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Should you upgrade to a Haswell laptop right now?

When to buy a new laptop is a difficult decision. Unlike desktops, laptops are generally not upgradeable and unlike tablets, they aren't very cheap. Every year they seem to get better but unless you're lugging around a 10-pound laptop with a dead battery, it's sometimes better to wait. This year, Intel, the manufacturer of most laptop CPUs, came out with a new, more powerful, and more efficient processor called Haswell. It promises nice upgrades to this year's newest laptops, but should they be the reason you buy one right now?

So what is Haswell?

Haswell is the code name for Intel's 4th generation of processors. Previous generations have been code named Ivy Bridge and Sandy Bridge, but the most important thing to note is that while the names change and there are incremental upgrades to each, Intel follows what they call a tick-tock pattern of development.

Every generation that is a tick, usually means that the chip is based on all-new architecture and every tock is a shrinking of that technology. Haswell is a tick. What this means to you is that it is a brand new design that brings with it upgrades that the two previous generations were not capable of. This is comparable to Apple's iPhone development, where the tick would be a new design like the iPhone 4 and the tock would be an upgraded version like the iPhone 4S.

But what does that give you?

With Haswell, Intel has focused most of its energy on efficiency and better integrated graphics. Both of these things are especially important for laptops. A more efficient processor translates to better battery life (Intel claims you could see up to 50% longer battery life) and better integrated graphics (up to three times better) means that if you don't want to spend money on a gaming laptop with a dedicated graphics card but still would like to partake in some light gaming or video watching, it will be more capable.

There is also a more incremental upgrade in processing power. Intel says it will be a modest increase over the previous generation Ivy Bridge processors, but again, Haswell's focus was on efficiency and increasing power tends to have a negative impact on battery life.

What good Haswell laptops are available?

Intel only introduced its Haswell processors on June 4th so as the year goes on there will be more and more options for you. Apple recently upgraded its Macbook Air lineup to Haswell and while performance is on par with last year's models (sadly no retina screen), battery life is almost unbelievable. The 13-inch Macbook Air claims to have all-day battery life and some tests and reviews have seen run times of nearly 13 hours. Which is currently more than the iPad -- a battery life champion in its own right.

For Windows users, there are still only a few new laptops with Haswell but by year's end most new models should ship with it. Right now the Sony Vaio Pro 13 is an attractive option with a nice compact design and good battery life. Or if gaming is more your thing, the new 3rd-gen Razer Blade combines good performance with twice the battery life of the previous generation.

Who should upgrade?

If you were already in the market for a laptop or ultrabook and you were trying to decide between a new laptop with last year's processor or a new laptop with a Haswell processor, go with Haswell. Even if the specs don't seem all that different, the upgrades to efficiency alone will make it a much more portable device.

With the start of a new school year looming around the corner, a Haswell laptop is the perfect companion for class. Long battery life means you will have enough longevity for a few classes which helps when outlets are at a premium in lecture halls. It also has enough power to get through some tougher computing processes like video editing a project, or maybe even a class length's-worth of Diablo 3 (for those in the back of the class only).

Who probably shouldn't upgrade, but could if they wanted to

You bought a laptop last year. You even bought a good one. Haswell isn't exponentially better. Sure the efficiency is tempting, and the graphics upgrade would be cool in a pinch, but for most new laptop owners, you might not feel enough of a difference to warrant dropping another grand or two on a new computer.

You also shouldn't upgrade if you aren't satisfied with what last year's laptops were capable of. If you were doing work or playing games that made your laptop seem like a slide show, Haswell probably won't solve that. You should into getting a new desktop or gaming laptop. When you're limited by battery life and size, sometimes you can't have it all, and just like a fast car, if you only care about performance and not MPG, don't get a hybrid.

Jack of all trades

In short, Haswell is a modest upgrade to some and a revolution to others. The prospect of tablet-like battery life with laptop functionality is freeing for those who absolutely love mobility and need to get work done. But those looking for incredible high-end power probably won't be excited by better discrete graphics and a small processing upgrade.

Before you go out to buy your next laptop, know what you need first. If Haswell's upgrades match up to your expectations, then you probably won't regret it.