What Kind of Processor Should You Look for in a Laptop?

Key Takeaways

  • Both Intel and AMD offer CPUs with comparable performance. It’s the model that matters.
  • Higher numbers indicate more powerful CPUs. The Intel Core 3, 5, 7, and 9, as well as the AMD Ryzen 3, 5, 7, and 9, offer varying levels of performance.
  • Entry-level processors (e.g., AMD Athlon, Intel Atom) are sufficient for basic tasks, while mid-range CPUs (Core 5/Ryzen 5) handle productivity apps and triple-A gaming with a dedicated GPU. For demanding tasks and hardcore gaming, consider Core 7/Ryzen 7 or even Core 9/Ryzen 9 processors.

Your laptop’s processor, or CPU (central processing unit) for short, is your laptop’s brain that controls all essential operations. A more powerful CPU means a faster laptop, but you don’t want to overpay for something you don’t need. Fortunately, we’re here to help.

Understanding Processor Brands and Naming Conventions

While shopping for a laptop, you’ll come across two CPU brands — Intel and AMD. You might have heard that one is better than the other, but that really isn’t the case, at least not anymore. Both brands offer comparable performance for your money; it’s the CPU model that matters. To be more specific, factors like lithography and core/thread count can help you determine how powerful a chip is.

Let’s first look at Intel’s processor lineup. On the low end, you can get an Intel Atom or an “Intel Processor” (without “Core” in its name), which are designed for maximum power efficiency. In other words, they’re not very powerful. But what if you need slightly more power?

Enter the Intel Core line. These come in 4 different series:

  • Core 3
  • Core 5
  • Core 7
  • Core 9

You may also encounter the letter “i” in front of the number for older Intel CPUs. Starting with 14th-gen Meteor Lake CPUs, Intel also has “Core Ultra” CPUs. You can think of them as premium versions of the regular Core line.

Generally speaking, a higher number indicates a more powerful CPU. There are also Intel Xeon processors, though these are rare. You’ll only find them in powerful workstation laptops or desktops, and they’re roughly comparable to the Intel Core 7 and 9 in general.

Also, be aware of generational leaps in performance. A current-gen Intel Core 3’s performance may be comparable to an Intel Core 5 from two generations ago. On older Intel CPUs, you can tell what generation the CPU belongs to by looking at the first part of the model name. For example, the i3-1315U is a 13th-gen CPU, and the i3-1115G4 is an 11th-gen model. Since Intel changed the naming scheme with Meteor Lake, it’s best to check the manufacturer’s website to find accurate information about the latest generations.

Intel 12th Gen Core i9 CPU graphic

AMD has more straightforward branding for their laptop CPUs. Athlon is for low-end machines, usually netbooks and Chromebooks, and only packs 2 physical cores. Ryzen is the more powerful variant and, just like the Intel Core line, it comes in a few different versions:

  • Ryzen 3
  • Ryzen 5
  • Ryzen 7
  • Ryzen 9

Some laptops offer Ryzen PRO variants with additional enterprise features but no extra performance. Don’t ignore the generational leaps in performance with AMD, either. In addition to the segment, pay close attention to the portfolio model year and architecture. For example, a new Ryzen 3 might be closer in performance to a Ryzen 5 from last year. Here’s a visual breakdown of AMD’s laptop CPU naming scheme:

A visual representation of AMD's laptop processor naming scheme.

Integrated vs. Dedicated Graphics Card

Before you can determine the right processor, let’s briefly go over the GPU (graphics processing unit). Your laptop can either come with a GPU integrated into the same unit as the CPU, or it can have a dedicated (discrete) GPU with additional components for extra performance. It can also have both and offer dynamic switching between the two based on the task, such as with the NVIDIA Advanced Optimus solution.

When it comes to dedicated graphics in laptops, Intel has the Arc series, and AMD has Radeon RX graphics. We also have a third GPU brand, which is NVIDIA, with its GeForce cards. These graphics cards can come paired with either an AMD or Intel CPU and offer cutting-edge performance at an above-average price.

As for integrated GPUs, AMD Athlon and Ryzen CPUs come with Radeon graphics — without the RX prefix that indicates a dedicated GPU. Intel has a comparable lineup of integrated Xe graphics and another lower-end lineup of UHD graphics.

Intel Core i7 and iRISxe Graphics stickers on the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Nano Gen 3.
Hannah Stryker / How-To Geek

How to Pick the Right CPU Based on Your Use Case

If you plan to use your laptop for casual web browsing, movie streaming, schoolwork, and presentations, an entry-level processor will be enough. Opt for a cheaper laptop with an AMD Athlon, Intel Atom, or Intel Processor. These processors have enough power to handle basic tasks like having a couple of web browser tabs open. As a nice bonus, they consume very little power, resulting in a longer battery life.

However, these barebones laptops don’t offer a great value proposition, which is why we recommend an Intel Core 3 or Ryzen 3 instead. You can usually find budget laptops equipped with these CPUs within the same price range, but you’ll get significantly better performance. They’re significantly faster and better at multitasking because they usually come with 4 or more cores. You can even do some light gaming on these CPUs.

If you plan to spend long hours in front of the laptop and need a fast, reliable machine, go for an Intel Core 5 or Ryzen 5 instead. These are mid-range CPUs that come at a slight premium, but they’re also usually paired with more storage and RAM. A Core 5 or Ryzen 5 can easily handle most productivity apps with relative ease, and you won’t run into stuttering even with half a dozen tabs open in your browser.

Core 5 and Ryzen 5 models also have superior integrated GPUs and can handle some graphically intensive tasks. They can run less demanding games like DotA, Grand Theft Auto V, and Valorant, as well as light video editing and 3D rendering. And if you need extra GPU power for faster rendering and triple-A gaming, you can get a laptop with a discrete graphics card at a higher cost.

If you want a high-end model, go for an Intel Core 7 or Ryzen 7 instead. These enthusiast-grade processors offer cutting-edge performance and usually have 8 (or more) cores for powerful multi-threaded performance for demanding tasks like video encoding and 3D animation. They’re also a popular choice among gamers, as they can be coupled with high-end discrete GPUs that can run next-gen games with ease.

And if you’re wondering about the Intel Core 9 and Ryzen 9, these lines of CPUs are even more powerful, but not by much. You can find different models here; some are marginally faster than their Core 7/Ryzen 7 counterparts, whereas others have twice the cores.

Laptops equipped with Core 9 and Ryzen 9 processors are expensive, so unless you need a multimedia creation workstation or have other specialized CPU workloads, your money is best spent elsewhere. If this is you, check out the HP Omen Transcend 16.

Consider Future-Proofing Your Laptop

Since you can’t upgrade the CPU later, investing in a more powerful laptop could be the wiser choice. If you buy a cheaper model now only to realize that it doesn’t meet your needs after three years, your only choice will be to replace the whole device. If your budget allows it, I strongly recommend purchasing a processor one tier above what you’d get otherwise.


Leave a Comment