A computer’s processor is its brain, the component where most of the “thinking” happens. A faster CPU (central processing unit) lets you crunch spreadsheets, surf web pages, play games or edit photos faster, but a higher-wattage processor may also give you worse battery life.
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. Is a laptop with a Core i7-7Y75 CPU faster than one with a Core i5-7200U? How much speed do you really need, anyway?
Most laptops today are powered by an Intel CPU, with a just handful of lower-cost models using one of AMD’s processors. Even though most of the chips come from one company, there are more than two dozen different models you might see featured in a brand new notebook. Fortunately, learning the basics isn’t too difficult.
TLDR; Which CPU Do I Need?
We detail all the different CPU types and their capabilities below, but if you just want the broad strokes, we’ve got a small cheat sheet below.
|Purpose||Recommended CPU||Sample SKUs||Typical Battery Life|
|Workstation / Gaming||Core i5 / i7 HQ Series||Core i7-6820HQ, Core i5-5440HQ||3 to 8 hours|
|Everyday Productivity w/ a Boost||Core i7 U Series||Core i7-7500U||5 to 17 hours|
|Everyday Productivity||Core i5 U Series||Core i5-7200U, Core i5-6200U, Core i5-6300U||5 to 17 hours|
|Super Thin (Mediocre Performance)||Core m / Core i5 / i7 Y Series||Core m3, Core i5-7Y54||5 to 9 hours|
|Budget Laptops, Low Performance||Celeron, Pentium||Celeron N3050, Pentium N4200||4 to 6 hours|
|Super Cheap, Worst Performance||Atom Series||Atom Z3735F, Atom x3, Atom x5||7 to 12 hours|
How to Read a CPU Model Name
When you’re glancing at spec sheets, the name of the processor has a confusing jumble of numbers and letters.
The first word in the processor name is the brand, which is usually “Intel Core” but may also be labeled as Xeon, Celeron, Pentium or Atom. Following the brand, you see the brand modifier, which is most often i3, i5 or i7 but can also be other letters and numbers such as m5, x5, E or N. The first number after the hyphen is the generation indicator; the latest generation is the 7th so the newest CPUs have a 7 here.
Then you’ll probably see some combination of a two or three digit number and a single letter which is probably U, Y, HQ or HK. The numbers indicate that particular SKU and the letters indicate the processor line. The line is extremely important because it tells you roughly how much wattage this processor needs.
MORE: Intel Kaby Lake: 7 Things to Know About 7th-Gen Core CPUs
Core i3 vs Core i5 vs Core i7
Most Intel CPUs you’ll see on laptops that cost over $400 are branded as Core i3, Core i5 or Core i7. As the numbering suggests, Core i3 is the slowest, i5 is in the middle and i7 is fastest. Usually, the i5 model is more than adequate for a regular, everyday user who is not doing intensive graphics work, engineering / science or gaming.
CPU Specs: Cores, Hyper-Threading, Clock Speed
When you read about any individual CPU model, you’ll see that, just like the laptop it powers, it has a complete set of specs. The most important specs are these:
- Cores: The processor within a processor, a Core is capable of working on one discrete task while the other core(s) does something else. Most laptop CPUs have two cores, but some of the higher-performance models have four cores.
- 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, 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 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 die, the cache stores frequently used information to speed up repetitive tasks. Most CPUs have between 1 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.
- vPro: A built-in remote management feature that’s designed for corporate IT departments. Many business laptops have CPUs with vPro, but consumer systems do not.
Every 12 to 18 months, Intel releases a new processor generation, which is always a bit faster and more power-efficient than its predecessor. Unfortunately, not every processor line is moved to the new architecture at the same time. Currently, there are some Intel U Series and Y series chips that are on the 7th generation (code named “Kaby Lake”, but high-performance CPUs and those made for enterprise are still stuck on the 6th generation platform (code name “Skylake”).
|Major Intel CPU Platforms|
|Generation||Code Name||Launch Year||Nanometers|
Once every two or three generations, Intel will insitute a “die shrink,” which allows the company to fit more transistors into a smaller space during manufacturing, giving higher performance at the same TDPs. This fabrication process size is measured in nanometers and lower is always better.
Processor Lines (from Most to Least Powerful)
Choosing the right processor line is much more important than picking Core i5 over Core i3. Intel has four main lines, each of which has its own set of Core i3s, i5s and i7s. Each line has a different TDP (Thermal Design Power), ranging from 4.5 watts in the Y Series all the way up to 45 watts for an HQ series.
A higher TDP means speedier processing, but more heat and energy use. However, just because a processor has a really low TDP, that doesn’t mean laptops which use it will have longer battery life. For example, many systems we’ve tested with 4.5-watt CPUs have had below-average battery life, because they also had low-capacity batteries or power-hungry screens.
Xeon E: High-End Workstations Only
Good For: Engineering, Research and Professional Animation
Bad For: Battery Life, Affordability, Weight
For the very highest-end mobile workstations, there’s Intel’s Xeon E3 processor. Laptops with this processor inside are capable of doing more calculations so they can develop 3D animations or run complex simulations for someone like a medical researcher or an engineer. Xeon E3 processors have a 45-watt TDP, four physical cores and come with both hyperthreading and turbo boost. Don’t expect great battery life or low prices.
|Common Xeon E Series CPUs (4 cores, 8 Threads)|
|Xeon E3-1575MV5||3 GHz||3.9 GHz||8MB||Iris Pro P580||Yes|
|Xeon E3-1505MV5||2.8 GHz||3.7 GHz||6MB||Iris Pro P580||Yes|
HQ / HK Series: Quad-Core, High Performance
Best For: Gamers, Creative Professionals, Power Users
Bad For: Portability, Affordability, Battery Life
If you’re a power user or gamer, a laptop with an HQ processor is probably your best choice. HQ Series processors have four cores, instead of the two you find on U and Y series CPUs. Thanks to hyper-threading, the Core i7 units can actually have 8 concurrent threads. HQ processors also have a TDP of 45 watts, which means that the laptops holding them are either going to have poor battery life or giant batteries. Because they generate more heat than U series chips, you won’t find HQ CPUs in super-light or thin laptops.
One of the smallest laptops with an HQ processor is Lenovo’s ThinkPad T460p, which has a 14-inch screen and tips the scales at 3.8 pounds. With its 3-cell battery, the T460p taps out after a very-short 3 hours and 18 minutes, but that time grows to 9:57 with the 6-cell battery on board.
HK processors are the same as HQ, but they are unlocked, which allows you to overclock them and push their frequencies higher. Both HQ and HK processors are still on the 6th generation “Skylake” platform, with a refresh expected in early 2017.
|Common HQ Series CPUs (4 cores)|
|Core i7-6820HQ||2.7 GHz||3.6 GHz||8MB||Intel HD 530||8||Yes|
|Core i7-6700HQ||2.6 GHz||3.5 GHz||6MB||Intel HD 530||8||No|
|Core i5-6440HQ||2.6 GHz||3.5 GHz||6MB||Intel HD 530||4||Yes|
|Core i5-6300HQ||2.3 GHz||3.2 GHz||6MB||Intel HD 530||4||No|
U Series: Everyday Performance
Good For: Productivity, Content Consumption, Battery Life
Bad For: Gaming, Professional Animation
If you’re looking for a “typical” laptop experience, with solid performance and the possibility of good battery life, then an Intel U Series is for you. In particular, a Core i5 U series CPU such as the Core i5-7200U should be more than adequate for most everyday users, whether they are consumers who want to surf the web or business users who need to edit spreadsheets.
U Series processors have a TDP of 15 watts, which is the sweet spot between solid performance and good battery life, but does require active cooling in the form of a fan. With a large battery and a power-efficient screen, U series laptops can get well over 10 hours of endurance with some high-end systems getting closer to 20 hours.
|Common Intel U Series CPUs (2 cores, 4 threads)|
|Core i7-7500U||2.7 GHz||3.5 GHz||4MB||Intel HD 620||No|
|Core i7-6600U||2.6 GHz||3.4 GHz||4MB||Intel HD 520||Yes|
|Core i7-6500U||2.5 GHz||3.1 GHz||4MB||Intel HD 520||No|
|Core i5-7200U||2.5 GHz||3.1 GHz||3MB||Intel HD 620||No|
|Core i5-6300U||2.4 GHz||3 GHz||3MB||Intel HD 520||Yes|
|Core i5-6200U||2.3 GHz||2.8 GHz||3MB||Intel HD 520||No|
|Core i3-7100U||2.4 GHz||N/A||3MB||Intel HD 620||No|
|Core i3-6100U||2.3 GHz||N/A||3MB||Intel HD 520||No|
Y Series / Core m: Fanless Designs, Mediocre Performance
Good For: Portability, Fanless Design, Light Productivity
Bad For: Battery Life, Serious Number Crunching
When you’re shopping for a laptop, be wary of the Y series, which you may see branded with Core i5 / Core i7 or with the Core m3/m5/m7 brand (for lower-end or last-gen modesl). Intel Y Series processors have a very-low TDP of 4.5 watts, which allows manufacturers to use them in fanless, super-thin laptops. Unfortunately, most of those laptops also have low-capacity batteries or high-powered screens so they actually end up with worse battery life than competitors with more-powerful U series processors.
For example, the svelte Acer Spin 7 has a Core i7-7Y75 CPU and lasts just 6 hours and 53 minutes on a charge while scoring 5,777 on the Geekbench performance test. Meanwhile, the HP Spectre x360 with a Core i7-7500U CPU weighs about the same and lasts over 10 hours on a charge while racking up a Geekbench score of 8,147. The Spin 7 is 0.2 inches thinner than the HP Spectre x360, but there are also a number of extremely-thin laptops with U series processors, including the 0.47-inch thick Asus ZenBook 3 and 0.41-inch HP Spectre.
|Common Intel Y Series CPUs (2 cores, 4 threads)|
|Core i7-7Y75||1.3 GHz||3.6 GHz||4MB||Intel HD 615||No|
|Core m7-6Y75||1.2 GHz||3.1 GHz||4MB||Intel HD 515||Yes|
|Core i5-7Y54||1.2 GHz||3.2 GHz||4MB||Intel HD 615||No|
|Core m5-6Y57||1.1 GHz||2.8 GHz||4MB||Intel HD 515||Yes|
|Core m3-7Y30||1.0 GHz||2.6 GHz||4MB||Intel HD 615||No|
|Core m3-6Y30||900 MHz||2.2 GHz||4MB||Intel HD 515||No|
Laptops with Y series processors are also no less expensive than those with U series. The Spin carries an $1,199 MSRP while a similarly-configured Spectre x360 goes for around the same price. As of Intel’s 7th Generation “Kaby Lake” platform, Y series processors are marketed as Core m3 (base model), Core i5 and Core i7. Models from the 6th generation were listed as Core m3, Core m5 and Core m7. If you want better performance, make sure the Core i5 or i7 chip in your desired laptop doesn’t have a Y in its model number (ex: Core i7-7Y75).
Despite their drawbacks, we wouldn’t rule out a laptop with a Y series. The 12-inch MacBook and HP EliteBook Folio G1 are two laptops that get passable performance and decent endurance with Y Series (Core m-branded) processors inside.
MORE: We Call Bullchip! Intel Wrong to Rebrand Core M as Core i
Celeron / Pentium: For Those Who Don’t Care
Good For: Web Surfing, Saving money
Bad For: Gaming, Serious Productivity, Video Editing
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 / Pentium only if price is a primary concern.
Celeron CPUs have TDPs ranging from 4 to 15 watts. Celeron model names that begin with N (ex: N3060) use 4 to 6 watts while those that end in U (ex: 3855U) take 15 watts and promise better performance. Battery life varies a great deal, depending on the battery capacity of the system, but systems with the 4 and 6-watt chips tend to be cheaper and longer lasting.
Less common, but a tad faster, Pentium CPUs have TDPs ranging from 6 to 15 watts, though most are either 6 or 7.5 watts. One of our favorite budget laptops, the Asus Vivobook E403SA uses a Pentium N3700 CPU, which allows it to provide palatable multitasking performance and over 9 hours of battery life for under $400. Some Celerons and Pentiums are dual-core and others are quad-core.
|Common Celeron / Pentium Series CPUs|
|Pentium N3700||1.6 GHz||2.4 GHz||2MB||HD Graphics||4||4||6 w|
|Pentium 4405U||2.1 GHz||N/A||2MB||HD 510||2||4||15 w|
|Celeron N3060||1.6 GHz||2.48 GHz||2MB||HD 400||2||2||6 w|
|Celeron 3855U||1.6 GHz||N/A||2MB||HD 510||2||2||15 w|
Atom: Good Battery Life, Weak Performance
Good For: Saving Money, Long Battery Life, Light Weight
Bad For: Multitasking, Serious Productivity
Intel’s cheapest processor line, Atom appears in super-cheap Windows laptops or tablets like the Lenovo Ideapad 100S and the Asus Transformer Mini T102HA. Almost all Atom CPUs have four cores and are extremely low power, allowing them to have excellent battery life, but the lowest level of performance.We recommend that you buy an Atom-powered laptop only as a secondary device for an adult or a primary for children. Atom is good enough for surfing the web and watching videos, but struggles with content creation and productivity tasks.
Intel doesn’t list a TDP for most of the current-gen CPUs in this line, but instead says that they have an SDP (Scenario Design Power) of 2 to 2.5 watts, about half of the low-power Y series. Perhaps that’s why a tiny, 2.2-pound laptop like the 100S can last nearly 10 hours on a charge and cost under $200.
|Common Atom Series CPUs (4 cores, 4 threads)|
|Atom x7-Z8750||1.6 GHz||2.56 GHz||2MB||HD 405|
|Atom x5-Z8500||1.44 GHz||2.24 GHz||2MB||HD Graphics|
|Atom Z3735G||1.33 GHz||1.83 GHz||2MB||HD Graphics|
All Intel laptop CPUs come with their own built-in graphics processors (GPUs). On most Core i3/i5/i7 CPUs of any line, these GPUs are named as Intel HD Graphics with a number after them. For 7th generation processors that number begins with a 6 (ex: Intel HD graphics 620) and for 6th -gen processors it begins with a 5 (ex: Intel HD Graphics 520). Some high-end CPUs may come with “Iris” or “Iris Pro” graphics which are significantly faster.
The integrated GPUs are right on the CPU die so laptop manufacturers can’t mix and match them. A Core i7-6500U will always come with an Intel HD Graphics 520 GPU on board, for example.
Generally speaking, integrated GPUs are good enough for productivity, web surfing, video playback and either casual gaming or gaming at low settings. If you want to do high-res video editing, professional animation or serious gaming, you need a discrete GPU from Nvidia or AMD.
Other Components Matter Too
It’s important to remember, though, that the CPU is not the only determinant of performance in a laptop and that even the slowest CPUs can provide a decent user experience when paired with other good components. For most people, picking a Solid State Drive over a hard drive will make their computers a lot more responsive than paying extra to get a Core i7 Core i5. And for graphics performance, having a powerful discrete GPU (graphics processing unit) is even more important than having the fastest CPU.
Lead Image Credit: Iaroslav Neliubov / Shutterstock