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