Picking the Right Processor — Desktop and Laptops

By Petar Vukobrat

August 12, 2019

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Picking the right processor

Picking the right processor for your computer or laptop can be a confusing journey. Even if you’re somewhat tech-savvy and know your way around hardware, things can still get painfully chaotic just by looking at many of today’s spec sheets.

Some naming conventions are easier to follow than others. As an example, Intel’s “i” series is pretty straightforward. Their i3 processors are the weakest of the bunch, so they’re deemed as “entry-level products.” That doesn’t mean they’re bad, just that they’re sufficient for “basic stuff” and not much else. If you’re an enthusiast, on the other hand, then going for an i5 will result in much better performance for both productivity as well as gaming.

Finally, if you’re looking for the best option money can buy, for a processor that can run on the highest of frequencies and can churn through intensive workloads, then you shell out for an i7.

Simple as can be.

There’s even the i9 line-up which is specifically aimed towards industry professionals who really need every last megahertz.

But that’s just Intel’s desktop offerings. They’re easy to understand and memorize. When you go into other markets — portable computers, as an example — things tend to get confusing, to say the least. There’s just not as diverse of a line-up when it comes to desktop computers.

Laptop processors, on the other hand, are a completely different story. Seeing how laptops change and evolve over time, the processors have to follow suit.

So these days, we have tablets, 2-in-1 computers that try to provide the best of both worlds, small and versatile machines that resemble netbooks (something like the Microsoft Surface Go), and also traditional laptops. Seeing how all of these products vary in strength as well as size, you can’t just use the same desktop processors mentioned above and call it a day.

These machines have smaller chassis, they have less room for ventilation, and they’re not designed to be used as intensively as desktop machines. Some of these devices are marketed towards “office folk,” whereas others attract creatives who want a versatile product that can get the job done.

And those two types of users are just scratching the surface. You have students, professionals of all kinds, gamers, content creators — you name it. So if there are as many use case scenarios as there are types of users, then manufacturers have to satisfy the demand and create a capable product that will please every buyer.

Because of this, along with the inherent restrictions and limitations of different form factors, processor naming schemes quickly become confusing, to say the least.

One quick glance at the spec sheet, and you’re bound to get lost in a minute’s time. So let’s take a look at the list of processors so that we can better understand the pros and cons that each category brings to the table.

Finally, we won’t delve into Intel’s Xeon processors or anything of the sort. We’re looking at the products that are aimed towards regular users — those who just want to “get the job done” as well as those who want a bit of power.

Intel Naming Conventions

I Series —Intel’s desktop offerings. They’re currently sold as i3, i5, i7, or i9 processors. They go from weakest to strongest, but unless you’re a creative professional who needs an absolute monstrosity, then an i5 will be more than enough. That said, their latest i3 processors are surprisingly strong and are deceptively capable. Seeing how Intel increased the number of cores from 2 to 4 a while ago, you’re basically getting a lot of power for a very acceptable price.

U Series — Intel’s U series stands for ultra-low power, and it is often used in laptops of all shapes and sizes. This is the option to go for if you want longer battery life in your portable computers but also a fair bit of power. These processors offer a fairly respectable balance between efficiency and strength, but they’re not exactly made for long gaming sessions or insanely demanding tasks. They have a lower TDP (Thermal Design Power), so they’ll throttle (underperform) once they reach a certain temperature. Something like an Intel i5-8250U is a great option to go for, and it can be found in many of today’s mid-tier laptops. Pair that with a solid graphics card (something like a dedicated MX150), and you’ll be able to game comfortably, depending on the settings, of course.

Y Series — This is Intel’s latest low-power option, and it requires just 4.5W to operate. It’s designed specifically for ultra-thin and light laptops that aren’t meant to be used as workstations. They have lower base clock speeds, but they have solid Turbo Boost numbers, and even though they can’t really compete with, say, a U series processor (spec-wise), they offer pretty comparable real-world performance. Unfortunately, Intel Y processors only support DDR3 RAM, but their lower clock speeds and power requirements mean you’ll get noticeably longer battery life.

Laptops with “Y” series processors may or may not have active cooling. It all depends on the manufacturer and configuration. More on that below.

G Series — This is a very interesting series, and it’s also relatively new. When there’s a G suffix, that means you’re buying an Intel processor that has Radeon Vega M graphics.

A good example of such a processor would be the Intel i7-8809G, a quad-core, eight-thread unit that’s coming with a very capable graphics card. You can find it in both top-tier ultrabooks as well as last-generation Intel NUCs (the Hades Canyon). And these graphics aren’t shabby, either — they fall between an Nvidia GTX 1050 and 1050 Ti, which is more than enough for playing all of today’s esports titles on High/Ultra at 1080p.

M Series — Intel’s m processors are an interesting little achievement, to say the least. They come in m3, m5, and m7 variants, and much like the “i” series above, the higher the number, the stronger the processor. Furthermore, this series doesn’t have any active cooling. In other words, they don’t require a fan, so they’re passively cooled.

But what does this mean in the grand scheme of things, other than the fact that you won’t hear any noise? It’s important to understand that they don’t require additional fans or any concrete cooling because they have a laughably small TDP. They require up to 5W of power, which is a third of what a “U” series processor requires (the series that is found in most of today’s ultrabooks).

The fact that they require a third of the power doesn’t exactly mean they’re that weaker, but you are losing quite a bit of oomph, which is only natural. Because they don’t need to be actively cooled, they have to be clocked at lower speeds, and when used for longer periods of time, you’ll notice quite a bit of thermal throttling. Their processors just aren’t built for long-term usage. If you need a desktop replacement, or something that you can work on for hours on end, this simply isn’t a good choice.

If, on the other hand, you want something that doesn’t have a fan and will work well for almost anything that isn’t particularly demanding, then this could be a good choice. That said, this series, in particular, isn’t used that much any longer. You’ll mostly see it in older ultrabooks, tablets, and 2-in-1 devices.

H — This is where the fun starts. This is Intel’s high-performance series of processors, and they’re used in those comically big, beefy, and fast gaming laptops that are spec’d out to the max. They’re absolute behemoths (given their size and portability) and can be used for very demanding tasks — both gaming as well as creative work. That said, they consume more power, emit more heat and noise, and your battery will last four or five hours at best.

Then again, if you want the best performance, it’s well worth any inherent trade-offs. Especially if you’re looking to game at the highest of settings.

K — This is Intel’s overclockable series. You can have a “K” suffix by itself, or it can be preceded by the letter H if it’s a laptop. This means you’re not only getting a strong processor, but you’ll also be able to overclock it and attain even better performance.

There are a couple of other suffixes available as well, but they are either not as mainstream or are archaic at this point in time. Intel is fully aware of the chaos which they created with their naming tendencies, and they’re trying their hardest to narrow down their own assortment.

A(MD) New Challenger Appears

AMD’s recent resurgence completely turned things on its head, to say the least. Ever since their first-generation Ryzen processors saw the light of day, the market never quite returned to its former state — and that’s great.

They started offering more for less, a concept that is basically unheard of, especially in a capitalist market.

But they had to do something unique in order to attract attention, and they succeeded admirably. The fact that they stepped up so much made picking the right processor considerably harder.

More cores, more performance, more power, and you could even overclock their processors to your heart’s content without paying any premium. The third generation of Ryzen processors will be released in a matter of days, and AMD’s philosophy on offering their customers more “bang for their buck” is paying dividends.

As far as the first two Ryzen generation processors are concerned, they’re slightly weaker in single-core performance, but they mop the floor with Intel’s offerings in the multi-core department, especially considering the fact that you’re paying much, much less for virtually the same thing.

They also have a couple of laptop-specific processors like the Ryzen 2500U and 2700U. They’re fantastic options to go for, and they will cost much less than what Intel has on the market. Perhaps the most interesting thing about them, however, is the fact that they have spectacular integrated graphics cards (Vega 8 and Vega 11, respectively). You’ll get surprising frame rates in most of today’s esports titles.

When it comes to the age-old debate Intel vs. AMD, there’s no clear-cut winner at this point. We’ll have to wait for the latest generations from both tech giants before coming to a concrete conclusion. That said, one thing is for certain — if you want the best deals and value, you can’t go wrong with AMD right now.

That’s a fact.

The Thermal Conundrum

This is an aspect many people fail to comprehend, and it’s only valid when you’re buying a laptop.

The speed of your processor doesn’t matter much in the grand scheme of things if it has a low TDP and you plan on using it for prolonged periods of time.

So, to further elaborate, a CPU that has a 15W TDP will often work great until it hits a certain temperature threshold. Then, all of a sudden, performance suffers.

And it’s not just gaming-related stuff either — your system becomes less responsive, less quick and snappy until the processor cools down. This is why it’s important to be cognizant of what you’ll be using your computer for. Is it office stuff, documents, emails, web browsing with the occasional Netflix marathon? Then you’ll be good with most of these processors, especially something from the “U” or “Y” line.

If, on the other hand, you want to do somewhat demanding (tech-wise) work, then you should buy a processor that’s the right fit for your workflow.

Picking the right processor can be a daunting task, but once you know what you need it for, things become a lot easier. Fortunately, technology has advanced to such a point that you can use a laptop-specific processor as your daily driver and not notice any real-life difference when compared to a desktop processor.

These really are the best of times if you’re buying hardware.

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