by Jeffrey L. Wilson on August 25, 2009
The central processor unit, or CPU, is the brain of your notebook. It’s the component that executes the complex calculations that allow you to launch a Web browser, play songs in iTunes, and run your operating system. Processors come in three varieties: single-core, dual-core, and quad-core. Here are the things you need to consider when evaluating a notebook’s CPU.
All CPUs are assigned a clock speed in megahertz (MHz) or gigahertz (GHz), but the latter is far more common in modern computers. Generally, the faster the clock speed, the better performance you’ll see.
Single-core processors utilize, as the name suggests, a lone CPU. As such, it’s the not as powerful as multicore processors. Dual-core is the next step up, combining two independent processors onto one physical chipset to deliver more potent processing power. Quad-core, the current power king, ups the ante by combining four processors into one package. Notebook manufacturers, however, place these CPUs—and the various processor brands that live within each category—into very specific laptops classes depending on the machines’ need for power output and battery life.
Designed for netbooks and nettops, Intel’s Atom processor is designed for extremely light computing, such as Web surfing, checking e-mail, and instant messaging. The Atom is currently available in 800-MHz to 2.0-GHz varieties, but we recommend avoiding anything less than 1.6 GHz, or you’ll get gray hair from waiting,
Though rare in comparison to Intel, Via’s Nano CPU is also a good choice. It comes in a broader ranger of clock speeds (1.0 GHz to 1.8 GHz), and we’ve found anything above 1.3 GHz to be acceptable.
In addition, AMD’s 1.6-GHz Athlon Neo CPU is also available in ultrathin laptops. Neo’s performance is good, but battery life is not as strong as what you’ll get from an Intel chip.
The new class of ultrathin, low-cost PCs are powered by Intel’s ULV (Ultra-Low Voltage) platform. This class of CPUs include processors from the Celeron, Core 2 Solo, and Pentium brand. The chipsets specialize in delivering long battery life; the ULV-powered Acer Aspire Timeline 3810T (6415) lasted over 8 hours on our LAPTOP Battery Test. These CPUs feature clock speeds ranging from 800 MHz to 1.4 GHz.
If you need more performance, consider a business ultraportable with a low-voltage Core 2 Duo processor, like the Toshiba Portégé R600-ST520W or Lenovo ThinkPad X301. Just expect to pay a hefty premium.
If you’d like a notebook with more processing power, mainstream notebooks are the way to go, as they feature the higher-end members of Intel’s Core 2 Duo family. While you won’t find notebooks with the thin body of a ULV-powered machine, you’ll still be able to play games and dabble in multimedia content creation. You may even be able to get a system with long battery life.
No matter what mainstream notebook you get, you’ll want a Mac or PC running at 2.0 GHz. If extra processing punch is high on your list, however, we suggest a minimum clock speed of 2.4 GHz.
Laptop hunters on a budget may want to check out AMD’s offerings (Athlon, Sempron, and Turion), which are typically cheaper than their Intel counterparts. Intel’s dual-core Pentium is also acceptable for budget buyers.
If you’re a hardcore gamer, or someone who does a lot of demanding work (CAD, professional graphic design, video editing, etc.) and cares more about performance than portability, settle for nothing less than a large notebook with an Intel Core 2 Quad CPU. Such a system will likely have a battery life of less than 2 hours, weigh more than 8 pounds, and cost more than $1,500. However, if speed is your main priority, the trade-offs are worth it.