CPU confusion made buying a laptop in 2022 a nightmare

CPU confusion made buying a laptop in 2022 a nightmare

There is nothing wrong with creating stratification whereby products are designed and priced to meet specific user needs. Automakers are masters of it, with cheaper cars that meet basic needs and luxury cars for those with the means to enjoy the best automotive technology has to offer. However, in 2022, CPU manufacturers blew it, creating a confusing mess that made choosing a laptop more difficult than it should have been. And by “CPU manufacturers” we mainly mean Intel.

Don’t get me wrong: Intel’s 12th-generation product lines themselves make sense on paper. There are low power chips to save energy and cost and high power chips to maximize performance at a premium price. But when put into actual laptops, the distinction was far less clear than it should have been.

It’s so complicated

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Extreme Gen 5 top-down view showing vPro label.
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

Let’s start with an overview of how the series was supposed to work. We will focus on two specifications here, although there are many more that we can consider. First is the processor’s base power, or – put very simply – the amount of power a CPU draws during normal operation. Second is the number of cores and threads, which with Intel’s 12th generation follows a BIG.little configuration where there is a mix of Performance cores for demanding tasks and Efficient cores for fewer tasks that draw less power.

Also worth noting is that the higher the numerical designation within the same base range, such as a Core i7-1255U versus a Core i7-1265U, the higher the Max Turbo Frequency and the top-end speed.

Intel has stratified the range into three basic levels, as detailed in the following table:

SeriesMinimum wattsMaximum wattsMinimum cores/threadsMaximum cores/threads
U series9 watts15 watts6 cores (two performance, four efficient),
8 threads
10 cores (two performance, eight efficient),
12 threads
P series28 watts28 watts10 cores (two performance, eight efficient),
12 threads
14 cores (six performance, eight efficient),
20 threads
H series45 watts45 watts8 cores (four performance, four efficient),
12 threads
14 cores (six performance, eight efficient),
20 threads
HX series55 watts55 watts12 cores (four performance, eight efficient),
16 threads
16 cores (eight performance, eight efficient),
24 threads

For the most part, you’ll find U-series and P-series CPUs in the thinnest and lightest laptops and H-series CPUs in larger, heavier laptops meant for the fastest performance. The HX series CPUs, of which we’ve only reviewed a single laptop, the MSI GT77 Titan, represent the absolute top of the line in terms of processor speed and usually find their way into gaming laptops. And as far as we know, that’s exactly how the series is supposed to be utilized.

However, while reviewing many 12th-gen laptops, I noticed that manufacturers used a wide variety of CPUs in different form factors. Most interesting was the use of H-series CPUs in what would normally be considered thin and light ultrabooks. And when comparing performance between U-series and P-series laptops, the supposedly lower-powered CPUs held their own.

In fact, perhaps it is unfair to think of Intel as having designed its chips, and more accurate to say that manufacturers used the chips in less efficient installations. But Intel must bear at least some of the blame for creating such a complicated array of CPUs.

And what were the results?

Consider the following table, which highlights how performance doesn’t always track the CPU’s specs.

Cinebench R23
PCMark 10
Asus ZenBook S 13 Flip
(Core i7-1260P)
Balance: 1,602 / 8,559
Performance: 1,639 / 8,923
Ball: 132
performance: 117
Balance: 1,583 / 7,595
Performance: 1,614 / 9,220
Dell XPS 13 Plus
(Core i7-1280P)
Balance: 1,316 / 8,207
Perf: N/A
Ball: 170
performance: 94
Balance: 1,311 / 6,308
Performance: 1,650 / 7,530
4 309
Lenovo Smart 9i
(Core i7-1280P)
Balance: 1,720 / 10,115
Performance: 1,726 / 11,074
Ball: 114
performance: 95
Balance: 1,795 / 9,467
Performance: 1,824 / 11,301
5 442
HP Dragonfly Folio G3
(Core i7-1265U)
Balance: 1,443 / 7,450
Performance: 1,419 / 7,997
Ball: 155
performance: 144
Balance: 1,307 / 5,728
Performance: 1,608 / 6,890
4 603
HP Envy x360 13 2022
(Core i7-1250U)
Balance: 1,435 / 7,285
Performance: 1,460 / 7,288
Ball: 136
performance: 138
Balance: 1,504 / 7,436
Performance: 1,504 / 7,441
HP Specter x360 13.5
(Core i7-1255U)
Balance: 1,566 / 7,314
Performance: 1,593 / 7921
Ball: 169
performance: 120
Balance: 1,623 / 5,823
Performance: 1,691 / 7,832
5 203
Surface Pro 9
(Core i7-1255U)
Balance: 1170 / 6518
Performance: 1,598 / 8,165
Ball: 166
performance: 127
Balance: 1124 / 7537
Perf: N/A
Lenovo IdeaPad Duet 5i
(Core i3-1215U)
Balance: 1,513 / 5,676
Performance: 1,515 / 5,970
Ball: 251
performance: 181
Balance: 1,488 / 4,087
Performance: 1,582 / 4,842
Lenovo ThinkBook Plus Gen 3
(Core i7-12700H)
Balance: 1,647 / 9,397
Performance: 1,644 / 9,306
Ball: 98
performance: 96
Balance: 1,708 / 10,592
Performance: 1,717 / 11,181
5 353
Lenovo Slim 7i Pro X
(Core i7-12700H)
Balance: 1,670 / 11,971
Performance: 1,730 / 12,356
Ball: 90
Per: 79
Balance: 1,731 / 11,379
Performance: 1,791 / 13,276
6 322
Acer Swift 3 OLED
(Core i7-12700H)
Balance: 1,698 / 10,972
Performance: 1,708 / 11,287
Ball: 90
performance: 85
Balance: 1,676 / 10,764
Performance: 1,715 / 11,069

This is just a small sample, but we can see that performance doesn’t always track the CPU. For example, the Asus Zenbook S 13 Flip did better in the Geekbench 5 and Cinebench R23 tests than the Dell XPS 13 Plus with its faster CPU, although the Dell did better in the Handbrake test. The second slowest CPU on this list, the Core i7-1250U in the HP Envy x360 13, performed better in Handbrake and Cinebench R23 than the Core i7-1265U in the HP Dragonfly Folio G3.

And overall, the U-series and P-series processors were within spitting distance of each other in performance. You need to jump to H-series CPUs to see significant performance improvements. Even then, a laptop like the Lenovo Slim 9i with a Core i7-1260P scored the same as the H-series laptops in this comparison group. And when we look at the PCMark 10 Complete benchmark that looks at a variety of productivity, media and creativity tasks, the results are all over the map.

I’d like to point out that the battery life followed the power rating of each CPU, but there are too many variables to draw that conclusion. Laptops have different battery capacities, more or less power-hungry screens, and overall tuning, which is more influential on battery life than the CPU. But I can say this: I haven’t seen any strong correlation that buying a laptop with a lower power CPU automatically results in better battery life.

What does it all mean?

If you want a thin and light laptop that delivers solid productivity performance, any U or P series CPU will do the job. Even the Lenovo IdeaPad Duet 5i, the “slowest” laptop we tested with the 15-watt, 6-core/8-thread Core i3-1215U, performed well enough.

My advice is to read reviews and base your decision on the build quality, overall configuration, keyboard and touchpad, screen and battery life and leave the CPU decision alone. Certainly, unless you choose an H-series machine (and maybe not even then), don’t buy the most expensive CPU option just because you think it will give you significantly better performance.

This was Intel’s first attempt at the BIG.little hybrid CPU architecture, and perhaps it will do better with its 13th generation CPUs. Or manufacturers will differentiate their models better and put the right CPUs in the right form factors. That remains to be seen. But for now, the CPU situation remains confusing and guarantees little in terms of performance.

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