An Easy Guide to Notebook Processors

by Reads (121,340)

by Dustin Sklavos, California USA

INTRODUCTION

Laptop shopping is a simultaneously exciting and unenviable task. It’s a big investment, so having an understanding of what’s available and how it can best suit your needs is valuable. Not having criteria even to start with can make the task a frightening one. How to start narrowing down your choices from 100% of the notebooks available?

A good place to start is choosing your platform. But it’s not just about AMD and Intel (which, let’s face it, virtually owns the notebook market at the time of this writing). By knowing which processor you’d like in your notebook, you can narrow down your choices and pare things down.

Buying a notebook is a lot like voting for a politician; it’s nearly impossible to find exactly what you want despite (and probably partially because of) the dizzying wealth of brands and models, so you choose the one that closest fits your needs and ideals. Keep in mind that there is no one BEST processor. It may be best at handling certain tasks, but it’s not the best at everything.

Most shoppers are looking for a PC notebook and at the present time I’d find it hard to even recommend an Apple given that the existing hardware’s obsolescence is visible. Most PC notebooks being released right now will likely last you a while. Because of these reasons, I have elected to omit Apple hardware from this review.

OVERVIEW

At the moment, there are six main processors currently being used in notebooks, so I’ll cover them in one section each. I will also include a seventh section for legacy, outdated, or rare processors.

Each section will be laid out the same way, and will have the following specific details:

VARIANTS – There may be different subtypes of this processor. For example, Pentium Ms come in Ultra Low Voltage, Low Voltage, and then normal chips.

FASTEST MODEL – I’ll list what is currently the fastest available model of this chip.

SPECIFICATIONS – I’ve broken down the specifications into subcategories:

  • Cache Size – If a processor were a freeway, this would be the number of lanes of traffic (data) it can move. A lower cache means the onramp is likely to get more backed up, while a greater cache allows the processor to continue moving at a brisk pace. This currently averages about 1MB.
  • 32-Bit / 64-Bit – A 32-bit processor will run most software that’s currently available, while a 64-bit processor will be ready for Windows Vista. Note that there will be a 32-bit version of Windows Vista for older processors, but it likely will have less features or won’t be as fast as the 64-bit version.

BATTERY LIFE – Ranking from one to four stars, with one being extremely low battery life and four being stellar battery life.

PRICE RANKING – Ranking from one to four stars, with one being overpriced and four being dirt cheap.

MULTIMEDIA PERFORMANCE – Ranking from one to four, with one being poor performance in video and music tasks (encoding and decoding video or audio), and four being excellent. Note that all processors are going to do well at watching most video or listening to most audio, but some extremely high definition video will put real strain on the processor.

GAMING PERFORMANCE – Ranking from one to four, with one being poor gaming performance and four being excellent. While gaming performance is also contingent upon what graphics card is in the notebook (an article for another day), games tend to tax the entire system. One processor paired with the same graphics card could perform very differently from another processor.

SUMMARY – Marketing points for the chip.

PRO’S – High points for the chip.

CON’S – Low points for the chip.

I’d also like to mention that overall processor power has by and large exceeded what is needed for the basic use of a computer. Taking a small leap for a faster processor (~$50) is easy to justify. Taking a large leap (~$200) gets a bit trickier.

For what it’s worth, I had a notebook that used a first generation 1 GHz Pentium M, and I was able to do video work on it. But let’s just say my Mobile Athlon 64 3700+ is “a little better” for the job. 😉

INTEL PROCESSORS (www.Intel.com)

Pentium M (Centrino)

Variants: Ultra Low Voltage (ULV) Pentium M, Low Voltage (LV) Pentium M, Pentium M
Fastest Model: Pentium M 780 (2.26 GHz)
Specifications: 2MB (1MB on older models) Cache, 32-bit
Battery Life:  ( on older models)
Price Ranking:
Multimedia Performance:
Gaming Performance:

Summary: The premier notebook processor.

Pro’s: The Pentium M is the big fish for a reason. Battery life on Centrino notebooks is unmatched by any other processor. These are extremely efficient processors that offer a lot of performance with relatively small power consumption and heat dissipation.

Con’s: Centrino notebooks tend to be more expensive than other notebooks. Also, newer Pentium M’s tend to run quite a bit hotter and offer less battery life than their older kin, though they’re still unmatched otherwise.

Company Website Info: http://www.intel.com/products/processor/pentiumm/index.htm

Celeron M

Variants: Ultra Low Voltage (ULV) Celeron M, Celeron M
Fastest Model: Celeron M 383 (1.6 GHz)
Specifications: 512K – 1MB (512K on older models) Cache, 32-bit
Battery Life:
Price Ranking:
Multimedia Performance:
Gaming Performance:

Summary: A stripped down, cost-effective version of the Pentium M.

Pro’s: The Celeron M is, if nothing else, extremely affordable, and for everyday tasks performs fairly well. Its battery life is also middling due to the lack of power management features that the Pentium M has.

Con’s: Gaming and multimedia performance are pretty crippled on these chips. These are bargain processors and aren’t meant for any processor-intensive tasks. They also run hotter than Pentium Ms, and yield less battery life.

Company Website Info: http://www.intel.com/products/processor/celeron_m/index.htm

Mobile Pentium 4

Variants: Mobile Pentium 4 Supporting Hyper-Threading, Mobile Pentium 4
Fastest Model: Mobile Pentium 4 Supporting Hyper-Threading 552 (3.46 GHz)
Specifications: 1MB (512K on older models) Cache, 32-bit (64-bit with 6xx Series)
Battery Life:
Price Ranking:
Multimedia Performance:
Gaming Performance:

Summary: A desktop Pentium 4, slightly modified for notebook use.

Pro’s: Multimedia performance is exceptional in Pentium 4’s with Hyper-Threading, and these chips tend to have a very smooth computing experience. If you’re looking for a strictly desktop replacement notebook, these are a viable option so long as you mean to use them on a desktop. These tend to be less expensive than Pentium M’s for desktop replacements, and usually hover right around the same price as Athlon 64’s.

Con’s: Absolutely miserable battery life that rarely even hits one hour. Notebooks using Mobile Pentium 4’s also tend to be very heavy and loud due to the cooling required for these processors, and even then they tend to be extremely hot. These are really only viable for budget desktop replacement. I’d avoid using it on my actual lap.

Company Website Info: http://www.intel.com/products/processor/mobilepentium4/index.htm

AMD PROCESSORS (www.AMD.com)

Athlon 64

Variants: Mobile Athlon 64, Athlon 64 for Desktop Replacements (DTR)
Fastest Model: Mobile Athlon 64 4000+ (2.6 GHz)
Specifications: 512K – 1MB Cache, 64-bit
Battery Life:
Price Ranking:
Multimedia Performance:
Gaming Performance:

Summary: Essentially a desktop Athlon 64 capable of running at high speeds with low voltage for notebook use.

Pro’s: Athlon 64 notebooks tend to be very inexpensive, and unlike their Pentium 4 counterparts, fairly manageable in regards to heat output, weight, and battery life. The bonus is that they also tend to be much faster than the Pentium 4s. In desktop systems, these are the ideal processors for gamers, and the same applies here. If you’re on a budget, these give great performance with mediocre battery life, but tend to be a bargain overall. While the fastest Pentium Ms usually drive a price of at least $2,000, the fastest Athlon 64s float around $1,500 and less.

Con’s: Battery life, while respectable for what is essentially an undervolted desktop processor, is still the fatal flaw of an otherwise quality platform. These can also run fairly hot or loud compared to Pentium Ms, though not as bad as Pentium 4s. Also, while being very powerful chips, these do not provide quite as smooth a computing experience as their Intel counterparts. Athlon 64s also tend to be uncommon in the notebook market, which is for the most part dominated by Pentium Ms and Celeron Ms, so they require a little shopping around for. As of this article, HP and Compaq also produce notebooks with Athlon 64s – these notebooks use desktop Athlon 64s, which explains the slightly different model numbering scheme for the processors.

Company Website Info: http://www.amd.com/us-en/Processors/ProductInformation/0,,30_118_1276,00.html

Turion 64

Variants: Turion 64 ML Series, Turion 64 MT Series (Low Wattage)
Fastest Model: Turion 64 ML-40 (2.2 GHz)
Specifications: 512K – 1MB Cache, 64-bit
Battery Life:
Price Ranking:
Multimedia Performance:
Gaming Performance:

Summary: A much cooler running but downclocked version of the Athlon 64.

Pro’s: Turion 64s serve a double purpose as a budget version of the Pentium M and as a 64-bit processor for thin and light notebooks, a market the Athlon 64 can’t penetrate due to its heat output. These offer good performance for the price, and have a fairly dedicated following. They offer similar performance clock for clock to Athlon 64s, but can also cost a bit more. They’re an excellent alternative to Pentium M notebooks, and are still a far superior choice to a Celeron M notebook.

Con’s: The Turion 64 was supposed to be the Pentium M killer and came up a bit short. Worse still, while the ML series is trickling into the marketplace, the MT series – the series with better battery life and heat output – borders on being MIA. It’s not impossible to find Turion 64 chips, but it’s not that easy either. Also, they still don’t offer the kind of efficiency that Pentium M chips do.

Company Website Info: http://www.amd.com/us-en/Processors/ProductInformation/0,,30_118_12651,00.html

Sempron

Variants: Mobile Sempron for Full-Size Notebooks, Mobile Sempron for Thin and Light Notebooks
Fastest Model: Mobile Sempron 3300+ (2 GHz)
Specifications: 128K – 256K Cache, 32-bit
Battery Life:
Price Ranking:
Multimedia Performance:
Gaming Performance:

Summary: The budget version of the Athlon 64, similar to the Pentium M’s Celeron.

Pro’s: Semprons can offer better battery life than Athlon 64s. These will also tend to perform better than Celeron M chips, and with better battery life. For the super budget conscious consumer who can’t make the jump to the Athlon 64, Turion 64, or Pentium M, these offer an excellent alternative.

Con’s: These, like the Celeron Ms, are crippled chips and are really only for the more budget-conscious consumer.

Company Website Info: http://www.amd.com/us-en/Processors/ProductInformation/0,,30_118_11600,00.html

LEGACY/UNCOMMON PROCESSORS

Desktop Chips

Processors found in desktop machines can sometimes find their way into desktop replacement notebooks. Boutique manufacturers like Alienware and VoodooPC will put powerful desktop processors into their notebooks, but the notebooks are really only notebooks in name, as their portability is somewhat questionable (12+ pounds, 17″ screened behemoths). Desktop Pentium 4s also have a habit of showing up in media center notebooks which are, again, only really notebooks in name.

Mobile Pentium 4-M

How’s that for a mouthful? These are better in terms of heat and battery life than desktop Pentium 4s, but they take a hit in performance. These are actually one of the main reasons the notebook market was somewhat stagnant until the Pentium M.

Mobile Celeron

Just like the Celeron M is directly worse than the Pentium M, so the Mobile Celeron is directly worse than then Mobile Pentium 4-M. Avoid.

Mobile Pentium III

The Mobile Pentium III was a great notebook chip in its day, offering decent performance for good battery life and heat dissipation. These were actually still found in thin and light notebooks well into the Pentium 4 era and were only replaced by the Pentium M. Pentium Ms are, in many ways, highly optimized descendents of the Mobile Pentium III.

Athlon XP-M

The Athlon XP-M can actually still be found in super bargain-basement notebooks, but its performance isn’t comparable to the chips of today. Still, it offers decent battery life, decent performance, and great heat dissipation, if not totally stellar in the first two categories.

Transmeta (www.Transmeta.com)

Transmeta chips are rare (found only in older Panasonic notebooks), and offer poor performance for solid heat dissipation and battery life. These tended to be expensive and were pretty much entirely overshadowed by the cheaper and better performing Pentium M.

VIA (http://www.via.com.tw/en/)

Via chips are incredible in terms of their power consumption, but their performance leaves a lot to be desired. VIA chips tend to be very rare (I’ve only ever seen them in Fry’s brand notebooks) but also very inexpensive. Though VIA chips aren’t readily available now (are barely available at all, really), there’s a good chance they may begin to penetrate the market in the future, as no one makes a cooler-running, more battery-conscious chip than VIA.

CONCLUSIONS

Ultimately, you have to ask yourself what you’re going to be using your notebook for. But if you were to subdivide into the following classes:

  • Mobility
  • Battery Life
  • Performance

And then choose “budget” and “mainstream” prices, the best choices in each category would look like this:

   BUDGET MAINSTREAM
 MOBILITY AMD Turion 64 Intel Pentium M
 BATTERY LIFE AMD Turion 64 Intel Pentium M
 PERFORMANCE AMD Athlon 64 AMD Athlon 64

This guide was meant to give you a baseline, but remember that this site is an excellent resource for reviews of notebooks as a whole. This guide will help you know what to look for, but always refer to the extremely useful reviews and forums here. I did when I went to get my notebook, and I’ve been very happy since then (for the record, I use a Gateway 7510GX with a Mobile Athlon 64).

I should also note that Lowlymarine’s notebook FAQ (found on the forums) was instrumental in this guide, and should be doubly consulted. Think of this guide as an expansion on some of the things he discussed.

Remember, too, that clock speeds on chips are not all created equal. There are Pentium Ms out there faster than some Athlon 64s, and there are some Athlon 64 notebooks with better power consumption than Pentium M notebooks, so as always, do your homework.


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