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CPU: A Buyer's Guide
Table of contents
Every computer needs a motherboard, and every motherboard needs a CPU. The CPU, which stands for Central Processing Unit, determines how much data a computer can handle at one time and how quickly it can handle that data. The main things to consider when buying a CPU are the number of cores needed, what the computer will be used for, the type of software to be run, processor compatibility, and the speed of the CPU.
When purchasing a CPU, a number of options are on the market. Here you will find a summary of the types of CPUs available.
Desktop CPUs were created for desktop computers. While the CPUs for desktops basically perform the same functions as CPUs for mobile devices (such as laptops) and servers, desktop CPUs are built a little differently to handle the needs of desktop computer users. For example, one advantage that desktop CPUs offer is that they are able to offer a higher thermal tolerance. Desktop processors are also more compatible with overclocking.
Mobile processors are created for laptops and mobile devices such as smart phones. Mobile processors tend to be slower and have less power than desktop processors, mainly to conserve battery power. However, many do offer features that desktop processors do not, such as Wireless Display technology (WiDi). This technology allows the wireless transmission of media files to a television, for example.
Server processors are built for high reliability. When these processors are tested, they are put through stressful conditions such as higher temperatures and high computing loads. If your desktop processor fails, the entire computer becomes inoperable. Server CPUs, however, have “failovers” – where standby equipment automatically takes over when the main system fails – such as dual CPU servers. They are also designed to operate at much higher frequencies, enabling them to process more data.
After considering the different types of processors, the next step is to get familiar with the specifications and features that the various processors have to offer. Not all processors are created equal! It is important to understand which specs and features matter and how they pertain to a computer’s usage. Below is some discussion on what to focus on when purchasing a CPU.
Less than a decade ago, all processors came with a single core. Nowadays single-core processors are the exception and not the rule. Multi-core processors have become more popular as their availability has become increasingly common and software has been designed to utilize multi-core technology. From dual-core to eight-core processors, there are a number of options to choose from. When deciding how many cores are needed, first it is necessary to understand what “multiple cores” means.
When processors were running on a single core, that one core was responsible for handling all the data sent to the processor. As more cores are integrated into a processor, those cores are able to split up the processor’s tasks. This makes the processor faster and more efficient. However, it is important to remember that a processor can only perform as well as the existing software running it. If the software that is only able to utilize three of the eight cores, then five cores are going to unused. To maximize cost and use, it is best to match system requirements with core availability.
A processor’s cache is similar to the memory of a computer. A processor’s cache is a small amount of very fast memory that is used for temporary storage. This allows a computer to retrieve the files that are in the processor’s cache very quickly. The larger a processor’s cache, the more files it will be able to store for that quick retrieval.
Socket compatibility is a primary concern when it comes to buying a processor. The socket compatibility enables the interface between a motherboard and its CPU. If a motherboard has already been acquired, make sure that the processor installed is compatible with the motherboard’s socket. Alternately, when building a computer around the processor, make sure that the motherboard is compatible with the existing processor.
Integrated Graphics Processing Units (GPUs)
Many of today’s processors have integrated graphics processing units, which are designed to perform the calculations related to graphics. If a processor does not have an integrated GPU, the computer can still display graphics if a separate graphics card is present or if the motherboard offers onboard video. If the computer will be used for graphics-intensive software and programs, then a CPU with an integrated GPU will likely not perform as needed.
The frequency of a CPU, measured in hertz (Hz), is the speed at which it operates. In the past, a merely faster frequency equaled better performance. This is not necessarily the case any longer. In some cases, a CPU running at a lower frequency may actually perform better than a processor running at a higher frequency due to the infrastructure of the CPU. It is important to look at a CPU’s “instructions per clock” in addition to the frequency of the CPU. While frequency is still a good indication of how quickly a processor can perform, it is no longer the only factor that impacts the actual speed of a processor.
Thermal Design Power
Processors generate heat. The thermal design power specification assigned to a CPU explains how much heat the processor is going to give off. This will directly affect the type of cooling device needed for a CPU. If the CPU does not come with a cooling device or if the cooling device provided is not used, a device must be installed that can cool the system sufficiently. Overheating is a primary danger to a computer’s componentry.
Which Specifications Pertain to Me?
When selecting a CPU, some specifications and features will be more important to you than others. The specifications and features to look for will vary depending on your personal computing needs. For example, a computer used for intensive gaming will need a different processor than one only used to surf the Web.
Below, the most common CPU purchasing groups are generalized to help you narrow down the options for the CPU that will best serve your needs. If you identify with more than one of these consumer groups, don't worry. Simply find a CPU that covers what is needed for both purchasing groups.
Home users’ needs are very different from the needs of business users and gamers when it comes to a CPU. Fortunately, because a home user’s processing needs are not usually as intensive as other purchasing groups, most common and moderately priced CPUs can easily handle your needs.
The first thing to do is ensure that the CPU under consideration is compatible with the existing motherboard. This means looking at the socket compatibility. Alternately, if the CPU is selected first, a compatible motherboard must be selected.
When purchasing a CPU, consider a model that has an integrated GPU. Since graphics-intensive applications are not likely to be run, a GPU that is integrated into the processor will suffice for common computing needs. This will eliminate the need to purchase and install a separate GPU. This will save time and money as graphics cards can be costly.
Also consider the frequency when selecting a CPU. The higher the frequency, the faster the computer will perform. The average user’s computing needs will not likely be intensive. This means you don’t need a very high speed CPU. For basic computing needs, speeds of 1GHz or higher will be adequate.
Home Office Users
If you run an office out of your home, your CPU needs will be a bit different from the needs of the average home consumer. First, identify the processors that can adequately handle your computing needs on a daily basis, while keeping purchase price within budget.
Consider the number of cores needed. Most home business users do well with a quad-core processor. With that being said, if the computing needs are more intensive, such as with programming and graphic design, research how many cores are required by the software being used. When running software that can make use of eight cores, consider investing in an eight-core processor.
The amount of memory your CPU supports may also be a factor. Your motherboard and the type of operating system you are running will also dictate how much RAM can be supported. Make sure all of your components are compatible before investing in the hardware.
Frequency is another factor to take into consideration. While frequency is not the only thing that determines the speed of a processor, it does have a significant impact. The software used will impact how much speed is needed. For example, when using Adobe CS 6 on a regular basis, a CPU with a speed of at least 2GHz will serve best.
Small Business Users
The CPU needs of a small business can be significantly different than the needs of a home user. When purchasing a CPU, focus on the cost, the compatibility, and whether or not the CPU has a BGA or LGA socket.
Most small businesses must adhere to a set budget when it comes to purchasing computer equipment. Because of this, cost is one of the primary factors to consider when purchasing a CPU. Newegg offers a host of CPUs for various needs. Check for special sales and consider signing up for our email blasts and/or mobile device notifications to get great prices on CPUs.
When purchasing a CPU for a small business computer, also take compatibility into account. Make sure that the CPU chosen is compatible with the computer’s existing components: the motherboard, socket, and system memory. Incompatibility will stop a build before it starts.
In addition, consider whether the socket connections are BGA connections or LGA connections. If you would like the option to replace your CPU at any point in time, a CPU with an LGA connection will be necessary. This is because BGA connections are soldered, making them almost impossible to replace. LGA connections, on the other hand, are pin-type connectors which can be plugged and unplugged when needed.
The needs of corporate users are also unique when it comes to CPUs. Here, a CPU is needed that can handle all of the tasks of a business’s computing needs; in other words, a CPU designed for a heavy workload. When looking into which CPU to select, look at the number of cores the CPU will need. Remember, however, that more cores are not always better. The software being used will determine this – if an eight-core processor gets installed but the software can only utilize four of those cores, it will not be an efficient or cost-effective solution.
In addition, consider the frequency of the CPU. The exact frequency to look for will depend on what the business uses its computers for. Some businesses can get away with a frequency of 2GHz or less. Others will need frequencies of 4GHz or more. When shopping for a CPU, look at the requirements of the software that the company routinely uses and be sure to purchase one with a well-matched frequency.
Thermal Design Power (TDP) is another factor to take into consideration. As a business’s computing needs may be very intensive, the CPU may generate high heat. Be sure to check the TDP of the CPU that to be sure that the cooling system is able to adequately handle the level of heat that is generated. This will prevent overheating in the computer, damaging the components.
The needs of gamers are very specific when it comes to the processing power of a computer. If you don’t want to experience lag while gaming, you need a CPU that can effectively handle all of the data that it must process.
The first thing you need to consider is how many cores your CPU will need. While gamers do need powerful CPUs, more cores do not necessarily equate to more gaming power. The number of cores a gamer needs will be determined by the number of cores the gaming software can utilize. As a result, extra cores may not be necessary.
In addition to the number of cores a processor has, gamers will also want to pay attention to the frequency of the processor. If your processor is operating at too slow of a speed, it will reflect in your gaming performance. For some gamers, a frequency of 3.8 Ghz or greater will be needed. For gamers whose needs aren’t as intensive, a lower frequency may be adequate. Check the suggested hardware specifications for the games that you play and match up the frequency suggested to that of the CPU that you purchase.
Gamers also need to pay attention to thermal design power of a CPU. This is because gaming software can be pretty demanding, causing your CPU to heat up rather quickly and consistently. You need to be sure that you have a cooling system that can adequately handle the needs of your CPU to ensure that your components don’t overheat.
Server CPUs tend to be the workhorses of the CPU world. They are required to process a lot of information in a short period of time. Because of this, when shopping for a CPU for your server, you have to take the needs of your server into consideration.
First, you need to look at the number of cores you need. When shopping for a CPU for a server, the server is likely going to have to handle multiple tasks at once. With more cores, the server can handle more commands.
CPUs thermal design power must also be considered. Most server CPUs do not come with cooling units. This means that a cooling unit must be purchased separately. Look for the thermal demand of the CPU. This can be found when looking at the thermal design power spec of the CPU.
When shopping for a CPU for a server, also take the CPUs threading abilities into account. While cores determine how many threads of information the CPU can handle, the threading technology of the CPU will determine exactly how much data the CPU can process at any given time. Ideally, one should look for a CPU that offers hyper-threading capabilities. This will deliver more processing power than the cores alone can provide.
It used to be that mobile CPUs were all single-core. This is no longer the case. Now there are even cell phones that have multi-core CPUs. When shopping for a processor for a mobile device, consider the number of cores the processor will need. Exactly how many processors your device can utilize will depend on the software you are running, but you want to make sure that you purchase a processor that has as many cores as your software can handle.
Socket compatibility is another factor to consider when shopping for mobile CPUs. Many mobile CPUs are of the BGA variety. This means that they are soldered onto the motherboard. To upgrade this kind of CPU, a BGA model will make it impossible. Ensure that the CPU is LGA. LGA CPUs connect to the motherboard via pins, making them easier for a consumer to swap out.
As with most other users, mobile users must also consider the frequency of the CPU they are buying. If the CPU has a low frequency, it likely isn’t going to perform up to expectations. A higher frequency means higher speed, which means the user won’t be waiting forever for applications to load and execute.
What Does Hz Mean?
Hz stands for hertz. The Hz ratings that are given to CPUs are measurements of speed. One hertz is one processor cycle per second, one kilohertz (1kHz) is 1,000 hertz per second, and one megahertz is 1,000,000 processor cycles per second. Therefore, a speed of 500MHz would mean that the processor is able to cycle data at a rate of 500,000,000 processor cycles per second.
Why is my Laptop’s Frequency Lower than What Was Advertised?
Notebooks and other portable devices are designed to run at lower speeds to preserve battery power and prevent overheating. Intel and AMD are the two main manufacturers of CPUs. Both of these companies make CPUs that have power management features built-in. A result of this power management is a lower frequency. This means that the CPU will often run at a speed that is lower than the advertised speed. When you perform critical functions, however, the frequency of the processor will usually speed up.
What Does the Data Bus System Have to Do with My CPU?
A computer’s data bus is the channel in which data is transferred among peripheral components. This allows data to travel between the CPU and the memory of a computer. Hard drives need this bus in order to load data into the memory. Due to the fact that each peripheral can operate on a different speed limit, one computer is very likely to have multiple bus systems.
How Many Cores Does My Processor Need to Have?
How many cores needed in a processor will depend on particular computing needs. For example, a six-core processor simply running Microsoft Office applications will not increase speed or performance of a computer. This is because Office applications cannot utilize all six of the cores that the processor contains. Because of this, consider the software normally used to determine how many cores are actually needed and select a CPU accordingly.
How to Install a CPU
When installing a CPU, first double-check compatibility with the motherboard. If the socket is not compatible, the CPU will not fit properly. To add a CPU to a motherboard, extract the motherboard from the computer. If the motherboard already contains a CPU, remove the old CPU from the motherboard noting its placement. Once the old CPU is removed, install the new CPU in the same fashion as the previous one. Make sure not to “force” the pins when attaching the CPU. Once the CPU is affixed to the motherboard, put everything back into place as before and test the system.
How to Disable a Core
Windows: Sometimes it may be necessary to disable one or more of the cores in a CPU. This is because some software applications are not compatible with multi-core processors. When operating in a Windows system, disable the core through the system configuration window. To do this, open the “Start” menu and click on “Run.” Then type “msconfig” and click “OK.” In the system configuration window, click on the “Start” sub menu and the “Advanced Options” button. In the next window that appears, you will be provided with an option for enabling and disabling processors. Select the number of processors that should be enabled or disabled, and then restart the computer to put the settings into effect.
Mac: This may vary depending on the specific computer and on the OS/version being used. Start by installing the “CHUD” or Developer Tools from the Apple website (if this has not already been done). The Processor preference pane is located in the “Developer/Extras/Preference Pane” folder. Install the developer tools by double-clicking the Processor Pane icon in “Finder”. System Preferences will launch and you will have options for users’ installation. By opening the Processor folder, the maximum number of cores can be set. This may require a reboot to take effect. An option to “Show control in menu bar” can be selected for a quick change from the homescreen.
How to Find Your Current Processor’s Speed
When considering upgrading a CPU, you’ll need to know the speed at which the current CPU is running.
Windows: To do this, go to the Control Panel. Click on “System and Security”; click on “System.” You should now be able to find the type of processor installed and the speed of the processor. You may also be able to find this information by opening “File Explorer” – locate and right click on the “Computer” option, and then select the “Properties” option. This will bring up general information about your system including the type of processor that you have installed and the speed of the processor.
Mac: Follow the directions from the previous question here. Select “Show control in menu bar.” Once the menu option is available, select “Show Processor Palette” for a graphical interface with active CPU function information.
How to Keep Your CPU from Overheating
CPUs generate heat. The amount of heat that is generated by a CPU will be defined in the processor’s Thermal Design Power specification chart. To keep your CPU from overheating, make sure a cooling system is in place that is able to effectively dissipate the amount of heat generated. A cooling system that cannot do this puts the system at risk of overheating. Overheating can cause permanent damage to the components of any computer.
Overclocking Your CPU
Note: Newegg does not endorse overclocking any CPU as this can void the warranty. Overclock at your own risk.
Overclocking a CPU allows an increase in the clock frequency of the CPU without spending money on upgrades. The most popular way to overclock a CPU is to raise the Front Side Bus (FSB) from within the BIOS of the computer. Regardless of the type or brand of CPU, the process will be the same. The CPU must be unlocked, however, in order to overclock it. To overclock an unlocked CPU, enter the BIOS during system startup. Locate the setting for the FSB and increase the number to increase your CPU’s speed.
Disabling CPU Throttling
CPU throttling is common in laptops. This helps save battery power. Since maximum output is not usually necessary when using a laptop, throttling reduces the energy the CPU uses to save battery power. There are times, however, that throttling is not desired, such as when several game or intensive applications windows are open.
Windows: To disable throttling, open the “Power Control” panel. There will be a number of options to choose from. These will usually include a recommended setting, a power-saver setting, a high-performance setting, and a balanced setting (or similar). To stop the throttling of the CPU, select a “high-performance” setting and click “Apply Changes”.
Cores and Threads
There are a number of CPU options on today’s market. Almost all modern CPUs have more than one core. However, cores are not the only things that affect the performance of a CPU. The threads in the CPU are also important. A thread is an ordered sequence of instructions which tell the computer what to do. Multi-threading or hyper-threading allows a CPU core to work on more than one process at a time. For example, Intel has processors that have hyper-threading. This virtually doubles the amount of cores in the CPU because each core can handle two different streams of data at a time. Therefore, in a four-core processor with hyper-threading, the CPU achieves the equivalent threading of an eight-core processor.