Picking a Processor, Part 3: CPU Technologies, Comparing Processors, Making the Choice

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This is the final in a series if three articles on choosing the right processor for your desktop computer. Here we’ll touch on some important CPU technologies, how to compare two processors, and how much processor you really need.

CPU Technologies

As processor technologies improve, chip developers, like AMD and Intel, have developed a few special technologies which fall outside the typical specifications. There are lots of these, so I’ll just cover a couple of the most common ones here.

Hyper Threading

Hyper Threading is a powerful technology found on Intel’s Core i7 processors which grants huge boosts to performance. Multi-core processors were a huge advancement to CPU technologies because they allowed PCs to work on multiple processes at the same time. Hyper threaded processors further compound this boon, as they are capable of handling two-processes per core, at a time. In effect, a hyper-threaded, quad-core processor would function as an eight-core chip, each core being able to split its attention between two tasks. This technology is the chief reason for the jump from Core i5 to Core i7; the difference in performance is vast.

FSB, HyperTransport, QPI, and DMI

FSB, HyperTransport, and QPI are three terms which all refer to the same thing—the data transferring connection between a processor and other parts of a computer.

FSB (Front Side Bus) is an older version of this link which has been phased out of most new technology, though it’s still relevant in slightly older chips such as Intel’s Core 2 Duo processors.

HyperTransport is a 3rd party technology used by many companies, AMD among them. AMD adopted this data connection with the development of their K8 processors and will often advertise the speed of their HyperTransport connection when selling their chips.

QPI (QuickPath Interconnect) is Intel’s version of this data bridge. It was developed in-house by Intel and is mostly found on super high-end chips.

DMI (Direct Media Interface) is another Intel version that’s been around since 2004. It was traditionally used between the north and south bridge of a motherboard, but since the integration of north bridge function into the processor, DMI has become the go-to for Intel’s lower-end processors.

While AMD or Intel fanboys may disagree, the bus type or speed doesn’t really matter all that much when comparing processors (not counting FSB; FSB is actually a tad too slower for some of today’s chips). HyperTransport, QPI, and DMI are all capable of transferring as much data as any modern, consumer-level processor could throw at it, at the fastest possible speeds.

Comparing Two Processors

It can be very difficult to compare two processors based on their specifications. This is because most of the advancements made by processor engineers are in the micro-architectural elements of the chip and are far too advanced for most folks (including me) to really grasp. Throughout these advancements, many of the easily judged specs of a chip, like Mhz, core count, and other things we’ve talked about, remain more or less the same. The most reliable way to judge the difference between two processors is through testing tools called benchmarks.

Benchmarks are like obstacle courses for a processor—high performance tasks focused on gauging the capability of a CPU. By comparing the test results, it’s pretty easy to tell which processors come out on top. Passmark, the most popular benchmarking software, posts hundreds of thousands of benchmarking results on their website, providing a massive database on results that allow anyone to quickly compare processor performance.

Click here to visit Passmark.com

Here’s what you’ll find:

To use the Passmark graphs, follow the link just above and search through the graphs and find the CPU you’d like to check (most modern CPUs will fall under the High End or High to Mid Range CPU charts). You can find it quickly by hitting ctrl+f on your keyboard and typing in the name of the processor (i.e. Core i7 2600k), the higher the number next to the processor, the faster it is. Also, if you click on the name of the CPU you can see its overall rank and price-to-performance ratio.

So Which Processor Should You Get?

While it’s pretty easy, in the end, to judge which CPUs are the fastest and the best, it can still be tough to decide which processors are right for you. The answer, of course, depends on how you’re planning on using your computer.

Low-End

Users who stick to the basics, like web-surfing, e-mail writing, etc., will be perfectly happy with a low-end $60-$80 dollar dual core.

AMD Athlon II X2 245

Mid-Ranged

Users who want a little bit more from their computers will want to spend a bit more on their processors, somewhere in the $100-$200 range. PCs with these chips will quickly run heavier applications like Photoshop, run multiple programs at once, or manage some mid-ranged gaming.

Intel Core i3 540
Intel Core i5 650
Athlon II X4 640
Phenom II X4 945

High-End

High-end users will typically spend $200 or more on their processors. This will allow them to run games at max settings (with appropriate video cards), quickly render video, and manage other high end applications.

Intel Core i5 2500k
Intel Core i7 950
AMD Phenom II X6 1055T
AMD Phenom II X4 975

I hope I’ve given some tools that will help you pick out a processor on your own. If you’ve got any questions, or anything to add, please feel free to comment below.

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