Who knew that a PC component you’ll never actually see could cause so much anxiety when shopping? The mobile processor—the primary chip at the core of every laptop—is one of the main parts that determines whether a given computer works fast or slow, multitasks well or not so well, and lasts a long time or a short time on a charge. The problem is, the nomenclature around these chips has become so complex that even the savviest of techies can get lost or confused. Add to that mix the code names that both AMD and Intel use (often coinciding, in the case of Intel, with a city in or around Silicon Valley), such as Santa Rosa, Nehalem, and Napa, and sorting out the processors in a series of laptops can make for a head-scratching shopping experience.
Ironically, representatives of both AMD and Intel, the two major makers of laptop CPUs, have confessed that they know shoppers are confused, and both companies are attempting to make the naming conventions around their chips easier to understand. Starting in 2010, both chip makers will be generally following their own variations on a “good, better, best” strategy to simplify sorting through different CPUs. Alas, from what we can tell early on, it’s not going to be quite that simple, at least for laptop processors. Neither chip maker is eliminating all of its older processors (at least, not anytime soon), and only AMD is grouping its existing processors under the new umbrellas (as well as improving some existing ones and adding more). That means, in some respects, both companies are just adding more confusion to the market—at least
Mobile processors, specifically, have the added limitations of physical size and thermal capacity (the need to be efficient in order to avoid overheating in the tight confines of a laptop), as well as the challenge of extending battery life. AMD and Intel’s need to address these two issues has resulted in features and innovations that benefit both laptop and desktop processors. Recent chip technologies like Turbo Boost offer performance gains when you need them but shut down to conserve energy. And when we talk about 45- or 32-nanometer technology (more later on what that means), those numbers not only indicate space savings on a laptop motherboard (allowing for more stuff to be integrated onto the CPU), but they also help reduce heat, reduce the distance that information has to travel, and ultimately increase performance.
Because so many other components help drive performance—and laptops are far less flexible than desktops, in terms of letting you easily swap out components—making an apples-to-apples performance comparison between laptop processors is far more difficult than with a desktop PC. To do so, a manufacturer would have to send us two otherwise-identical systems with different processors to test. That’s not impossible to do, but it’s not as beneficial as, say, taking one desktop PC and swapping different processors into its motherboard for a comprehensive comparison.
As a result, you’ll find that assessing laptop processors isn’t nearly as clear-cut as with desktop chips. Still, we’ll attempt to explain today’s processor choices in a consumer-friendly way that should help anyone facing a shelf—real or virtual—full of laptops in 2010.
[Associate Editor Matt Safford also contributed to this story.]