cpuThe CPU Has a Big Impact on Laptop Performance

Many components influence a laptop’s performance. The amount of RAM it has will ultimately dictate things like how many windows you can have active before your system starts chugging. The presence of a discrete graphics card will largely determine a laptop’s suitability for gaming and an SSD will make startup near instantaneous while making any storage-based activities snappy. But the CPU (Central Processing Unit) will largely determine the upper limits to what a laptop is capable of, while also heavily influencing things like battery life. When it comes to the sort of tasks most people use a laptop for, it’s the CPU that ends up being the limiting factor. You can usually add more RAM or swap out a hard disk drive for an SSD later, but the CPU that’s in your laptop is the one you’ll have to live with for the life of the computer.

That CPU represents a series of tradeoffs: among them performance vs. battery life, speed vs. cost and power vs. heat.

So when you choose your laptop, you want to get the CPU right.

Intel Core Series CPUs

The most popular processors in laptops are Intel’s Core series. At the upper end of the performance spectrum, you’ll find the Core i3, Core i5 and Core i7 with the Core i7 at the top.

Intel inside.jpg

To make things confusing (because nothing ever seems straightforward with computer specs), Intel also offers the same Core 13, Core i5 and Core i7 names on its desktop CPUs, but they are not the same chips. Because size, heat and power consumption aren’t nearly as important in a desktop computer as in a laptop, the desktop versions of these Core chips are much faster. In fact a Core i3 desktop CPU can often beat a laptop Core i7 in some performance tests. The takeaway here is that if you’re using a desktop PC with a Core i5 CPU to do a task and you want to be able to continue working on it, but using a laptop, you may want to move up to a laptop equipped with a Core i7 to ensure similar performance levels.

Even within that laptop line-up, there are variations. Besides differing clock speeds (all things being equal a faster clock speed means a speedier processor), the Core i7 is offered in both dual-core and quad-core variations, with quad-core being more powerful.

Then, there is the Core m3, Core m5 and Core m7. These are lower power Core chips designed to use less power and give off less heat, eliminating the need for a fan and making them ideal for laptops where battery life is important. Also in the mix are Celeron, Intel Pentium and Intel Atom chips, designed for when affordability is key.

One more Intel complication to throw in the mix is generation. The most recent series of Intel Core chips are the 6th generation, also known as Skylake—these are still in the process of being rolled out. Comparing a new 6th generation chip against its 5th generation equivalent, the Skylake version of a CPU is the same size but uses less power, offers more power and better GPU performance and adds support for Thunderbolt 3.0 and DDR4 RAM.

AMD CPUs

Laptop shoppers will also frequently encounter portable PCs powered by AMD CPUs, most frequently AMD A-Series and E-Series chips. AMD’s A-Series is currently in its 6th generation and compares favourably to the Intel Core i5 CPU (The E-Series most frequently competes against the Intel Celeron). Among the improvements in the 6th generation A-Series CPUs are a battery life boost of up to 35%, processor-level security and enhanced system-level memory sharing.

Laptop CPU performance 2015.jpg

This 2015 chart of popular laptop CPUs published by Laptoping shows the progression in processing performance from an Intel Core i7 down to an AMD E-Series.

Which is Best?

That is a loaded question at the best of times and with laptops, it’s even tougher to come up with a “right” answer. Some of these CPUs are definitely better at some tasks than other chips, but performance always comes at a cost when it comes to laptops. Extreme power means more heat, more fan noise and much lower battery life; it also means much higher cost. Extreme battery life means being relegated to fairly basic tasks.

To help make the choice, I’ve broken down the major classes of CPUs into the use cases their best suited for.

High Performance Computing or Gaming

Any task that requires serious computing muscle—from encoding 4K video to playing PC games—needs a laptop with a serious CPU. An Intel Core i7 is definitely the most popular choice, preferably a quad-core version if your laptop will be facing serious computing demands.

Typical Productivity Laptop

For typical productivity tasks such as business use or students doing schoolwork, a laptop equipped with an Intel Core i5, Core i3 or AMD A-Series CPU should do the trick. The Core i3 is on the lower end of the power scale, but these processors offer a decent balance of performance and battery life. This is the kind of laptop that can be used to run Excel, watch streaming movies or play a PC game at low settings and expect to get six to eight hours of battery life. Some laptops like Dell’s popular XPS 13 are equipped with a 6th generation “Skylake” Core i5 CPU and manage to squeeze up to 12 hours out of a single battery charge while still offering excellent performance.

 

Think of the Core i5 as being the sweet spot for laptop CPUs—it’s powerful enough for most people, offers decent battery life and won’t break the bank.

Basic, Low-Cost Laptop

You’ll usually find Intel’s Pentium, Celeron and Atom chips (as well as the AMD E-Series) powering laptops and convertible laptops that aren’t required to push the performance limits. They offer reasonable battery life (usually five hours or more) and the ability to perform basic computing tasks like editing documents, surfing the web or viewing videos while keeping prices affordable.

Ultraportable, Premium Laptops

MacBook uses Core M CPU.jpg

Premium laptops that combine an ultra-thin form factor with extended battery life, silent operation (thanks to SSDs and no cooling fan) and the power to be productive have been increasingly popular and most of these laptops—like Apple’s MacBook—are made possible by using an Intel Core M CPU. These laptops can’t quite offer the performance of one equipped with a Core i5 CPU, but they are definitely more powerful than a laptop equipped with a Celeron.

Hopefully, this guide helped to make some sense out the confusing laptop CPU issue. Just remember, in most cases your laptop CPU is one component that can’t be replaced or upgraded at a later date. And it’s not as powerful as a desktop CPU. So for whatever task you plan to use your laptop for, I would recommend adjusting your CPU requirement up a notch to ensure you get a good user experience and one that lasts. Whenever I buy a new laptop, I always choose one with a Core i7, even if it’s primarily used for writing. That’s overkill for the most part, but the powerful CPU means the laptop will handle anything I throw at it and it remains functionally useful for much longer—often five years or more.

Editor Computing solutions
I’m a long-time electronics and gadget geek who’s been fortunate enough to enjoy a career that lets me indulge this interest. I have been writing about technology for several decades for a wide range of outlets including Wired, Gizmodo, Lifehacker, MSN, About.com, Kiplinger, and GeekDad. I’m in my 10th year as a senior contributor for Forbes with a focus on reviewing music-related tech, Apple gear, battery power stations and other consumer electronics. My day job is with the Malware Research Center at AI-native cybersecurity pioneer CrowdStrike.