CPU confusion made buying a laptop in 2022 a nightmare

CPU confusion made buying a laptop in 2022 a nightmare

There’s nothing wrong with creating stratification whereby products are designed and priced to meet specific user needs. Automakers are masters of it, with less expensive cars meeting basic needs and luxury cars for those with the means to enjoy the best automobile technology has to offer. In 2022, however, 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 primarily mean Intel.

Don’t misunderstand me: Intel’s 12th-gen product lines themselves make sense on paper. There are low-power chips to save energy and costs and high-power chips to maximize performance at a premium price. But when placed in 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 lineup was supposed to work. We’ll focus on two specifications here, although there are many more we could consider. First is the processor base power, or — very simply put — the amount of power that a CPU pulls 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 lesser tasks that draw less power.

Also of note is that the higher the numerical designation within the same basic series, 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 lineup into three basic levels, as outlined in the following table:

Series Minimum watts Maximum watts Minimum cores/threads Maximum cores/threads
U-series 9 watts 15 watts 6 cores (two Performance, four Efficient),
8 threads
10 cores (two Performance, eight Efficient),
12 threads
P-series 28 watts 28 watts 10 cores (two Performance, eight Efficient),
12 threads
14 cores (six Performance, eight Efficient),
20 threads
H-series 45 watts 45 watts 8 cores (four Performance, four Efficient),
12 threads
14 cores (six Performance, eight Efficient),
20 threads
HX-series 55 watts 55 watts 12 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 intended 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 lineup is supposed to be utilized.

As I’ve reviewed many 12th-gen laptops, though, I’ve noticed that manufacturers have used a motley assortment of CPUs in different form factors. Most interesting has been the use of H-series CPUs in what would usually be considered thin and light ultrabooks. And when comparing performance between U-series and P-series laptops, the presumably lower-power CPUs have held their own.

In fact, maybe it’s unfair to ding Intel for how it designed its chips, and more accurate to say that manufacturers have used the chips in less efficient installations. But Intel does have to bear at least part of the blame for creating such a complicated assortment of CPUs.

And what were the results?

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

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

This is just a small assortment, but we can see that performance doesn’t always track the CPU. For example, the Asus Zenbook S 13 Flip performed 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 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 generally speaking, 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 similarly to 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 love to point out that 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 displays, and overall tuning, which are more influential in battery life than the CPU. But I can say this: I’ve seen no strong correlation that purchasing a laptop with a lower-power CPU automatically results in better battery life.

What’s it all mean?

If you want a thin and light laptop that provides solid productivity performance, then any U- or P-series CPU will do the job. Even the Lenovo IdeaPad Duet 5i, the “slowest” laptop we’ve 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, display, and battery life and leave the CPU decision alone. Certainly, unless you’re opting for 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 maybe it’ll do better with its 13th-gen CPUs. Or, manufacturers will better differentiate their models 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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