The central processing unit (CPU or processor) on your computer is by far one of the strongest determining factors of its performance. Without a fast CPU, the rest of your hardware will overwhelm it with more tasks than it can muster. During the mid ’90s, when the desktop PC market was picking up the pace significantly, CPUs would have only one core.
Today’s modern CPU is an architectural marvel, with several different channels for distributing and temporarily storing tasks. They’re smarter, faster, and more dynamic. But new CPUs have raised new questions among the public. In particular, there’s one battle that will probably never end: the fight between the amount of cores a CPU has and its clock speed.
Here we walk through the issue of CPU core count vs. clock speed and tell you which is more important.
A Quick Disclaimer
Before we get started, you should know that the answer may not be as satisfying as you’d hope. This is meant to be a comparison of when you might choose higher core count CPUs vs. faster clock speed CPUs. There isn’t one that’s necessarily better or worse, but CPUs that will fit well into one use case or another.
Manufacturers have carefully designed their CPU models to make sure they stack up well to the competition and deliver a solid product that will make their consumers happy. That means achieving a realistic but harmonious balance between cores, clock speed, and price.
Why Cores Are Important
If you had a computer back in the ’90s or even in the early 2000s, you might remember that when one program froze, it was likely that your entire system would freeze as well. This was primarily because your CPU had only one single, solitary core that was handling all of the calculations for your system. You can see how this would be a problem, right?
If there is only one core in a CPU and you ask that core to do something that takes a long time, nothing else will happen while it’s working on that one thing. So when dual-core CPUs came around, a computer’s ability to multitask went through the roof. Now we’re up to 64 cores in the most powerful AMD Threadripper and Epyc workstation and server CPUs.
Why Clock Speed Is Important
A CPU’s clock speed, as the name implies, greatly affects the amount of tasks each core can churn through at a given period of time. The speed, along with its bit width, tells you how much data can flow through per second. If one CPU has a bit width of 32 bits and a speed of 3.93 GHz, that means it can process almost 4 billion units of 32 bits of data per second. That’s 4 billion integers!
The fastest out-of-the-box clock speeds on CPUs hover around 5 GHz, and most operating systems are now 64 bit, so those are massive numbers. This all means that CPUs can churn through single-threaded applications really, really fast. Games are one major spot where higher clock speeds are often more important than core counts because many games won’t use many cores. That’s changing but still holds today.
Making a Decision
As with most computer hardware choices, it all comes down to your use case and your budget. For example: there are laptops out there that can cost up to $10,000. But, if you need as much horsepower as can be crammed into a laptop form factor (say you’re a traveling engineer that runs simulations on, say, offshore oil rig efficiency), that would be a great choice for you. There are desktops that can do much more, but desktops are much harder to move.
The use case for greater core counts depends on your workload. If you’re running many different virtual machines or rendering movies, you would absolutely benefit from an extreme multi-core CPU. Those workloads are heavily multi-threaded, and a Threadripper CPU would absolutely speed those things up.
Scientists and researchers that are creating models that are saving the world would also benefit from crazy high core counts. This is because these workloads often use lots of little jobs that can span cores very well, and when you can run your simulations in two days vs. a week and a half, you’d definitely notice the difference.
The use case for greater clock speeds is much more common. Gamers, developers, and content creators absolutely benefit from faster clock speeds. This generally means that the shorter-term, less multi-threaded tasks that most of us run will finish faster, making the CPU appear faster.
So Which Should You Choose?
Given that most of the CPUs nowadays are multi-cores, you may want to go with clock speed. This will probably happen naturally, as most CPU manufacturers will price faster, lower core-count CPUs in a much more affordable range for consumers. It’s only if you have a more specialized use case that you would benefit from the higher-end, very multi-core CPUs. A solid choice for most people is six or eight cores that boost to around 4.8 – 5.0 GHz. This is common in both AMD’s Ryzen and Intel’s Core series CPUs.
However, if you are the more specialized user, AMD Threadripper is absolutely the only choice. They’re much more expensive, as is the platform (CPUs cost between $1,400 and $4,000, and motherboards cost around $500 to $600), but when you need (or want) the multi-core performance, it’s the only choice.