When you buy a new laptop or tablet, you’ll often be able to “customize” it by paying extra for a faster CPU. But this may not be a good idea — the higher-end CPU might be a worse fit for the device!

This applies to popular devices like Apple’s MacBook Air, Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 tablet, and a variety of other Ultrabooks, full-size laptops, and Intel-based tablets. Hard data from comparative reviews backs this argument up.

This Just Applies to Portable Devices

First of all, it’s important to note that this only really applies to devices focused on long battery life and mobility. If you’re looking at the CPU in a desktop or a high-powered laptop where battery life is a secondary concern, this isn’t really a big deal. Yeah, a Core i7 CPU might make a gaming desktop draw more power than a Core i5 would, but so what? You want that additional performance and the additional power draw doesn’t mean much when the desktop is permanently connected to an electrical outlet. Such a gaming PC would have a roomy case with good cooling, too.

When it comes to devices that are meant to be portable and have long battery life — for example, the MacBook Air, Surface Pro, thin-and-light Windows Ultrabook laptops, and tablets with Intel chips inside them, this is a serious concern. These devices are made for portability and long battery life, and a more expensive CPU often works against these design goals.

The Power and Heat Problem

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Faster, more powerful CPUs offer a higher maximum clock speed, additional cores, and other features. This translates to more CPU performance. CPUs have advanced in recent years and are better at power-saving. When under “idle” — in other words, when the computer isn’t doing anything — the CPU will use a lower clock speed. This applies to both cheaper, lower-power CPUs and more powerful CPUs. Under idle, similar modern CPUs — like the Haswell versions of Intel’s Core i3, i5, and i7 CPUs — should use a similar amount of power.

However, this behavior changes under “load” — when the computer is doing something and the CPU needs to start working. The lower-power CPU and higher-power CPU will both ramp up their clock speeds, using more power. However, the lower-power CPU has a lower maximum clock rate. The higher-power CPU has a higher maximum clock rate, so it will increase its clock rate to a higher speed, using more power, decreasing battery life, and generating more heat. In other words, that more expensive CPU will decrease your device’s battery life and make it run hotter.

On laptops and tablets designed to be as thin as possible — ones that may not have powerful fans and other good ways to disperse this heat — the heat generation may force the CPU to “throttle” itself, decreasing its speed to avoid generating so much heat that it will overheat the computer. This is known as “thermal throttling.” It means that — unless the computer has good cooling — you may not be able to use your CPU’s full speed for very long.

Battery Life Benchmarks

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Various reviewers have acquired popular devices like the MacBook Air and Surface Pro 3 with different CPUs inside and benchmarked them, so we can look at the situation across several popular devices and see how much the differences in CPUs actually affect battery life and heat production.

Several websites have done comparative reviews of the 2013 MacBook Air, with both the standard Core i5 and optional Core i7 upgrade option. (Just interested in Windows or Linux PCs, and not Macs? Not a problem — Macs are basically PCs and feature the same Intel CPUs you’ll find in Windows PCs, so the results should be directly comparable to non-Apple PCs. The MacBook AIr has just seen a lot of attention, so there’s more data around it.) Apple simply claims both CPUs offer “all-day battery life,” so they don’t provide much help.

Ars Technica compared the standard Core i5 and optional Core i7 CPU upgrade in the 2013 MacBook Air. The Core i7’s maximum clock rate was 30% faster than the Core i5 CPU’s. When it came to battery life, the Core I7 and Core i5 CPUs had similar battery life under a light workload. Under a medium workload, the Core i5 achieved 8.93 hours of battery life while the Core i7 achieved 7.80 hours of battery life. Under a heavy workload, the Core i5 achieved 5.53 hours of battery life, while the Core i7 achieved 4.68 hours of battery life. That’s 18% less battery life under heavy use. The Core i7 CPU also posted higher average temperatures — significantly so on the bottom of the laptop. It’s a straight performance vs. battery life trade-off.

MacWorld found similar results — with the Peacekeeper browser benchmark running, the Core i5 CPU offered 5 hours and 45 minutes of battery life, while the Core i7 gave out after 4 hours and 35 minutes.

Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 tablet is available with your choice of Core i3, i5, and i7 CPUs. The Core i7 Surface Pro 3’s have reportedly struggled with heat issues. Microsoft noted in a statement to PC World that “the increased power [of a a Core i7 CPU] calls for the fan to spin more regularly and at higher speeds—and for the unit to run slightly warmer.” In other words, the Core i7 CPU will make a Surface Pro 3 produce more heat, use more power, be noisier, and have less battery life.

Interestingly enough, Ars Technica found that the Core i3 and i5 CPUs in a Surface Pro 3 offered similar battery life, with the i3 pulling ahead in light usage scenarios and the i5 pulling ahead in heavy ones. The more powerful Core i7 wasn’t tested, but it would probably contribute more negatively to battery life.

So Why Would You Want a More Powerful CPU?

For most people, a longer-lasting and cooler Ultrabook, tablet, MacBook Air, or Surface Pro 3 would be better than one with more power under the hood that ran hotter and didn’t last as long. The core problem isn’t really with a more powerful CPU. It’s that these types of thin-and-light devices are designed for mobility and longer battery life. They’re ill-suited to having the fastest possible processor crammed into them. If you really need a Core i7 CPU for intensive video-rendering, virtual machines, or other heavy CPU workloads, a MacBook Air or Surface Pro 3 may not be the ideal computer for you — you might want a computer with better cooling, one that’s designed more for performance and not just for portability.

If you desperately want a thin-and-light device with a more powerful CPU, don’t let us stop you. You’re free to trade the battery life and put up with more heat — as well as paying more — to have more power under the hood. But most users of light, portable devices would probably prefer the battery life.

This may change in the future as CPUs become even more power-efficient and cool to run. A more powerful CPU may be so much more efficient that it may be a straight upgrade at some point in the future. But we aren’t there yet. For many people, that CPU upgrade is actually a real-world downgrade — one that you had to pay for!.

Image Credit: Nick Knupffer on Flickr, Quinn Dombrowski on Flickr, Scott Akerman on Flickr

Profile Photo for Chris Hoffman Chris Hoffman
Chris Hoffman is Editor-in-Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for over a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times and Reader's Digest, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than one billion times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
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