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What are the Advantages of Dual and Quad Core Computer Processors?

written by: John Garger•edited by: Simon Hill•updated: 5/19/2011

No subject has more computer users asking questions than multi-core CPUs. The concept of dual and quad core processors is quite simple and the advantages are enormous over single core CPUs.

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    Introduction of the Multi-Core Processor

    One of the most spectacular advances in home computing has been the introduction of the multi-core processor and complementary technologies. The processor in any computer is essentially the “brain" responsible for the majority of calculations necessary for operation. The operating system, software, and even hardware are at the mercy of the processor speed when making vital calculations which allow the computer to work correctly.

    The introduction of multi-core processors such as Intel's Core i3, i5, and i7 CPUs made possible the calculation of simultaneous data streams. No longer do programs have to wait in line while the processor makes calculations that are more important. Multi-core processors significantly speed up a computer and make it possible to run processor-hungry applications such as games, statistical software, and server applications more efficiently.

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    What Does ‘Dual and Quad Core Processors’ Mean?

    Intel Dual Core In the days before multi-core, CPUs had one core per processor. This meant that referring to a computer’s core processor and CPU was the same concept. Multi-core processors have challenged this one CPU/one core paradigm making new terminology necessary. Today, industry technicians refer to a computer’s CPU as a processing system, recognizing that there may be multiple cores within one ‘package’. To distinguish between different kinds of processing systems, dual and quad core processors are known as chip multi-processors (CMP) to indicate that multiple cores occupy one unit.

    Multi-core computers are not a new concept. Even some home computers had multiple cores before the introduction of multi-core processors. However, these computers had special motherboards containing two chipsets allowing two independent processors to work in unison thereby gaining some of the advantages of a multi-core system. It is important to note that dual and quad core processors have multiple cores in one unit. They are not two or four separate processors that simply word together. Multi-core processors do not look any different from single-core processors; they simply contain independent processing cores in one package.

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    How Do Dual and Quad Core Processors Work?

    In the early days of multi-core processors, two or more cores often shared some resources making people question whether those processors could truly be considered to contain independent cores. Most notable was the sharing of cache memory, a temporary storage area not unlike the RAM in a computer. Cache memory, however, is found both in and around the processor and is exclusive to the processing needs of the CPU. Later, multi-core processors were engineered to have independent, dedicated caches making the processors truly independent. The first quad core processors were really nothing more than two dual core processors sandwiched into one processing system. Again, the definition of multi-core processing was challenged.

    The operating system of a computer greatly determines whether multi-core processing will speed up the computing experience. Unless an operating system can recognize multiple cores, it will not be able to take advantage of multi-core processing. For example, Windows XP Home supports one processor regardless of the number of cores and Windows XP Professional supports two processors, again, regardless of the number of cores. Windows Vista Home Premium, like XP Home, supports one processor and multiple cores. Only Windows Vista Business, Enterprise, and Ultimate editions support multiple processors like Windows XP Professional. Windows 7 is reported to support processors much like Vista. Before its release, it is unknown exactly which versions will support multi-processor configurations and what the licensing terms will be. Some sources report Windows 7 Server supporting 8 processors and 32 cores.

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    Buying Dual and Quad Core Processors

    If you are considering buying a computer with a multi-core processor there are some things to consider before you make your purchase. Both Intel and AMD offer multi-core processors but it is beyond the scope of this document to recommend one manufacturer’s processors over another. As the newer paradigm, quad core processors are typically more expensive that dual cores. This price difference can be as little as $50 or as high as $500 or more. Although it may be attractive to own the fastest computer possible, shopping wisely for your next computer can save you from buying more than you need.

    Before multi-core processors, computer buyers purchased computers by matching the needs of the user with the speed of the processor. In those days, speed measured in MHz or GHz dictated the speed and price of the computer. Budget computers were those that had slightly older or even outdated processors running slower than the newest CPUs. The principle of choosing a computer by its processor is still valid today.

    Choosing between a dual and quad core processor is a matter of deciding whether the quad core processor is worth the expense. Users mainly checking e-mail, typing papers, surfing the Internet, and watching online videos will find that their processing needs are quite meager. Those users playing the latest video games, editing videos, using high-powered statistical programs, etc. will better take advantage of the processing power offered by quad core processors. Although it is a bit simple to categorize processors only by the number of cores they contain, it is wise for the buyer to consider whether four processing cores are worth the added expense.

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    Dual and Quad core processors contain multiple processing cores in one package. The advantage is faster processing of critical data and the ability to run more programs simultaneously with fewer interruptions. Unlike single core computers, programs running in a multi-core system have a better chance of having their calculation made quicker. Just like multiple checkouts in a grocery store, more cores mean faster processing. The choice between dual and quad cores is one of practicality. If you need more processing power go with the quad core. Otherwise, save some money on what would be wasted processing power.