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Intel’s new naming trick makes fast and slow processors look the same

Core m and Core i are becoming one

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Intel Kaby Lake processor back

Intel is making some weird naming changes to its processors this year that are certain to confuse people about what they’re buying. As spotted by Laptop Mag, the Core m name is largely going away in favor of Core i, which means it’s going to be much harder to tell exactly how powerful the processor is inside of a new laptop.

At least in the short term, that’s a problem because there’s a real difference between the two lines. Core i processors are what you find in most laptops, like the Surface Pro and MacBook Air, and are powerful enough that you don’t have to worry about them handling a modest workload. Core m processors, on the other hand, are what you find in super-thin fanless laptops; they’re less capable and sometimes choke up even from browsing the web.

So it’s important to know what you’re getting, because a laptop is going to work differently depending on what’s inside of it. But starting with this year’s Kaby Lake processors from Intel, it’ll be much harder to tell. Processors that formerly would have been known as m5 and m7 models are now going to be listed under the i5 and i7 lines. Without a close look at their model number, it won’t be clear whether you’re getting a powerful MacBook Pro-style processor or a weaker MacBook-style processor.

Intel thinks this makes things less confusing

The decision seems likely to confuse people into believing they’re getting a more capable processor than they actually are. But Intel argues that’s not quite right. It says the name change comes in response to feedback from consumers and manufacturers and is “really an effort to make things less complex.”

“We have also made significant performance improvements” to the Core m line “such that both form factor and performance lines were blurring,” Intel’s Scott Massey writes in an email to The Verge. “So yes, there are differences (as there are with all the different SKUs), but they aren’t as big as it was when we first introduced Core m two years ago.”

Massey compares the difference to the distinction between dual- and quad-core chips, both of which have lived under the Core i name for years, despite the distinction between them. The difference between m- and i-style chips isn’t always that large either, he adds, as m chips range up to 7W in power, while i chips go as low as 7.5W. “So the handoff from one level to another is very close and not a big leap as some might have perceived a few years ago,” he writes.

To his point, we’ve seen real improvements in Core m chips year over year: take our 2015 MacBook review, where we found the laptop struggling to manage 10 Chrome tabs, then compare it to our 2016 MacBook review, where we were “actually surprised at how fast it felt.”

intel chart
The renamed Core m-style processors

It’s easy to understand why Intel would want to consolidate under the Core i name. Core i is well known and widely advertised, which means this change is going to be good news for computers with m-style chips in the short term: they’ll come off looking better — or, at a minimum, different — than they actually are.

It’ll also be easier for Intel and its partners in the long term. Core m-style chips will likely become the norm for laptops over the next few years, as their performance improves and demand for super-thin laptops continues to grow. By renaming the chips, Intel and PC manufacturers can keep on promoting the Core i brand, rather than putting the work into convincing consumers that the Core m name is just as trustworthy.

But what’s good for manufacturers is not necessarily good for consumers. And it seems fair to say that’ll be the case here.

More often than not, laptops are advertised without stating their processor’s full model name. You can usually — but not always — dig the full model name up by looking through spec sheets, but that’s a frustrating step that most people aren’t going to take. That means people are going to be buying Core i processors that don’t come with the performance generally expected of them.

Look for “Y” to tell the difference between m and i

There’ll still be a way to tell the difference between m-style and i-style chips, if you can find a processor’s model number. Core m-style chips include a “Y” in their model number, like this: i5-7Y54. Chips that traditionally would have been in the Core i line will continue to end their name with U, like this: i5-7200U.

It’s possible the distinction between m-style and i-style chips won’t matter as much in a few years. Core m-style chips could get more capable, or laptops that include power-heavy Core i-style chips could fall out of fashion. But that doesn’t really matter right now. Right now there’s a big distinction between the two lines, and if you’re buying a new laptop, you’ll want to check for that Y to know what you’re really getting.