People talk about cores and multithreading, but there’s a lot more to consider when evaluating a CPU.
The number of cores in a device’s CPU (also known as the Central Processing Unit) generates a lot of buzz. More cores equals more processing power is a common misconception, and while this is technically correct, it isn’t the whole picture. A processor’s power and speed are determined by several factors…and even if a CPU appears to be “worse” on paper, it may be better suited to certain tasks than others.
It can be perplexing, especially if you’re building a new PC and need to find the right CPU. To assist you, we’ve compiled this quick guide to CPUs, their specifications, and how to test them. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it should help you understand how CPUs work.
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How to make sense of CPU specs
First, here’s a quick rundown of the most important CPU specs:
- Cores: Processors are also known as “cores.” A quad-core CPU, for example, has four separate processors, an octa-core has eight, and so on. A CPU’s core count determines how many tasks it can reliably handle. However, having more cores does not automatically make a CPU better or faster; it simply means it can handle tasks that require multiple cores at the same time.
- Clock Speed: The clock speed of a CPU (measured in Hz and GHz) represents the amount of data it can process per second. One billion instructions are equal to one GHz. A 2.9 GHz CPU, for example, can process 2.9 billion instructions per second, while a 4 GHz CPU can process 4 billion. Clock speeds that are higher almost always imply better performance.
- Overclocking: Some CPUs have a “Overclocking” feature that allows users to increase the CPU’s clock speeds beyond the factory defaults. Overclocking a processor can improve performance, especially for resource-intensive tasks like gaming or media rendering, but it comes at the cost of increased heat output. Because excessive heat can harm the CPU or other PC components if not properly cooled, CPU manufacturers frequently include desktop apps that allow you to safely overclock the processor while also monitoring the internal temperature.
- Cache: The cache of a CPU is the amount of internal memory it has. While a larger cache is better for multitasking, smaller caches can also be faster in some cases, so bigger caches don’t always imply a better CPU.
- Hyper-threading and Multithreading: Threading is a feature of some CPUs that allows cores to run multiple processes at the same time, effectively doubling the CPU’s core count. This is referred to as “Hyper-threading” by Intel and “Multithreading” by AMD, but the two terms are interchangeable. More threads, like multicores, mean better multitasking, but they have no effect on single-core task speeds.
- Thermal Power Design: Thermal Power Design (TPD) is a method of calculating a processor’s power requirements. While this figure has little bearing on a CPU’s performance, it’s important to know if you’re building your own PC because you’ll need a PSU (power supply unit) that can power all of your PC’s components—the CPU, graphics card, and so on.
- Hardware generation: The microtechnology of a CPU is referred to as its hardware generation. Manufacturers release CPUs in stages, tweaking improvements with each new generation. While new generations typically outperform previous generations, this is not always the case. An older CPU with more cores, for example, might be able to compete with a newer gen CPU with fewer cores or slower base clock speeds.
- Type: Finally, there are various CPU types: Mobile vs. desktop, to be specific. Mobile CPUs often include integrated graphics processing, eliminating the need for a separate GPU, but they may not perform as well as desktop CPUs due to their smaller size and lower TPD.
Many of the specifications can be gleaned simply by reading the CPU’s product name, but you’ve probably noticed a pattern: a CPU’s specs may appear to be better on paper, but there are caveats and contradictions that make comparing CPUs at a glance difficult.
The CPU is the heart of your computer, but we all use our computers for different reasons. A video editor might prefer a high-end processor with multithreading, whereas a PC gamer might prefer faster clock speeds, even if it’s the “cheaper” option. So, how does one determine whether or not a CPU upgrade is worthwhile?
How to understand CPU benchmarking
Benchmarking, rather than skimming spec sheets, is the best way to assess a CPU’s performance. Benchmark tests are used by manufacturers, reviewers, and enthusiast users to see how CPUs (and other PC components) perform in real-time and to compare them to other CPUs.
Of course, if you want to compare your CPU to others, you’ll need to know its name and model number. Fortunately, there’s a simple way to do so:
- On your Windows PC, open the Start Menu and go to Settings > System > About.
- Look for the Processor listed under “Device Specifications.”
If you want a more detailed breakdown, go to Task Manager and look up your CPU’s model, cores, clock speed, and other specifications:
- Press Ctrl + Shift + Esc to open the Task Manager window.
- Click on the “Performance” tab.
- Here you’ll find the CPU’s name and model. The clock speed, cores, and logical processors (aka “threads”) are also listed in the lower left.
You can also find CPU info in the Device Manager app:
- Search for “Device Manger” in the taskbar or Windows Start Menu, then click the app from the results to open it.
- In the Device Manager window, scroll down and click the arrow next to “Processors” to see your CPU’s name, model, and base clock speed. Each of the CPU’s cores will be listed as its own device. Note that a multi/hyper threaded CPU will have more cores listed (so a quad-core may show eight total processors, for example).
- Double click the processor to see more info, such as driver details.
It’ll be much easier to compare your CPU’s model and specs to potential upgrades to see if they’re right for you once you have them. You can run your own tests with benchmarking programs, but it’s easier to look up product reviews and benchmark comparison charts instead.