The Intel Core M is the most hyped processor in years, and with good reason: it’s at the heart of a new revolution in laptops.
As with all new processors, performance is key to the hype. Yet for once it’s not about raw speed, it’s about power and efficiency. With its low power consumption and low heat generation, Core M doesn’t need a fan to stay cool, so manufacturers can build laptops that are thinner than we’ve ever seen before.
The Intel Core M is powering the 12-inch Macbook, at just 13.1mm thick, as well as many of 2015’s hottest laptops.
Let’s take a closer look at what it has to offer.
Intel Core M: What’s So Special?
The Intel Core M was unveiled in September 2014. It was targeted specifically at ultra-mobile devices, including laptops and the burgeoning 2-in-1 sector of products that combine laptop and tablet functionality.
Core M is the first processor from Intel based on its 14nm Broadwell architecture.
The new 14 nanometer processor (compared to the old 22nm) produces transistors that are considerably smaller than in other chips. This is a big deal because there are 1.3 billion transistors in a dual-core Core M processor.
The smaller transistor size enables the entire processor to be physically smaller, which in turn reduces the amount of power needed to activate each transistor. The lower power usage means less heat is generated. These three points make up the essential parts of the Core M processor.
It is 50 percent smaller than a fourth generation Intel Core processor, and has a TDP (Thermal Design Power, or the amount of power a CPU dissipates to prevent overheating) 60 percent lower. Intel says that Core M offers double the battery life of a typical four-year old laptop, and 1.7 hours more than a system based on a previous generation i5.
However, that’s not to say that a Core M system is set to replace an i7 powerhouse. Core M rests in between the high-end Core Series of processor that incorporates the Haswell-based i3, i5 and i7, and the low-end Atom range that features mostly in budget tablets.
Subsequent generations of the Core Series processors will also be based on the Broadwell architecture, which should bring the performance benefits to high-end systems.
- Designed for laptops and mobile devices
- Low power usage enables it to be used in fanless products which, in turn, can be much thinner — less than 9mm
- Part of the Broadwell family of processors, but performance is not comparable to i3, i5 or i7 equivalents
- Available in dual-core versions, with Intel HD 5300 graphics
Which Devices Use Core M?
As expected from such a major new product the Core M has already been adopted by many manufacturers including Apple, HP, ASUS and Lenovo.
Here are three standout devices in each class of product the Core M is currently featured in.
Name: Apple Macbook
Screen size: 12-inch
Name: ASUS Zenbook UX305
Screen size: 13.3-inch
Name: HP Split x2
Screen size: 13.3-inch
As mentioned already, Core M is positioned in the middle of Intel’s processor ranges, offering a balance between speed and battery life.
Intel compares the performance of the new chip to that of a four-year old laptop powered by an i5-520UM processor. It claims the Core M will deliver twice the performance for office applications, seven times the performance for graphics, and an extra four hours of battery life.
This shows the target market for Core M-based products: upgraders who will see tangible and welcome improvements over their old systems.
Core M is not aimed at power users who always need high-end performance in the latest hardware.
Benchmark tests of the Core M against an Intel Atom device show about a two to three times improvement in both graphics and CPU performance, illustrating how the new chip is superior to processors aimed specifically at mobile devices.
Compared to Core Series processors, the Core M is naturally restricted by its lower wattage.
But while it falls some way behind latest generation of chips in comparison — more than 15 percent slower than an entry level 2014 Macbook Air according to our own Geekbench test — the hardware site AnandTech shows that the dual-core Core M CPU in the Lenovo Yoga 3 is comparable to a five year old quad-core i7.
Who Should Buy a Core M System?
The laptop market has largely stagnated in recent years, due to the fact that for most users the benefits of upgrading are no longer obvious.
If you don’t have specific needs in your computing devices, such as for playing games or editing video, then you’ll likely find your computer is just as capable of browsing the web, editing documents and playing videos as it was the day you bought it.
And if so, the Core M is aimed at you. It offers a nice bump in performance over systems more than a couple years old, with potentially significant improvements in battery life in a thinner, more attractively designed device. Although it’s worth remembering that there are more factors than just CPU that affect the battery, so this may not always be guaranteed.
Some commentators have expressed disappointment at the performance of the Intel Core M, but focussing on speed misses the point of the processor.
This is a mainstream, affordable chip that places an emphasis on efficiency, and may help shift laptops away from their focus on specs, and much more on great design and improved user experience.
Are you excited by the Intel Core M? Would you happily trade a little speed for longer battery life and a better looking product? Let us know in the comments below.