May 192012

Intel manufactures a broad range of laptop processors for all levels of performance. The major brands or mobile series from this company include:

  • Core iSeries
  • Core 2
  • Core
  • Celeron
  • Pentium
  • Atom

The “Core” name covers a few generations of processors based on different micro-architectures which doesn’t help with the already vague model numbers assigned to each mobile processor.

Here’s a rundown from newer to older of what is or was available and their major characteristics.

Intel Core i3, i5, i7 Mobile Processors (~2010 – today)

Intel’s latest Core series is currently the performance king and found in the majority of laptops on the market. The number in the series, such as i3/i5/i7, represent performance expectations with i3 being at the bottom and i7 at the top.

There are also a few generations of processor micro-architecture’s within this series which may add more confusion to the buying process. You may have seen ads showing 2nd Gen Core i7 or 3rd Generation Core i5 and wondered how many generations there are or why do they have 2nd and 3rd gen side by side?

Here is a quick non-programmer overview:

  • 1st Generation – Nehalem Micro-Architecture – released 2008
    • the return of hyper-threading!
    • integrated on-chip memory controller
  • 2nd Generation – Sandy Bridge Micro-Architecture – released January 2011
    • hardware assisted video decode and encode via Intel Quick Sync Video
    • integrated on-chip graphics (HD 3000)
  • 3rd Generation – Ivy Bridge Micro-Architecture – released April 2012
    • die shrink of Sandy Bridge to use less power and run cooler
    • integrated on-chip graphics (HD 4000)

Intel Core 2 Mobile Processors (~2006 – 2009)

The Core 2 line of CPU’s were a step up from the Core Duo and Solo, the major new feature being a 64bit processor instead of 32bit. At this point due to model number ambiguity the feature list of laptops were beginning to look ridiculous (ex: Centrino 2 Mobile Core 2 Duo T7300… what?).

To add to the confusion there were three flavors available which denoted how many processing cores were on the chip:

  • Core 2 Solo (1 core)
  • Core 2 Duo (2 cores)
  • Core 2 Quad (4 cores)

Intel Core Duo and Core Solo Mobile Processors (~2006 – 2007)

The Core Duo is a dual-core 32bit processor based on the Pentium M. The Core Solo is basically the same processor as the duo with one of the cores disabled to provide a broader range products priced for different levels of performance.

Intel Mobile Celeron (~1999 – today)

Celeron as a name spans many generations of processors and indicates low-cost entry level performance. A Celeron processor of today would be much faster than a Celeron from 7 years ago despite running at a similar or lower clock frequency.

The reason for this is because the underlying technology is frequently refreshed with each new major micro-architecture release to keep the performance expectations in line in regards to the other offerings of the generation.

Outdated Series

Intel Pentium M

Part of the Centrino package, this mobile processor from Intel is quite an improvement over the other Mobile Pentium 4 processors.

There are many variations of this Pentium M currently available, the earliest models have 1 MB of level 2 cache, the second generation has 2 MB of level 2 cache, and the latest has added 533 Mhz front side bus support.

Pentium M processors may run at slower GHZ operating speeds than the Pentium 4 counterparts, but they still perform as good or better while providing superior battery life savings.

Before this processor it was common to use desktop CPU’s with optimized power and thermal properties to function effectively in laptops. The 32bit Pentium M was designed from the beginning to be a mobile processor allowing it to have great power saving ability without sacrificing performance.

Mobile Intel Pentium 4 518, 532, 538

Based on the prescott core, these can be considered a small evolutionary step above the below mentioned processor. Besides the new naming convention(532, etc), these processors include SSE3 instruction support and increased level 2 cache of 1 MB (previously 512KB).

Mobile Intel Pentium 4

Laptops with these CPU’s are usually used as replacements for bulkier desktop computers, they’re great for video editing, 3D gaming, or any other task that requires hefty processing power.

The main difference from a desktop Pentium 4 would be somewhat better thermal properties and lower power consumption. The speeds are similar to desktop P4 processors so the easiest way to currently determine if a laptop is using a desktop P4 or the Mobile P4 is to check the FSB(front side bus) speed. 800 MHZ FSB = desktop P4 (currently), 533 MHZ = Mobile P4 (harder to tell at CPU speeds below 2.8 GHZ due to older desktop P4’s not supporting 800 MHZ FSB).

The higher end models above 2.66 GHZ support Intel Hyperthreading technology.

Mobile Intel Pentium 4-M

The Pentium 4-M is available at speeds up to 2.6 GHZ. The difference between Mobile Pentium 4 and the Pentium 4-M is the 4-M does not support Hyperthreading, uses less power, and runs cooler.

Laptops based on this processor perform in the mid-range between the Celeron based laptops and the Centrino and Hyperthreading enabled laptops. The Pentium’s mentioned above are recommended over this one since they offer better performance or battery life at equal or better prices.

Mobile Intel Pentium 3-M

Found mainly in older, used, or refurbished laptop computers, the mobile Pentium 3-M processor is still VERY capable for most users needs. Most laptops based on this CPU are quite small, lightweight, and have a fairly good battery life.

Highest speed is up to 1.33 GHZ but 1.2 GHZ is more common.

Laptop Processor Guide Part 1


Apr 282012

Ultrabooks are being touted as the no-compromise laptop. The biggest benefits and most desired aspects of different types of laptops all put into one design.

  • Thin and Lightweight
  • Secure
  • Ultra Responsive
  • High Performance
  • Long Battery Life
  • Reasonable Price!

Ultrabook has beenĀ  pushed hard by Intel since May 2011, so much that they have created the Ultrabook Fund with a little over a quarter of a billion dollars to to help companies around the globe who are innovative in the aspects that benefit the Ultrabook specification.

Intel is also doing a huge marketing campaign to raise awareness of this new brand similar to what they did when Centrino was launched back in 2003. Manufacturers of laptops can use the Ultrabook name and benefit from this multi-million dollar promotional effort if they follow a few key specifications:

  • It must have an Intel Core processor such as the Core i3/i5/i7
  • It must be no thicker than 18mm or 0.71 inches
  • It must last at least 5 hours on a single battery charge
  • It must resume from hibernation in approximately 7 seconds
  • It must feature Intel Anti-Theft and Intel Identity Protection Technology

Pros and Cons of an Ultrabook

This all sounds great doesn’t it! Unfortunately there has been compromises made in the first wave of laptops bearing the Ultrabook name, whether these are important to you is entirely subjective to your uses.

Thin and Lightweight – sure it looks sleek and stylish and you can carry it around rather than lug it around but what about an optical drive to watch DVD’s or burn discs or even install programs? Perhaps if you carried an external optical drive with you, but then you need to make sure there is an available port to plug it into since those have also been reduced in number.

Long Battery Life – in most cases the battery can’t be removed or changed easily. Many of them have custom made batteries that are shaped and sized to fit into as much available space as possible in the thin chassis’.

Ultra Responsive – responsiveness has been achieved primarily because of the use of SSD’s or Solid State Drives. These are still much more expensive than traditional hard drives and that means the storage capacity is far less than what is available on a regular laptop to keep the price down.

Upgrades – want to add more RAM? Good luck. Chances are the RAM that comes with the Ultrabook is soldered onto the mainboard to save space that the slots would take up. Second hard drive bay? Nope, unlikely.

Graphics Performance – gaming is only sort of possible. Most of the first generation Ultrabooks lack discreet hardware and use the on-chip Intel integrated graphics. This isn’t required so there is a possibility of 3rd party video cards from Nvidia and AMD in upcoming models.

If these issues are not a problem for you an Ultrabook may be perfect as the “go-to” laptop for your daily usage.


Apr 072012

The heart… or brain I suppose… of any laptop is the processor, also referred to as CPU (Central Processing Unit).

It’s usually a good idea to get the “most processor” you can afford for longevity and that odd time you decide to re-touch all your digital photos or videos in one giant batch. Laptop processor performance is subjective and your primary usage of the laptop should determine which CPU to look for.

Specifications of laptop processors compared to their desktop equivalent are very similar but overall are designed with battery operation and reduced heat output in mind. Important differences include slower clock speeds, less power consumption, and will commonly have fewer cores.

Laptop Processor Speed

While there are a few general categories a laptop processor can be assigned to it’s important to know the main difference in day to day use is how fast they can execute your software and the extra hardware or lack thereof on each processor is transparent to the user(you) but affects primarily execution speed rather than software compatibility.

The general categories are also considered an overall category for the entire laptop so determining what you will be using the laptop for will already narrow down the processor selection you have to sift through.

  • High End – Performance, Enthusiast, 3D Gaming, Workstation, and Multimedia (including encoding, transcoding, content creation)
  • Mainstream – Email, Web Browsing, Office Apps, Multimedia, Gaming, and Workstation (mediocre 3D capabilities.. usually)
  • Budget – Email, Web Browsing, Office Apps, Multimedia
  • Ultra Low Voltage – Email, Web Browsing, Office Apps

Many feature a “turbo” mode where the clock speed is ramped up to meet more demanding games and applications. This turbo mode has limitations based on several operating variables, according to Intel’s implementation the variables include:

    • Number of active cores
    • Estimated current consumption
    • Estimated power consumption
    • Processor temperature

More information on Intel Turbo Boost Technology.

Several Intel processors also include Hyper-Threading technology which, in a nut-shell, creates a second “virtual CPU” on each physical core of the processor so a dual core CPU with hyper-threading will appear as four CPU’s on operating systems that support it. This won’t double the performance but it does have the benefit of executing more instructions in the same space of time as a CPU running at the same clock speed without Hyper-Threading. Not all software will benefit from this but it does help with the heavy lifting in multimedia and content creation projects.

Laptop Processor Confusion

The two major manufacturers of laptop processors are Intel and AMD, both use a model number system to differentiate their own processors from one another. The problem with this is the sheer number of meaningless letters and numbers you are faced with while looking for a decent laptop to buy. Perhaps “meaningless” is a bit unfair since they do have meaning but unless you are prepared you can be at the mercy of the salesman!

Then there are laptop processors with integrated graphics on the same chip, AMD calls these APU’s (Accelerated Processing Unit) while Intel just added more model numbers to choose from.

Some laptops even use desktop processors which give the advantage of speed in exchange for heat and shorter battery life. The extra speed is due in part to higher clock speeds and usually more of everything CPU related such as cache and/or cores not available on the laptop specific processors.

Intel Laptop Processor Guide – Part 2

Apr 072012

So you’re looking for a good gaming laptop? There are several options out there built specifically for gamers and then there are the cheaper options! What’s the difference?

Gaming laptops are built with a purpose, usually that purpose is the highest framerate possible so when you’re rushing enemy strongholds in your favorite FPS you can’t blame your machine for when you don’t make it within 100 yards of the spot(the internet connection is always to blame) or when tackling that dragon with 3 dozen of your friends you’re not the one staring at the ground and squinting at the map in the corner… unless you’re a healer… just do your job!

The high end models and desktop replacements from various well known manufacturers have performance and specifications almost as good as the purpose-built gaming laptops but lack the final touches such as a slick paint job or game specific software and hardware fine tuning. The lower price of these high end laptops can make up for not having the absolute best available gaming laptop.

What to Look for in a Gaming Laptop

Not just any laptop will suffice for a gamer, we will need a powerhouse to be able to handle the graphically intensive 3D games of today. Some sacrifices will have to be made but they are sacrifices any gamer must be willing to take to be able to frag in convenience! Most notably battery life, weight, and the all important money factor.

The most important requirements for a good gaming laptop include:

Laptop Gaming Processor

There’s several options here but you’re looking for performance right? Pure speed or gigahertz is still paramount for games, whether or not the processor is dual core or quad core or even six core isn’t quite as important unless the games you play actually take advantage of multiple cores.

On a budget? Consider a slightly lower end processor in favor of a higher end video card. Most 3D games are limited by the video card much more than by the processor. Finding such configurations might be little bit trickier since performance parts are usually paired with other performance parts or system builders favor the laptop’s CPU over GPU (Graphics Processing Unit).

Laptop Gaming Video Card

Your laptop ‘s ability to handle graphically intensive FPS games falls heavily on the type of video card it has. It is the deciding factor for gaming performance especially if it has a full HD screen or if you like to use an external high resolution monitor frequently.

Laptop video cards, like their desktop brethren, come in all flavors from the (s)low end of the spectrum all the way to SLI/Crossfire configurations (two video cards!) housed in rather large chassis’. Choose wisely based on your budget and gaming needs.

Laptop RAM

This is easy. Get as much as you can afford at system purchase, if there isn’t an option to upgrade the RAM at purchase then later upgrade to as much as you can afford in a pair(2) of memory sticks of the fastest ram the laptop supports and/or as much as the laptop and operating system can use.

Games, operating systems, and software in general work better when there is lots of memory to play around in.

There is normally only 2 available slots inside so not much room for upgrades. If you happen to find more than 2 slots the same idea applies, fill them with as much as the laptop or operating system can support!

See Laptop Memory Guide.

Gaming Storage and Accessories

A massive hard drive to fit all those huge games is a must and you can even add a second drive if there is room. Many gaming laptops use 7200 RPM drives but some may even have 5400 RPM to save power *gasp* so upgrading may or may not be immediately necessary. Perhaps an SSD for your operating system and main games and a regular one for the rest of the games you installed and never play.

No one likes to play games using that little square touch pad so make sure to pick up a nice external USB or wireless gaming mouse to make beating your friends(or co-workers) easier. On a similar note check the keyboard size and layout to make sure the keys aren’t too small or too close together, some system builders think it’s a good idea to resize/reposition keys so they can fit a calculator button or email button or something else entirely useless.

Other Important Considerations

  • Due to power requirements to run games at full speed you will probably not be using battery power while gaming on your laptop. If you plan to play games on battery alone don’t expect full performance since most laptop battery settings lower the speed of the CPU and video card and if overridden to use “full performance” the battery will not last very long.
  • Laptops built for gaming are usually a bit heavier than usual and most are considered desktop replacements. Expect weight in the range of 7-10 pounds or more.
  • Last but definitely not least. Get a nice or decent pair of headphones since the built in speakers of most gaming laptops will pale in comparison to a good set of headphones.
Apr 062012

What is a multimedia laptop? It is any laptop that can play or show multiple forms of media, especially video, music, and photos.

You may be thinking that nearly all current laptops fall into that category and you would be right, however, there are some features you may want to consider to pick a really great multimedia laptop to suit your needs.

Does your video camera or digital camera use USB 2.0/3.0, Firewire(IEEE 1394), or Thunderbolt? Make sure the laptop can accommodate the equipment you plan to use to create video or photo albums.

Wide Screen(WXGA, WSXGA, WUXGA) or HD screens with 16:9 or 16:10 screen ratio is more suited to watching movies as most DVD movies use this format. The extra screen real estate is also great for editing large photos or photo albums.

How bright is the screen? Many manufacturers offer screens with superior brightness, high contrast, and wider viewing angles to provide sharp and vivid images. Examples are:

  • Acer – Crystalbrite
  • Sony – Xbrite
  • Toshiba – Trubright
  • Fujitsu – Crystal View
  • Dell – Truelife
  • HP – Brightview

Do you plan to do some video and sound editing or encoding? You will want the fastest laptop processor you can get, especially one that has multiple cores and hyperthreading. Many multimedia applications get a nice speed boost with both of these features.

Video editing can also take up HUGE amounts of disk space so you will need the biggest hard disk you can find, try to get 7200 RPM because you will notice the difference from 5400 RPM when moving large video files around. You can also purchase a very large external USB 2.0/3.0, or Firewire hard drive, or external hard drive enclosures which support any size regular drives up to 10,000 RPM and 3 terabytes or more.

When you make a great home movie of a relative’s wedding or birthday party and would like to give out copies to family members you can’t email if the video is several gigabytes. Your best option is to make sure your laptop comes with a DVD writer, not to be mistaken with DVD/CDRW combo drives that write to CD/CDRW but only read DVD.

Other extras for consideration to round out a multimedia laptop would be slots for memory cards from your digital camera and digital video camera and a TV tuner.

Some laptops include controls on the front or side so you can listen to music files and audio CD’s and/or view media such as VCD, SVCD, or DVD’s without having to boot into windows. (known as QuickPlay by HP or QosmioPlayer by Toshiba)

Media Center Laptops

There are laptops built specifically to act as a multimedia entertainment center. Using Windows 7 Media Center, Windows Vista Media Center, or Windows XP Media Center Edition (Windows XP MCE) they can play or display video, DVD, TV, pictures, and music through an easy to use interface. They can also be used like any other PC for running games and applications, otherwise it wouldn’t really be a useful laptop.

Some features of Media Center PC’s with Windows XP MCE include:

DVR (digital video recorder), similar to a PVR, which lets you pause or record TV channels.
Internet Radio
Downloads DVD or CD cover art and information online
TV programming guide
Remote Control (optional)