Figure out exactly what you can expect out of that Core processor -- and whether it’s worth the money.
Justin JaffeManaging editor
Justin Jaffe is the Managing Editor for CNET Money. He has more than 20 years of experience publishing books, articles and research on finance and technology for Wired, IDC and others. He is the coauthor of Uninvested (Random House, 2015), which reveals how financial services companies take advantage of customers -- and how to protect yourself. He graduated from Skidmore College with a B.A. in English Literature, spent 10 years in San Francisco and now lives in Portland, Maine.
It's arguably the most important component in your laptop, tablet or desktop computer. Whether called the processor, CPU, or central processing unit, it deserves top-line billing on your spec list, as it's the brain of your device.
But CPUs cause confusion and stress for shoppers. The chipmakers have not done themselves any favors with their nerdy and arcane naming conventions. It doesn't help that most
have stuck with the exact same top-level names (Core i5, Core i7, etc.) year after year. Still, with a little bit of analysis, it's possible to decrypt these code names to figure out exactly what you can expect out of your processor, how new it is, and whether it's worth the money.
This summer, Intel disrupted the predictable, incremental power increases it delivers every year with what it says is a "once in a decade" performance upgrade to its line of mobile processors. These are the pervasive Core chips that power popular devices like Apple's MacBook Air and iMac, Microsoft's Surface Pro, and hundreds of others. And the eighth generation of the Core family marks some serious changes in the way that Intel is organizing, naming, and releasing its processors.
The first 8th-gen chips, which are designed for thin and light
and two-in-ones like the Surface Pro, include new 15-watt U-series Core i5 and Core i7 processors. The biggest change for the low-voltage CPUs is a step up to quad-core from dual-core one, which should improve multitasking performance.
Instead of sticking with one architecture per generation, however, the company says its eighth generation will feature multiple architectures -- including last year's Kaby Lake series, this summer's Kaby Lake R release, the brand new Coffee Lake series and forthcoming Cannon Lake designs. Coffee Lake uses the same 14nm (nanometer) process as the previous generation, which is a measure of the transistors used in fabricating semiconductors. The next release, with smaller 10nm parts, isn't expected until 2018 -- but those CPUs may be part of the eighth generation as well.
What does all of this mean for you? A fairly impenetrable system of processor names just got even more complicated.
Spotlight on the Intel Core
Intel's Core line of processors fall into three tiers -- the i3, i5 and i7. (There's also the new luxury-class Core i9 line, designed for video pros and extreme gamers and slated to feature an 18-core model, as well as the Core-M series, in very thin, low-power premium products.)
The entry-level i3 tier features dual cores -- so, two processors on one chip -- and Hyper-Threading, which allows for simultaneous, more efficient processing. The Core i5 series comes equipped with two or four cores and Intel's Turbo Boost technology, which lets the cores run faster than their rated operating frequency (aka "overclocking") on an as-needed basis. And the premium Core i7 chips, which have two or four cores, include both Hyper-Threading and Turbo Boost.
Making sense of the numbers and letters
Now that we have the lay of the land, let's look at a few specific examples. The Core i7-8650U, which Intel introduced this summer, is part of the new eighth-generation "Kaby Lake R" family; we know this because the first number after the dash is an 8. The Core i5-6200U, on the other hand, has a 6 after the dash, marking it part of the earlier sixth generation "Skylake" series from 2015.
The next part of the name -- the "650" and "200," respectively -- is the SKU or model number. Generally, the higher the model number within a generation, the faster the processor.
The last part of the code name, the "product line suffix" in Intel's parlance, is where things get particularly esoteric. The "U" part of the two chips previously mentioned denotes "ultra-low power," meaning that Intel has configured them to run slower in order to use less power and extend battery life. But there are lots of other suffixes that reference features ranging from "high-performance graphics" (H) to "extremely low power" (Y) to "power-optimized lifestyle" (T). Intel lists the various suffixes for each generation on its website.
That means one Core i7 might perform much differently than another Core i7, even if they're from the same generation of processors. The U series is generally found in premium ultrathin laptops like the
, Lenovo Yoga or Samsung Notebook 9. The Y series is found in even thinner laptops and hybrids that are willing to trade some performance for the ability to run without fans (in fact, some chip that would have been Core M CPUs in a previous generation, have been "promoted' to the Core-i Y series -- it's more a rebranding than anything else). A good example of that is
. Once you get into bigger
laptops, you find the H-series processors, which are not nearly as battery-friendly, but provide a lot more performance for gaming and high-res video editing.
The biggest challenge isn't actually decoding the model number of a CPU. Once you have the basic information in the chart below, it's pretty simple. The real challenge is finding that model number, especially if you're shopping in a retail store. The Intel sticker on the front of a laptop generally doesn't offer more than Core i3/i5/i7, and Intel only started adding the chip's generation to the sticker with last year's 7th-gen CPUs. For the exact model number, you'll have to read the fine print on the spec card that's hopefully on a nearby store shelf, or right-click on the This PC icon on the system menu and select "properties."