Among the catalog of CPU specifications, what exactly do we look for to get the best processor for our needs? Does cache matter? What about the number of cores? Is the highest clock speed always the best?
As all these vital questions swirl around, perusing the multitude of options on the market today can quickly descend into a lunacy-inducing tangle of numbers, product lines, and inaccessible terms like Hyperthreading.
In our guide, we’ll unmask CPU specifications with a focus on simplicity to ward off those feelings of overwhelming confusion. CPU technology is state of the art and, consequently, behind each spec is an expanse of details that are overkill for the average PC user, so we’ll stay clear of those and only cover the basics needed to make an informed purchase.
Manufacturer – Intel and AMD
Going on the assumption that you are looking to replace a flailing CPU or build a brand new machine, there are only two manufacturers that matter for consumer computing: Intel and AMD.
You’ll surely have heard of these as they are pillars of the computer industry, and even heard entrenched options on which is the best. Traditionally, Intel has been synonymous with higher performance and processing efficiency, but with a price tag to match.
AMD, on the other hand, has a reputation as being more budget friendly due to different manufacturing techniques and the company’s desire to secure a birth as an affordable option that doesn’t skimp on quality.
Currently, the two giants offer products of more or less equal quality in the desktop/laptop market, especially with the launch of the AMD Ryzen line, which has caught up with the performance of Intel CPUs.
The bottom line is that it all comes down to budget and personal preference. Annoyingly, both Intel and AMD CPU require different types of motherboards and sockets, which we’ll cover in more detail below.
The product line or series is none other than the marketing fanfare associated with a range of processors. Series tend to focus on a particular application, such as gaming, office, or servers, or if not on a generational improvement in technology.
For example, Intel Core i3 processors are suited to laptops because they consume less energy while also tailored to daily computing tasks like word processing and web browsing. On the other hand, Intel’s latest Core i9 processor range is a high-end product aimed at the top of the line gaming rigs able to run the most recent titles at ridiculously high FPS and resolutions.
On AMD’s side, you have the Athlon line aimed at entry-level users for video streaming and light gaming, all the way to the Ryzen 7 designed for the best gaming experience.
As we mentioned above, each CPU requires a particular type of motherboard, or more specifically the right kind of physical connection, to work. The socket type is a physical compatibility standard that refers to the motherboards the CPU works alongside.
The right socket physically accepts the pins on the CPU, while the wrong one won’t even allow you to install. It is, therefore, crucial to buy a motherboard compatible with your chosen CPU or it won’t be able to function at all.
By way of example, the AMD Ryzen 7 1800X needs an AM4 socket compatible motherboard such as the ASUS Prime B350-Plus. On the Intel side of the fence, the Core i7-8700K has an LGA1151 socket compatible with an EVGA Z390 for example.
Although there’s an array of socket types from both Intel and AMD, the increasingly cryptic stream of numbers (sometimes referring to the number of pins on the processor) and letters don’t need to be memorized or understood, only matched up with the CPU. Socket types don’t need to be any more complicated than this.
Linked to socket type is the motherboard chipset. A chipset is a unit that controls how the components within a PC function together and dictates the layout of connectors and ports on the motherboard. Compatible motherboards can offer varying chipsets packed with different features such as extra USB ports, PCI-E slots, RAM slots, DDR4 support, overclocking options, and so on. The more features, the more expensive the motherboard.
Chipsets are crucial because although they may sport the right socket type for a CPU, the CPU may not be compatible with the chipset due to generational improvements in processor lines that may not be compatible with older chipsets with the same socket type. The problem remains a rare occurrence but is worth considering when eyeing the latest Intel and AMD CPUs.
When checking the specs on a CPU, manufacturers often boast about the number of cores. In general, more cores equate to increased processing power, which results in a better ability to handle multiple applications and processes at the same time.
So what’s a core? In simple terms, a core is a processor.
CPUs traditionally only had one core, but when Intel and AMD hit a brick wall with incremental clock speeds improvements – known as a bottleneck – they turned their attention to cores. Instead of a single core, CPUs now have two, three, four, six, eight, and now even thirty-two cores in the case of the AMD Ryzen Threadripper product line.
In theory, double the amount of processing power provided by an extra core should equate to double the speed and ability to handle tasks. The reasoning is that a single processor can perform one task at a time, so two cores should allow it to deliver double the tasks.
In reality, the technology is relatively young and not all software can take advantage of the extra cores. There is, however, a general shift towards optimizing games and programs for multi-core use.
Hyperthreading is intrinsically linked to cores and is best understood as a proprietary Intel technology that allows the operating system, in most cases Windows, to recognize the CPU as having double the amount of cores.
In practical terms, a CPU with eight physical cores would be recognized by Windows as having sixteen virtual cores, or sixteen threads. In reality, the performance is more akin to an enhanced eight-core CPU, rather than a true sixteen core processor.
From a user’s perspective, threads are sets of instructions. Hyperthreading allows a core to trigger and run two threads in parallel to one another, but not at the same time, jumping between the two based on natural pauses in both tasks. The details may sound confusing but see it more as a better ability to delegate work through multitasking.
For example, a CPU is working on an application but experiences downtime due to having to wait for data from a rendered date from the GPU. During that downtime, it will trigger and work on a separate task, before returning to the previous one when the data is ready. The example is simplistic but provides a conceptual idea of how Hyperthreading works.
The bottom line is that Hyperthreading is worth it if you are prone to running multiple programs simultaneously. For example, VSTs in music production setups, photoshop tools, or video editing suites. The average user won’t, however, benefit much from Hyperthreading technology.
Frequency and Clock Speed
Known either as frequency, clock rate, or clock speed, this refers to the speed of the CPU measured in GHz, or how quickly the processor can process instructions in any given second (clock cycles per second). 1 Hz equals one cycle per second, so a 2 GHz frequency can handle 2 billion instructions for every second.
The higher the frequency, the faster the CPU operates. CPU with more cores tend to offer a lower rate, but multiple cores may not equate directly to a dip in performance as their combined power makes up for the lower frequency.
If we delve a little deeper, CPUs have two types of clock speed. Base speed refers to its basic operating frequency. Boost clock, max frequency, or Turbo Boost refers to the maximum load a CPU can handle. The boost triggers a momentary overclock when extra processing power is required. However, the boost only works under a specific set of circumstances linked to the CPUs temperature, core availability, and workload.
Overclocking, on the other hand, is when the frequency is pushed beyond its boost clock rate by user-generated means. Often the preserve of enthusiasts, overclocking has a widening appeal particular for owners of processors with fewer cores and manufacturers are increasingly adapting models for such uses.
Intel now assigns a K next to the model number, indicating it is overclock-ready, while AMD’s CPUs are overclockable across the board and the company has an automatic overclock assistive tech titled XFR
To confuse matters even more clock speeds vary in qualitative value between manufacturers due to different processor architectures and other important CPU specs like cache, number of cores, and data bus that affect the overall performance of the processor.
CPUs work in different ways, and the number of instructions per cycle can differ. For example, a processor with a frequency of 3 GHz that takes two cycles to perform an instruction, is outperformed by a processor with a rate of 2GHz that can complete said instruction in one cycle.
Comparing frequency between AMD and Intel CPUs is, therefore, somewhat redundant as the speeds aren’t comparable on their own and tend to fluctuate based on the task. A better measure of a CPU’s overall performance are benchmarks accessible on the plethora of dedicated sites littering the internet.
In general, aim for the highest frequency and number of cores within your budget range, and you can’t go wrong.
Cache is a high-speed momentary memory format assigned to the CPU to facilitate future retrieval of data and instructions before processing. It’s very similar to RAM in the sense that it acts as a temporary holding pen for data. Contrary to RAM, cache sits on the CPU itself, so the access times are significantly faster. By bypassing the need to route data from the RAM to the CPU, the process considerably reduces the access time.
As a general rule, the more cache a CPU has access to, the better overall performance notably when multiple tasks are underway. The ability to juggle the inflow of information rapidly is crucial to sustained performance.
Cache is broken down into three cache levels, or hierarchies, a bit like a pyramid: L1, L2, and L3 (sometimes called Smart Cache on Intel CPUs). Each has its own defined function.
L1 is the fastest cache and the first port of call for a CPU hunting down data. In modern processors, two split compartments make up the L1 cache, one for data and one for instructions, and every core is assigned an exclusive portion of the L1 cache.
L2 is bigger than L1, and consequently slower due to the processor having to trawl through more data. L3, on the other hand, is shared among all the cores and offers more space, but is slower.
Although the levels can quickly get confusing, the idea is to have as much cache as you can spread across the three levels as possible to maximize efficiency and performance.
Thermal Power Design or Thermal Output
Thermal Power Design (TDP) refers to the power output of the processor. In other words, how much power the processor needs during operation. TDP is useful as it provides a figure for what wattage power supply unit is required. TDP is also helpful as it notes the maximum temperature at which the processor will run giving us a benchmark for the heat a cooling system will need to dissipate.
Integrated graphics is a graphics processing unit built into the processor negating the need for a dedicated graphics card. A CPU with integrated graphics works by porting the rendered graphical output for display on a monitor via the motherboard to either a DIV, HDMI, or other video output format.
Most Intel CPUs have integrated graphics from the Intel HD, Iris, or UHD Graphics family, while AMD has what it calls APUs, accelerated processing units, which are identical to CPUs with integrated graphics.
For gamers, integrated graphics aren’t powerful enough to run the latest demanding games, and a GPU is required. However, for most home and office tasks, an integrated graphics card is more than sufficient and is a great way to save money on a build given the outrageous cost of a dedicated GPU.
The UK-based journalist and gamer, Thomas, describes himself as a man of few words with an unhealthy obsession for everything wonderful about the world of gaming. Thanks to his experience in the gaming industry, he brings a wealth of talent into GamingScan.