What's the Best Processor for Your New Laptop?

Don't spring for more power than you need. An Intel Core i5 or AMD Ryzen 5 can handle most tasks.

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Scroll through the laptops available from retailers like Amazon, Best Buy, and Walmart and you’ll mostly see models with an Intel Core i3, Core i5, or Core i7 processor. But look a little harder and you may also spot processors from a rejuvenated AMD.

The company’s Ryzen brand of processors debuted on desktop PCs in late 2017, but took a few years to really make their way to laptops. Now, however, you’ll find them on a variety of models made by well-known manufacturers like Dell, HP, and Microsoft. The options vary from highly portable 2-in-1 convertibles to powerful gaming notebooks aimed at enthusiasts.

More on Laptops

But the proliferation of AMD’s well-received processors shouldn’t change your thinking on how much processor you actually need. Don’t assume that a pricier, high-end Intel Core i7 or Ryzen 7 is much “better” than an Intel Core i5 or Ryzen 5 simply because it has more raw power.

The differences generally show up only “when the laptop has to perform complex calculations,” according to Antonette Asedillo, who oversees computer testing for Consumer Reports.

If, for example, you rarely leave the confines of Amazon, Facebook, and Netflix, you’re likely fine with a mid-tier Intel Core i5 or Ryzen 5, which will provide all of the necessary umph to keep your web browser running smoothly.

A higher-end Core i7 or Ryzen 7 is preferable if you love to play video games or edit high-res video, while a lower-end Core i3 or Ryzen 3 should suffice if you rarely do anything more advanced than pay bills online or edit the occasional spreadsheet.

In other words, just because a processor is more powerful than another doesn’t automatically mean it’s the right fit for your needs.

This is particularly important to understand heading into fall, with Microsoft just a few weeks from officially releasing Windows 11, the biggest update to Windows since 2015, and PC manufacturers no doubt primed to get you to part with your hard-earned money in exchange for a shiny new laptop in time for the holidays.

Processors for the Rest of Us

“Generally speaking, any of today’s Intel Core or AMD Ryzen processors can do well with basic, daily tasks like web browsing and email,” Asedillo says.

If the Core i7 or Ryzen 7 is too much processor for most everyday needs, the i3 or Ryzen 3 may be too little. Not because of the processor itself, but because the chips tend to be found in lower-end laptops that use slow hard drives and puny amounts of RAM to keep costs down. The laptops may slow down during run-of-the-mill tasks such as moving files between folders and browsing the web with multiple tabs open.

But depending on your budget and your needs, that may be a worthwhile concession. After all, these laptops are fully capable of running productivity apps like Microsoft Office, Zoom, and Slack, and can cost less than $500. So, for many people, they offer good value, even if it takes an extra beat or two to open an app.

Chromebooks, if you’re wondering, often use even lower-end Intel processors, primarily the Pentium and Core m3. But again, these are devices designed to, say, put together a slide deck presentation in Google Workspace and not much more.

And so, if you’re shopping for a new laptop, a mid-range Intel Core i5 or Ryzen 5 is likely your best bet. It will handle everyday tasks with aplomb, and still pack enough power to tackle more strenuous tasks such as streaming high-res video and editing large photos. Better yet, you can often find those options in laptops selling for $700 or less, even with the ongoing chip shortage that’s making a mess of consumer electronics prices.

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Nicholas De Leon

I've been covering consumer electronics for more than 10 years for publications like TechCrunch, The Daily (R.I.P.), and Motherboard. When I'm not researching or writing about laptops or headphones I can likely be found obsessively consuming news about FC Barcelona, replaying old Super Nintendo games for the hundredth time, or chasing my pet corgi Winston to put his harness on so we can go for a walk. Follow me on Twitter (@nicholasadeleon).