For more than three years, Prowess Consulting’s writers and engineers have been on the front lines of the so-called tablet wars. After all this time, the only thing that we can claim with complete certainty is that device choice matters—an ideal combination of task and device can lead to happier and more productive users.

The opposite is also true: an ineffective combination of task and device can lead to delays and frustration.

In a recent project, we took a close look at two comparable HP devices to get a feel for which device is the best for which task. In the lineup: one laptop powered by a 6th generation Intel Core i5 processor and one 2-in-1 convertible device powered by an Intel Core M processor.

If you think of the Intel Core M family as an underpowered successor to the Intel Atom family, our findings might surprise you.

A Quick Intel Core M Processor Overview

The Intel Core M processor family launched in 2014 based on Intel’s 14 nanometer (nm) microarchitecture, and it is a good fit in the tablet and convertible market. It sports two cores, 4 MB of last-level cache (LLC), and support for up to 16 GB of memory. The Intel Core M processor family enables long battery life and ultra-thin, light, and fan-less designs.

From its launch, the Intel Core M processor family has pulled good press. In September 2014, Tom’s Hardware published early Intel Core M processor family benchmark results that showed the processor family outperforming its predecessor, the Intel Atom processor family, by as much as three times. CNET enthusiastically announced that the Intel Core M processor family finally provides a reason to upgrade your laptop.

Both of these pieces assume that the natural comparison to the Core M family is Atom. Our testing shows otherwise.

Compare Intel Core M Processors to Intel Core i5 Processors, not Atom.

Despite the good press, Intel is fighting an uphill battle against unfair perceptions that Intel Core M processors are “lightweight” processors. Playing right into those perceptions is one of its best selling points: support for fan-less designs. IT pros know that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Because Intel Core M processors don’t generate enough heat to need fans, it stands to reason that the manufacturer must have traded something to keep them cooler.

Simply put, customers fear that the tradeoff was performance. Our tests do not support this assumption.

As the links above show, industry pundits reported on the Intel Core M processor family as a replacement for the Intel Atom processor family. Therefore, the Intel Core M processor family might be carrying some Intel Atom processor baggage as it seeks to overcome market perceptions.

In reality, as our functionality tests found, the most eye-opening comparison for the Core M is not the Atom, but the Core i5 processor family.

For our tests, we compared an HP EliteBook 840 G3 laptop, powered by an Intel Core i5-6200U processor, and an HP Elite x2 1012 G1 2-in-1 device, powered by an Intel Core m5-6Y54 processor. We put the devices through workflows that mimic those performed by information workers day in and day out, such as tasks based on Microsoft Office and collaboration. (We also performed similar comparisons with Lenovo devices and got similar results.)

We found negligible performance differences between the two. For most tasks that office workers have to do for their jobs, either device would be a great fit.

The differences largely come down to form factor:

  • Mobile employees, such as sales people, will appreciate the sleek design and long battery life of the HP Elite x2 1012 G1, powered by the Intel Core m5-6Y54 processor. Even with its fan-less design and greater portability, this device has the power needed for mobile information workers. Mobile users will also like its convertible flexibility that can make it a laptop or a tablet.
  • Employees who do most of their work in an office setting will enjoy the HP EliteBook 840 G3, powered by the Intel Core i5-6200U processor, with its wired or wireless connectivity and dock support. When they need to take a computer to a conference room, this device is easily portable, and it has a little more kick for processor-intensive tasks such as graphics or video manipulation.

Our complete test results and analysis show no reason for IT admins to be concerned about performance with the Intel Core M processor family.

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