Mobile CPU buyer's guide

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

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Midrange mobile processors

Tech enthusiasts love to talk about supremely fast CPUs, but most people buy computers with more reasonable price/performance ratios. The midrange class of processors is extremely versatile; a notebook outfitted with an upper-midrange CPU can handle a very broad range of tasks, including some of the same applications that you'd use a high-end CPU for.

AMD

Turion X2 Ultra Dual-Core Mobile ZM80, ZM82, ZM84 and ZM86

AMD has struggled over the past several years to keep up with Intel in the desktop CPU market and Nvidia Corp. in the graphics processor market, which hasn't left the company with many resources to improve its mobile CPUs. AMD did manage to turn the tables on Nvidia earlier this year by introducing a new graphics processing unit, the Radeon HD 4870, that delivered most of the performance of Nvidia's best graphics processor (the GeForce GTX 280) for a fraction of the price, a move that forced Nvidia to slash its prices.

It'll be good for the industry if AMD can catch up to Intel on the CPU front as well. In the absence of genuine competition, Intel won't have much incentive to continue innovating and reducing its prices.

An encouraging sign is AMD's June 2008 introduction of the Turion X2 Ultra Dual-Core Mobile, its latest mobile processor. It offers a much larger L2 cache -- 2MB -- than AMD's other mobile processors, and it's available in four models, ranging from 2.1 GHz to 2.4 GHz.

In addition to its increased L2 cache size, the Turion X2 Ultra Dual-Core offers an innovative power-saving feature: AMD's CoolCore technology can extend a notebook's battery life by shutting off any processor features that are not being used at a given point in time. This chip is a solid alternative to Intel's lower-end Core 2 Duo Mobile processors.

Intel

Core 2 Duo Mobile T5500, T5550, T5600, T5750, T5850, T7100, T7200, T7250, T7300, T7400, T7500, T7600, T7700, T7800, T8100, T8300, T9300, T9500, T9600, P8400, P8600, P9500, SP9300, SP9400

While AMD has been playing catch-up, Intel has come to dominate the midrange mobile CPU market nearly as thoroughly as it has the high end. Intel's weapon is the Core 2 Duo Mobile, which it manufactures using both 65- and 45nm fabrication processes. (AMD has yet to move to 45nm for any of its desktop or mobile CPUs.)

Lower-end Core 2 Duo processors, the T5000 and T7000 series, have either 2MB or 4MB of L2 cache and front-side buses that run at either 667 MHz or 800 MHz. Clock speeds start at 1.66 MHz for the T5500 and gradually move up to 2.6 GHz for the T7800.They're manufactured using a 65nm fabrication process.

Pricier Core 2 Duos, in the P8000, P9000, SP9000, T8000 and T9000 series, are manufactured using the more advanced 45nm fabrication process, which enables Intel to boost their clock speeds and add more cache on the die. These models have either 3MB or 6MB of L2 cache and front-side buses that run at either 800 MHz or 1,066 MHz. Clock speeds range from 2.1 GHz for the T8100 through 2.8 GHz for the T9600.

The "T" prefix indicates chips with a maximum TDP of 34 or 35 watts; chips with a "P" and "SP" prefix have a maximum TDP of 25 watts and so require less in the way of cooling. P-series chips also support Intel's Trusted Execution Technology, a set of hardware extensions designed to improve security in enterprise environments.

The SP-series chips differ from the P and T series in that they do not support Intel's Stable Image Platform Program (SIPP). SIPP is of interest to enterprise IT managers looking to standardize on a particular configuration for company-wide computer deployments; it ensures that no changes to key components or device drivers will be made to the CPU for at least 15 months from its introduction.

See specs and pricing for all midrange mobile CPUs.

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