The traits consumers desire in a laptop have changed a bit over the last few years. There was a time, just five years ago, when most people didn’t expect any computer to offer a long-lasting battery. Then, smartphones and tablets changed expectations, and laptops were forced to catch up.
And caught up they have. Today’s best laptops offer roughly six to seven hours of continuous web-browsing and, in less demanding situations, can last well into the teens. While tablets still hold the crown, computers have closed the gap significantly.
But there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Improvements in efficiency have been flanked by a decreasing interest in performance. We found that the latest MacBook Pro 13 with Retina, for example, is slightly slower than its predecessor, and Intel’s new 4th-gen Core processors do not seem noticeably quicker than those that came before. Has performance really stalled, or just merely shifted to other areas?
Processors are running in place
To judge whether processors have made a significant leap forward, we decided to pick out a few past laptops with various generations of the Intel Core processor. The first generation is represented by the Asus U36JC, the second generation by the HP Envy 14 and Lenovo ThinkPad T420s, the third generation by Asus Zenbook Prime UX31 and Lenovo ThinkPad X230, and the fourth generation by the Dell XPS 12 and Lenovo T440s.
All of these laptops posted scores we considered average to above average at the time they were reviewed, so they’re a good representation of other systems we tested near the same time. The laptops are listed in order of review date, oldest at the bottom, latest at the top. And importantly, all systems are equipped with a dual-core processor.
What the results show is that performance peaked in the middle, which corresponds roughly with the final days of Intel’s 2nd-gen Core processors and the introduction of Intel’s 3rd-gen Core product line. The ThinkPad X230, the fastest system on this chart, was reviewed a year and a half ago but remains the second-quickest dual-core laptop we’ve ever tested. Only the ASUS Zenbook UX301LA, which we recently reviewed, scores better – but its expensive Core i7-4558U processor isn’t representative of what most current laptops provide.
At first glance, then, it would seem that performance has barely budged over the past three years, and has actually fallen back compared to a year ago. In an absolute sense this is true; our most recently tested laptops are slower on average than what we tested in the middle of 2012. So what’s the deal?
Well, this isn’t really an apples-to-apples comparison. Intel’s introduction of the ultrabook not only added a new super-slim option to the market, but also encouraged computer manufacturers to use low-voltage processors in a wide range of products. No one has sent us a review laptop with a “standard” dual-core processor in months, and a quick look at Intel’s product information shows that only three of the fifteen 4th-gen Core i5 mobile processors sold by the company are not low-voltage.
In other words, the typical laptop sold in the last year or two was quicker in terms of raw compute performance, but it also drew significantly more power. The blazing-fast ThinkPad X230, for example, lasted only four and a half hours in our light-load test despite its massive 63 watt-hour battery.
There’s more to it than the processor
While the X230 was a very quick laptop, we think that, if we tested it again today, it might feel a bit slow. Why? Because it had a mechanical hard drive.
Though a mechanical drive offers a lot of storage space it is also slower than a solid state drive in both response times (the delay between requesting a file and the drive beginning to load it) and bandwidth (the maximum amount of data that can be handled per second). PCMark 8’s storage benchmark, which we use to gauge the speed of a laptop’s hard drive, usually reaches a score between 1,800 and 2,400 in laptops with a mechanical drive. That increases to between 4,500 and 5,000 when we tests systems with a solid state drive.
Though SSDs are not yet standard on the most affordable PCs, they have crept into systems sold below $1,000, and many ultrabooks with a mechanical drive use a small cache SSD to provide some of the benefits at a low price. We don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that an SSD is the single most important performance upgrade a laptop can receive.
3D performance has improved, too, thanks to Intel’s attempts to improve the speed and feature set of its integrated graphics chips. 1st-gen and 2nd-gen Intel Core processors didn’t even support DirectX 11 graphics, which meant some games would not even run without a discrete GPU installed, and performance was generally abysmal.
Intel HD 4000 added DX11 support, however, boosting performance substantially. Today’s laptops, which usually ship with Intel HD 4600 graphics, can run almost any 3D game sold, though the latest titles still won’t play smoothly above low detail on a 1080p display. You can read more about the latest Intel integrated graphics option by reading our review of Intel HD 4600.
Long lasting, but not faster
The fact that laptop performance has stalled seems strange at first, and contrary to the progress computers have traditionally made. When closer inspected, however, it makes some sense. We have progressed well past the point where performance is a day-to-day concern for most users. The question in the consumer’s mind has shifted from “how quickly will my software run?” to “how long can I use my software?”
Speed freaks shouldn’t fret too much, however, because it’s likely that the current state of affairs is temporary. Consumer interest in battery life forced Intel to cut back power draw so aggressively that compromising performance was inevitable. Laptops are now capable of lasting for at least a work day, however, and the average user probably doesn’t need more than that. Eventually, the excitement over battery life will also lose its luster, giving performance a chance to step back into the limelight.