Everything you need to know about buying your next laptop, from what you need in a processor, to whether or not an Ultrabook is right for you.
Shopping for a laptop can get confusing at times. There are many technologies on offer, and it isn’t always apparent what the best solution is for your needs. But getting a basic understanding of the different hardware specifications can go a long, long way to ensuring that you end up with the right product for what you want to do with it.
Over the following pages we take a look at some of the buzzwords, and some of the technologies that you should think long and hard about when buying a laptop. This will not only help you cut through the jargon, but it will also help you choose the right laptop for your needs.
Over the past decade CPU development has shifted focus significantly. It used to be that companies like Intel and AMD developed big, powerful desktop CPUs and then adapted the design for use in mobile product. Nowadays it is the opposite, thanks to the ever increasing dominance of laptops over desktops. A product like Intel’s Ivy Bridge or AMD’s Trinity APU has been designed for the best mix of performance and power consumption on laptops and then beefed up in power consumption and raw speed for use on the desktop.
This means that CPUs are better at mobile than ever before, delivering more and more battery life while still managing to keep up with the demands of modern computing tasks. It also means that there is a lot of variance in mobile processors, with several different types of CPU available for different market areas.
If we start at the bottom of the pile we have Intel’s Atom. This is the processor that drove the netbook craze, and has largely fallen out of favour. More and more manufacturers are abandoning netbooks for more powerful solutions, and while Atom is still around, it isn’t really serious player in the mobile PC space anymore. Cheap netbooks are still an option for very light web use, but it is an area that tablets are better suited to.
For proper processing grunt you are best served looking at either Intel’s Core I series of CPUs or AMD’s A series APUs. Again, these are not all created equal, and knowing this can be a big boon when making a purchase.
Intel’s Core I processors are now in their third generation, using the recently released “Ivy Bridge” CPU core. There are also still plenty of second generation “Sandy Bridge” Core I CPUs out there, which still perform admirably, but the Ivy Bridge design is such that you’ll get better CPU performance, battery life and noticeably better graphics performance out of the third generation product.
Distinguishing between generations of Intel CPUs is a somewhat easy process. Sandy Bridge processors all have model numbers beginning with a 2, e.g. the Core i5-2410M. Ivy Bridge CPUs start with a 3, e.g. the Core i5-3360M.
Besides this generational difference, there are also differences within the Core family. These are denoted by the suffix on the model number and refer to the TDP (Thermal Design Potential) of the processor. TDP is essentially the amount of power the CPU draws (and in turn the maximum heat output of the processor) and this is key to how much battery life you can eke out of a laptop.
With the third generation Core series Intel has gone for a few different designations. Mainstream dual core laptops get the suffix M (e.g. the Core i5-3360M). This means that the processors have a TDP of 35W and generally run somewhere between 2GHz and 3GHz. These processors form the bulk of mainstream laptop CPUs, with a very solid mix of battery life and performance.
Some higher end Core i7 models have the suffix QM (e.g. the Core i7-3610QM). These are quad core CPUs that have a slightly higher TDP of 45W. While you will find these processors in mainstream focused laptops, they consume slightly more power than the dual core versions, and tend to turn up in gaming laptops, entertainment powerhouses and other desktop replacement style products. There is also a sole Extreme Edition in this line up, the core i7-3920XM, which has a 55W TDP and will likely only be found in the most expensive of gaming laptops (in other words it really isn’t a CPU for mere mortals).
While that covers off the mainstream product lines from Intel, it doesn’t touch on Ultrabooks. Intel tweaked its numbering with the launch of Ivy Bridge, and now all of the Ultrabook focused CPUs come with the suffix U (e.g. the Core i5-3427U). These processors have a TDP of 17W, which help them not only fit into the thermal constraints of tiny Ultrabook chassis, but enables the long battery life that makes Ultrabooks shine. These U series processors have base frequencies of between 1.7GHz and 2GHz, which means they don’t have the raw processing grunt of the M processors (although they still deliver very respectable performance).
Whilst Intel is by far the dominant player in laptop CPUs, AMD still delivers a respectable product. AMD’s processors are dubbed APUs (Accelerated Processing Units) rather than CPUs, which references the fact that they are comprised of both CPU and GPU cores. Generally speaking, AMD’s APUs offer lower CPU performance than Ivy Bridge, but better GPU performance (more about that later). Battery consumption is also excellent on these APUs, delivering benchmark times that are competitive with Intel’s products.
With its 2012 ‘Trinity’ design AMD has three major processor designations. The first is the A6 (e.g. A6-4400M). These are dual core processors and are available in both 35W and 17W versions. As with Intel the 35W models are designed for mainstream laptops and the 17W versions are designed for thin and light laptops (Ultrabook is an Intel trademark, so AMD doesn’t use the term but the intent is for the 17W APUs to turn up in Ultrabook style products).
The higher end models of APU sport either the A8 or A10 prefix (e.g. the A10-4600M). These have quad core CPUs, a little more cache and better onboard GPUs than the A6 models. The mainstream versions have a 35W TDP, while there is also a 25W A10 APU designed to fit into the thin and light category.