A woman seated on the floor with a laptop in her lap

When you're shopping for a new laptop, it's easy to get caught up in decisions about memory and storage and inadvertently waste money on processing power you simply don't need.

Walk into Best Buy and nearly every model on display has an Intel processor—more specifically, an Intel Core i3, i5, or i7 processor. And those are certainly the mainstream options, designed to fit the requirements of college students, creative professionals, video streaming fans, and even hardcore gamers who demand top-notch performance no matter the cost.

But how much processing power do you truly need? While you might assume that, well, 7 is bigger than 5, so the i7 must also be better than the i5, that doesn’t tell the whole story—especially if your computing needs are modest.

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“The differences are more apparent when the laptop has to perform complex calculations,” says Antonette Asedillo, who oversees computer testing for Consumer Reports.

In other words, it takes serious stress—like, say, 4K video editing or high-end video games such as "Far Cry 5" or "Kingdom Come: Deliverance"—to reveal the distinctions between the three Intel processors. (One reason why Fortnite is so popular? It doesn’t require a hulking beast of a computer.)

So, if you simply use your laptop to do things like check email, pay bills, and browse Facebook, you can safely write off the Intel Core i7. It’s a powerful chip, sure, but you're never going to harness all that power.

“The way Steve Jobs once described it was, 'Do you need a car or a truck?'” says popular YouTuber Lon Seidman, who regularly evaluates lower-end laptops in his online reviews. “The heavy duty Intel machines are the trucks.”

What About the Core i5 vs. the Core i3?

“Generally speaking, any of these Core processors can do well with basic, daily tasks like web browsing and email,” says Asedillo.

While that may be true, one thing to keep in mind is that the Core i3 processor tends to be found in lower-end laptops, which use lesser components—slow hard drives and puny amounts of RAM—to keep costs down, sacrificing performance when it comes to activities such as moving files between folders and browsing the web with multiple tabs open.

This helps to explain why Consumer Reports doesn’t currently recommend any Intel Core i3-equipped laptops (though a few models from companies like Dell and HP rate reasonably well).

Processors manufactured by AMD also tend to get confined to laptops with lower-end components. That doesn't mean they're bad. Gamers in particular have warmed to AMD’s Ryzen line of processors. It's just that AMD's everyday processors are rarely placed in the best light.

That leads us to the Core i5, Intel’s mid-range workhorse that, for a few reasons, could be the ideal choice for most consumers.

Let’s start with performance. The i5 will not only handle everyday tasks, like browsing the web in Google Chrome and processing Microsoft Office documents, without breaking a sweat but also is no slouch when it comes to more demanding tasks such as streaming high-definition video and plowing through photo edits in apps such as Photoshop and Lightroom.

“If you have a super high-resolution photo and you tell Photoshop to apply an intense filter over the whole thing, it’s done in seconds,” says Richard Fisco, an electronics testing manager at Consumer Reports. Don’t forget: The eighth-generation i5 now has four cores, making it better suited to such intense tasks than the earlier two-core versions.

To confirm that an i5 has four cores, look at the model number: If it starts with an 8 (as in, 8250U), the processor hails from the eighth generation.

“It’s a much better chip than it was even a year ago,” says Seidman.

Beyond that raw performance, the i5 routinely ends up inside laptops with fast solid state drives, plenty of RAM, and shells that are impressively thin and light—ensuring that the overall user experience is more delightful.

Of the 60 laptops currently recommended in our ratings, more than one-third have an Intel Core i5 processor, including top-rated models like the LG Gram, Dell XPS, and HP Spectre

What About Chromebooks?

Laptops that use Google’s Chrome OS instead of Windows or macOS have a lot going for them, including reasonable prices and long battery life. They primarily use Intel processors these days, too, but lower-end versions like the Pentium and Core m3.

That means those computers are not going to win any drag races, but for consumers who know their computing needs are quite basic—think browsing the web and editing text documents—they provide real value.

“They’re incredibly viable,” says Seidman. “They’re cheap, and everything—[all files and apps]—is tied to the Google cloud. That can be bad for some people, but if my mom’s Chromebook fails for $200, I can get her another one and everything is right back where you left it.”