Your computer's processor performs most of the actual work of computing. The processor determines how many things your computer can do at one time, and how fast it will do those things. Since this component becomes one of your computer's defining characteristics, it's important that you know the basics of a making a solid processor comparison to have a successful shopping experience.
While nearly all computers come with some kind of processor, you can later upgrade the component in most desktop computers. This processor buying guide will help you understand the specifications of your computer's potential new “brain” and help select the right one.
Find The Right Price
Your first step in comparing processors is to choose your price range, which could be as little as $100 or as much as $1,000.
We'll talk about a few of the factors that determine speed, power, and features later in this processor buying guide, but having a ballpark number will help you get started making some processor comparisons.
Get Enough Cores
The more cores your processor boasts, the more computing functions it can handle simultaneously. That doesn't exactly mean how many programs you have running-- the number of functions we're referring to are the underlying computations and individual tasks the computer does in the background.
Don't confuse the processing cores with Intel's specifically-named Core brand of processors. All processors have one or more cores.
While you could technically find a processor with only a single core, you can buy a dual-core processor so inexpensively now that you have almost no reason to get a single-core processor. Since the number of cores is the largest factor in your processor's performance, a dual-core processor should really be your starting point.
For processor comparisons, if all you intend to do with your computer is some web browsing, email, and text documentation, then a dual-core processor will provide ample power. If you play video games or want to do serious video editing, you're better off spending the money on at least a quad-core processor.
Be aware that having more cores won't automatically speed up all of your programs. Some software vastly benefits from the extra power, but other programs can only use one core at a time. You'll still see benefits when you're multitasking, but the relationship between software speed and processor cores is a little more complex than we can fully explain in this processor buying guide.
Consider Clock Speed
In the early days of computers, processor speed was all that mattered. These days, clock speed shares its importance with the number of cores. Measured in gigahertz (GHz), your processor's clock speed determines how quickly the processor can move tasks through its cores.
For the purposes of processor comparison, you're first better off with more cores. Then, between two processors with the same number of cores, the higher clock speed is superior. In general, 2.5 GHz will provide ample speed. If you have a craving for even more power, though, look around the 3.5 GHz or greater spectrum.
Decide Between Integrated and Discrete Graphics
Both AMD and Intel provide processors with built-in video technology. Processors with these integrated graphics provide stronger video processing without the need for a discrete video card.
When you compare processors, you'll find not everyone benefits from integrated graphics. If you only use your computer for email, web browsing, and even watching movies, integrated graphics get the job done excellently. Video games and graphic editing, however, require separate video cards that are more powerful and specially designed to process intensive graphics.
Look for a Large Cache
A processor's cache stores data in a very convenient and fast location for your processor. Without a cache, your processor's speed would be limited by the speed of your computer's Random Access Memory (RAM). Cache is a complicated subject, but the general rule is that more memory in the cache is usually better. Look for the largest you can reasonably afford. You'll see cache types L1/L2/L3 referred to when researching your processor, but you’ll generally need to be more concerned with the size of the cache.
Most computer users will be satisfied with 2MB or 3MB of cache, but if you like to play video games or keep music running in the background, look for 4MB. If you do video editing or heavy gaming, a 6MB or larger cache is even better.
Brand Matters: AMD vs. Intel
The two most popular processor manufacturers are AMD and Intel. Chances are that you've already owned a PC with a processor by one of these two companies. While you could spend days researching the differences between AMD and Intel processors, the real decision comes down to price and what's already inside your existing system.
You can't replace an AMD processor with an Intel processor or vice versa. Changing from one brand of processor to the other requires additional components such as a motherboard, so you need to know which type of processor your computer currently possesses, and be sure to match it in your new purchase.
Cheat sheet: Six Processor Factors to Consider
The six basic factors we've reviewed in this processor buying guide are price, cores, clock speed, integrated graphics, cache, and manufacturer. Once you've looked at the available processors that fit these six criteria, review each specific processor for additional features that might fit your needs. For example, some processors excel at video games, while others are much more budget-friendly.
Reviewing each individual processor under the framework of these six processor comparison subjects will help you make sure you get the right new component for your computer.