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Laptop Processors - A Buying Guide for Parents

It's confusing isn't it? Is a 5th generation i5 better than a 7th generation i3? What are the most recent processors? Read this article to become an expert so you can get value for money.

It's not you, it is confusing. Either the processor manufacturers are not thinking about consumers or it's deliberately confusing. Your kids may have told you that they 'need' an i7 processor and you can see a huge difference in price. Do they really need it or is that just what their favourite YouTube has?

We're going to focus on Intel Core i series processors in this post. Laptops with these processors offer good performance, they're proper laptops suitable for older kids, teens and students (and parents too.) For a more basic entry level laptop for younger kids see choosing a first laptop for an 8 year old.

We're only going to cover Intel processors in this post. AMD processors are a whole other topic.

The Short Answer

TLDR; Choose the i5-7200U. The latest mid-range processor. It should be more than capable for typical usage and last a few years before needing replacement.


If you want a pretty decent recent laptop  in 2017 (and early 2018) look for:
  • Basic: i3-7100U
  • Pretty Decent:  i5-7200U (worth the extra if you have the budget)
  • Ooh Fancy: i7-7500U
  • High end gaming / CAD / video editing: Sorry now you need to think about the graphics card (GPU) that's another topic entirely!

What is a Processor Anyway? 

The processor is the 'brain' of the computer. The faster it can process instructions the faster the computer goes. (If that's enough for you then skip to the next section.)

Modern processors often handle graphics too so you may see a phrase like 'on-board graphics'. Separate graphics cards are often better for playing games but they're also often expensive. Most affordable laptops have integrated graphics.

The processor also has cache memory, the amount and speed will affect overall speed. 

Then there are 'cores', a processor can have a number of cores. A dual core processor can do two things and once and a quad core processor can do four. At the moment mid-range processors tend to have two cores and high end processors have four. 

Core i3, i5, i7

So what's all this i3, i5, i7 business then? Intel call them 'brand modifiers', which is nice. 
  • i3 means basic (cheapest)
  • i5 means intermediate (mid-range)
  • i7 means fancy (and expensive)
Why couldn't they just say that? Maybe they like odd numbers and the letter i for Intel. 

The key thing you need to understand is that i3, i5 and i7 give you an idea of how good a processor is for its generation. Basically you can only easily compare processors that are of the same age.

Some retailers will just list a laptop as i3, i5 or i7 and not mention the actual processor. Be careful, this isn't enough information.

Generation

The generation is the critical to understanding how good a laptop is. Each generation gets a number and a name. 

In new laptops you'll tend to see:
  • 7th generation, Kaby Lake (2017 laptops)
  • 6th generation, Skylake (2016 laptops)
Yep, they have code names as well as numbers. 

A processor is released late one year and then manufacturers begin to update their range so that processor is the current one in laptops for most of the following year. It's actually quite handy that the generation matches the year that laptops have that generation of processor. 

The generation is the first digit after the range so a 7th generation mid range processor name would begin i5-7. 

Specific Processors

The rest of the numbers identify the specific processor (bigger is better.)  There's also a letter on the end to show what kind of processor it is Most mid-range laptop processors end in U which means ultra-low power - important to save battery life. 

So, i3-6200U is an entry level processor typical in laptops released in 2016. 

An i7-7100U is a high end processor typical in laptops released in 2017.

Got it? Yeah, well they made it more complicated. If the letter is a Y (ultra-er low power) then it doesn't sit at the end, it sneaks in after the generation number. Why? Just in case anyone had figured out the naming scheme. But we're just going to stick to the U processors. 

Processor Speed GHz

This is all very interesting (you're just being polite), but don't we really want to know the actual speed of the processor? 

Yeah, that is important isn't it. So why isn't that a key part of the name of the processor? Because we'd easily be able to put them in order? (OK, it isn't quite that simple and other things like amount of cache, cores, RAM and whether you have a fast SSD drive are important.)

So those processors I mentioned at the beginning, lets take a look at those. 


Processor
Clock Speed
Cores
Threads
Graphics
Smart Cache
i3-7100U
2.4 GHz
2
4
HD 620
3GB
i5-7200U
2.5-3.1 GHz
2
4
HD 620
3GB
i7-7500U
2.7-3.5 GHz
2
4
HD 620
4GB



The i5 and i7 processors have a range of processor speeds. They can increase the speed beyond their regular speed when needed if they can do it without overheating. This gives an overall feeling of better performance. 



Normally you have to take into account the number of cores and threads when comparing processors. Because these processors have the same number of cores and threads we can compare them more easily. 

From benchmark data it looks like it's worth making the move from an i3 to an i5, but you don't get that much extra from a move to an i7, all other things being equal. 

Overall Performance

Of course all other things aren't equal. A processor with an i7 processor will often have a higher specification which will improve overall performance.

The amount of RAM memory and whether you have an SSD or hard drive for storage make a big difference. 

Why Can't We Just Upgrade the Processor?

Wouldn't it be nice if you could just get a new processor in a couple of years to upgrade a laptop. This is rarely possible. Processors are soldered on to the motherboard inside the laptop. The whole computer is designed around the processor so it's not as easy and just swapping it. Maybe it could be but whose interest would it be in? Ah the consumer, the environment. Yeah well. 

Picking a better processor now should future proof the laptop a bit. 

Are Last Year's Processors a Bargain?

So can you just buy last year's processors and get a bargain? You might think so. And actually processors aren't improving that much year on year. In practice though the new models offer a better spec at about the same price. The old models are sometimes reduced but often the change to new models is pretty quick and stock doesn't get reduced. 

So yes, by all means go for last year's model if there's a big saving. Just note that other things change over time such as the standards that are supported for graphics and connectivity. Being on an older model might mean you need to upgrade again sooner. So make sure it really is a bargain. 

What about Refurbished Laptops?

Recent refurbished laptops might offer a bit of a discount, but check carefully that you're getting a full warranty, that might turn out to be more important than a small saving. 

Older models that have been used by businesses and then refurbished might be worth considering. Laptop processor speeds haven't actually improved that much in recent years and business laptops often include more powerful processors (with different letters at the end) which would have cost a lot of money when they were originally purchased. Older laptops may not have Windows 10 and upgrading is a significant additional cost. 

These older laptops aren't likely to have such a good battery life (older processors aren't as efficient) and if they have original batteries they're likely to have reduced capacity. Support for recent standards can certainly be an issue. My kids had refurbished ThinkPads which are awesome except their lack of modern graphics support and lack of full support for Windows 10. It is possible to get a bargain in terms of processor power if you know what you're looking for and you're not doing anything that relies on recent advances in technology.

What's Next?

Intel typically release new processors each year to keep things moving forward. Their 8th generation of processors is code named Coffee Lake and expected to be released towards the end of 2017. It will be 2018 before laptop ranges are fully updated to use these processors though some are likely to be available sooner. 

There's always a next generation on the way so it's not worth worrying about too much. 

Summary


If your budget isn't too tight then it's generally worth spending a bit more to get a smooth experience and delay the need to update for as long as possible.

For a recent laptop with a good price / cost ratio we'd recommend a i5-7200U as a solid choice that will cope with some game playing (not serious high-end gaming, but you'll be able to load up Minecraft with mods) and do some video editing.

The processor isn't the only factor in choosing a laptop, but it is one of the key components that you can't upgrade so it's an important decision. We'll be covering other aspects of buying laptops for kids and teens in future posts.

Key takeaways:
  1. The current generation processors for most of 2017 will have a number 7 after the hyphen in their processor, e.g. i5-7200U. If you see a 6 or even a 5 or lower then you're looking at an older processor. Make sure it's a bargain. 
  2. The main laptop processors for this year are i3-7100U, i5-7200U and i7-7500U
  3. The i3 processors are fine for schoolwork and casual game playing. 
  4. An i5 processor will cope with gaming on low settings and adds a bit of future-proofing. You'll probably find that the overall spec of the laptop is higher too. 
  5. Most kids won't need an i7 processor. Maybe for a teen who is really serious about their gaming or planning a career in architecture. An external graphics card might be more important in that case. 







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Tech Age Kids | Technology for Children: Laptop Processors - A Buying Guide for Parents
Laptop Processors - A Buying Guide for Parents
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