PC Hardware Update June 2011

It’s been a little while since I posted on the position of the variety of CPU and platform options out there and much has changed.  The insatiable desire for longer battery life is pushing a whole new segment into the CPU market targeted at portable computers, aka. Laptops, ultrabooks, netbooks, tablets… whatever marketing buzzword they can come up with.  Due to this trend I’ll break it down into two groups, the power sipping platforms you’ll find while browsing for a laptop, and the who cares about power I just need speed segment for the desktop.


Efficiency is the name of the game.  In this segment, both Intel and AMD have some serious contenders for your mobile budget, at least after AMD’s recent release of its new fangled “APU” processors that put a serious graphics processor sitting right next to the plain old CPU on the same tiny chunk of silicone.  For this group I’ll order roughly based on potential battery life.

Intel Atom

Best known for starting the Netbook trend a year or two ago, these suckers take very little battery power.  The downside is their performance scales down at the same time.  While they’re just about fast enough for surfing the web, doing anything serious will become  tedious rather quickly.  There’s a reason these are found in typically 10” mini notebooks, a screen any larger and you might be tempted to do some actual work.  To seal the low performance deal, the latest generation of Atom is stuck with the positively anemic Intel graphics while nVidia is locked out of making anything that may actually work quickly.  Still, this is a viable option for someone looking for all day battery life for casual web surfing.

AMD Brazos E-350

Keeping nearly the same tiny power envelope as Atom but paring it with some potent 3D rendering graphics on the same chip, AMD has given Intel’s Atom a serious competitor.  Similarly to the Atom, if you push some heavy number crunching on it, you’ll feel like you’re using your grandma’s computer, though it’s still considerably faster than Atom.  Some manufacturer’s are putting this sucker into 14” and 15” full size laptop chassis, but I contend that this is still best suited for the diminutive 13” and under class.

Intel Core 2

Even though Intel’s moved on to newer designs (coming later), these things are still all over the store shelves.  The battery life for the low voltage CULV parts is stellar, and they beat the pants off Atom and Brazos while doing it.  The downside is typically the paired Intel GMA450 graphics which will simply respond with a “You want me to do what?” when tasked with a 3D game.  Even so, there’s a reason Apple still sells the Macbook Air with one of these inside it, the power consumption is tough to beat.

AMD Llanos “A” series

Brand spanking new on the market these chips are targeting Intel’s stronghold on power efficient chips, and doing it well.  These are internally based on AMD’s current Athlon / Phenom  II architecture, which isn’t all that super powered but still fairly quick.  The real sauce is the integrated Radeon graphics core that simply beats anything Intel can integrate like a red headed step child.  They go toe to toe with Intel’s i3 battery life and if you want to fire up a game, they can actually do the job without resorting to early 90’s graphical detail.  These chips are also available in deskstop form, however the integrated graphics are still beaten by an add in card of $100 or more so the value of these quickly diminishes.

Laptop and Desktop crossover chips

Intel i3 Sandy bridge

The budget end of the Intel “I” lineup is a stellar CPU performer with good general performance graphics built in.  In raw CPU tasks, such as converting a movie to play on your phone, making a DVD, working on some big images, or whatever else you can throw at it, these CPU’s will outperform their AMD rivals.  If gaming isn’t what you’re likely to do, these are excellent choices.  In the desktop world it’s hard to beat these unless you’re really constrained on budget, where AMD can get even cheaper for almost the performance.

Intel i5 / i7 Sandy bridge on steroids

These suckers are fast!  They make my 2 year old desktop systems at home look like Casio calculators for elementary school kids.  Of course the faster you go the more you’ll kill your battery, but Intel’s done a superb job of sucking every bit of performance out of these things while being frugal on battery.  In the desktop world, nothing comes close.  The absolute fastest AMD chip out there can just about match the absolute slowest Intel i5 in most workloads.

AMD Athlon II

These are the budget king, at the expense of performance.  When combined with the variety of cheaper motherboards you can find with a plethora of options these become the single cheapest way to get a modern PC going.  In laptops, the battery life will be poor, period, but in a desktop, who cares.

AMD Phenom II

The current top of the AMD line can’t compete with performance against Intel’s “I” cores, but when you throw 6 full cores of processor at a easily multithreaded load, like transcoding a movie or something, you can do a lot of work with a whole lot less money.  You’ll find these in a few laptops too, but keep your power cord handy.

But really, how fast do you need?

Generally, the last 3 years of processors have been fast enough for what 90% of the population attempts to do with their computers.  You’re a whole lot more likely to be bogged down by the massive amount of spyware / malware / viruses and other evil distributions of the morally lacking found on the wild wild web than you are your choice of CPU.  So you’ll just have to weigh your priorities.  For me, waiting an hour to turn a movie into a nicely compress h264 file using handbrake has become my most annoying waiting game.  That’s on my el-cheap’o 2 cores of Athlon II at 3.3GHz, an Intel i something or other would pretty quickly cut that in half or better.  But in the end, I just start it and sleep on it, so what does it matter?  The video games I haven’t got the time to play are typically a bit older too, so a pair of high clock cores does a decent job of filling up the screen just fine.  When I get the urge, I’ll just drop a 6 core Phenom in there and keep it going another year or two.  Ultimately, games may be the undoing of my “fast enough” policy, but unless you’re paying for bragging rights, you may want to ask yourself: “How fast do I really need?”