Dear Lifehacker, I'm in the market for a new computer, but I keep reading that I should wait until Intel's Ivy Bridge processors get released. Are they really going to be that much better? Will I even notice a difference if I wait two months for the next big processor? Sincerely, Seeking CPUs
It's true that, when it comes to raw speed, we've reached a point of diminishing returns when it comes to processors — at least for the average user. However, new processors bring more than just raw speed, and depending on what you're using your computer for, the next new architecture could actually be worth the wait, even if you're rather impatient. Here's a rundown of what you should be looking for.
Most People Don't Need To Worry About Processors Anymore...
For the average user, the difference between one generation of processor and the next is negligible, if it's even noticeable at all. Processors have gotten faster and more efficient than most people will use in their day-to-day activities, so holding out for something like Ivy Bridge is really just depriving yourself of that new machine for a few months. Even if you're gaming, you're unlikely to notice a difference with a minor upgrade like that. Your graphics card is more likely to be the bottleneck on your system — once you get past a certain point, most games won't benefit from more CPU cores or speed. So if you're building or buying a new desktop for regular computing or gaming, it probably isn't worth the wait (that is, if you're really itching to get your new computer...if you're a very patient person, why not wait?).
...Unless You're Editing Hours of Video...
That said, each generation of processors does come with speed increases — you just wouldn't notice them in regular computing. Intel has a "tick tock" release schedule where every other release brings more significant performance increases — Sandy Bridge brought a 10-50% increase, whereas Ivy Bridge brings about a 5-15% increase in speed. Again, though, most people won't notice either of those. If you're doing processor-intensive tasks, however — like heavy video editing — you definitely will. Rendering or encoding a long video will take less time, thus freeing you up for other things, and a few months wait might be worth it.
...Or Buying a Laptop
Now, remember, speed isn't the only improvement we see in new processors. We may have reached a point of diminishing returns on speed, but we certainly haven't when it comes to other things, like integrated graphics performance or heat buildup. If you're buying a laptop or low-powered machine that runs on integrated graphics — that is, that doesn't have a dedicated graphics card — you're likely to see a huge boost in graphics performance for gaming or video watching between generations (and, specifically, with Ivy Bridge). You also may notice that your computer doesn't run quite as hot, which is a big concern for laptop users.
In the end, it's hard to tell you what every new generation will bring in the future, so you'll want to do your own research — AnandTech is a really great site for in-depth looks at new hardware — but in general, this brief rundown should give you a good idea of where the state of processors is today. In general: if waiting is too hard, you probably won't miss out on a lot unless you're buying a laptop or doing seriously CPU intensive processes. If you're one or two months out, and have the patience, you might as well wait, but by no means do you need to, despite what people might suggest. Just like all technology, something better will always be around the corner, and if you're always waiting for the next best thing, you'd never upgrade.
One last thing to consider is cost. While a new line of processors may bring some moderate improvements to a new laptop, it also means prices of the old model are going to drop. If you're looking to save money, you should see if you can't grab an older model for less once the new ones come out. You might find that you enjoy the extra cash more than you enjoy a slightly cooler or graphics-friendly laptop (especially if you aren't using those graphics for much).
Obviously, this is a pretty basic look at a complicated topic, so if you have anything important to add, be sure to do so in the comments below.
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