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Tips for Programming with a low end PC.

tobenxe profile image tobe Updated on ・6 min read

DISCLAIMER: The term low-end is subjective, this is intended to help anyone with a less than powerful pc.

For the past few months I've been using a laptop with 4 GB RAM for working, learning and just about everything. My experience plus this twitter thread by Brad Traversy (Who is a great teacher btw) sort of inspired me to write this. Turns out that there are LOTS of developers with high end PC's but also lots of developers with arguably low end one's as well.

If you were just starting out or even a professional programmer, you'd imagine you'd need a lot of stuff. If you ever have to, it's 100% possible to code with a low end PC.

NOTE: Most of this applies to web application development. If you are developing games or training machine learning models locally then idk man, hopefully someone in the comments can help. (although i know google colab works for machine learning)

The Editor

Programming largely involves typing text and hoping the text makes sense to the computer, preferably with tools that make this easier. Most full on IDE's take up lots of RAM, which is a resource we can't really spare especially when you have other things open like several browser tabs.

The solution: A code editor, not an IDE (anti-climactic, I know.)

Local Editors's

Visual Studio Code

This is a very popular code editor that is "IDE like", it's lovely. Although a computer with around 2-4GB of RAM can run it. It isn't exactly known for being conservative with RAM. Here are some things you can do:

Tip 1: Disable unnecessary extensions!

I used to have some extensions on that weren't exactly relevant to what I was doing. Disabling them will should reduce the memory footprint of VSCode. You can find out how to do this here. After my research, this really is one of the best approaches when using VSCode.

Excluding files from filewatcher

You can stop VSCode from "watching"/tracking certain files for changes. You can do this in your VSCode settings . By default it has stuff like node_modules and git objects excludes but you can use a glob pattern (A useful guide on them) of file paths to add any thing else there.

"files.watcherExclude": {
    "**/.git/objects/**": true,
    "**/node_modules/**": true,
//Add in your other glob patterns
}

A few people have suggested sublime text so you can give that a try.

This is all great. However, If you have even lower specs or are working on a somewhat larger project, your PC may start to struggle if you have other things open. So switching to an even lighter editor would help. There are many great ones: some suggestions are Notepad ++ OR VIM.

Regarding something like VIM, while it is really lightweight, it takes sometime to get really good/efficient. Once you do learn, it is really nice not having to touch your mouse as much. Also when you code it makes you look like every non-programmer's idea of a programmer.

Upside is you don't have to touch your mouse as much, The downside is that you have to learn vim :*

Another Solution: Online IDE's

Here is another avenue that is great for several purposes. Online IDE's are pretty nice now. This especially true if you develop with many programming languages (Like PHP) and can't be bothered to setup a local dev environment. You also get the freedom to write code on anything with an internet connection.

They also happen to be pretty great for sharing code and working with other people quickly. Most computers have some browser and that's all you need.

There are a few options: Repl.it from my personal experience is pretty amazing, they support so many languages and allow you to run code and use a custom domain for your work. Plus multiplayer!

Codepen is another option which is pretty popular for sharing HTML./CSS/JS code, I used it a lot when I first started out with web dev about 3-ish years ago. There is also Codesandbox, which looks good, it appears to be a VSCode editor in the browser.

(I may be missing a few other good online editors but these one's are top of mind)

Extra Tools/Tips

Storage

Many low end PCs are at times plagued with low storage space. The best advice I have here is to only store projects you work on 24/7 on your machine, instead just commit the files to git and push to a hosted or self-hosted repository.

Chrome Extensions

The Great Suspender

While I did mention keeping extension/plugins to the absolute minimum. Because programming often involves a lot of open browser tabs (Which you will most likely hoard or forget to close). I recommend this extension.

Like the name suggests, it suspends idle tabs (you can configure how it works and exclude certain tabs based on some features).

An adblocker (ublock Origin)

I think most people who work anywhere near tech already have this. If you don't many sites loading trackers can have an impact on browsing speed. So this comes in handy.

Browsers & Browser Windows

Although I can't really give you the textbook explanation. One thing I do is work in a window where I am not logged in to anything. Not only does this help productivity but generally it makes my browser run faster, even searching stuff gets faster as well (my guess is that over-personalization can make things sluggish).

Final Thoughts

When you think about it most people who actually use what you make may not be on the best computers in the world so I guess you get to live their experience and avoid unnecessary fluff.

Whenever you are able to, upgrade your computer! it'll probably be a decent investment. From my experience the most important specs are RAM and SSD.

There are probably a million more little things you can do to make your computer more efficient. If you have any other tips, please leave a comment . I can edit the post and cite you :)

Original Blog: https://tobenxe.com/tips-for-programming-with-a-low-end-pc/

If you enjoyed the post you can follow me on twitter: https://twitter.com/tobenxe/

Thanks for reading.

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@tobenxe

20. I type stuff, mostly code tbh..

Discussion

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I sadly work with a similar situation. My laptop broke down, leaving me no choice but to work with an Intel Celeron, 2GB RAM, 32GB HDD beast of a machine. Here's my take on how I managed to survive (so far):

  1. Ditch whatever OS you currently have and install Lubuntu. It only takes 300MB of RAM on idle. And you'll need as much of it as possible.

  2. VSCode is out of the window for me as well. VIM or Emacs would've been perfect for me, but I don't know these two enough to be productive. The best compromise that I found is with Sublime Text.

  3. Manage you browser tabs religiously! Web content is so massive nowadays that 2GB will be eviscerated by 3 unsuspecting tabs. I use Firefox as my browser because it feels snappier than Chrome, but YMMV.

  4. Keep a close eye on your storage. Running and rebuilding Docker containers for a while may swallow up storage space on your end. Good ol' docker system prune should do the trick most of the times. Keep your download folder clean and delete any unused files after you're done with them and you should be golden 😁

Update: I managed to salvage my girlfriend's laptop and it has modest yet considerably better specs (Intel i5 and 4GB of RAM). I still follow my rules above and I manage to hover around 2GB of RAM usage, with PyCharm Pro instead of Sublime. Those ~2GB worth of extra RAM sure do come in handy when my workflow starts to become complicated.

Bonus Tip: with a limited amount of resources, Postman is a huge killer. With a bit of tinkering and creativity, I managed to get a ton of value out of HTTPie using JSON files on disk as my payload(s). Combine it with your homegrown shell/Python scripts and you'll get a sexy API smoke test suite that you can commit on your VCS. Neat-o!

 

If you use Firefox you can give a chance to Resting.
It's a browser extension that take inspiration from Postman and with the goal to be lighter

DISCLAIMER: I'm the creator and the maintainer of Resting

 

These are some great tips John!

Same thing happened to me, laptop broke down and I didn't have enough money to get a new comparable one, so got something I could work on in the meantime.

 

My laptop has 8 GB of RAM and a coffee lake i5 CPU with Windows preinstalled, which is more than adequate for everyday tasks and web dev. The laptop hit its limit when I started working on a medium sized React-Native project in which I needed to run

  1. Dockerized PostgreSQL server
  2. Android emulator
  3. Dev server
  4. Web browser

Docker & emulator were just enough to bring my laptop to its knees, and the development process was very painful. Then I tried to install Ubuntu (not Lubuntu), and Linux magically solved all performance issues at once. Ubuntu hits swap file from time to time, but it never freezes or spits out BSOD. The only downside I can think of is that I cannot use my fingerprint sensor anymore on Linux because it uses proprietary driver.

 

If you have low end PC, first advice: dont use vs code. Use Sublime text :)

 

Yup. I used to use Sublime Text for just that reason (though in my case it was a case of wanting something that would work well inside of Lubuntu running under VirtualBox on an old, non-virtualizing Windows laptop. VSCode was too sluggish for that, but Sublime Text did fine. I have since upgraded both laptop and desktop to faster, virtualizing machines, and have switched to VSCode. Right now, VSCode's Remote-SSH implementation is keeping me there.

 

Thank you mate, VSCode gets quite lagged sometimes, gonna try Sublime Text. Hopefully I'll get a different laptop to work with in the next few months...

 

If you have a very low end PC, go for a tiling windows manager (i3), the shell (Zsh is good), Vim, and a light linux distribution like Arch Linux.

If you don't have a very low end PC, you should try it. You will learn very useful skills.

 

But is Arch easy for beginners to Linux?

 

Nowadays, most distros usually installs everything out-of-the-box for their users, which is ok in most cases, but this comes with a cost: some of this stuff isn't necessary for your use. It basically install what it thinks might be useful for their userbase.

Arch is somewhat different: it's pure. It doesn't come bloated with unnecessary software, or even a Desktop Manager. It gives you the option to choose what you wanna use. And that's where the idea of Arch being available only for hard users comes from. It's installation might not be as easy as an Ubuntu installation but it's still a Linux distro after all.
They have probably the best wiki available with detailed explanations on multiple subjects, which saved me many times, that has a complete Installation guide which covers probably everything regarding this topic.

The description provided by Matthieu is my current setup for a while now, and I'm pretty happy with it. It's entirely optional, since my PC specs are pretty decent (Intel i7, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD) for a 2015 Dell laptop, but it's my go-to setup.

Thanks for the explanation. I'm currently using Xubuntu with XFCE on a old 2015 Hp laptop. I've got only 2GB of ram and an old i3-4005U processor. A few tabs in Firefox developer's edition freezes everything and it's a real pain.

What would you advice? I've heard of stuff like openbox and i3, but don't really know if they'd run smoothly on my old pc.

I'm a little bit biased on this, because I've never used openbox before, and I've been using i3 for quite some time, so I'd probably suggest i3 here.

I must say that even though it's a better option for your situation, the browser you'll be using is still the same, and browsers loves some RAM, so you might be able to open more tabs, but don't expect much or you'll get disappointed.

Thank you. I just installed Regolith that comes packaged with i3-gaps and it's been okay-ish

Only okay-ish? What don't you like?

Lol, Regolith is quite good. It's based off Ubuntu and it's not difficult to understand for a noob. I especially love the workspaces and keyboard-centered navigation.

The okay-ish part is just how complex it is to customise. I saw a lot of rices on reddit and wanted copy it but I've been stuck for 2days trying to install Polybar. I'd go to github and read the docs but it's either I don't get it or I get errors. That's why it's been okay-ish

Thanks! It's difficult to jump directly in this kind of customization, and sometimes it's not very well explained for beginners. You can check my article on i3. I'm not using polybar, but maybe it can help.

 

Even as a beginner you can learn quite a lot only by trying to install all of that.

I'm writing a book about that, if you're interested ;)

 

Upside is you don't have to touch your mouse as much, The downside is that you have to learn vim :*

I can say the reverse.

Learning Vim is... fun! Stress reliever when the Jira Task «In Progress» is >3 and you've feel too much.

Having learned not to use mouse is an endless pit of dismissing actually good software because of poor keyboard support.

Written with Vimari, an emulation of Vim for any <input>.

 

That's why Vim is so good. It's fun.

Many lost themselves in endless discussions about fast and slow and mouse and keyboard. They forget something really important: fun will always make your more productive.

Vim is the gamification of coding.

 
 

I never heard this before :D this is my new favorite nonsense for vim, I definitely will quote you :D
(to be frank, it is really good on many places, but it is just a mature text editor)

 

The one thing I really like about Vim is that it is a zen-like experience for me. I truly become one-with-the-keyboard. The editor is out of the way — out of sight, out of mind. I never have to touch my mouse, even if I'm using a graphical Vim. Fingers on home row the whole time. It's magical. Maximum throughput, although most programming time is thinking rather than typing (but there is heavy output typing in bursts).

 

this is also true to me, and affect my apps preference greatly.

I abandoned many great apps because they have poor support for keyboard movement. In minimal, they has Emacs style movement (C-b, C-n), but force me to reach to keyboard to use sidebar.

Using (Neo)Vim, I am the master of refactor for my project, because like any article you’d found in the internet, programming is more reading & editing rather than writing. Vim provides convenience for reading, editing and writing. Vim(like keybinding) is good.

 

Vim is great now that I know how to use it decently enough. I guess that was mostly referring to the learning curve for becoming an efficient user.

Starting out, you work slower during the learning period but I think after a few days, vim starts to pay off. After a few months (and years I presume), the value is undeniable.

 

The used market is flooded with office OEM computers that were cycled out by companies. You can get a second gen i5 with 8GB of RAM for very convenient prices. If you make any money from your coding, you should look about getting at least something like that. You will thank yourself later.

I have been working on such a machine for about 5 months until the current crisis started: a Dell Optiplex, with an i5 2400 and 8GB of RAM (that later got upgraded to 24GB with two extra sticks of 8GB). It is more than capable to run PHPStorm, Photoshop and a bunch of browser tabs.

Take a moment to look on eBay, Facebook market, Gumtree or whatever portal is there in your country for selling and buying stuff. Just because you can't afford a new computer, doesn't mean you have to suffer using an ancient and underpowered one.

 

If you want a syntax-highlighting editor that is a bit more graphical than vim, good ol' Notepad++ is very nice (on Win API devices), or you may even find your system text editor is quite capable, gedit on Gnome desktops is actually usable!

I am not going to dispute your definition of low end, but will remind folks that we have a habit of moving our expectation window with regard to this term - "640k should be enough for everybody" :)

 

Great comment Phil, definitely agree with you there.

 

You can have a bunch of other editor, such as: any text editor (vi,vim, nano, notepad++...). With some trick you could have a proper IDE also (emacs if you willing to spend a month with just pure plugin/makro write).
Also, for development - if your work does not contain graphical/design/video things, then totally a good option to switch for a lightweight linux. It will suxx, for sure.

But one thing, what you really have to learn. Patient. Many times I used very old machines, but my tasks required high performance, so in exchange, I just sittin' on a chair, readin' a book while the machine loading or do anything.

[tl;dr]

I do remember, when I was student around 2000, I was so happy, when I was able to switch from a very old 286 (with math co proc) to a used p2@300 mhz machine , while everyone else played on tualatin or had athlon+ already. And I was fairly glad, because finally I was able to run borland delphi and compile my stuff at home, not just writing blindly, bringing in into school and compile it.

 

I actually dont suffer from a low end PC as I spent quite a bit, however, I actually do all of my programming on gitpod.io. It's an amazing online code editor that is basically VS code hosted for you. I would say it's probably the same as what github codespaces will be when that releases. I have to say though I am looking forward to github codespaces.

 

What specs would be considered low in 2020?

 

That's tough, my judgement is a bit off at times because while I am a developer I also play video games and edit videos occasionally (So for the things I want to do 4GB is low, but good enough for the most important thing I do: mostly programming).

It really depends, ballpark for me is <4GB RAM.

 

Yup, I was thinking the same! Something in the lines of dual-core cpu below 2ghz, <4gb ddr3 ram, low capacity 5400rpm hdd and some integrated graphics...

This is the precise spec of the pc I use for Web dev

Sadly I'm using a notebook with similar specs.... work gets tedious.

 

I would say, try to code on a rapsberry pi 2b+, with desktop mode. But fine if you can think of an older platform under pc, like a core2duo (because early "i" series is still perform well). Or an ultra version of low-end cpu. Imho.

 

For any low-end PCs (like the one I have), I would personally recommend using the New Microsoft Edge browser since, (I don't know how) it uses so much lesser memory than Google Chrome Browser despite BOTH the browsers being based on the same Chromium codebase and having all the same features (edge has one or two extra super-awsome features like "collections"). (I'm sure MSEdge uses memory tweaks under the hood).
I have seen edge use, less than half the RAM chrome uses.
Now, don't say I am an MSEdge fan. cuz I am! 😂

 

At home, I still have a 2012 MacBook Pro upgraded to 4GB RAM and SSD.

I think it also depends what you are building, although you did not state it in your article AFAIK, I think you assume frontend development.

This is actually a resource killer when running chrome and maybe even compiling a typescript SPA, running Karma and Cypress.

But when it comes to backend development (eg Java), it is possible with significantly less resources.

And regarding the IDE: I still run the latest IntelliJ on my old Mac, both for frontend and backend. IntelliJ has its indexing magic, it takes considerable amount of CPU when starting, but afterwards it runs pretty snappy.

 

To add to your article, taking the advantage of your initiative, I want to mention my computer.

I am using an HP Pavilion dm4 I bought in 2010, it has an i5 second generation, these are the full features: support.hp.com/us-en/document/c028...

The only change I have done is, I increased memory to 8GB and installed a 500GB SSD.

I have installed CentOS 7 with XFCE and all of this:

  • IntelliJ IDEA
  • ATOM Editor(It seems it works faster than VS Code)
  • Opera Web browser
  • Google Chrome
  • Thunar file browser.
  • smplayer as music player.

The very good news is that with all of those apps open, my computer runs very fast and only consuming 3.1 GB ram.

This is, we do not need windows 10 and the last computer in order to have fun.

Even it runs on battery and works very good.

 

The Ide is better for clean codes and programmer productivity.. so I don't suggest going lower than sublime text or brackets. I use Vscode send I put it in top tier among other editors I've used before..your right about disabling unused extensions. It helps ram. I'm using a low and pc so I can relate but at the same time I need better productivity

 

I noticed that Codesandbox uses a lot of memory when you open a project, and that can finish a lower end PC's memory pretty fast. So better to use repl.it or stackblitz or one of the other alternatives.

 

Sublime Text was the only editor that worked well for me on my 1.1 gHz, 4 gb ram trash pc, glad I now can use VS Code on better pc.

 

Thanks for your post.

If you are developing a mobile app, use bitrise and fastlane to compile in the cloud. You don't need to invest in a mac :)

 

very nice post! there's definitely something to do with those IDEs. They're handy but they require a lot of memory and CPU, buzzkill!

 
 

Thank you for this article! I have a 5+ year old pc running Windows 10 with about 4gb ram, so this will improve the way I use it.

 

I am currently using a 4GB ram and AMD E1 CPU laptop..I installed vim and customized it and i found it to be great

 

Will this help VS Code run on my Gateway and AOL connection.