Macbook Pro 13-inch 2020 (M1)
If you’re buying a computer, chances are it’ll have an Intel processor on board, although a small number come with AMD chips.
In this guide, we’ll explain what different Intel processor models mean and what sort of user they’re best suited for.
When looking at a processor, there are two main figures you’ll see time and time again. The first is clock speed. This is measured in gigahertz (GHz, one billion hertz), and tells you how many operations a processor can do each second. The higher the number, the faster the computer (when comparing like-for-like laptop/desktop models). You’ll notice a higher clock speed when opening programs, files and exporting photos.
The second term you’ll see is number of cores. Typically, laptop and desktop chips have two or four cores (known as dual- and quad-core). Some newer models have six and even eight. The more cores, the better, because it allows your computer to run multiple tasks at the same time without slowing down. You’ll appreciate more cores if you often have lots of programs running or open lots of web browser tabs.
Atom processors heralded the arrival of ultra-thin, ultra-light laptops in the mid-2000s. These chips offered four cores for sprightly everyday computing performance.
Nowadays, these chips are generally relegated to very cheap Windows tablets costing under £200. They’re not fast by any means, but they make up for their lack of oomph with impressive battery life figures and their ability to fit into very thin devices.
Celeron and Pentium processors are at the very bottom of Intel’s range. You might be familiar with the Pentium brand, with the name being a mainstay of more powerful computers of the late 1990s. Nowadays, it sits just above Celeron in terms of performance.
Newer Pentium models, such as those launched in 2017 onwards, are becoming more common on laptops costing between £250 and £300. These chips are power-efficient, meaning they’re great when you want a laptop with a long battery life. They’re perfectly usable for web browsing and basic office work.
You can also find Celerons inside some very cheap desktops. These machines tend to score very poorly in our tests and negate many of the advantages you get from having bought a desktop in the first place. We don’t tend to recommend them.
This is where things start to get a little bit confusing and is where Intel’s naming convention disguises how powerful a laptop actually is.
When looking at what sort of processor a computer has, be sure to check the full specification sheet to see the precise processor model. This makes a big difference to how powerful your PC will be.
For example, a computer that’s labelled as having a ‘Core i5’ processor could have any number of different specifications.
Taking the Core i5 example, your computer could have any of the following, and many beyond that as well: Core i5-7400, Core i5 7600K, Core i5 7300U, Core i5-7500HQ, Core i5-7400T and Core i5 7Y57. The trend applies to i3 and i7 chips, too.
Note the different four-digit number and the trailing letter (or the Y in one case). It’s the trailing letter (suffix) that gives you the most information about what sort of processor you’re looking at.
There’s one more complication when picking a processor. The first digit after the dash tells you which generation your processor is from. The higher the number, the newer it is. As of 2018, the latest generation is 8th gen.
This makes a difference when choosing a laptop processor, because from the 8th generation onwards, ‘U’ chips now come with four cores instead of two. If you have the choice between a 7th and 8th gen and there’s only a small price difference, picking the newer model is a good choice.
In April 2018, Intel announced Intel Core i3+, i5+ and i7+. This new naming convention shows when an Intel Optane SSD is installed in a computer. Optane works out which files and programs you use most and moves them to an ultra-fast SSD for better performance. You don't have to manage this yourself; it's done completely automatically and doesn't affect where you'll find your files on your PC.
In 2017, Intel introduced the Core i9 product lines. These are hugely expensive processors for PCs that cost in excess of £800. The company also introduced i9 chips to laptops in 2018. Again, these are reserved to powerful laptops designed for high-end work such as video editing.