The processor has the biggest impact on the overall performance of your new laptop. So it’s important to have, at least, a basic understanding of the lineup. Here’s some information that will help you choose the right processor. I’ll do my best to keep this writing as non-technical as possible.
When you’re shopping for a laptop, you’ll usually see the name of the processor listed prominently in every product description. However, just seeing the CPU model name, without any context, can be confusing.
Intel has the majority market share at 80% and AMD is usually only found in a few of the cheaper laptop models, so this article will focus on the Intel brand.
So how do you really know what you need? Is a laptop with a Core i7-7Y75 CPU faster than one with a Core i5-7200U? What does all this stuff mean, anyway?
Here’s a breakdown of the processor name.
I promise this will be the most technical part of this post. Bear with me..
The first word in the processor name is the brand, in this case “Intel Core” but may also be labeled Celeron, Pentium or Atom.
Following the brand, you see the brand modifier, which is most often i3, i5 or i7 but can also be something else.
The first number after the hyphen is the generation. Intel’s latest generation is 8, so the newest CPUs have a 8 here. Every 12 to 18 months, Intel releases a new processor generation, which is always a bit faster and more power-efficient than its predecessor.
After that you’ll probably see some combination of a two or three digit number which indicates a particular SKU. And some letters (like U, Y, HQ or HK). These letters are the processor line. The line is important because it tells you roughly how much wattage this processor needs.
Higher wattage means faster, more powerful processors. The tradeoff: hotter, heavier laptops which suck down battery charge quickly.
Lower wattage means slower, less-powerful but cooler processors, some of which can be cooled without fans and used in ultra-slim lightweight notebooks and tablets. And of course, the battery charge lasts much longer.
So here’s the lineup from least powerful, to most powerful:
Intel Atom – (long battery life, lightweight, weak performance, cheap)
Intel’s cheapest processor line, Atom appears in super-cheap, super small Windows laptops or tablets. Almost all Atom CPUs are extremely low power, allowing them to have excellent battery life, but the lowest level of performance. Perfect for a secondary device, or a laptop for children. Atom is good for surfing the web, watching videos or checking emails. Laptops or tablets with Intel Atom processors can last nearly 10 hours on a battery charge and cost under $300.
Intel Celeron / Pentium – (low cost, cheap, weak to mediocre performance)
If you’re looking at a laptop that costs between $200 and $400, there’s a good chance it has an Intel Celeron or Pentium series CPU. These budget-minded processors deliver performance that’s just good enough for web surfing, email and light productivity. Celeron chips are very common in ChromeBooks, because Google’s browser-based OS doesn’t require as much horsepower as Windows. If you’re buying a Windows laptop, get one with Celeron or Pentium only if price is a primary concern.
Intel Core Series – (i3, i5 and i7)
These are today’s processors for main-stream to high-performance computing. Most of the Intel Core Series processors have the ability to automatically overclock themselves (TurboBoost) for extra performance, or reduce their clock speeds to preserve battery life. You’ll find these CPUs on laptops that cost over $400 and as high as $3,000. As the numbering suggests, Core i3 is the slowest, i5 is in the middle and i7 is fastest.
The Core i3 is the baby of the group, but don’t let that fool you. It’s a potent performer. But it doesn’t have the TurboBoost feature like i5 and i7 do. It is the entry-level processor in the Intel Core Series.
The Core i5 is the next step up on the ladder. These chips are fundamentally identical to the i3, but have faster clock speeds. The Core i5 can also temporarily raise its clock speed in order to complete a task more quickly (TurboBoost) and is more than adequate for a regular, everyday user.
Core i7 is the pumped-up, muscle-bound king of the hill. It really takes advantage of the TurboBoost feature. This series can clock up to a jaw-dropping 3.2GHz in the quad-core HQ / HK Series.
Core Series processors with a “Y” in the name will be found in UltraBook (slim) laptops because they run at a lower frequency and do not require cooling fans.
Core Series processors with a “U” in the name will be found in general (everyday performance) laptops. A good balance between productivity and battery life.
Core Series processors with “HQ” or “HK” in the name are quad-core processors for gamers, power users, and creative professionals who require high-performance.
Cores: A processor within a processor, a Core is capable of working on one discrete task while the another core does something else. Most laptop CPUs have two cores, but some of the higher-performance models have four.
Hyper-Threading: A process where the CPU splits each physical Core into virtual Cores called threads. Most of Intel’s dual-core CPUs use hyper-threading to provide four threads.
Clock Speed: Measured in gigahertz (GHz), this is the number of cycles per second that the CPU can execute. A higher number is better, but this is far from the only factor in processor speed.
Turbo Boost: Temporarily raises the clock speed (GHz) from its base frequency to a higher one in order to complete a task more quickly. Most Core i5 and i7 CPUs have this feature, but Core i3 models do not. The default frequency is listed as “processor base frequency” while the highest frequency is listed as “max turbo frequency.”
Cache: A small amount of RAM that lives directly on the CPU, the cache stores frequently used information to speed up repetitive tasks. Most CPUs have between 1MB and 4MB of cache.
TDP (Thermal Design Power): The amount of watts the CPU uses. More watts means better performance, but higher temperatures and greater power consumption (and heat).
If you need help choosing the right laptop for your needs, stop by The Computer Shop. Or give me a call at (386) 466-2443. I’ll be happy to assist in any way. Don’t forget to join my mailing list before you leave the site. You’ll be the first to receive important announcements and updates.