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My $500 Developer Laptop

I’m not the first person to write about a $500 developer laptop. In fact, I was inspired by Max Rozen’s Replacing my MacBook Air M1 with a ThinkPad T480 and Getting your own good enough laptop for under $500. Like Max, I’m not only writing a blog about this – I’m actually using the $500 laptop I’m writing about as my personal daily driver. You don’t need a $2,000 computer to have a great machine for web development! The laptop I chose is a great alternative to the ThinkPad T480. (ThinkPads are great, but they’re not the only way to get an incredibly capable and pragmatic laptop on a budget.) I’ve been a fan of Dell for many years, and my $500 developer laptop is a Latitude 7490. I recently bought one to replace the Latitude e7450 I was using. Let’s see how it stacks up to the T480, and how well it works as a daily driver.

The Laptop

Like the ThinkPad T480, the Latitude 7490 is a business class laptop that’s several years old. (The xx90 indicates it came out in 2019.) That means there are tons of them on the used marked, they’re easy to work on, and replacement parts are easy to find. You can buy a 7490 with a wide range of specs; let’s look at the one I found:

I originally found the laptop spec’ed out above listed for $436 (including shipping) on Newegg, but after I ordered it the seller contacted me because the 1TB disks were out of stock. I accepted their offer of a lower price with a smaller hard drive, and upgraded to a 1TB NVMe drive myself with the savings!

Installing a new SSD in my Latitude 7490

The laptop was refurbished, so all I received is the laptop and a charger in a plain box with some bubble wrap. There were a few minor scuffs on the laptop. No big deal, it works great!

Unwrapping my Latitude 7490

Compared to the T480, I think this latitude is perhaps slightly better?!? The processor is slightly faster, the SSD is larger, and I didn’t need to upgrade the display or RAM. The T480 comes out way ahead on battery life though, with 92 Wh compared to the Latitude’s 60 Wh. Overall, these are actually very similar machines, and the main point is you can find either of them very cheaply – a really good computer (that runs Linux well) for less than $500.

Is this really a good computer?

Yes, I think the Latitude 7490 really is a good computer, and I really enjoy using it. I prefer Ubuntu Linux over macOS or Windows. After using Linux for a long time, Windows feels like a slow, bloated joke to me, with advertisements plastered all over the Start menu. macOS is much better, but still feels bloated compared to Ubuntu. I use vanilla Gnome 3, and it provides a simple, unobtrusive interface that gets out of my way and lets me get work done. Dell Latitudes run Ubuntu better than any other computer I’ve ever used, and Ubuntu on a 7490 is a prefect fit for me.

I use an M1 Max at work, and I actually prefer my personal Latitude 7490 for most tasks. It’s technically slower, but it’s not noticeably slower. To say that a little differently, my 7490 doesn’t feel any slower for most tasks than the fastest laptop money can buy! The battery lasts a long time. And it comes with the perfect variety of ports (USB-C, USB-A, HDMI, headset).

Back in 2019 I wrote about The Ultimate Developer Laptop. That blog post was primarily about the Dell Precision 5510 I’d just bought, and why I chose it. I still stand by that post – the Precision 5510 is a great laptop – but I’ve found that a few of my preferences have shifted slightly since I wrote it. I’ve come to prefer slightly smaller laptops with longer battery life. Back in 2019, I most often worked at my home desk and rarely used battery power, so the Precision 5510’s meager battery (I only get 1-2 hours) didn’t bother me much. Since then, I got married, moved to a bigger house, and now spend much more time using my laptop away from my desk – whether working outside on my deck or browsing the web from my couch. I found myself frustrated by the 5510’s short battery life and relatively heavy weight. In comparison, the Latitude sips power because it doesn’t have a graphics card, and has a battery that lasts 5+ hours.

In 2021, I wrote about how well Dell Latitudes run Linux, and that was actually the catalyst that set me on the path toward the 7490 I just bought. I wrote that 2021 post from my own Latitude e7450. I originally bought it as a spare computer (and a lighter one for travel) with 8GB RAM and a 256GB SSD, but I often found myself choosing to use it over my Precision 5510 despite the meager specs because of its small size and longer battery life. I spent like $40 to upgrade the RAM and disk, I began using my e7450 almost exclusively as my personal daily driver. To be clear, I’m talking about an e7450 with an i7-5600U, 500GB SSD, and 16GB RAM. The CPU is from 2015, the SSD uses SATA (relatively slow), and it has integrated graphics. The fact that I was happier using that computer than my Precision 5510 just further drives home the point that you can get a “good enough” computer for dirt cheap! (You can buy a similar e7450 for under $200 today.)

Is my $500 Latitude 7490 the perfect web developer machine? Probably not, but I think it’s darn close. I’d love to have an M1 MacBook Air that runs Ubuntu, though the keyboard layout would probably drive me nuts. Asahi Linux appears to be usable for some people, but I’m not sure it’s stable enough to be my own primary machine yet. The System76 Lemur Pro looks like a great option with a 73Wh battery, and is probably what I’d buy with an unlimited budget, but it’s hard for me to justify that much difference in price for minor performance improvements. The M1 or the latest Intel processor might make sense for an enterprise codebase that takes 20 minutes to compile, but probably doesn’t make a ton of difference for the average web developer (or any other computer user).

Battery Life Update (Nov 2023)

When I originally bought this laptop, I wasn't completely sure how good the battery life would be. It depends not only on the size of the battery (60 Wh), but also the power consumption of the CPU, display, and other components. After two months of use, I can say I'm very pleased! If I charge the laptop overnight, it can go a full weekend day (6+ hours active use, sleeping in between) without charging and still have some battery left over. I'd guess I could get 8 hours normal use on a full charge!

Long story short: I really like my new (used) Dell Latitude 7490. It runs Ubuntu flawlessly, it has great battery life, it has a great keyboard, it’s lightweight, and it’s easy and cheap to upgrade and repair. I recommend both ThinkPads and Latitudes to anyone who wants a great deal on a Linux computer that they’ll probably fall in love with. Want to shop for your own? See my Dell Latitudes are Greal Laptops post for some tips about what to look for and where to find them.


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About the Author

Mike Kasberg

👋 Hi, I'm Mike! I'm a husband, I'm a father, and I'm a senior software engineer at Strava. I use Ubuntu Linux daily at work and at home. And I enjoy writing about Linux, open source, programming, 3D printing, tech, and other random topics.