CPU / Processors

 

The CPU is an internal component in a computer system. Some of our customers call the tower, as in a desktop setup, the CPU. Which is another common misconception. The CPU is a specific component inside the tower, and not the tower itself.

 

CPU stands for Central Processing Unit, and will often simply be referred to as the processor.  In terms of computing power, it's generally the most important factor. The CPU is the engine of the computer. It's job is to carry out the instructions of a computer program, and to perform the basic input/output operations of the system. Like in a car, the more powerful the engine, the faster the machine can go. Let's break down some processor basics...

Clock Rate:

 

The clock rate refers to the operating frequency of a processor, and is usually reflected in gigahertz (GHz). This is also sometimes said to be the "speed" of the processor, but this is also somewhat of a misnomer. While the clock rate is useful for comparing the speed of a CPU to another within the same product line, it cannot be used to compare CPUs within different families. For example, Intel Pentium 4 processors reached a peak clock rate of 3.8 GHz in 2004. As of this writing, Intel's current Core brand of processors have peaked at 3.6 GHz. To the uninformed, this may look like Intel's current Core CPUs are actually slower than the older Pentium line, but this couldn't be further from the truth.  Intel's Core CPUs are much faster.

 

In fact, Intel's Pentium 4 processors, despite being clocked quite high, were notoriously bad performers.  In 2003 AMD had released it's Athlon 64 FX line of processors to compete directly against the Pentium 4. The following year when the Pentium 4 was maxing out at 3.8 GHz, AMD's Athlon 64 FX was peaking at 2.6 GHz, and yet, the large difference in clock rate not withstanding, the Athlon was significantly faster.

 

However, comparing clock rates to processors within the same family can be useful. We know that a current generation Intel Core i7-2700, which is clocked at 3.5 GHz, is slightly faster than an Intel Core i7-2600, which runs at 3.4 GHz.

 

So how can one processor be faster than another when it's clock speed is slower? Processor architecture plays a big role for one.  CPU data bus, latency of memory, cache architecture, and other technical nomenclature play rolls in the processor's overall performance. The bottom line is that CPU manufactures like Intel and AMD figure out ways to make their processors more efficient. Like being able to execute more instructions per clock cycle, for example. Another example would be multi-core architecture...   

Multi-Core Processors:

 

In 2000 Intel famously predicted we'd have processors running at 10 GHz by 2011. That obviously didn't happen as Intel ran into technical limitations. Mostly, they reached a thermal ceiling, at about 4 GHz, on what a processor could physically do before outputting too much heat and causing problems. So, instead the industry focused on making CPUs more efficient, as well as introducing multi-core technology. Multi-core simply means having more than one processor on a single chip package. Dual-Core, for instance, has two "cores" or two processors, quad-core has four cores, and so on. For the consumer market you'll commonly see dual-core, quad-core, and in the high end, hexa-core and octo-core. In the business/server market CPUs can have up to 16 cores!

 

What's the point of having a multi-core CPU? As they say, many hands make light work. The first benefit is more fluid multitasking. Today, it's not uncommon to have multiple programs open at a time. You can simultaneously be running Word, Outlook, Internet Explorer, and still have enough resources to run a virus scan in the background. You can switch to and from these applications pretty seamlessly. Ten years ago this wasn't so easy because one program could potentially use a large chunk of horsepower from your single core CPU.  Having two or four processors in your system alleviates the workload. Another benefit is something
called parallelism. To speed up the applications they create, programers develop their programs to take advantage of a multi-core system.

 

Something to bear in mind though, having more processing cores doesn't always equal a faster system.  This is one of those cases where the software industry creates their software based on the hardware currently available on the market. Presently, the majority of processors are dual-core and quad-core, so therefore software companies create their software to take advantage of two or four cores. There is application specific software that can take advantage of more cores, like Adobe Photoshop, but the average user will not benefit from purchasing a super high end, hexa-core CPU. 

 

Of course, as the industry moves forward production costs will come down, which will drive down retail costs, hexa-core and octo-core will become more mainstream, and software companies will develop their software to take advantage of that.

Who makes the fastest processors? Which one is right for me?

 

For now and the foreseeable future, Intel makes the fastest processors, but the industry evolves so quickly that this is always subject to change. Their current line up is called the Core series: Core i7, Core i5, and Core i3.  As you might think, the higher the number, the faster the processor. The Core i3 and Core i5 are their mainstream products, and the Core i7 is more for the enthusiast market. Intel still uses the Pentium brand name, but these are generally the lowest end, entry level processors. AMD makes some great cost effective CPUs as well, but pound for pound Intel is going to be faster in most cases. Of course, as with most things in life, the faster the CPU, the more expensive it is.  

 

So what should you buy?  The nice thing about processors is, until you get into the extreme high end segment, most users will benefit from a faster CPU, so it really boils down to how much you want to spend. Even people who use their computers for basic email and web browsing will notice a difference between the low end Pentium, and the higher end Core i7. With the Core i7 boot times will be faster,  applications will launch quicker, and the machine will be snappier overall. That doesn't mean you need a Core i7 though. After all, it's sure fun to drive a Chevrolet Corvette, but a Toyota Corolla will probably suit most people's needs just fine.

 

If you're running software that has steep system requirements, you need to make sure your processor is up to the task. You can find a program's minimum requirements right on the retail box, as well as on the company's website. If you have any questions about what kind of processor is right for you, give us a call, we'll help you pick something out. Or we can even build you a system tailored to your specific needs.

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