Budget: $400-700. I'd prefer the lower end of that range if there's anything decent.
This will not be my primary machine. I'll most often use it to remote into my desktop system. However, I'd like to be able to do basic coding on it when I don't have connectivity. So, enough juice to run Visual Studio sometimes.
I don't need any gaming at all, no photo editing, just code and web browsing. I don't know if it is reasonable to expect Win 8 to run itself and Visual Studio in 4GB memory, or if I really need 6GB.
I don't need any optical storage. Notably good screen size, battery life, or warranty terms are interesting to me, though I'm not expecting any miracles in my price range. Just a basic machine that isn't too likely to explode.
Looking for either specific recommendations or just the best brands (or worst!) for the niche I'm targeting. I'd pay more for a noticeably better reputation.
Pretty much every OEM makes laptops within your budget, so rather than playing favorites, I'll just say that an i3 and 4 GB of RAM would suit you well enough for basic use, along with your coding hobby. A system with the latest Haswell/4th Gen Intel processor will get you a decent integrated GPU, along with fair performance and fair battery life.
If you want some names thrown out there, then Lenovo, Samsung, and Asus make systems that are good values. Resellers will give you the best customer service, but I don't know of any akin to us that resell Lenovo and Samsung systems.
Prostar is right, for what you want any laptop would do. You could even buy a used one and put Linux on it and still do your programming. Save you some $$. I have had good experience with HP laptops - business class, nice solid feel waterproof keyboards, good security at bios and metal housed. The one I am typing on now cost me £300 (about $500 in US dollar i think) 2 years ago. Budget end of Acer seem on dismantling to be very cheaply constructed - the very cheapest type of plastic. Also had an AS Rock which after 10 years is still going - nicely made. I would suggest, even if you buy one online, visit a store and try some out. Things like feel of a keyboard, construction quality will only become apparent on physical inspection. You really do notice the difference in quality! Brands like Apple really stand out when next to a compaq or toshiba. Then, order from the cheapest place. Here in the England that 'store' is PC world but I wouldn't buy a PC from there as they are usually over priced!