Once you know what operating system you want and have an idea of the software you are going to run, you can determine the minimum hardware specifications that you will need. The first thing we suggest looking at is the processor, also known as a chip or CPU.
There are basically two companies that make processors for laptops: Intel and AMD.
Intel’s main processors are Core i3, Core i5, Core i7, and Core i9. The Core i3 is the least powerful, the Core i9 is the most powerful. Usually we remove the “Core” from the name because it gets repetitive.
Within each of these chip lines, Intel uses cryptic strings of numbers and letters that give you more information about the capabilities of that chip and when it came out. Learning how to decipher it will help you make better purchasing decisions. (Here’s Intel’s guide to naming your model.)
Intel Core i5-10510U is the way a laptop manufacturer’s websites can list the processor type.
Let’s analyze it. The first numbers (“10”) refer to the generation; in this case it is a tenth generation chip. The i5-9510U would be a 9th generation chip, or one that is probably a year older.
The next two or three numbers (“510”) are related to performance. The higher these numbers, the more powerful the chip will be. However, this is only true within that line of chips. The Intel Core i5-10510U is a bit more powerful than the Intel Core i5-10210U, but a lot less more powerful than the Intel Core i7-10350U. The i7 chip is always more powerful than the i5, and the difference is greater than the difference between any two chips in the same chip line.
The letter at the end of the chip name (“U” in our example) is Intel’s designation for the purpose of the chip. In the case of laptops, the letters you’ll see at the end are Y, U, and H. The only thing you need to worry about is the Y-series chips, which are optimized for battery life. That’s nice if you’re frequently away from an outlet for long periods of time, but that extra battery life comes at the expense of some performance. The H chips are optimized for performance and the U chips are “energy efficient” but not “extremely” efficient like the Y line.
The name of AMD’s chips is as difficult to decipher as Intel’s.
In the AMD Ryzen 5 3600X name, the “3” is the generation (how old it is; the higher the better), and the “6” is its power. A “6” would make this example a medium power chip, while a 3 or 4 would be weaker (slower). The next two numbers don’t have much of an impact on anything. The “X” at the end indicates high performance. Other letter designations include U for ultra-low power.
Is there a big difference between Intel and AMD chips? My experience, testing dozens of both each year, is that … it depends. Generally speaking, an Intel i5 is indistinguishable from a Ryzen 5, outside of very specific benchmarks. They are similar when you do things like surf the web or edit documents. The same goes for Intel i7 and Ryzen 7, and Intel i3 and Ryzen 3.
Graphics performance is the other area where you will notice a difference. In my testing, both in benchmarks and in actual work use, AMD integrated graphics tend to perform better than Intel’s on graphics-intensive tasks – think video editing or video playback. games. Intel’s latest chip series has closed that gap significantly, but AMD still has an edge. You can benefit from buying an AMD machine if you are a video editor or gamer, but you most likely want a dedicated graphics card. (More on that in the GPU section below.)
How much processing power do you need?
If you are a typical user running a web browser, Microsoft’s Office Suite, and perhaps even some photo editing software, we recommend a laptop with an 8th Gen Intel Core i5 processor or later. It would show something like “Intel Core i5-8350U”.