So you have an outdated CPU in your system and want to upgrade? Now is a good time to do that as the competition between AMD and Intel is at an all-time high. More competition means a larger choice, higher performance, and lower prices for the consumer.
Choosing the right CPU, however, is no simple task. Even with only two manufacturers in the game, there are dozens of different models each one offers all their own advantages & disadvantages and prices that reflect them.
There are many questions to be answered especially to a non-techy user: Should I go for AMD or Intel? Is value or performance more important? Does the core count matter? How much does clock speed affect PC usage? Will it be used for a workstation, gaming, or just a simple internet browsing machine? Today we hope to answer all these questions and help you choose the perfect CPU for your system.
What is a CPU?
CPU stands for the central processing unit. It is responsible for processing and executing instructions within your machine. It is often referred to as the “brains” of the computer and thus is one of the most important parts that affect the experience of using the system. The processor (CPU) is built by placing billions of microscopic transistors onto a single computer chip.
This chip sits in a special place designated for it on the motherboard (the socket) and is connected to it by tiny pins which are present either on it or on the motherboard itself.
At its core, a CPU takes instructions from a program or application and performs a calculation. This process breaks down into three key stages: Fetch, decode, and execute. A CPU fetches the instruction from RAM, decodes what the instruction actually is, and then executes the instruction using relevant parts of the CPU.
To upgrade or to build a new system?
Now, this is a tricky question as simply upgrading to a newer CPU is the cheapest and fastest way to go about it. However, you will be limited by quite a few factors that will narrow down your choice. The architecture, socket, and compatibility of the motherboard installed in the PC are all things to take into account if you are going down this path.
The second option allows for much higher freedom in part choice as you will be replacing both the motherboard and the CPU. In theory, it’s much like building a PC as it will require complete disassembly and sometimes even the upgrade of other parts as well. As you can imagine, however, the costs of this type of upgrade are much higher than a simple CPU swap.
Usually, simple CPU swaps are a waste of time
Often when swapping out your processor for one that already fits into your motherboard socket is not the most viable option. For the last couple of years, chipmakers made CPUs that are only compatible with one socket for a generation or two. This means that once a year or two passes after the release, the next platform is no longer compatible with the ones that came before.
Unless you are upgrading from a low-end chip at the beginning of the generation to a high-end chip at the very end of the generation, you will most likely not gain much performance improvement and will not have the ability to upgrade just the chip a few years down the line.
What to consider when buying a new CPU?
There are a few factors you will need to take into account when choosing a CPU from either AMD or Intel. Based on them, you will be able to determine what approximate performance the chips will have as well as room for upgrades.
The number of cores within the processor
In 2020, the minimum core count you should aim for is four cores. If utilized properly by the software, which it should if it is well-written, all cores can be used to process one task at a time, making execution much faster.
Of course, it is a strong oversimplification but think of cores as the cylinders in a car’s engine. If all the other factors are approximately the same, then more cylinders will produce more power. As you can imagine, however, just like in cars, other factors are seldom equal and thus you should look at the bigger picture than just the core count to figure out which CPU is right for you.
Base clock and boost clock speeds
The two most important specifications to consider when choosing a CPU are its clock speeds. Typically measured in Gigahertz (GHz), the base and boost clocks usually give a good idea of how your CPU will perform; higher numbers commonly mean better benchmarks when looking within the same generation.
The base clock is a multiple of the system’s low-level clock and the CPU multiplier. It is the default speed at which the chip cores run, especially when doing non-demanding tasks such as internet browsing. The boost clock is a much faster speed at which one or more cores can run if the task demands it and the system’s thermal characteristics allow it.
With a decent cooling system and motherboard, the boost clock might even be applicable to all the cores at once, giving the most power to the user, however, in most cases, boost clock is not evenly spread across all cores.
On most modern chips, both AMD and Intel support multithreading. Put briefly, multithreading allows the computer to run two discrete processing assignments (threads) on each core. If the running software and OS allow it, this doubles the simultaneous processing potential of a CPU.
On the blue side, this technology is called Hyper-Threading (HT), while the red team refers to it as SMT (symmetric multithreading) but in practice, they are the same thing. For certain CPU-intensive tasks, like rendering videos, this technology is a much-needed bonus.
There are two types of chips that either of the manufacturers produces: locked and unlocked ones. A processor that is ‘unlocked’ allows the user to change the clock multiplier within the BIOS or even an in-OS overclocking software. ‘Locked’ chips, on the other hand, do not have this option and the multiplier cannot be changed by the user.
Although AMD was way behind in the CPU race throughout the past decade, its introduction of the Ryzen processors in 2017 has pulled AMD back up to the competition level. While Intel was pushing quad-core CPUs with 8 threads, the Ryzen series offered chips with 8 cores and 16 threads for similar prices.
If you are trying to get the most bang for your buck, as of August 2020, the best value/performance CPU is the AMD Ryzen 9 3900X. For under €430, you get 12 cores with 24 threads, running at the base clock of 3.8GHz that boosts up to 4.6GHz with SMT.
Team blue’s competitor to it is Intel i9-9900K chip that provides a base clock of 3.6GHz that boosts up to 5.0GHz. The performance benchmarks, however, are not in Intel’s favor as it only has 8 cores with 16 threads. The price for this chip also hangs around €430.