Picking a Processor, Part 2: Motherboard Compatibility, Cache, and Manufacturing Process

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This is the second part of a three part post on picking a processor for your desktop computer. Today we’ll be focusing on motherboard compatibility, cache, and manufacturing technology.

Motherboard Compatibility

Motherboards are pretty specific in which processors they can and cannot support, determined by several factors which are beyond the scope of this article. However there are a couple of easy to find CPU specifications that will point you in the right direction.

Socket Type

The first of these specs is socket type, the socket being the slot into which the processor chip is physically inserted on the motherboard. Socket specifications are determined by the chip manufacturers (AMD or Intel) and then are passed along to motherboard manufacturers so that they can create compatible boards.

Most modern Intel processors all fall under one of these socket types: LGA 775, LGA 1156, LGA 1366, LGA 1155, and, soon, LGA 2011. The LGA portion stands for Land Grid Array, and refers to the grid pattern used by these sockets.

AMD ready motherboards include AM2, AM2+, AM3, and, soon, AM3+ sockets. AMD sockets are more versatile than are Intel chips, which either fit or they don’t; however, this means that a chip’s socket isn’t enough to fully indicate whether or not it will work with a given motherboard.

Wattage / TDP

Processor wattage is an accurate measurement of two things, the amount of power a CPU requires, and the amount of heat it will output. Motherboard sockets are built to support a certain level of TDP (Thermal Design Power), so this spec becomes another point to watch out for when matching a CPU with a board. Most motherboards found on consumer computer hardware sites (like OutletPC) support up to 95W while some are capable of as little as 65W and others as much as 140W. Like light bulb sockets, CPU sockets will work fine with chips that require less than their maximum draw, but not those which require more.

The Final Word

While matching socket type and TDP between motherboard and socket will point you in the right direction, the final word in whether or not a specific CPU and motherboard will work together comes from the motherboard’s manufacturer. Every motherboard manufacturer provides a list of processors for which their product is designed, usually found on the manufacturers’ product page.

The best way to find this is by searching in Google for the model number of the motherboard you’re thinking about buying. If, for instance, I was interested in the Biostar H61MH motherboard I would paste, Biostar H61MH into a Google search. I would then click on the link to the Biostar website (avoid clicking on NewEgg, they’re no good) and find this page:

Click on CPU Support,

And find a list like this:

I would then match the name, model number, and wattage to the CPU I’d thought about purchasing and, if it was on the list, I would know it’s compatible.

Cache

The bulk of the data a processor works with at any given time is stored in your system’s RAM, which is located an inch or two away from the CPU. While an inch or two is less than meaningless when considering the time it takes an electronic signal to traverse such a small distance, it actually become quite significant when you consider that a processor makes billions of calculations per second, each requiring another journey across that one or two inch span. To alleviate this, processor engineers build a relatively small cache of very high speed memory right onto the chip, allowing it to keep some of the most frequently accessed data close at hand. This greatly reduces the amount of traffic flowing between your RAM and CPU and makes a system far more efficient.

Depending on the architecture of your processor, the chip may have as many as three “levels” of this memory, referred to as L1, L2, and L3. When looking at cache, more is always better. More cache means more storage, more data on the chip, which results in less time wasted moving between CPU and RAM.

Manufacturing Technology

A processor’s manufacturing technology isn’t super important in choosing a CPU, but you are likely to come across the term while you’re shopping. The term refers to the density of the chip, and mainly serves as a measure of progress more than of any directly correlating performance increase. Intel’s Pentium 4 chips, released roughly ten years ago, were constructed according to a 90nm process, Core 2 processors from around five years ago followed a 65nm process, the Core i series from three years ago were 45nm, and the current generation uses 32nm technology. 22nm chips are expected in the next couple of years as well.

Stay tuned for the final part of this series, where I’ll explain how to compare two CPUs and talk about how much processor you really need. If you missed part one, you can read it here: Picking a Processor, Part 1: Clock Speed and Core Count

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