If you’re trying to get into the PC space, chances are you’ve seen many processor choices but don’t know which one to choose from. Whether you want a better understanding of CPUs as a whole or want to be better informed as a buyer, this article is for you.
Let’s start with the basics.
What is a CPU (Processor)?
CPU stands for Central Processing Unit, and this CPU operates as the main processor in any given PC. Other processors can exist within the same machine as well, but most namely the GPU, or Graphics Processing Unit. Certain CPUs exist that combine these technologies into one chip- AMD calls them APUs. Intel doesn’t use this terminology but still ships many CPUs with integrated graphics chips inside.
Your processor is the beating heart of your system. Even if you’re gaming, a processor that’s too weak will bottleneck your GPU and prevent you from reaching the maximum possible framerates. CPUs are also a fair bit more difficult to upgrade, but often have longer lifespans than GPUs do, at least for gaming purposes.
(Lifespan here meaning how long a given chip is effective for gaming. Hardware-wise, neither a CPU or GPU should fail with proper maintenance and use.)
What are CPU cores?
When the first processor was created, it did not have “cores”. When “cores” were introduced as a concept, they were viewed by many as adding an additional CPU onto a single chip…and they essentially are, with some caveats. “Threads” are slightly different, and we’ll explain them below.
Essentially…the more cores there are in a processor, the more information it can process at once. In applications that are optimized to use multiple cores, this will see a corresponding boost in performance. In gaming, the number of cores a game can meaningfully utilize rarely exceeds 4, though the latest engines are becoming progressively better and better at using more cores.
The main reason to get a processor with a high number of cores and threads is for high-end CPU-bound work, though. This applies mostly to things like video rendering, Twitch streaming, and professional work. For the foreseeable future in gaming, four cores should do you just fine.
What are CPU threads?
In most scenarios, a thread and a core are considered one and the same.
This changes with SMT, though. With SMT (Simultaneous Multi-Threading, called Hyperthreading by Intel and CMT by AMD), you essentially get an extra virtual core for each physical core in the processor.
Nowadays, a thread can essentially be viewed as an additional, virtual core. This turns a quad-core processor into what is (effectively) an eight-core processor, once SMT is enabled. The same things we said about cores prior still apply here, but processors with SMT enabled will come at a significant price premium.
How does CPU clock speed impact performance?
Like many things in technology, a higher number is a better number.
However, it’s important that you also take other factors into consideration. The most important thing to remember is CPU architecture. A single CPU core clocked at 3.0 GHz on an i5 9600K, for example, will exceed the performance of a single-core clocked at 3.0 GHz on a Ryzen 5 2700X. Why? Architectural differences!
We’ll explain the architectural differences between Intel and AMD processors later in the article. For now, though, here’s what you need to know about clock speeds:
Only use clock speed to compare processors using the same architecture. All 9th-Gen Intel Core processors are using the same architecture, but each chip ships with a different number of cores/threads and a different clock speed. In this scenario, taking the higher number will always be better.
Cross-comparing clock speeds across different architectures and brands, though…doesn’t work quite as cleanly. You’ll also want to take overclocking into the equation, too.
What is overclocking?
Overclocking is the act of taking a processor, then pushing its clock speed past its intended speed. In the olden days, users could do this as they please, but nowadays both Intel and AMD have put some more limits in place. These limits are there to prevent people from bricking their hardware…and to help AMD and Intel (especially Intel) make more money. Allow us to explain.
To overclock with an AMD processor, you need:
- Any AMD processor (Any Ryzen chip will do)
- A motherboard with a chipset that supports the feature (Currently B350 and up)
To overclock with an Intel processor, you need:
- A supported Intel Core processor (-K or -X series required)
- A motherboard with a chipset that supports the feature (Z- or X- series required)
- An aftermarket cooler, since Intel doesn’t ship coolers with overclockable chips
For even the ability to overclock, you’ll be paying a price premium.
Overclocking does provide improved performance, though it comes at the cost of higher power consumption, higher temperatures, and worsened stability. Overclocking is not recommended for common users.
Which CPU brand do I choose?
Last but not least: what is the best CPU brand for you?
You’ll still want to choose between specific competing CPUs in a given price range. At the time of writing, though, the following points hold true across pretty much all of those price ranges.
Intel Processor Pros and Cons
- The best single-core performance, which usually shows in a lead in gaming performance
- More choices on the high-end
- More frequent platform refreshes
- Much more expensive, especially when overclocking
- Not as good in multi-threaded applications
- Consumes more power and exhausts more heat, at least on the super high-end (ie, Threadripper vs i9/i7 XE)
AMD Processor Pros and Cons
- The best multi-core performance, which usually shows when livestreaming games or rendering video
- More choices in the budget range, with overclocking support
- Much less expensive overall, even when overclocking
- Marginally weaker in single-core performance, which can be bad for truly pro gamers (where 60 FPS doesn’t cut it)
- Less choices in the high-end (there is a wide gulf between Ryzen 7 and Threadripper processors)