Once you know what operating system you want and have an idea of the software you are going to be running, 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.
The main processors from Intel are the Core i3, Core i5, Core i7 and Core i9. Core i3 is the least powerful, Core i9 is the most powerful. We usually remove the “Core” from the name because it becomes repetitive.
In 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 was released. Learning how to decipher it will help you make better buying decisions. (Here is Intel’s Guide to Model Naming.)
Intel Core i5-10510U This is how a laptop manufacturer’s websites can list the type of processor.
Let’s break it down. The first digits (“10”) refer to the generation; in this case, it is a 10th generation chip. The i5-9510U is said to be a ninth generation chip, or possibly a year older.
The next two or three digits (“510”) relate to performance. The higher these numbers, the more powerful the chip. This is only true in this bullet line, however. The Intel Core i5-10510U is slightly more powerful than the Intel Core i5-10210U, but a lot less 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 two chips from 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. For laptops, the letters you’ll see at the end are Y, U, and H. The only ones you need to worry about are the Y-series chips, which are optimized for battery life. It’s fine if you’re often away from an outlet for long periods of time, but that increased battery life comes at the cost of some performance. H chips are optimized for performance, and U chips are “energy efficient” but not “extremely” efficient like the Y line.
The naming of AMD’s chips is just as difficult to decipher as that of Intel.
In the name AMD Ryzen 5 3600X, 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 digits don’t have much impact on anything. The “X” at the end indicates high performance. Other letter designations include U for ultra-low power.
Is there a huge difference between Intel and AMD chips? My experience, testing dozens of the two each year, is that… it depends. Generally speaking, an Intel i5 is indistinguishable from a Ryzen 5, apart from very specific benchmarks. They are similar when performing tasks such as browsing the web or editing documents. The same goes for the Intel i7 and Ryzen 7 processors, as well as the Intel i3 and Ryzen 3 processors.
Graphics performance is the other area where you’ll notice a difference. In my tests, both in benchmarks and in actual use, AMD’s integrated graphics tend to perform better than Intel on graphics-intensive tasks – think editing videos or playing games. Intel’s latest chip series has significantly narrowed that gap, but AMD still has an advantage. You can benefit from buying an AMD machine if you’re a video editor or gamer, but what you probably want is a dedicated graphics card. (More on this in GPU section below.)
How much processing power do you need?
If you’re a typical user who runs a web browser, Microsoft’s Office suite, and maybe even photo editing software, we recommend a laptop with an eighth generation Intel Core i5 or later processor. It would show something like “Intel Core i5-8350U”.