This article is part of the Hardware Buying Guide series:
- Buying an SSD: What to Look Out for
- Buying a Monitor: What to Look For
- Buying a Keyboard: For Work, Play, and Everything in Between
- Buying a Mouse: DPI, Sensors and More
- Buying a Graphics Card: FPS, Benchmarks and More
- Buying a Processor: What You Need to Know
- Buying a Case: Drive Bays, Form Factor and More
- Buying a Motherboard: Form Factor, Ports, More
- Buying Memory/RAM: What to Know
- Buying a Power Supply: Wattage, Efficiency and More
- Buying a Sound Card: Benefits, Pricing and More
One of the most important components of a computer is the CPU or Processor. (Yes, the CPU is a “component” – you can’t call the entire machine a CPU.) Processors may seem simple on the surface, and they aren’t that complex to understand, at least not as far as purchasing for performance goes. But in truth, processors are much more than they seem to be on the surface.
For instance, just because a processor has a higher frequency or more core does not mean that it’s better than another processor. In fact, clock speeds and core counts really only accurately compare across similar processors from the same company. Generational differences can significantly widen the performance gap without changing anything about the core count or clock speed. This misconception exists because with the dawn of the 21st century processor clock speeds and core counts actually did matter a lot. Once upon a time a processor reaching even 800 Megahertz was a crowning achievement, so having multiple processing cores was even more impressive.
However, with the progression of technologies, clock speeds and core counts have reached certain physical limitations, mainly related to heat and power consumption. These limits will be overcome over time with new technologies, but for now processors have a few hard limits in place. (For instance, consumer processors top off at 3 – 4GHz, while overclockable processors can temporarily be run as high as 9+GHz with a temporary solution like liquid nitrogen cooling.)
So keep the following in mind when buying and comparing processors:
- Clock speeds and core counts do count for something but usually only between members of the same hardware family. Only compare clock speeds and core counts between processors if they’re of the same brand and are made within a minimum of a few years of each other. Even then the newer processor with the same core count and clock speed will still have some level of incremental comparisons.
- When buying a processor to upgrade your CPU, use Device Manager to learn what processor you already have. To do this on Windows, type in “Device Manager” in Start and open “Processors” to learn the name of your CPU. From the name of your CPU, identify what CPU slot your motherboard uses – you will only be able to upgrade your CPU to other CPUs in that slot. You may also need to upgrade your BIOs as well, depending on when the series was released.
- If buying a processor for an entirely new build, go for the newest series from Intel or AMD. At the time of writing (late 2015), AMD’s current desktop architecture is the FX-8000 series (Vishera), while Intel’s is Skylake. With AMD you want to stay in the Vishera lineup, but with Intel it doesn’t really matter if you hop a generation or two back to Haswell or Broadwell, as Intel’s improvements are more frequent and iterative.
With that in mind, let’s start talking about what to consider when you’re buying a processor.
Brand – What do you want, and who suits you better?
For PC-building enthusiasts, this isn’t a very controversial statement: AMD chips are better for budget builds. Despite the current lineup’s age, AMD prices their chips to be very competitive with Intel’s alternatives. If you don’t have a whole lot of money or play heavily CPU-dependent titles, AMD chips are a no-brainer, as typically they perform equivalently or slightly better than Intel chips at the same price range.
What is more controversial is this: AMD doesn’t compete with Intel in terms of high-end hardware. Due to the age of their processing architecture, AMD hasn’t been able to release chips to compete with Intel’s latest and greatest. Intel may not be the better value proposition, but when buying high-end, your best bet will generally be to go with the latest in Intel’s i5 or i7 series. (Though AMD’s high-end chips aren’t bad by any means, the 8350 and 9590 are great with professional applications that take advantage of multi-threading.)
If you’re buying a computer as a one-time purchase, with no intent to make extreme upgrades, AMD may be the better choice for you, especially if you’re shopping in the $600 range or lower. However, even when AMD releases new processors, they won’t be compatible with the current motherboards, as they’ll have finally switched to an entirely new slot and architecture. You will be putting a relatively low limit on how much you can increase your performance by upgrading.
Meanwhile, Intel only just changed sockets, and likely won’t again for at least another few years – plenty of time for them to create new architectures which will allow you to upgrade your processor down the line to the best CPU compatible with your build.
Needs – Productivity or Play?
AMD actually has somewhat of an advantage here. Despite being lower-priced and not performing as well in some CPU-dependent titles as their Intel counterparts, AMD chips are very well-suited to rendering and professional applications due to the amount of low-power cores they possess.
However, these applications can be significantly slower on Intel chips – even the high-end i5 chips which are more suited to raw power than professional solutions. i7s become an incredibly mighty contender for both professional applications and pure power but only once you’ve spent a couple hundred more than you would otherwise.
If your only focus is gaming and you have the cash, go for an Intel chip. Need to save? Grab a good AMD chip.
Want to prioritize productivity? No need to shell out more for Intel. AMD chips are perfectly fine for common usage and very good for professional applications at their price range. Plus, for games that aren’t CPU-heavy, AMD chips perform great, too.
If you want the best in productivity and gaming, though, you’ll want to shell out for an Intel i7. i7s can start as low as three hundred dollars and go as high as a full thousand. They are extremely powerful chips, no matter what you’re doing. For people who want just the absolute best gaming performance, however, don’t bother with an i7. The i5 will get the same gaming performance in most cases; it just won’t do as well for things like rendering or streaming.
Once you’ve decided what range and line you want to be shopping in, there are a few other things you need to take into consideration as well.
- Is it overclockable? Overclocking a CPU will get more performance out of it at the cost of higher power consumption, thermal output and potential system instability. This isn’t recommended for inexperienced users but can provide a great performance boost if done properly.
- Does it come with a cooler? Often forgotten, but still very important, if you don’t plan on using a water cooler or something, you should check whether or not your processor comes with a cooler. If it doesn’t, you’ll need to buy your own cooler, and you’ll have to make sure it’s compatible with your build. Most processors come with a cooler in the box, but you should still check, just in case. (Don’t operate without a cooler – you will destroy your processor.)
- Is it upgradeable? We went over this earlier, but it bears repeating: if you plan on upgrading, don’t just buy for now. Right now, AMD processors would be a poor choice if you plan on eventually upgrading your system to the certified Best Ever™, while AMD still has quite a few generations to go before changing sockets. Your CPU socket will determine your potential upgrade path – try not to buy processors that only support dead CPU sockets.
Buying a processor can seem like a really dense, difficult thing to penetrate. With any hope, this article helped make things at least slightly clearer – if not, don’t hesitate to let me know.
Let me know what processor you’re using or what you plan on upgrading to in the comments. I’m interested in hearing about it! I personally run an i5 4690.