CPU confusion made buying a laptop in 2022 a nightmare

There is nothing wrong with creating a tiering where products are designed and priced to meet the specific needs of users. Car manufacturers are experts at this, with less expensive cars meeting basic needs and luxury cars for those who have the means to enjoy the best automotive technology has to offer. In 2022, however, CPU makers screwed it up, creating a confusing mess that made choosing a laptop harder than it should have been. And by “CPU manufacturers”, we mainly mean Intel.

Don’t get me wrong: Intel’s 12th-gen product lines 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 on actual laptops, the distinction was much less clear than it should have been.

It’s so complicated

Top down view of the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Extreme Gen 5 showing the 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 specs here, though there are many more we could consider. First is base processor power, or simply put, the amount of power a CPU consumes 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 less power-hungry lesser tasks.

It’s also worth noting that the higher the numerical designation within the same base series, such as a Core i7-1255U vs. a Core i7-1265U, the higher the maximum turbo frequency and top speed.

Intel has stratified the lineup into three basic levels, as outlined in the following table:

Series minimum watts max watts Minimum Cores/Threads Max 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, lightest laptops, and H-series CPUs in the biggest, heaviest laptops designed for the fastest performance. The HX-series CPUs, of which we’ve only reviewed a single laptop, the MSI GT77 Titan, they represent the top of the line in terms of processor speed and typically find their way into gaming laptops. And as far as we know, this is exactly how alignment is supposed to be used.

However, when I’ve reviewed many 12th-gen laptops, I’ve noticed that manufacturers have used a varied assortment of CPUs in different form factors. Most interesting has been 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 have held their own.

In fact, it may be unfair to criticize Intel for the way it designed its chips, and more accurately to say that manufacturers have used the chips in less efficient facilities. But Intel has to bear at least some of the blame for creating such a complicated strain of CPU.

And what were the results?

Consider the table below, which highlights how performance doesn’t always follow CPU specifications.

hand brake
cinema bench R23
PC Mark 10
Asus ZenBook S 13 Flip
(Core i7-1260P)
Bal: 1,602 / 8,559
Yield: 1639 / 8923
bal: 132
Yield: 117
Bal: 1,583 / 7,595
Yield: 1614 / 9220
Dell XPS 13 Plus
(Core i7-1280P)
Bal: 1,316 / 8,207
Yield: N/A
bal: 170
Yield: 94
Bal: 1,311 / 6,308
Performance: 1650 / 7530
slim lenovo 9i
(Core i7-1280P)
Bal: 1,720 / 10,115
Yield: 1,726 / 11,074
bal: 114
Yield: 95
Bal: 1,795 / 9,467
Yield: 1,824 / 11,301
HP Dragonfly G3 Folio
(Core i7-1265U)
Bal: 1,443 / 7,450
Yield: 1419 / 7997
bal: 155
Yield: 144
Bal: 1,307 / 5,728
Yield: 1608 / 6890
HP Envy x360 13 2022
(Core i7-1250U)
Bal: 1,435 / 7,285
Yield: 1460 / 7288
bal: 136
Yield: 138
Bal: 1,504 / 7,436
Yield: 1504 / 7441
HP Specter x360 13.5
(Core i7-1255U)
Bal: 1,566 / 7,314
Yield: 1,593 / 7921
bal: 169
Yield: 120
Bal: 1,623 / 5,823
Yield: 1691 / 7832
Surface Pro 9
(Core i7-1255U)
Bal: 1170 / 6518
Yield: 1598 / 8165
bal: 166
Yield: 127
Ball: 1124 / 7537
Yield: N/A
Lenovo IdeaPad Duet 5i
(Core i3-1215U)
Bal: 1,513 / 5,676
Yield: 1515 / 5970
bal: 251
Yield: 181
Bal: 1,488 / 4,087
Yield: 1582 / 4842
Lenovo ThinkBook Plus Gen 3
(Core i7-12700H)
Bal: 1,647 / 9,397
Yield: 1644 / 9306
bal: 98
Yield: 96
Bal: 1,708 / 10,592
Yield: 1,717 / 11,181
Lenovo Slim 7i Pro X
(Core i7-12700H)
Bal: 1,670 / 11,971
Yield: 1,730 / 12,356
bal: 90
by: 79
Bal: 1,731 / 11,379
Yield: 1,791 / 13,276
Acer Swift 3 OLED
(Core i7-12700H)
Bal: 1,698 / 10,972
Yield: 1,708 / 11,287
bal: 90
Yield: 85
Bal: 1,676 / 10,764
Yield: 1,715 / 11,069

This is just a small variety, but we can see that performance doesn’t always track CPU. For example, him Asus Zenbook S 13 Flip performed better in Geekbench 5 and Cinebench R23 tests than the Dell XPS 13 Plus with its faster CPU, though the Dell fared better in the Handbrake test. The second slowest CPU on this list, the Core i7-1250U in the HP Envy x360 13it 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 a hair’s breadth of each other in terms of performance. You need to move up to the H-series CPUs to see significant performance improvements. Even then, a laptop like the slim lenovo 9i with a Core i7-1260P it scored similar to H-series laptops in this comparison group. And when we look at the PCMark 10 Complete benchmark that analyzes a variety of productivity, media, and creativity tasks, the results are all over the place.

I’d love to point out that battery life followed each CPU’s power rating, but there are too many variables to come to that conclusion. Laptops have different battery capacities, displays that consume more or less power, and general settings, which are more influential on battery life than the CPU. But I can say this: I haven’t seen a strong correlation that buying a laptop with a lower-powered CPU automatically results in better battery life.

What does this 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 tested with the 15-watt, 6-core, 8-thread Core i3-1215U, performed well enough.

My advice is to read the reviews and base your decision on build quality, general configuration, keyboard and trackpad, display and battery life, and leave the CPU decision alone. Certainly unless you’re going with an H-series machine (and maybe not even then), don’t buy the more 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 works better with its 13th generation CPUs. Or, manufacturers will better differentiate their models and put the correct CPUs in the correct form factors. That remains to be seen. But for now, the CPU situation remains muddled and guarantees little in terms of performance.

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