What to know when buying a processor for a new computer
Q: I’m in the market for a new computer and need help figuring out which processor I should be considering.
A: The processor plays an important role in any computer, but the deciding factor is what you plan to do with your computer.
If your primary usage is web browsing, email, and basic productivity programs like a word processor or spreadsheets, just about any processor from AMD or Intel will be adequate.
If you plan on using your computer for more complex tasks such as gaming, video editing or programming, you’ll need to pay closer attention to the processor you select.
One of the first specifications that you’ll be presented with is the number of cycles a CPU can execute per second, which is measured in gigahertz (GHz).
In the past, this would have been one of the most important specifications, but processor technology has become much more sophisticated.
Higher clock speeds generally equate to better performance, but there are other specifications that will have a bigger impact on the overall performance.
A processor rated at 3.2 GHz won’t be significantly faster than one rated at 3.0 GHz, so don’t overspend based on this one specification as there are more cost-effective upgrades you should consider.
Cores & Threads
This is one of the more important areas of focus in your decision tree. I’ve always used a kitchen analogy to help users understand the technical aspects of a process. Think of each core as a chef and threads as a specific dish that is being prepared.
Essentially, the more chefs (cores) and threads (recipe execution) the processor has, the more it can create at once (multitasking). For web browsing and email, these extra ‘chefs’ get underutilized because your tasks tend to be single-threaded, so a processor with a higher clock speed and fewer cores is generally a better fit.
For multi-tasking applications such as gaming and video editing, a slightly slower clock speed with more cores would be a better fit.
Application System Requirements
One of the easiest ways to figure out your minimum processor performance levels is by looking into the requirements of the applications you plan to use.
You can get the system requirements for virtually any application by going to the support page for the program and searching for the minimum system requirements.
The Importance of RAM
Another integral component of your computer’s processing performance is the working memory, better known as Random Access Memory (RAM).
In the kitchen analogy, RAM would be the equivalent of a mixing bowl for each chef and each recipe. The larger the mixing bowl, the more efficient each chef will be for each recipe.
For those that browse the web with lots of open tabs, having extra working memory will be one of the best ‘bang for the buck’ upgrades you can choose over faster processors or more cores.
Ultimately, your budget will determine the best balance of performance vs cost if you have clearly identified the tasks you’ll perform on the new computer and have done the research for their requirements.
If your budget allows for faster processors, more cores, or more memory than your applications require, having the extra capabilities will extend its usable life and somewhat ‘future-proof’ it.