You may have noticed that most laptop brands today include performance utilities. Most people probably ignore these applications as bloatware, but after testing many of these performance modes on different laptops, there is reason to pay attention to them, especially if you are a gamer or content creator.
The reality is that if performance is important to you, these modes really matter, and they should play a role in both how you use your laptop and what laptop you buy.
What do performance modes do?
Every laptop, whether equipped with a performance mode or not, has a default “balanced” mode that tries to provide what the manufacturer considers the best combination of performance, fan speed and noise, and heat. Manufacturers each approach this balance with different priorities, even between their different laptops. Therefore, two laptops configured identically can run at very different speeds and with fans spinning more or less.
What performance modes do is give you some of that control back. They are enabled by utilities that typically offer three modes, usually with different names but with the same basic functions. There’s a “quiet” mode that shuts down the CPU (and GPU) altogether to minimize fan noise and heat at the expense of performance. This mode is ideal for when you are in an environment where extra noise is an issue, or if you are trying to conserve battery power.
Then there’s a “balanced” mode that does exactly what it sounds like, an attempt to balance performance and fan activity to give you a comfortable experience, but one that doesn’t sacrifice performance too much. Finally, there is a “performance” mode, where the CPU and GPU are maxed out without regard for fan noise or heat.
When you buy a laptop, you’re not just buying the chassis and components inside.
We will focus here on Balanced and Performance modes as most people should select these depending on their specific needs. That’s not to say you’ll never use a laptop’s silent mode, but in my experience, balanced mode usually provides a laptop that’s quiet enough that I don’t want to give up performance for complete silence.
All of this matters when we’re talking about evaluating the overall performance of a laptop — whether it’s a reviewer like myself or a person trying to make an informed purchase decision.
When you buy a laptop, you’re not just buying the chassis and components inside. You also buy the complex system of sensors, fans, algorithms and design choices used by a specific device. That’s why we always test both Balanced Modes and Performance Modes so we know exactly how that particular device has walked the tightrope.
You may want to know what impact balanced mode has on performance because you don’t want a slower laptop than the norm in your most common scenarios. At the same time, you also want to know if there is a performance boost when you need it.
When performance modes don’t matter
Now, before you get too excited, I have to caveat in my comments: Sometimes these laptop performance modes are more like checking a box in the marketing template than functional bits of software. I’ve tested many laptops where switching between balanced and performance modes made little or no difference in actual performance. I even saw the achievement mode Reduce performance, even though the fans do indeed blow harder and the heat is increased.
I’m guessing some laptops don’t have a thermal design conducive to boosting the CPU and GPU (discrete graphics in particular), so enabling performance mode has little impact as the system can’t move enough air to prevent the laptop is throttled. That’s a theory I haven’t tested, but the only other explanation is that the manufacturer’s utility is just poorly written.
An example of a laptop where switching from balanced to performance mode made little difference was the Dell Latitude 7320 Detachable. For example, in Cinebench R23, the single-core score went from 1,246 to 1,247 and the multi-core score increased from 3,339 to 3,597. As a detachable tablet, that laptop supports the theory of thermal constraints given the limited internal space for advanced thermal designs. One laptop where thermal limitations shouldn’t explain the lack of significant increase is the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Gen 9, whose Cinebench single-core score dropped from 1,469 to 1,463 and the multi-score results barely moved from 4,945 to 4,968. . That’s almost nothing.
Unfortunately, when we talk about the big difference these performance modes can really make, it comes down to any device.
When performance modes make the difference
However, sometimes a laptop will show dramatically different performance between the different modes. An example is the MSI Creator Z17 that I am reviewing as I write this op-ed. The Cinebench R23 multi-core score jumped from a disappointing (for the CPU) 11,266 to a very competitive 15,754. That is no less than 40% more. That pitted this Intel Core i7-12700H laptop against laptops with the much faster Core i9-12900HK, all by flipping a switch in the MSI Center Pro utility.
Another example is the Yoga 9i 14 Gen 7 with the Intel Core i7-1260P. The Cinebench scores rose from 1,626 to 1,723 single-core and 7,210 to 8,979 multi-core, a 25% increase. The Yoga improved from a slightly above average performer to a leader in our comparison group just by switching performance modes.
In some cases, a laptop will perform downright poorly in balanced mode, but then suddenly become competitive in performance mode. For example, the HP Specter x360 14 took 236 seconds in balanced mode to complete our handbrake test that converts a 420MB video to H.265. That’s a slow score for a Core i7-1165G7. In performance mode, however, it was done in 190 seconds — not a super-fast score, but a 25% increase that’s more competitive within that laptop and CPU class.
Note that this is all getting complicated because, as I said, most laptops today have such utilities and we are officially reporting on the results of the balanced mode. So the caveat here is that while these two laptops were ahead of their review competition, it’s possible those other laptops would have kept their edge if their performance mode results were reported. And to throw in one more variable, some manufacturers implement automatic modes that attempt to match performance with a task in progress and make a guess as to what matters most to the user. Note that we do not run our benchmarks in these modes, given the inherent unpredictability.
So use it already
My recommendation is to read our reviews first (obviously) to find out the impact of a utility on a laptop’s performance. If you want to be able to tune for noise versus full speed, choose a laptop whose utility seems to work well.
Once you’ve got your laptop to hand, make sure to use the utility to get exactly the mix of performance and tranquility you’re looking for. For example, if you work in a crowded library and take research notes, choose silent mode so you don’t disturb your neighbors. If you’re working on basic productivity tasks at home, select Balanced Mode to get your work done quickly, but without driving your partner or roommates crazy with fan noise. Then, if you’re short on time to render a video as fast as possible, switch to performance mode and let the laptop do the work. You’ll save time on the render while tolerating some extra noise and heat.
I recommend trying out the different performance modes once you’ve unpacked and started up your laptop. Familiarize yourself with each mode’s impact on performance and sound so you can select the appropriate mode if needed. Trust me, your ears and patience will appreciate the extra effort.