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PLC programming, CAD drawings, SCADA packages and virtual machines. These are some of the resident software suites on the average automation or control professionals computer today. This post is mainly about the hardware needs to get the job done.

Picking a laptop for automation and control engineers

Based on recent discussions on PLCTalk, the specifications vary based on preference. Some of the common requirements mentioned:

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Screen Size:

A 15″ screen laptop is the sweet spot for ease of travel and ease of troubleshooting while onsite. Anything less makes the onsite work, specifically if programming is involved, a little harder. Anything more makes for a bulky laptop to travel with.

Last year, I had two programmers show up in PLC programming classes with Surface Book style tablets. With the i7 processors, the Surface performed well. With the screen size, they struggled in maneuvering through the programming environment. Followed up with one of them this year and they had moved back to a larger screen laptop. PLC Programming with the magnifying tool in Windows is not practical.


The recommendation is a i7 type processor with 3GHz clock. My current machine has a 2.8GHz spec and has been great. Performance with 2 VM’s , HMI software and PLC software running simultaneously noted on screen cap below.

For the MacBook folks, this article talks a bit more about picking processors.


The RAM requirements vary. With virtual machines being a common place to house several different control software suites- PLC and SCADA environments, RAM requirements are a minimum of 16GB .

Based on a the Windows performance monitor, having one HMI software, one PLC programming environment and one VM took the memory usage up to about 14GB. Note, this number is based on the allocation on your VM’s. Also, it may vary based on the various software suites.

A PLC programmer laptop option needs to have lots of RAM. I would recommend 32GB.

Hard drive

The SSD seems to be the way to go. They are generally more shock resistant. Working with PLC’s often means being onsite at various locations. This may even apply to plant based folks who may have to carry Also they are quieter.

Requirement would be at least 500GB.

Operating System

Most industrial automation software suites have traditionally been Windows based. Having said that, much feedback I have received regarding MacBook (Pro’s) have been quite positive in terms of performance. That sentiment it shared on this thread.

Mac users may use Boot Camp to get Windows running. Alternatively, many do report using VM’s.

I use Windows 7 Professional. Windows 8 compatibility is common among software suites out there currently. Some even support Windows 10. Having said that, industrial automation is usually slow to adapt to new OS versions. Some have reported good results and some report problems. This uncertainty keeps me at Windows 7.

Battery Size:

Hooking up to a power source onsite can sometimes be cumbersome. The tradeoff on some of the more powerful machines has been that the battery drains quickly. Consensus is that the MacBook Pro runs all day on a single charge. This goes back to the OS discussion above.

My quad core Lenovo W541 holds a charge for about 1.5 hours. I don’t hold the battery requirement to high on my priority list. If you do, check it out while shopping. Be cautious, as the advertised values might not hold true. They are dependent on your performance and usage.

One absolute comparison, is to check the ampere-hours (Ah) ratings among your options.

Connection Ports:

Forget the serial port. Get an adapter.

Get a machine with at least 3 USB ports.

Some other considerations:

Numeric keypad might help for some work functions. If the laptop doesn’t come with one, there are USB connectable options online.

DVD players can be left out as Installers are increasing available in downloadable software packages. If required, a portable DVD player can be used.

Back-lit keyboards may be useful for work in environments that are not well lit. Not a requirement I considered but noted in the thread.

The actual picks:

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Lenovo P50

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Dell Precision

MacBook Pro

Dell E6440

I’ve used Dell’s, HP’s andLenovo’s in recent years. My pick for stability and performance right now is the Lenovo. It may be biased to the hardware specs on this current unit. The previous units also had good specs for their time.

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In all, the package is probably going to be about USD$2000 or higher. Shopped during the Black Friday sale last year and Lenovo had a great deal on the W series. Probably due to that series being phased out. The price was down to $1700-ish for a 32GB RAM, i7, 500GB SSD setup.

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The threads discussing the topic on PLCTalk are here and here.