All you need to know about Processors

Find out all you need to know about processor Types, Cores, Clock Speed and Hyperthreading

The processing power of computers has been increasing at a blinding pace over the last decade thanks to innovations in the processor. That’s why we thought that it would be a good idea to take a look at processors.

What is a processor?

This is basically the brains of your computer. Its responsible for interpretation and execution of commands from the computer’s other hardware and software. The main manufacturers of processors for laptops, desktops, and servers are Intel and AMD. Apple, Qualcomm, and Nvidia on the other hand are more involved with smartphone and tablet CPUs. There are two main things you need to know about processors to help you make the right choice

Clock Speed

How does clock speed affect the cpu performance?

Measured in Hertz, it is the number of instructions it can process per second. Usually, this figure is given in Gigahertz ( 1 GHz = 1 x 10^9 Hertz). This tells you how fast your processor will get things done, so the bigger the figure, the better. Certain processors have the ability to go past their manufacture specified clock speeds for short periods of time so as to meet demand. This is what is called Turbo-boost. It’s a feature that’s found in processors higher up in the price scale. However, this is not the only thing that matters in processors as some may think. Other factors that matter are the number of cores and Hyper-threading.

Number of Cores (Multi-core processors)

You may have heard the term single-core processor, dual-core processor or quad-core processor etc. What does all these mean?

Well, they refers to the number of physical cores in one processor chip, where each core is independent and performs both read and executer commands. The prefix of the word actually tells you how many cores they are. For example, dual-core means = two cores, quad-core = four cores, etc.

As might already be evident, having two processor units working together means that the CPU can simultaneously manage twice the instructions every second, drastically improving performance.
Tasks such as video editing, encryption, file compression, even scientific weather modeling do lots of calculations and can thus be easily subdivided between the cores and solved, thus taking advantage of this feature. Such applications are not very sequential in their nature thus making this possible.

However, not all processes can be broken down into smaller tasks, especially if the tasks are sequential and need to be done one step at a time. Such include games which, more often than not, cannot take advantage of this feature extensively – either because they have not been built from the ground up to take advantage of it or are sequential in nature. So if you’re a gamer, you’re better focusing your resources on getting cores that perform better individually and on other components of your system. But if you’re a video editor or are in 3D modeling or CAD work, you will find this feature quite beneficial.

Hyper-threading / Simultaneous Multithreading

Intel processors refer to this feature as Hyper-threading, while AM D processors refer to it as Simultaneous Multithreading. We’ll refer to it as hyper-threading for convenience.

Contrary to marketing, hyper-threading is not single microprocessor acting like two separate processors. Hyper-threading has no effect on the number of processors (physical or virtual). It is simply intelligent scheduling so that the processor is always at work. With a single thread, the processor may finish working on whatever task it was requested to handle before more is delivered to it. This is not the efficient use of time, which created the need for hyper-threading. Hyper-threading is simply adding the number of ‘messengers’ who carry data to the processor. Thus the processor never spends any time idling waiting for the one slow ‘messenger’ to arrive with data’. The messengers are in this case the threads. More of them does not mean the processor works any faster, only that work is delivered more efficiently to it thus no time wasted sitting idly with no work to do.

What is hyperthreading good for?

Hyper threading, however, can’t do much for single-threaded workloads where you can only work on one thing at a time. Computing tasks that benefit from hyperthreading and multiple processing cores are video editing, 3D Rendering and heavy multitasking on your PC. Video editing is a great example because one frame of a video can be processed while the next one is queued up because the video is already shot, the processor doesn’t have to guess what is coming next. Most games, for example, can’t take advantage of more than a couple of threads. So when choosing a processor, do your best to know what tasks you plan it for and whether it supports Hyper-threading

Intel processor types

The two main CPU manufacturers are Intel and AMD. Choosing a processor may be a very confusing task, especially when it comes to Intel. Performance is not only based on clock speeds as we have seen above but on several other things, so classifying according to clock speeds is not a direct indicator of performance of one processor over another.

Intel names its processor in Cores, ie. Core i3, Core i5, Core i7 and Core i9. This naming is based on the features supplied in that category-specific category.

Below are characteristics of the different categories of Intel processors.

Intel Core i3

  • Two cores and hyper-threading
  • Smaller Cache
  • Uses less power
  • Basic onboard graphics

Intel Core i5

  • Mobile Intel Core i5s have 2 cores, and desktops have 4 cores
  • What they have in common are improved onboard graphics and Turbo Boost

Intel Core i7

  • Hyperthreading
  • 2 Cores in an ultrabook to 8 in a workstation
  • Can support between 2 and 8 sticks of memory
  • 10 – 130 TDP
  • More Cache
  • Faster Turbo boost
  • Better onboard graphics

And of course, price higher with each category ascension.