Laptop Buying Guide 2014: Processors And Battery Life Explained

You want to buy a new laptop. But how do you work out which one you need? A great place to start is working out exactly how much processing power you require -- what tasks you're going to be doing -- and what kind of battery life your work and play will involve.

Processors: What Are Cores And How Many Do You Need?

Although they are often advertised as an integral part of your new laptop, not all processors are made equal. An older Intel Core i7 may be slightly less powerful than a newer Core i5. Broadly speaking, within any generation of laptops, you can start from the ground floor with the Core i3, move up to the mainstream with the Core i5, and then get some serious power with the Core i7. And, of course, within each i-number, there are different processors -- the Core i5-4200U is less powerful than the i5-4310U, which is less powerful than the i5-4340M, and so on.

You don't need the most powerful option, of course, and having a more powerful processor can negatively affect your battery life, so choosing a laptop with the right processor is more important than you might think. Both Intel and competitor AMD create processors specifically designed for laptops -- Intel has the Core series, and AMD has A6, A8 and A10 'APUs' that combine high-powered processing and graphics in one. For a demonstration of the difference, though, we're focusing on Intel.

There's a bit of a dark art to telling the difference between Intel's processor numbers -- in laptops for example, you'll see a Core i7 processor brand followed by four numbers. The first of those numbers is the generation identifier, and you should always go for the highest one you can find. At the moment, mobile processors are on the 4th generation, so keep your eye out for Core iX 4XXX products.

Beyond that, you can pick out special processors from the lineup with a single letter after those four numbers -- U for a low power CPU, Y for an ultra-low power CPU, and so on. As a general rule, with a U you're sacrificing some outright power for longer battery life, and with a Y that is doubly true. You can find a cheat sheet from Intel right here.

That's a top-level overview, and for the most part that's all you need to know. At least within Intel's processor types, you can scale the i-number and the four digits and the letter to your needs -- go with a lower powered Core i3 if you are just browsing the web and sending emails, a Core i5 if you want it to handle an occasional bout of photo editing, and a Core i7 for all-out video editing or serious productivity work.

There's a technical difference between i3, i5 and i7, of course, with the higher-powered processors boasting more physical processor cores (each of which can be devoted to one computer task at a time, basically) and higher clock speeds (letting them complete those tasks faster). The four-digit-and-one-letter system is just a quick and easy way to slim down the list of devices for you to choose from.

Battery Life: You Always Want The Best, How Do You Get It?

There's nothing more annoying than working away busily on a flight or at a long lunch and having your laptop run out of power at a crucial moment. Having a laptop with a small battery is entirely reasonable if you're not heading away from your desk or from your power point often, but if you're buying a convertible or a tablet or another device designed to be used on the move, it's only rational to want something that will perform for as long as possible.

When you're unplugged from a power point and working away, the power consumption of your laptop's processor is intrinsically tied to how long its battery will last. A gusty Core i7 will suck up precious juice far quicker than a delicate Y-series Core i3. This is an important point to consider when you're picking a new portable PC to buy; you can buy something built for speed or something built for longevity.

Plenty of other factors like screen resolution and storage capacity and type contribute to a laptop's power consumption, too. And of course, Windows or any other operating system will do its best to moderate power and performance and battery life and hit a good compromise, but the fact remains that some laptops use more power than others. Reading around, doing your research and choosing carefully can save you from the constant stress and headache of running out of battery when you're on the go.

Manufacturer's claims on battery life are a good place to start, but there's no substitute for looking at specifications. All other things being equal, you want the larger battery of any two -- more cells, more Watt-hours, more milliamp-hours, or whichever unit of measurement that particular manufacturer uses in its documentation.

Of course, everything has to be moderated against the other specifications of your new laptop. It's not reasonable to expect day-long battery life from an 11-inch ultraportable that also packs in a high-powered Core i7, or to expect hours of movie-watching from a 13-inch laptop with a super-bright and super-high-resolution display.

And, again, the size of your laptop plays a huge role in how long its battery will last when you're using it on the go. A super-thin laptop simply can't hide away a massive battery pack, no matter how efficient its processor and display and storage are. Some manufacturers, especially those that integrate batteries into the shells of their laptops to use as much space as possible, can get amazing longevity from thin and light devices, but as a general rule the larger your laptop is the longer it will last.

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