Pin Me

Understanding PC Processor Performance

written by: NormDickinson•edited by: M.S. Smith•updated: 1/18/2011

Choosing the right processor for a new computer or an upgrade can be confusing with so many different models and speeds available. Learn which features are important for a particular purpose and select the right CPU for the job by comparing cache memory, clock speed, and number of cores with price.

  • slide 1 of 6

    Computer processors are available in a wide variety of speeds and prices, and few technologies are changing faster than CPUs. Choosing the right processor for an upgrade or a new computer is more challenging than ever. It used to be easy to compare speeds or buy the lowest priced brand name processor, but the rules have changed and the new designs complicate the decision making process with new buzzwords and even more choices. This article will help you navigate PC processor performance and the questions surrounding it.

  • slide 2 of 6
    Motherboard with an Empty Socket
  • slide 3 of 6

    Clock Speed

    When everything else is equal, clock speed is a great way to determine how fast two different chips will run relative to each other. While the clock speed of a processor used to be the single biggest determining factor in selecting a CPU, it is no longer as clear an indicator as it once was. Today a processor's clock speed is only relatively important when comparing two chips of the same manufacturer and even then the two chips should be in the same series and have the same amount of cache as each other for the comparison to help.

  • slide 4 of 6

    Number of Cores

    Multi-core technology has been around for a few years now and it is difficult to find a processor with a single core. While more cores are usually better, it is not always a simple matter of comparing the number of cores that a chip has because other factors also influence performance in a given situation. Many games and applications are designed to take advantage of multiple cores and benefit from having them available. However, if a program is not coded to make use of multiple cores, the extra cores may go unused or underutilized. Spending extra on them is not a great investment if that is the case. You should consider the software you use when deciding the number cores you need on a processor. If you simply browser the web, you'll probably be fine with a dual-core processor. If you routinely use Adobe Photoshop, however, you'll find benefit in the purchase of a quad-core.

  • slide 5 of 6

    Cache Memory

    Cache RAM is a small amount of very high speed RAM that resides on the processor die and speeds up access to the information the processor needs, making a huge difference in processor speed. Once again, when everything else is equal the amount of cache on a particular processor has an impact on performance, but it is not the only factor involved.

  • slide 6 of 6

    The Bottom Line

    Clock speed, number of cores, and amount of cache memory are the three most important factors to consider when comparing performance between different processors, and they should be taken into consideration in that order of priority in most cases. When buying a processor, one other consideration usually comes in ahead of those three, and that is of course the cost of the chip. In fact, the speed of different products can often be determined with a general rule of thumb that the faster chips usually cost more money. One thing to remember when choosing a processor is that prices are always dropping and chip speeds are always increasing, so it's often smart to buy a budget processor and upgrade frequently. With that said, users who truly need cutting-edge performance are an exception.