CPU Guide: How To Pick The Right Processor

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by Dustin Sklavos

It’s been a long time since Notebook Review’s last mobile processor guide, but today we bring you our long-overdue update. The first half of our CPU Guide gives you a primer on mobile processors along with an outline of Intel’s morbidly obese (yet still sexy despite being so voluptuous) mobile product lineup. In the second half, we’ll go through AMD’s lineup as well as discussing the future hardware Intel and AMD have in store for us.

It would be most prudent to go back to my oft-referenced “How it Works: Processors” column, which can give you a pretty solid foundation for what’s being discussed here. With each processor discussed, I’m going to talk largely about overall performance and what effect the clock speed of the processor has on performance. While desktop processors are by and large plenty fast enough for most tasks, mobile processors are experiencing another massive difference in performance compared to their desktop counterparts. Desktop CPUs with more than two cores are becoming very common these days, only to be spurred further by AMD’s recently released $99 demon, the Athlon II X4 620.

Speaking of cores, I want to make a key point here: More cores may not necessarily be better, but the software market is definitely moving in that direction, with more software able to take advantage of more than two cores. A dual core processor is both the minimum and the ideal at this point, but I need to be clear: a 2GHz dual core processor will not perform equivalently to a 4GHz single core. The performance isn’t cumulative, and software needs to be written to take advantage of more than one core. Still, Windows is good at rationing out processes between cores to keep the system running optimally and snappily, so the main advantage of a multi-core processor is oftentimes just “smoothness” when doing multiple things with your computer.

Finally, there’s the age-old battle: AMD vs. Intel. I’ll make it simple: At the time of this writing, AMD is strictly for the budget consumer. If you want to play the odd game of World of Warcraft, AMD’s integrated graphics are vastly superior to any Intel graphics, unless the Intel notebook sports Nvidia’s GeForce 9400 integrated graphics. Likewise, some of the new AMD processors in ultraportable laptops packed with AMD integrated and discrete graphics may be superior to ultraportables using Intel’s CULV processors and Intel integrated graphics. But beyond that, Intel’s Core 2 chips are clock-for-clock faster than any of AMD’s dual cores. Of course, none of this mentions Intel’s Atom processors used in netbooks.


Intel Processors


ATOM
Fastest Model: Atom 330 (1.6 GHz dual core); Atom Z280 (1.66 GHz single core)
Speed Range: 1.2 GHz ~ 1.66 GHz

Intel’s Atom processor has formed the cornerstone of the modern netbook and allowed that market to explode. Equipped with Hyper-Threading, which shows each core of the processor as two in Windows and essentially maximizes performance in the core, Atom was designed from the ground up to be an economical chip in both power consumption and expense.

And that’s really about the nicest stuff I can say about Atom. While Intel may tell you Atom was never formally designed for the netbook market that it’s now more or less the flagship processor of, I honestly think it’s going to be pretty shortlived. The netbook buzz is gone. I’ve spoken to technology site editors whose honeymoons with Atom are essentially over, replaced with frustration at the mediocre performance of the chip. To be fair, the Atom processor was never designed to be a speed demon, but its poor multi-tasking and multimedia performance make it undesirable as of late. Internet content is only becoming more and more complex, and Atom just doesn’t have the horsepower to handle it.

Even beyond this, Atom is quickly becoming obsolete. AMD’s push to create a powerful yet inexpensive subnotebook resulted in the Athlon Neo, Athlon Neo X2, and Turion Neo X2 … which may in fact dominate the ultraportbale market in 2010. Add to that Intel’s recent response in the form of the CULV (Consumer Ultra Low Voltage) platform, and Atom’s mediocre performance will be nothing but a distant memory within two years.


CELERON
Fastest Model: Celeron Dual-Core T3100 (1.9 GHz dual core); Celeron 900 (2.2 GHz single core)
Single-Core Speed Range: 933 MHz ~ 2.26 GHz
Dual-Core Speed Range: 1.2 GHz ~ 1.9 GHz

Intel’s Celeron processors have always been somehow cut-down, cut-rate, cut-something, but models are available as part of Intel’s CULV platform. Some older models have had their power optimization disabled or crippled, while newer ones oftentimes run at a lower bus speed or have reduced cache. As a result, Celerons are the lowest-of-the-low in terms of performance, short of making the undesirable decision of dropping down to Atom.

In a pinch, a Celeron will do, but Intel’s Pentium line and even Core 2 proper have become so inexpensive that it’s oftentimes easier and more reasonable to just spend up a little.


PENTIUM
Fastest Model: Pentium Dual-Core T4200 (2 GHz dual core); Pentium SU2800 (1.4 GHz single core)
Single-Core Speed Range: 1.3 GHz ~ 1.4 GHz
Dual-Core Speed Range: 1.46 GHz ~ 2.16 GHz

If Wikipedia is to be believed, Intel is phasing out their Pentium lines entirely, and it’s probably for the best as their lineup is a horror show right now. The Pentiums are a touch better than the Celerons, but again, prices on notebooks with even Core 2 are so low that the cut cache on the modern Pentium Dual-Core chips is just unnecessary.

One place where you may want to look for these is in the aforementioned CULV platform, recognized by the “SU” prefix on the model number. Here they’re a much better alternative to, say, Atom-based netbooks, though ideally you’d want a Core 2 Duo.

As a sidenote, I do want to mention that these modern Pentiums are completely different than the older desktop ones and the Pentium Ms that were hanging out in notebooks for a while, and feature more advanced architecture.


CORE 2 SOLO
Fastest Model: Core 2 Solo SU3500 (1.4 GHz)
Speed Range: 1.06 GHz ~ 1.4 GHz

I’ve often ridiculed the Core 2 Solo, from its inception long ago in the Core Solo and even today. A single-core processor is quickly proving to be inadequate for some tasks, though a Core 2 Solo is still vastly superior to the Atom.

Core 2 Solo lives almost exclusively as a CULV-platform processor, sporting extremely low power consumption and heat dissipation, making it a solid bump up for a user who needs very little from their machine but doesn’t want to sacrifice too much. Still, in that situation I’d still shoot for a dual-core processor. Even one with lower clocks would be preferable.


CORE 2 DUO
Fastest Model: Core 2 Duo T9900 (3.06 GHz)
Speed Range: 1.06 GHz ~ 3.06 GHz

And now we come to Intel’s bread and butter, but first there’s a very important distinction I’d like to make. When Intel introduced their Centrino 2 platform and the shiny new Core 2 Duos that came with it, they added a new prefix to their model numbers. Now, a “P” model has a substantially lower wattage than a “T” model, which is choice because that typically translates into lower power consumption. These “P” series chips also dominate the mainstream notebook market, which is a big win for consumers.

The Core 2 Duo has been around for the long haul and will remain for some time, and Intel can coast on it with good reason: it offers the perfect blend of performance and power consumption. Even desktop Core 2s have excellent characteristics that rival the most modern chips from either manufacturer. These are extremely efficient processors, and highly desirable.

Another big score for the Core 2 Duo is its incorporation into the CULV platform, where it’s the top of the heap and most desirable. The “SU” and “SL” prefixed chips operate at lower frequencies but at substantially reduced power consumption and heat dissipation as well, making them the most ideal processors for ultraportable notebooks.

At the end of the day, you can’t really go wrong with a Core 2 Duo, but all that said, there’s still a caveat, and it’s specifically for gamers: while just about any frequency will do for most users, gamers are going to want at LEAST a 2 GHz chip and more likely about as fast as they can afford. Modern games and modern graphics processors can easily hit a performance wall with a slow CPU. A quad core processor at about the same clock speed can mitigate this somewhat, but quads are expensive still. A fast dual core is ideal.


CORE 2 QUAD
Fastest Model: Core 2 Quad Q9200 (2.4 GHz)
Speed Range: 2 GHz ~ 2.4 GHz

What’s better than one Core 2 Duo? Two Core 2 Duos! Of course, since the Core 2 Quad really is exactly that – two Core 2 Duos stapled together on one chip – power consumption and heat dissipation gets a touch higher with the Core 2 Quad. These chips are also fairly expensive.

Honestly, it’s impressive that you can even get a Core 2 Quad in a notebook now, and I personally prefer a quad core to a dual core as I’ve seen the benefits when doing serious multimedia work. But let that be the bar, here: if you’re going to be doing any kind of serious multimedia work or high-performance gaming, only then should you fork out the extra bread for a Core 2 Quad. You’re not going to find these in more portable machines.

If we were talking about desktop computers I’d honestly recommend just going straight to a quad core processor as the advantages are only growing with time, but in notebooks they’re still just too unwieldy and pricey.


CORE 2 EXTREME
Fastest Model: QX9300 (2.53 GHz quad core); X9100 (3.06 GHz dual core)
Dual-Core Speed Range: 2.6 GHz ~ 3.06 GHz
Quad-Core Speed Range: 2.53 GHz

I’m not entirely sure why I’ve given the Core 2 Extreme its own section, but for those that simply must have the best of the best, here it is. The dual core X9100 has already been obsoleted by the standard Core 2 Duo T9900, which runs at the same clock speed but with substantially lower power consumption and heat output, leaving us with a beastly mobile quad core that’s faster than a lot of desktop quads.

These chips also offer potential overclocking options for enthusiasts, but the price premium they command just isn’t worth it unless you absolutely must have the fastest chip you can get in a notebook, and even then there are manufacturers fitting Intel’s desktop Core i7 processors into notebook shells along with Intel’s shiny new mobile Core i7 lineup, such as…


CORE i7 (AND i7 EXTREME)
Fastest Model: Core i7-920XM (2 GHz quad core standard, up to 3.2 GHz turbo)
Speed Range: 1.6 GHz (up to 2.8 GHz turbo) ~ 2 GHz (up to 3.2 GHz turbo)

And here we have what amounts to best of breed…sort of. While the base clock speeds of these chips seem low compared to their Core 2 Quad counterparts, the mobile Core i7 chips are faster clock-for-clock. If you’re wondering what “turbo” means, it refers to a new feature introduced with Intel’s Core i7/i5/i3 desktop lineup that has joined the mobile counterparts. Basically, the chip can overclock itself depending on how many cores are active and how much heat is being generated.

The excellent performance and top-of-the-line shiny new architecture do come with a price, though. Ignoring what some would call dishonest branding on Intel’s part (the Core i7-920XM isn’t even the same chip as the desktop Core i7-920, but a slower derivative), these chips still generate as much heat as the Core 2 Quads they stand to replace, and worse, they come with pretty high price tags to boot. The Core i7-920XM on its own sells to OEMs for close to what my desktop machine is worth.



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