For a lot of potential laptop buyers, the number in the processor's name indicates how good it is. So for example a Core i7 is better than an i5, and an i5 surpasses the i3. Or they assume that the higher the clock frequency, the better the performance. All those things are technically true, but did you know that, for example, an i5 processor can be better than the theoretically more powerful i7 model? As always, the devil's in the details.
Let's start with the fact that the first generation of Intel Core processors, which to this day are named i3, i5, and i7 debuted as far back as 2009. What it means is that notebooks bought in 2020 come equipped with the 10th generation of Intel's CPUs. That's why we should always check how recent of a processor we're buying.
How? By checking the four-digit code that comes right after the type of the processor - i3, i7, i9. In short, we could say that the higher the first number, the newer the CPU is. Current generation units have 10xxx in their names. The previous gen, as you've probably guessed, starts with the number 9, the 8th with an 8, and so on, and so forth. We could list them all here, but it wouldn't make much sense, as in 2020, the only CPUs worth considering are from the last two generations.
Have a look at some of the full names of Intel's processors and notice that practically all of them have an additional letter(s) at the end of the code (and sometimes also in the middle.)
Newer, higher, better?
A newer and higher model not always has to be better than an older one. That's another thing we should keep in mind when looking for our perfect laptop. While each next generation has to be better than the previous one - according to Moore's law* - it doesn't work like that when we're talking about specific models, as they can be substantially different from one another.
If we take a look at CPU performance tests, we'll see that an old Intel Core i7-8850H ranks 6th of all laptop I7s. Only two 9xxx and three 10th generation CPUs are better.
It goes to show that newer is not necessarily always better, so it's usually a good idea to have a look at lists like the one above.
Going back to all those alphanumeric codes, let's have a look at how we're supposed to understand them (based on the most recent, 10th generation of processors):
10xxx – tells us which generation of the processor we're dealing with. For example, the Intel Core 9800 is a 9th generation CPU, and the 8800 represents the 8th.
SKU number – model. The higher the number in the same family and generation, the more features the processor has. Comparing the SKU number across different generations and families is not advised!
Suffix – additional information, which should be read as follows:
- G1-G7 – informs about the integrated graphics card's quality. Higher numbers (like G7) mean better performance than the lower ones (like G1.)
- F – no integrated graphics card
- G – integrated graphics card
- H – high performance processor for the mobile segment
- HK –high performance processor for the mobile segment with the multiplier unlocked (can be overclocked)
- HQ – high performance, quad core processor for the mobile segment
- S – special edition
- T – optimized energy consumption, for typical home use
- U – low energy consumption (= long battery life)
- Y – extremely low energy consumption (= even longer battery life)
|Code name||Release date||Process technology|
|10th generation (10xxx)||Ice Lake (10xxx), Comet Lake and Amber Lake (10xxx and 10xxxY)||2019||10-14nm|
|9th generation (9xxx)||Coffee Lake Refreshed||2019||14 nm|
|8th generation (8xxx)||Kaby Lake Refresh, Kaby Lake G, Coffee Lake H/U, Whiskey Lake, Amber Lake (8xxxY)||2017/2018||14 nm|
|7th generation (7xxx)||Kaby Lake||2016||14 nm|
To sum it up
In Intel's case, the higher the first number, the more recent the processor. Same goes for the SKU number. Although here other factors may also change it, like in the i7-8706G and i7-8705G models, where the higher number means only that the CPU supports the Intel V-Pro and TSX technologies.
That's why we should always take the letter codes, more detailed specifications (vide sources below), and performance tests into consideration, too. That last one is especially important, as it's been known for some time now that a higher clock speed doesn't always yield better results.
It sometimes might be a good idea to consider buying a cheaper CPU from the same generation and family (an i5 instead of i7) and using the saved money to buy a better GPU. Sometimes the difference in CPU benchmark testing is way too small when compared to the difference in price. And your battery will probably thank you, too. As we can see, the devil's in the details.
*In the case of the 6th, 7th, and 8th gen of processors, Intel claims that each consecutive generation is at least 15% more efficient than the previous one in the SySMark benchmark.