Only two of the top 20 systems on Amazon’s best-selling notebook list have a quad-core processor, and less than a quarter of all notebooks listed on Newegg have more than two cores. This has been true for as long as multi-core chips have been available, and it’s not likely to change any time soon.
But the most popular choice isn’t always correct. Over the past few years I’ve noticed that notebooks reviewed with a quad-core chip tend to make a better impression that those with only two cores, and in certain situations the quad is required to make the most of other hardware. Picking a big, power-hungry CPU may seem strange, but there are some compelling reasons to make the leap to a quad.
The raw numbers
Geekbench, the processor benchmark we use in all our laptop reviews, clearly demonstrates the advantage of a quad-core processor. Take a look for yourself.
The numbers don’t lie. There’s no question that the quads are quicker in every scenario.
You’d expect the quad-core systems to outperform their dual-core counterparts in the multi-core test, and that’s exactly what happens, though the margin of victory is greater than you might expect. The Lenovo is one of the quickest dual-core notebooks we’ve ever tested, but it’s still slightly less than half as quick as the Acer Aspire V15 Nitro and Asus G501J.
More surprising are the single-core results, where the quads still win. That’s a recent turn of events. A few years back, a typical quad-core would always lose to a dual-core in single-threaded performance scenarios. Intel’s Turbo Boost feature has become more aggressive over time, however, and base clocks for quad-core laptops have risen.
In 2009 Intel’s entry-level quad was the Core i7-720QM, which had a base clock of 1.6GHz. Today, the most common quad is Intel’s Core i7-4710HQ, which has a base clock of 2.5GHz. That’s a massive 900MHz bump. Dual-core chips haven’t enjoyed a similar gain in raw clock speed, though they of course have become quicker due to architectural improvements.
The numbers don’t lie. While some argument can be had over what level of performance is “good enough,” there’s no question that the quads are quicker in every scenario, and sometimes by a huge margin. If you never do anything besides browse the Internet, the difference may not matter. But in games, basic productivity applications and even some routine tasks, like un-zipping files, the difference is noticeable.
What about portability?
While the performance numbers are definitive, they don’t settle the argument. Its common knowledge that notebooks are meant to be portable, and also commonly accepted that dual-core chips have an advantage. That’s generally true, but there two caveats.
First is the need for portability. Visit any notebook manufacturer’s website and you’ll like see press shots that show thin, young, healthy people using the company’s hardware outdoors, in airports, or even on the beach. These make for good marketing, but may not be indicative of most laptop use.
If you want more, you have to pay more. But quad-core systems deliver bang for your buck.
No publically released study has ever compared the time notebooks users spend at home against the time spent away, but some data points indicate most systems rarely travel. For example, a 2009 study of netbook owners found that sixty percent never used the PC outside the home. That’s incredible given the entire point of a netbook was portability – it’d be reasonable to guess bigger notebooks leave home with even less frequency.
In other words, it’s a good bet your notebook choice is guided by the life you imagine yourself living, rather than the life you actually live. Time use surveys report the average American devotes about an hour of each day to using a PC for leisure. Even laptops with the worst endurance can last several hours on a charge.
It’s also not clear that dual-core systems have, on average, significantly longer battery lives. The Asus G501J lasts five hours and 29 minutes on a charge, and the Dell XPS 15 lasts four hours and 40 minutes, as judged by our Peacekeeper battery life test. Both have quad-core processors.
Meanwhile, a dual-core Asus Zenbook UX305 lasts 6 hours 17 minutes, and the Samsung Ativ Book 9 lasts 5 hours 41 minutes. There are stand out systems like the Dell XPS 13, which lasts almost 10 hours, but most dual-core notebooks don’t drastically out-last their quad-core peers.
There’s a good reason for that. Big notebooks have room for bigger batteries, and often put that room to use. It’s strange to see a dual-core system with a 50 watt-hour battery today, and some make do with 30 watt-hours or less. On the other hand, quads often come with 60, 70, or even 90 watt-hours of juice.
Duals do have one indisputable advantage. Size. Quads are rarely paired with a screen smaller than 15 diagonal inches, because a larger notebook is required to handle the power and heat of a quad. If you really need a 13-inch notebook, you don’t have much choice. But that brings the argument back to my first point – you probably don’t need a 13-inch notebook as much as you think.
Of course, the benefits of a quad come at a price – the price. You’re not going to find one for much less than $1,000. On sale, certain systems can come in around $800, which is quite reasonable, but you’re not going to find a quad in a $600 notebook on any day besides Black Friday.
That is a limitation, and given that the average sales price of a Windows notebook has hovered around $600 for years now, it can’t be easily ignored. Some people will find themselves priced out of a quad.
But isn’t that true of everything? If you want more, you have to pay more. It’s not as if systems that have quad-core chips do not offer the same value as dual-core peers. On the contrary, they’re more likely to boast a discrete graphics chip, multiple hard drives, UltraHD display and other desirable features.
Acer’s Aspire V15 Nitro Black Edition, for example, delivers an Intel Core i7-4710HQ alongside eight gigabytes of RAM, an Nvidia GTX 860M and a one terabyte hard drive, all for $1,000. The bang-for-your-buck is incredible, and there’s no comparable 13-inch system even if you disregard the quad-core entirely.
Buying a quad-core laptop may seem like overkill, but its value is becoming increasingly apparent. A decade ago, when quads first arrived as a serious option for consumers, few programs properly used the extra cores. Today, almost every demanding application is optimized for numerous processing cores. Even some less demanding applications are beginning to shift focus; the Microsoft Edge browser, for example, is making multi-core performance a priority.
Today’s computers can last a very long time, and with a laptop, which cannot be upgraded substantially after purchase, future-proofing is worthwhile. Buying a small, bare-bones, dual-core system may save you money today, but how will it perform a year from now? Three years from now? More? Don’t fall victim to an overzealous pursuit of “value.” In the long term, a quad-core is a better bet.