Which CPU is Best?

Category: Hardware

I'm ready for a new computer, and I want to build it myself. But I'm a little confused about all the CPU options from Intel and AMD. Can you explain which CPU is best for a machine that will run Windows 7 and a wide variety of software applications?

Which CPU is Best?

Which CPU Should I Buy?

Choosing a CPU used to be easy: the fastest clock speed you could afford was the best buy, period. A 750 MHz CPU was better than a 433 MHz CPU no matter who made either chip. But now there are many performance-enhancing technologies in CPUs, and a bewildering array of choices. "Which CPU is best?" no longer has a simple answer...

In general, you want a multi-core CPU these days. Rather than cranking up clock speeds, which means exponentially more heat and power consumption, CPU makers are putting two or more processor chips on a single CPU. Each processor is called a "core," and you can now buy CPUs with two, four, eight, or (if you're really rich) sixteen cores. But most desktop users will be quite satisfied with a dual-core CPU bearing two processor cores.

The AMD Athlon 64 X2 and the Intel Core i3 CPUs both contain a pair of cores. These are popular CPUs from the two leaders in CPU chips, and they're affordable. For multi-tasking and running multi-core aware applications, these dual-core CPUs are the hottest things going right now. But AMD and Intel haven't stopped at two cores.

The Intel Core i5 series can sport four processor cores on single chip, and the Core i7 can have up to six processors. AMD countered with its Phenom II X3 and X4 processors, which support three and four cores on a single chip, respectively.

Unfortunately, there still are not a lot of software applications that can take full advantage of multi-core technology. Such software must be "multi-threaded," meaning it's written to process data in multiple parallel sets of operations simultaneously, each thread using one core. Operating systems such as Windows 7, Mac OS X Snow Leopard and Linux are can take advantage of multiple cores, but most application software is still single-threaded and will use only one core even if multiple cores are present in your CPU.

High-end servers used in data centers and Web hosting operations are where multi-core processors are finding a lot of action. Intel has its Xeon Quad Core CPU for this market, though it's actually two two-core processors in one CPU package. AMD offers its Opteron line of multi-core processors, the latest of which support 8 and 12 cores.

If you do HD video editing you will realize dramatic benefits from quad-core technology. A quad-core processor running multi-threaded editing software can render video in one-third of the time a single-core CPU can. Games that take advantage of multi-core technology are still rare but coming onto the market rapidly.

Other factors to consider when choosing a CPU with a given core architecture are its bus speed, which determines how fast data can be moved into and out of the CPU; and the amount of L2 (level 2) cache memory on the CPU itself. L2 cache holds data until the CPU is ready for it, acting as a buffer so that no data gets lost because it arrives while the CPU is busy.

So does brand matter? I'm sure this will stir some controversy, but in my opinion, it doesn't matter at all if you buy an Intel or AMD processor. I've been using personal computers for over 20 years, and I've had machines with both brands of CPU. From a user/consumer perspective, they both do the same thing. You can compare it to buying a Ford or a Chevy -- they're both cars with steering wheels and a gas pedal. But with CPUs the difference is MUCH more subtle. For 99.9% of users, the choice boils down to how much money you want to spend, and how much processing power you need.

Bottom line: The best CPU for most consumers and individual business users now is a dual-core CPU. If you have a single-core CPU, upgrading to a second core will speed multi-tasking and prepare you for the imminent arrival of multi-threaded applications.

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Most recent comments on "Which CPU is Best?"

Posted by:

15 Oct 2010

"Most desktop computers now come with dual-core CPUs, although only one core may be installed at the factory. Upgrading to a second core will speed multi-tasking..."

Don't understand that last part. How does one upgrade to a second core?

EDITOR'S NOTE: I don't know what I was thinking when I wrote that! I've reworded to make it clearer that upgrading from a single-core to a dual-core might be a good idea. And yes, that would mean buying a new CPU and replacing the old one.

Posted by:

16 Oct 2010

the best cpu article contained no references to the i3 i5 or i7 nor amd counterparts the dual cores and quad cores are old tech now

Posted by:

Tom Campbell
16 Oct 2010


You might want to let you readers know that Intel recently changed their naming conventions and now use the "i" family to reference their dual-core desktop and laptop CPUs. All the "i" family CPUs have at least 2 cores, and if the model number ends in 7XX, 8XX or 9XX it has at least 4 cores.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Thanks for jogging my uhhh, RAM. I've updated the names in the text. :-)

Posted by:

16 Oct 2010

Good article. Sums up my feelings on the subject exactly. Dual-core is enough for today's applications. There is just too little benefit from triple or quad-core applications to justify their increased cost. Hopefully, within a couple of years, more applications will take advantage of those additional cores.

One question though, doesn't have more cores allow you to run more applications with less lag? Even without multi-threading, I'd expect that applications would be allocated to an unused core. Or am I wrong on this point?

Posted by:

Bruce Houghton
18 Oct 2010

An interesting site to benchmark a particular CPU before buying it, is:
The Best Value CPU chart is interesting to see performance verses cost. Higher cost is not always the fastest. AMD has some impressive results!

Posted by:

20 Oct 2010

Good job, Bruce. The list at http://www.cpubenchmark.net is definitely the place to decide which CPU to buy, or whether that new computer you're looking at has a good CPU or not. As Bruce also pointed out, choosing a CPU with a high CPU Value rating will get you the most performance for your buck.

Bob, please rework this article around using this website. I suggest you sort by Passmark rating, descending, then look for the highest value ratings. From this, you can see that the i7 950 and the Phenom II X6 1090T and 1075T are the best values, by far, and will give blazing, top-notch performance for only a bit more money than bargain processors.

Posted by:

20 Oct 2010

Bob - at some point in the past I read that one of the primary differences between Intel and AMD is that AMD runs at full speed all the time, and that Intel will sense if it is overheating and throttle itself down if it gets hot - while AMD will not. The net result being that intel will outlive a comparable speed processor especially in laptops. Seems to be a consensus that it might be true.

Posted by:

21 Oct 2010

Jeff, AMD quad Denebs also throttle. For most folks I think the decision rotates around how much they want to spend. 35nm and Hyperthreading doesn't come cheap. As for endurance, barring misfortune, most of the electronics in the box will go out of style long before it goes out of service.

Posted by:

26 Nov 2010

I have had both Intel and AMD chips in my various laptops through the years, one thing I can say for certain is that AMD chips run very hot which is not good in a laptop environment, which can lead to heat related performance issues, otherwise I saw no performance difference. So I have been telling people to go with Intel if its a laptop but otherwise it doesn't really matter.

Posted by:

30 Mar 2011

I find Intels run much hotter and are much less efficient. When you combine that with Nvidia graphics, it's even worse. I know a working AMD/ATI laptop from probably mid-2005 that still works today, and even for how old it is, it is so much better in terms of reliability. BTW, my old Acer with a Q6600 killed itself after about the same amount of time, too, so that really forced me to go away from Intel. AMD and ATI have made me happier.

Posted by:

paul galioni
19 Oct 2011

BOB -- IT WOULD HELP A LOT IF YOU KEPT A DATE ON THESE ARTICLES. When I read about 'what chip?' to think about, I'd like to know the date you wrote the information or when you updated it. I'm on a very strange Journey right now -- 1 friend is looking for a cheap do everything grad student computer, another is looking for a HD video editing computer to use aboard a sailboat (where two years ago he lost two masts, nearly all his power, and he and his sweetie were taking turns peddling their bilge pump to keep their diesel running, and TRYING to navigate out of the storm)-- and me, who's always believed if you feed off the top you have 5-8 years before your computer becomes 'standard' and another 5 before it's too old. Without dates, it's difficult at best to know how accurate you are using current standards. -- thanks -- paul

EDITOR'S NOTE: All my articles have dates at the bottom, just below the "Check out other articles in this category" section.

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