How to Tell If a CPU Is Actually Worth the Upgrade

How to Tell If a CPU Is Actually Worth the Upgrade

There’s a lot of hype around how many cores a device’s CPU (aka Central Processing Unit) has. It’s common to hear people say that more cores equals more processing power, and while that’s technically true, it’s not the whole picture. There are actually several factors that determine a processor’s power and speed…and even if a CPU is “worse” in some ways on paper, it may be better suited to certain tasks than others.

It can be confusing, especially if you’re looking to build a new PC and want to find the right CPU. To help, we’ve put together this quick guide on CPUs, their specs, and how to test them. This isn’t a comprehensive breakdown, but it should help your wrap your head around CPUs.

How to make sense of CPU specs

First, here’s a quick rundown of the most important CPU specs:

  • Cores: “Cores” are another name for processors. So, a quad-core CPU actually has four discreet processors, an octa-core has eight, and so on. The more cores a CPU has, the more tasks it can reliably manage. More core does not necessarily make a CPU better or faster by default, however; it merely means it can handle tasks that require multiple cores at once.
  • Clock Speed: A CPU’s clock speed (measured in Hz and GHz) denotes how much data it can process per second. One GHz is equaled to one billion instructions. For example, a 2.9 GHz CPU can process 2.9 billion instructions every second, and a 4 GHz CPU can process 4 billion instructions. Faster clock speeds almost always mean better performance.
  • Overclocking: Some CPUs support a feature called “Overclocking,” which lets users enhance the CPU’s clock speeds beyond the baseline it ships with. Overclocking can boost the processor’s performance — especially for resource-intense tasks like gaming or media rendering — at the cost of higher heat output. Since the excess heat can damage the CPU or other PC components without the proper cooling, CPU manufacturers will often include desktop apps that help you safely overclock the processor and monitor the internal temperature.
  • Cache: A CPU’s cache is how much internal memory it has. While a larger cache is better for multitasking, in some cases CPUs with smaller caches run faster — so it’s not simply that bigger caches mean its a better CPU.
  • Hyper-threading and Multithreading: Threading is a technology found on some CPUs that allow cores to perform more than one process at once, effectively doubling the CPU’s core count. Intel calls this “Hyper-threading” while AMD calls it “Multithreading,” but they’re the same thing. Like multi-cores, more threads mean better multitasking, but it won’t affect speeds for single-core tasks.
  • Thermal Power Design: Thermal Power Design (TPD) measures a CPU’s power requirements. While this figure doesn’t mean much for a CPU’s performance, it’s important to know if you’re building your own PC, since you’ll need a PSU (power supply unit) that can power every component in your PC — the CPU, the graphics card, etc.
  • Hardware generation: A CPU’s hardware generation refers to the device’s microtechnology. Manufacturers release CPUs iteratively, making tweaks to enhancements with new generation. While new generations usually run better than previous releases, that’s not always the case. For example, an older CPU with more cores may compete with a newer gen CPU with fewer cores or slower base clock speeds.
  • Type: Finally, there are different types of CPUs: Specifically, mobile vs desktop. Mobile CPUs often have integrated graphics processing so you don’t need a separate GPU, but since they run smaller and usually target lower TPD, they may not perform as well as the desktop version.

Many of the specifications can be gleaned simply by reading the CPU’s product name, but by now you’ve probably noticed a pattern: a CPU’s specs might seems better on paper, but there are caveats and contradictions that make it difficult to compare CPUs at a glance.

The CPU is the central component of your PC, but we all use our PCs for different reasons. A video editor may want a high-end processor with multithreading, while a PC gamer might target CPUs with better clock speeds, even if it’s the “cheaper” option. So how is someone supposed to know if a CPU is a worthwhile upgrade?

How to understand CPU benchmarking

Instead of skimming spec sheets, the best way to gauge a CPU’s performance is benchmarking. Manufacturers, reviewers, and enthusiast-level users use benchmark tests to see how CPUs (and other PC components) perform in real-time and to compare them to other CPUs.

Of course, you’ll need to know your own CPU’s name and model number if you want to compare it to other ones. Fortunately, there’s an easy way to find this:

  1. On your Windows PC, open the Start Menu and go to Settings > System > About.
  2. Look for the Processor listed under “Device Specifications.”

If you want a more detailed readout, you can find your CPU’s model, cores, clock speed, and other specs in Task Manager:

  1. Press Ctrl + Shift + Esc to open the Task Manager window.
  2. Click on the “Performance” tab.
  3. 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:

  1. Search for “Device Manger” in the taskbar or Windows Start Menu, then click the app from the results to open it.
  2. 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).
  3. Double click the processor to see more info, such as driver details.

Once you have your CPU’s model and specs, it’ll be much easier to compare it with prospective upgrades to see if it’s right for you. There are benchmarking programs out there you can use to run your own tests, but it’s easier to look up product reviews and benchmark comparisons charts instead. A few good resources are CPUBenmark.net, product review sites like Tom’s Hardware and CNET, and online stores like Newegg.

[PCWorld]

Log in to comment on this story!