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How to Choose the Best CPU
Choosing the right CPU is critical for ensuring that your computer performs optimally both simple and computationally demanding tasks whether you are looking to upgrade your current system or build a new PC. The CPU, or Central Processing Unit, is the brain of the computer and is responsible for executing instructions and performing calculations. Its speed (frequency), number of cores, instructions per clock (IPC), cache size, TDP, etc. all play a significant role in determining how effectively a computer will perform both simple and computationally demanding tasks.
Therefore, it is essential to carefully consider your computing needs and research different CPU options before making a purchase. It is also important to note that one specification alone does not determine the overall performance and efficiency of a CPU. It is a combination of numerus factors including the overall architecture that play a role in a CPU’s performance.
Identify Your CPU Use Case & Budget
Understanding your CPU budget involves assessing your specific computing needs and balancing them with your available financial resources. Consider factors such as the type of tasks you intend to perform, whether they involve basic web browsing, content creation, gaming, or professional-grade applications. Research different CPU models, their specifications, and benchmarks to align your budget with the level of performance required for your ideal functionality. Here are some CPU budget ranges you should consider:
Basic Productivity Tasks & Budget Gaming: $50 to $150
CPUs for basic computing tasks are suitable for browsing the internet, running basic productivity software such as excel or word, coding, and basic multimedia consumption such as streaming videos. These CPUs typically have a lower clock speed and four to six cores, making them less powerful but also more energy-efficient and cost-effective. Lower-end AMD Ryzen 3 or Intel Celeron/Celeron CPUs are ideal for basic computing tasks including casual gaming at 1080p. However, with advancements in technology, AMD Ryzen 5 or Intel Core i3 CPUs allow you to game competitively at 1080p and perform many computationally demanding tasks which makes them great if you are truly on a tight budget.
Advanced Productivity Tasks & Gaming: $150 to $350
CPUs in this price range are designed to provide excellent gaming performance at 1080p, 1440p, and 4K. These CPUs typically have higher clock speeds, more cores, and higher cache memory, which allow them to handle the demands of modern games. They are also capable of handling streaming, video editing, 3D rendering, VR, music production, content creation, etc. making them a good choice for gamers or those who want a relatively powerful CPU in this price range with the ability to perform computationally demanding tasks as well. AMD Ryzen 5 and Intel Core i5 processors typically fall under this category.
Professional Work & Overclocking: $350 to $600
CPUs in this price range are intended for professional use, such as video editing, 3D rendering, 3D modeling, motion graphics, and other intensive applications. They often have more cores and higher clock speeds than necessary for gaming, which enables them to handle demanding tasks faster and more efficiently. CPUs that fall under this price range are also great for 4K gaming and are often used for professional work or high-end desktops. AMD Ryzen 7/9 and Intel Core i7/i9 processors fall under this category.
Enthusiast Workstation or Servers: $600+
CPUs in this price range are designed for high-performance computing applications such as rendering, scientific simulations, processing large amounts of data, and server workloads. They typically have the highest clock speeds, more cores, and large cache sizes. They are also marketed toward PC enthusiasts. These CPUs are often used in high-end workstations, servers, and data centers. AMD Ryzen Threadripper and Intel Core X/Xeon HEDT processors fall under this category.
AMD or Intel?
AMD and Intel are two of the largest manufacturers of CPUs in the world. AMD is known for its Ryzen processors. On the other hand, Intel is known for its Core processors. Both CPU manufacturers offer excellent CPU options at various levels of performance and price. Though, some users have strong feelings about team red (AMD) vs team blue (Intel), you should consider CPUs from both brands based on your computing needs and budget rather than having your heart set on one brand as this will lead to you getting better value out of the CPU you decide to choose.
Both Intel and AMD release new generations (iterations) of CPUs regularly about every year or two, with each generation offering improved performance and efficiency over the previous one. Each generation typically features improvements in areas such as speed, power efficiency, architecture, and features. Some generational leaps in performance are substantially greater than others. For example, the Intel Core i7-10700K is a 10th-generation CPU, while the Intel Core i7-13700K is a 13th-generation CPU.
A CPU socket is the physical connective interface on the motherboard the CPU is housed in. Each CPU generation is compatible with a specific socket type. A socket typically supports multiple generations for at least a couple of years if not longer until there is a substantial change in the next-gen CPU’s architecture that requires a new socket. This means that a CPU from a different generation may not be compatible with the same motherboards and upgrading to a newer CPU may require upgrading the motherboard as well.
For example, Intel 10th and 11th gen processors are compatible with the LGA 1200 socket while the 12 and 13th Gen are compatible with the LGA 1700 socket. On the other hand, AMD’s AM4 socket is compatible with Ryzen 1000 (Zen), 2000 (Zen+), 3000 (Zen 2), and 5000 (Zen 3) series processors while Ryzen 7000 (Zen 4) series processors are compatible with the AM5 socket.
CPU Model Names
Below is a detailed explanation of both Intel and AMD processor model naming conventions. You can also refer to the list of best CPUs provided to see more examples of these two CPU manufacturers naming conventions.
Intel CPU Model Names Explained
Intel has several CPU brands including Core (targeted towards consumers), Xeon (targeted towards non-consumer workstation, server, and embedded system markets), Celeron, and Pentium (Celeron and Pentium are targeted towards those with very low budgets with the Pentium being slightly faster) processors. Intel’s CPU naming conventions depend on many factors.
Intel Core Processors are the most popular for consumers and have five brand modifiers that indicate the performance level of each Core CPU within a given generation which are i3, i5, i7, i9, and X. The generation indicator is determined by the first one or two digits of the number after the brand modifier which is then followed by the SKU numeric digits which make up the final 3 digits of that number.
Each Core CPU may or may not have suffix letters at the end of its name which indicates its capabilities or lack thereof:
- The K suffix means the CPU is unlocked for overclocking.
- The F suffix means the CPU doesn’t have integrated graphics which lowers cost and means you intend to use it with a GPU.
- The KF suffix means the CPU is unlocked for overlocking and doesn’t have integrated graphics.
- The KS suffix means the CPU is higher binned and provides better performance than a typical K processor.
- Non-suffix Intel CPUs lack overclocking but do come with integrated graphics.
An example of an Intel CPU name is the Intel Core i5-13600K.
AMD CPU Model Names Explained
AMD has several CPU brands including Ryzen (targeted towards consumers), Threadripper (targeted towards non-consumer workstation, server, and embedded system markets), and Athlon (targeted towards those with very low budgets) processors.
Ryzen processors are the most popular for consumers and have four brand modifiers that indicate the performance level of each CPU within a given generation which are 3, 5, 7, and 9. The generation indicator is determined by the first digit of the number after the brand modifier which is then followed by the SKU numeric digits which make up the final 3 digits of that number. Moreover, an AMD CPU that has an X suffix letter at the end of its name indicates that the CPU has higher clock speeds. While an AMD CPU with an X3D suffix means that the CPU has triple the amount of L3 cache available including higher clock speeds than a non-X version.
An example of an AMD CPU name is the AMD Ryzen 7 7800X.
CPU overclocking is the process of increasing the clock speed of a CPU beyond its rated speed. This is typically done to achieve better performance in tasks that are CPU-intensive, such as gaming, video editing, and 3D rendering. Overclocking can be achieved by adjusting the CPU's multiplier or bus speed, which affects the CPU's clock speed. However, overclocking can also generate more heat and consume more power, which can reduce the lifespan of the CPU.
Therefore, if you are not an enthusiast who wants to see how fast your CPU can be pushed without crashing or doesn’t need that bit of extra performance as most won’t, overclocking is not recommended. Also keep in mind that if you plan on overclocking, you will need a stronger cooling solution which could further increase the cost.
Essential CPU Specs to Consider
When considering which CPU to purchase, these key specifications play a significant role in determining the performance and suitability of the CPU for your computing needs:
CPU speed, or clock speed, refers to the number of cycles a CPU can execute in a second. It is an essential factor in determining the performance of a CPU. The faster the CPU frequency represented in GHz, the quicker the computer can execute instructions and perform calculations. This translates into quicker data processing and improved system performance. Applications that require a lot of processing power, such as video editing, 3D rendering, and gaming, benefit greatly from a higher CPU speed.
Cores and Threads
The number of cores and threads a CPU contains are important factors that determine its multitasking and processing power. Cores are the number of physical processing units within a CPU, while threads are virtual processing units that enable the CPU to perform multiple tasks simultaneously. More cores and threads mean that a CPU can handle more tasks at once, which results in faster data processing, improved performance, and smoother multitasking.
Applications that require a lot of processing power, such as video editing, 3D rendering, and gaming, benefit greatly from a higher number of cores and threads. In summary, the number of cores and threads is an important factor to consider when gauging a CPU’s multitasking capabilities.
CPU IPC, or Instructions Per Clock, refers to the number of instructions a CPU can execute in a single clock cycle. It is an important factor in determining the single-core performance of a CPU, as it measures how efficient the CPU is at executing instructions. A higher IPC means that a CPU can perform more instructions in a shorter amount of time, resulting in faster data processing and improved performance.
CPU cache is a type of high-speed memory that stores frequently accessed data and instructions close to the CPU, making them quickly accessible. It is an important factor in determining the performance of a CPU, as it can reduce the amount of time the CPU spends waiting for data from slower memory. A larger cache size can result in faster data processing, improved performance, and reduced latency, particularly for applications that require frequent access to large amounts of data.
CPU TDP, or Thermal Design Power, refers to the maximum amount of power a CPU is designed to consume and dissipate as heat during normal operation. It is an important factor in determining the power efficiency and cooling requirements of a CPU. CPUs with a higher TDP tend to consume more power and generate more heat, requiring more robust cooling solutions to prevent overheating. Conversely, CPUs with a lower TDP tend to consume less power and generate less heat, making them more power-efficient and easier to cool.
When selecting a CPU, it is important to consider your specific power and cooling requirements to ensure that the CPU is a good fit for your system. A CPU with an appropriate TDP can lead to improved system stability, increased power efficiency, and reduced operating costs over time.
CPU clock speed, core count, IPC, Cache, and TDP along with a CPU’s branch predictors and actual physical layout of the cores (CPU’s architecture) are important factors in determining how well a CPU performs.
Understanding How CPUs Work in Simple Terms
To get a better understanding of how CPUs work, let's use the analogy of a moving company. The CPU cores and threads can be considered the number of workers the moving company has. The more cores and threads a CPU has, the more tasks and processes can be completed at once. The CPU’s speed can be considered how fast those workers can transport items per second. This means the faster the CPU clock speed, the quicker tasks and processes can be completed.
Additionally, the IPC can be considered how much load the workers can carry during each transport. Meaning a CPU with a high IPC, can handle more instructions per clock cycle. While the CPU’s cache can be considered a pile of items that have been conveniently collected in a spot where the workers can quickly access and transport them. This means a CPU with a large amount of cache helps reduced latency allowing for quicker access to data.
Lastly, the CPU’s TDP can be considered as how much energy the workers used to complete the task. Meaning a CPU with a low TDP is comparatively more efficient and consumes less power creating less heat in the process.
With the vast array of CPU options available on the market, it can be challenging to identify the best CPU for your needs. However, this free tool enables you to make an informed CPU purchasing decision based on benchmark performance, specs, power consumption, price, and value data metrics. This allows you to easily find the best CPU based on your specific requirements and budget, ensuring optimal performance and value for your computing needs.