Why You Should Use Your Laptop’s High Performance Mode

You may have noticed that most laptop brands include performance utilities these days. Most people probably ignore these apps as bloatware, but after testing several of these performance modes on different laptops, there’s reason to pay attention to them, especially if you’re a gamer or content creator.

The reality is that if performance is important to you, these modes really do matter, and they should take into account both how you use your laptop and even what laptop you buy.

What are performance modes for?

Every laptop, whether equipped with a performance mode or not, has a default “balanced” mode that attempts to deliver what the manufacturer considers to be the best combination of performance, fan speed and noise, and heat. Manufacturers each approach this balance with different priorities, even among their different laptops, which is why two identically configured laptops can run at very different speeds and with more or less spinning fans.

What performance modes do is give you back some of that control. They are activated by utilities which generally provide three modes, usually with different names but the same basic functions. There’s a “silent” mode that shuts down the CPU (and GPU) completely to minimize fan noise and heat at the expense of performance. This mode is ideal when you’re in an environment where extra noise is an issue, or if you’re trying to conserve battery power.

Then there’s a ‘balanced’ mode which does exactly what it sounds like, attempts to balance performance and fan activity to give you a comfortable experience but doesn’t sacrifice performance too much. Finally, there’s a “performance” mode, where CPU and GPU are maxed out without regard to fan noise or heat.

When you buy a laptop, you’re not just buying the chassis and the components inside.

We’ll focus here on Balanced and Performance modes because those are what most people should select based on their specific needs. That’s not to say you’ll never use Quiet mode on a laptop, but in my experience Balanced mode usually provides a quiet enough laptop that I don’t want to give up performance for complete silence .

All of this matters a lot when we’re talking about evaluating the overall performance of a laptop, whether as a reviewer like me or someone trying to make a well-informed buying decision.

When you buy a laptop, you’re not just buying the chassis and the components inside. You’re also buying the complex system of sensors, fans, algorithms, and design choices used by a specific device. That’s why we always test Balanced Modes and Performance Modes to find out exactly how that particular device walked the tightrope.

You might want to know how balanced mode impacts performance, because you don’t want a slower-than-standard laptop in your most common scenarios. At the same time, you’ll also want to know if there’s a performance boost there when you need it.

When Performance Modes Don’t Matter

Dell Latitude 7320 Detachable
Dell Latitude 7320 Detachable Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

Now, before you get too excited, I have to caution my comments: sometimes these modes of laptop performance look more like ticking a box in the marketing model than working software. I’ve reviewed many laptops where toggling between Balanced and Performance modes made little to no difference to actual performance. I actually saw the performance mode actually reduce performance, even though the fans are indeed blowing harder and the heat is turned up.

I suspect that some laptops don’t have thermal designs conducive to CPU and GPU acceleration (especially discrete graphics), so enabling performance mode has little impact as the system can’t move enough air to prevent the laptop from choking. This is a theory I haven’t tested, but the only other explanation is that the manufacturer’s utility is just plain badly written.

An example of a laptop where switching from balanced mode to performance mode made little difference was the Dell Latitude 7320 detachable. In Cinebench R23, for example, its single-core score dropped from 1,246 to 1,247 and its multi-core score dropped from 3,339 to 3,597. As a removable tablet, this laptop supports thermal limitation theory given limited internal space for advanced thermal designs. One laptop where thermal stress shouldn’t explain the lack of a significant increase is the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Gen 9, whose single-core Cinebench score dropped from 1,469 to 1,463 and its multi-score results barely budged. from 4,945 to 4,968. That’s next to nothing.

Unfortunately, it comes down to each device when we talk about how big of a difference these performance modes can really make.

When performance modes make all the difference

An MSI Creator Z17 laptop lying on a green table.
MSI Z17 Creator Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

Sometimes, however, a laptop will show drastically different performance between different modes. An example is the MSI Creator Z17 which I am reviewing as I write this editorial. Its Cinebench R23 multi-core score fell from a disappointing 11,266 (for CPU) to a very competitive 15,754. That’s a whopping 40% increase. That put this Intel Core i7-12700H laptop in competition with laptops running 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 running the Intel Core i7-1260P processor. Its Cinebench scores rose from 1,626 to 1,723 single-core and from 7,210 to 8,979 multi-core, a 25% increase. The Yoga went from a slightly above-average performer to a leader in our comparison group simply by changing its performance mode.

In some cases, a laptop will perform downright poorly in balanced mode, but suddenly become competitive in performance mode. The HP Specter x360 14, for example, took 236 seconds in balanced mode to complete our Handbrake test which converts a 420MB video to H.265. That’s a slow score for a Core i7-1165G7. In performance mode, however, it finished in 190 seconds – not a super-fast score, but a 25% increase that’s more competitive in this class of laptops and processors.

Note that this all gets complicated because, as I said, most laptops today have such utilities, and we officially report Balanced Mode results. So the caveat here is that even though these two laptops were ahead of their review contest, it’s possible that these other laptops may have maintained their lead if their performance mode results have been reported. And to add yet another variable, some manufacturers implement automatic modes that attempt to match performance with a running task and guess what is most important to the user. Note that we do not run our benchmarks in these modes given the inherent unpredictability.

So use it, already

MSI Center showing different performance modes.

My recommendation is to first read our reviews (of course) to find out how much impact a utility has on laptop performance. If you want to be able to adjust the noise relative to the maximum speed, choose a laptop whose utility seems to work well.

Once you have your laptop in hand, be sure to use its utility to get the mix of performance and peace of mind you’re looking for. If you’re working in a crowded library, for example, and taking research notes, choose quiet mode so you don’t disturb your neighbors. If you work from home on standard productivity tasks, select Balanced Mode to get your work done quickly, but without driving your spouse or roommates crazy with fan noise. Then, if you’re running out of time to finish rendering a video as quickly as possible, switch to performance mode and let the laptop get to work. You’ll save time on rendering while supporting a little more noise and heat.

I recommend trying out the different performance modes once you’ve unboxed your laptop and turned it on. Familiarize yourself with the impact of each mode on performance and noise so that you can select the appropriate mode for your needs. Trust me, your ears and your patience will appreciate the extra effort.

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