Mobile CPU buyer's guide

Buying a new laptop? Not sure which processor to get? We can help.

These days, even average mobile CPUs are powerful enough to rival their desktop cousins in every application other than gaming (and they're catching up on that front, too). That helps explain why sales of notebook computers are beginning to overtake those of desktop machines. If you use a PC for business or personal productivity, it's vastly more convenient to buy a computer you can take with you.

But shopping for a notebook can be a harrowing experience simply because they come in so many shapes and sizes. Manufacturers selling their wares online offer a handful of prebuilt rigs, but they also offer build-to-order machines where you get to decide which components you want. That's a great option, but it can also make the shopping experience even more intimidating because there are so many permutations to choose from.

It's easy enough to pick something like a Wi-Fi adapter: 802.11g is standard fare in many configurations (especially at the low end), with 802.11n offered as an extra-cost option. The same goes for the hard disk (bigger is better) and optical drive (faster is better). The real challenge lies in choosing the right CPU for your needs.

The tower of Babel

Advanced Micro Devices Inc. and Intel Corp., the top U.S. chip makers, certainly don't make the task easy. Both companies have come up with some of the strangest product names you're likely to encounter, names that reveal little or nothing about the product.

Look at Intel's Core 2 line, for instance. They're all dual-core processors, right? Nope. A Core 2 processor can have anywhere from one to four cores inside. The "2" in "Core 2" indicates that this is the second generation of Intel's "Core" processor.

AMD's naming scheme is no better. What exactly is the difference, for example, between an AMD Athlon 64 X2 Dual-core Processor for Notebooks and an AMD Athlon X2 Dual-core Processor for Notebooks?

And it's not just the names that make things so confusing; it's also the plethora of clock speeds the chips come in. Intel in particular is notorious for pushing out numerous models whose sole differences are clock speeds and price tags.

Take the Intel Core 2 Duo T8100 and the Intel Core 2 Duo T8300. Both chips are manufactured using a 45-nanometer process, have 3MB of cache, operate their front-side bus at 800 MHz, and have a thermal design power spec (TDP, the maximum amount of power the computer's cooling system is required to dissipate) of 35 watts. The T8100 runs at 2.1 GHz, and the T8300 runs at 2.4 GHz, but that small difference in clock speed won't have a significant effect on real-world performance.

So when you shop for a notebook PC, don't judge the processor by its clock speed alone. Sticking with the example above, it's not worth bumping up your machine's price tag by $50 to move from a T8100 to a T8300 unless you're also getting something else -- a better Wi-Fi adapter or more memory, for instance. If, however, one of the two chips you're comparing has a faster front-side bus (for Intel) or system bus (for AMD), or if one has a larger L2 cache, then the bump might be more worthwhile.

Using this guide

To help you figure out which mobile CPU fits your needs, we've divided the market into four broad categories: high end, midrange, budget, and low power. We've categorized each processor according to the criteria above; we'll explain the technology behind it and help you determine which one will best fill your needs. When you shop for your next laptop, you'll be equipped with the knowledge you need to make the right choice.

A few notes before we begin:

  • Dual-core CPUs are the current sweet spot in mobile processors, unless you're looking for an ultralight notebook (also known as a "netbook") or if you're working with an extremely tight budget.
  • If you're interested in seeing the raw specs for all the mobile CPUs we discuss laid out side by side, take a look at our quick reference charts.
  • You're not likely to go out and buy a mobile CPU by itself -- building a custom notebook PC is much more difficult than building a desktop machine, largely because so many of the components are hard for consumers to acquire -- but when you're configuring a notebook, the pricing info we've included in our quick reference charts will help you determine how much a processor bump should add to the final price of the product.
  • You'll notice that we list many more processors from Intel than from AMD. That's because Intel has all but knocked AMD out of the mobile CPU market. You'll find AMD's processors only in less expensive notebook PCs. In fact, we examined 150 notebook stock-keeping units (SKU) from Dell Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co., and the costliest configuration to include an AMD chip was priced at just $875. But that's good news for anyone looking for a basic laptop -- there are some incredible bargains to be had.
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