB-C port and two USB 3.0 ports. You’ll need an adapter to power an HDMI, DVI, or VGA display. As you’d expect from Razer there are some gaming-community-friendly features, like a super-colorful keyboard backlight. For those who need ultimate graphics performance, you can pair the unit with a Razer Core GPU docking station when you’re not on the road. The Razer Blade sells for $2,000 with 256GB of SSD, and is one of the thinnest high-powered laptops, at .7-inches.
Dell Precision 17
Not to be left behind, Dell has also provided solid upgrades for its portable workstations. The flagship Dell Precision 17 comes with a 4K UHD display, can tote 4TB of storage, and is available with either i5, i7, or Xeon 7th generation processors and up to 64GB of memory. As you’d expect from a top model, it is available with either AMD Radeon Pro or Nvidia Quadro GPUs. Nothing very exciting as far as ports, with USB 3.0, HDMI, mini DisplayPort, although the latest refresh also adds a Thunderbolt 3 type C port. Like the ZBook 17, the starting price is a very reasonable $1,599, but adds up rapidly if you pile on the options like a 1080p or 4K display. It hasn’t gone on a diet the way the HP has, though, weighing in at 7.55 pounds.
Lenovo ThinkPad P51
Since purchasing the ThinkPad product line from IBM, Lenovo has worked to keep up its reputation among business and engineers alike. Out of its portable workstations, the new ThinkPad P51 is likely the sweet spot for most. With a 15.6-inch screen, it’s something of a mid-size offering. Befitting that, you can get it with either 7th generation Intel Core or v6 Xeon CPU, Quadro GPU, and up to a UHD IPS display that Lenovo says provides nearly 180-degree viewing — as well as Dolby audio. For many, the iconic TrackPoint is reason enough to consider a ThinkPad, while for others the little stick is merely a curiosity. The P51 measures up on expandability, supporting up to 64GB of memory and 4TB of storage. You’ll also find plenty of ports, including 4 USB 3.0 ports, a USB 3.1 Thunderbolt 3 port, HDMI, mini-DisplayPort, Ethernet, and a card reader. At 5.6 pounds, it isn’t all that heavy for the power it packs. A large variety of ports are standard, but keyboard backlighting is optional.
Boxx GoBoxx MXL VR
You don’t have to go brand name to get a mobile powerhouse. While white-box-style vendors are much less common for laptops, there are still some with many loyal customers. Boxx specializes in workstation power computers, and its GoBoxx MXL VR 17-inch laptop measures up to anything you can get from a big name OEM. From the name you can tell it’s ready for VR gaming. The VR version comes with a 4.2GHz 7th gen quad core Core i7 CPU, an Nvidia GTX 1070 GPU, and 16GB of memory. You can bump that up to a GTX 1080 GPU and up to 64GB of RAM. Boxx doesn’t even bother with low-end configurations, as the MXL VR starts at $3,581.
Asus ROG G752VS OC Edition
Vendors of engineering laptops tend to be fairly conservative in adopting new technologies, as they need to get applications certified. Gaming vendors are at the opposite end of the spectrum, and quickly push the envelope. For engineers who need maximum GPU performance, it’s worth considering a product like the Asus ROG G752VS. It’s one of the first laptops that has enough overall performance to be declared “VR Ready.” That starts with a powerhouse 8GB Nvidia GTX 1070 GPU. Typical of the ROG product line, it can also be overclocked up to 4 GHz, and supports up to 64GB of memory. It’s now available with either 6th gen or 7th gen Core i7 CPU. The NVMe SSD is state of the art, although limited to 512GB; the unit will also hold an HDD to add another 1TB of disk. For those who want to push the envelope further, the G800VI will increase the display to 18.4 inches and feature a monster GTX 1080 GPU — as well as an option for a 1TB SSD. Systems aren’t cheap, of course, starting around $3,000. As an alternative, Sager is another company that makes serious gaming rigs that are excellent solutions for engineers.
What, no MacBook Pro?
For those who have gotten used to seeing the MacBook Pro appear in nearly every “best of” list of laptops, you won’t find it here. For starters, some of the top engineering applications still do not run on OS X. Also, even with the latest updates, the CPU and GPU options are below those of Windows mobile workstation offerings.
The situation is different for most software developers, for whom the MacBook Pro is a favorite. In addition to its style, high-quality display, and long battery life, engineers who have large software components in their projects often find it easier to build and use open source projects under OS X — because of its Unix underpinnings — than under Windows. Engineers who can do their heavy computing in the cloud are also often partial to the MacBook Pro because of its clean design and OS X.
The good news on this front is that support for both Windows and Linux on MacBooks has continued to improve, so they are gaining in popularity among engineers — who often use OS X for their productivity work and then Linux or Windows as needed for specific engineering applications.
Now read: The top laptops for photographers, engineers, students, and everyone else