Buying advice for CPU’s

The CPU is the heart of a computer. CPU stands for Central Processing Unit, and interprets the flow of data in your computer and processes it to write it out to your display or storage. The power of a CPU determines what you can do and how quick you can do it and this is directly related to the amount of money you want to spend. For simple task like email and surfing the web you don’t need a very expensive CPU, a basic one will do the job and will save you some money. But if you intend to do gaming, HD-video editing or lots of multitasking a faster CPU with multicore processors will suit you better. Buying a new CPU can be complicated, here are some important specifications you need to know about before you purchase:




Sockets

One of the first things you want to consider will be the motherboard socket into which your new CPU must fit. If you already have a motherboard, check if it supports the socket of the CPU you intend to buy. Socket types are given by the two biggest manufactures, AMD and Intel, and some of the most common ones are the AM3 from AMD, if your motherboard supports AM3 it will also support the older AM2 and AM2+, and when it comes to Intel we find LGA1155, the older LGA1156 socket and LGA1366.
These are in constant evolution so simply check the socket type on both the CPU and motherboard and you will be fine.


Cores

Most CPU’s today have multiple cores, most common are 2, 4 and 6 cores but newer high end CPU’s have even more cores. The core is the brain of the CPU, and with multiple cores the CPU can handle lots of data at the same time. The more cores the CPU has the more data threads it can handle and process: it is in effect like have multiple processors in one. For usual day computing a normal dual-core will be more than enough but for gaming and heavy multitasking you will want more cores to speed up the experience. Quad core and six core processors represent good value for money if you want something you can play 3D on.

Intel uses Hyper-threading in some of their CPU’s which allows one core to process multiple threads.


Clock Speed

Clock speed tells you the operating frequency of a single core, in other words, how fast the core is. This is measured in GHz. A 3,4 GHz CPU is faster than a 3,0 GHz CPU but this is where the number of cores matters. A quad-core CPU with 3,0 GHz will be faster than a dual-core CPU with 3,4 GHz thanks to its two extra cores.

Overclocking

Note that some processors can be 'overclocked', which is to set it to run faster than was officially intended by the manufacturer. The problem with overclocking is that it can cause two major issues: instability (the computer can freeze or crash) and overheating. For this reason you will usually need a much bigger fan and radiator than the one provided in the box along with the processor. See our 'Cooling' section for more on this.

Cooling

Cooling is usually adequate with the radiator & ventilator provided in the box by the manufacturer (be sure to get the boxed version if you want this, and not the 'OEM' version, which usually comes without means of cooling). The problem with those, however, is their size: they are very small. This implies two things: they can be noisy and they won't be sufficient if you intend to overclock your processor.
If noise is a concern or if you intend to overclock, be sure to get a bigger radiator with a bigger ventilator. Some are absolutely huge and will barely fit inside your computer. In fact, do check the dimensions before you buy or you might not be able to close your PC back up after fitting it - no joke!
Be sure to apply some quality thermal paste between the processor and the radiator or it might not cool and you could lose your processor from melting.

An alternative to fans, albeit an expensive one, is watercooling. Yes, just like a car engine, your computer's CPU can be water cooled! While this may work very well, it is absolutely useless to most of us, and even heavy gaming does not require watercooling. In other words, unless you intend to overclock the hell out of your processor, you will not need such a system.


Front side bus (FSB)

The front side bus is the connection or frequency speed between the CPU and the motherboard and is measured in MHz.


Cache

Cache is the CPU’s memory, where data is stored while it is being processed. A processor can have up to three different cache “levels” called L1, L2 and L3. L1 is the first and smallest level that feeds the microprocessor directly and due to its smaller size it is also the fastest. This is the first place a CPU searches for data. If the CPU doesn’t find the data in L1 it will jump to L2 which is a bit slower but has much more storage for bigger data. L3 has even more storage. The more cache a CPU has the faster it will be able to work.


64-bit support

Mostly all CPU’s on the market today support 64-bit instead of the old 32-bit models. 64-bit means that the CPU is able to process 64 bits of data at one time.
32 bit PCs are a thing of the past, so do not get a 32 bit system by any means. Speed is vastly improved too. To provide an example, Windows 7 64-bit can perform about 7 times as fast as Windows XP 32-bit on the exact same machine.


AMD and Intel

The CPU market is dominated by two manufactures, AMD and Intel, of which Intel still is the clear market leader with over 70% market share.

AMD is growing in popularity and has a strong CPU-product line including Sempron, Athlon II, Phenom II and FX-series. Sempron is their most basic CPU-line and comes at a very good price point. The Athlon II –line is a big step up in performance and consists of 2-4 core CPU’s. The Phenom II –CPU’s have up to 6 cores or more, 3,7 GHz and 6 MB L3 cache and are for those that need lots of performance. FX-series is AMD’s top of the line CPU’s and delivers up to 8 cores for the ones that really need superior performance. Expect all of the above to evolve rapidly, with more cores and higher speeds.

Intel’s line of CPU does consist of Celeron, Pentium, Atom, Xeon and the popular Core-series with i3, i5 and i7. Celeron and Pentium are Intel’s basic CPU’s for the most common computer work at a cheap price point. Intel’s Atom processors are small very energy efficient and very popular in small netbooks. Xeon is their most powerful line of CPU’s and is aimed mostly at servers. Intel core-series is their flagship line since 2006. The series is divided in 4 performance classes i3, i5, i7 and i7 Extreme whereas the i3 is the least powerful one with dual-core processors and i7 Extreme the most powerful one with 6 core processors and up to 12 MB L3 cache.

Energy

If energy consumption is going to be of importance, you might want to check out what the wattage of a given CPU is before buying. A 6 or 8 core CPU can easily consume over 100 Watts, which is to say it uses the same as about 15 LED household lightbulbs! Your graphics car probably uses up even more juice.
You can, however, save a lot of electricty by setting your PC to 'power saver' mode, which makes it run at full speed only when necessary. This will reduce your consumption by 40 or 50 Watts on a 95 Watt processor such as an AMD Phenom II running at 2.8 Ghz.

Hopefully now you have all the information you need to make the right decision in purchasing a new CPU, use the filter options on PriceRunner to guide you to the CPU that suits your needs best!

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