Let’s talk processors – what are the differences?

The processor or central processing unit (CPU) is also known as the ‘brain‘ of your computer. It’s job is to process all the information you give it. The faster & more efficient it does this, they quicker you get your work done. However, they aren’t all created equal with some better suited for particular situations than others.

I get asked occasionally which should I go buy, which is best suited for me, which is best value for money?

Those are relative questions – the best processor for one person may not be for another. By reading this article, hopefully you will have a better understanding how they operate & thus making a decision will be that much easier. Keep reading for a better understanding of the inner workings of Core processors.

die

This is a close-up image of a typical processor, showing the four distinct ‘cores’, the graphics processor along with the cache & other misc controllers.

There are many varieties of processors, for both desktops & laptops and each are targeted for their respective platform. To avoid any confusion we will be focusing on the desktop ‘Core’ range of processors in this article, specifically between the Intel Core i3, i5 and i7.

Within each model range, there are variations and the generational architecture they are based on. Intel periodically releases a new generation of processors, faster and more efficient than the last and along with that comes a new code name.

To start off, it’s important to understand the generation of a processor so you know what you are getting. Previous generations of Intel chips include: Sandy Bridge, Ivy Bridge, Haswell & now we have Skylake, released in August 2015. Determining the generational architecture of a processor is fairly simple; we just have to have a look at the model number.

Sandy Bridge start with a 2
Ivy Bridge start with a 3
Haswell start with a 4
Skylake start with a 6

NOTE: There is also a fifth generation called Broadwell, but aren’t a complete range replacement and are considered an upgrade to the Haswell range.

For example an i5-4590 is a fourth generation processor using the Haswell architecture.

The ‘Core’ processors within a generation are fundamentally the same. The differences come in the extras or features that are either enabled of disabled, clock speed, cache size and the number of cores included.

comparison

Allow me to provide more detail on the above chart and what each means…

Number of Cores: A core can also be considered as an individual processor within a processor. A processor that contains two cores has two internal processors on the one die (silicon that contains all parts of the processor). Processors that contain more cores (the Core i7 Extreme processors have up to eight cores) are generally more efficient, perform better and can handle more tasks (or threads). However the overall performance is determined by the software and how well it takes advantage of the technology.

Hyper-threading: A processor that provides hyper-threading has two virtual (or logical) cores within each physical core. As far as your operating system is concerned, it sees double the number of cores when in reality it only has half that. Performance wise, compared to extra physical ‘real’ cores, it isn’t as efficient but is definitely an improvement over a processor that only has a single core. Applications that make use of multi-tasking can see a benefit and this is where an i7 has an advantage over an i5. To the OS, it would appear that the processor has eight cores, when in actual fact, it only has four.

Turbo Boost: This is technology that can automatically overclock a processor when the need arises. The clock speed is temporarily boosted above its standard only when the processor is running cool enough. There are factors however that determine the maximum amount the clock speed can be raised:

• Active cores in use
• Current consumption
• Power consumption
• Processor temperature

If the limits are reached, the processor will throttle the speed back down again. Core i7’s & i5’s have this technology, i3’s do not.

Cache Size: Cache is a type of memory that is built into the processor. Whenever the processor detects that it’s using the same data constantly, it stores it in the cache to improve performance. The more cache that is available, the more data can be stored and accessed quickly, listed as MB or a Megabyte value. Core i3 processors have 3Mb cache, i5’s have 6Mb & i7’s have 8Mb. Cache is a type of volatile memory, data contained within this type of memory is lost when power is lost. Cache data is similar to system memory (RAM) but is much faster. In a computer system, RAM stores data loaded from the hard drive, reducing the need to access it as often. Cache stores data loaded from the RAM and because it is much faster, performance is greatly improved.

K Models: When researching processors, you may notice that some models have a ‘K’ at the end of the model number (eg. i5-4690K). What that means is that the processor is unlocked and changes can be made in the BIOS settings on the motherboard to overclock the processor past its default speed. By comparison, regular non-K models are locked to their default speed setting and cannot be adjusted. Buying a ‘K’ processor is an attractive option for many people seeking greater performance from their system. There are many pros & cons of overclocking but this is a topic for another day.

S Models: There are also some models that have an ‘S’ at the end of the model number, (eg i5-4790S). These are known as low power mode processors. They are effectively the same at the regular non-S model, but have a lower clock speed, which in turn uses less power & generate less heat.

…and some additional information.

Clock Speed: This is fairly straight forward, the faster the clock speed (MHz), the faster the processor operates. Clock speed used to be the main differentiator between processors. However with the invention of multiple cores and other features, a combination of these will determine the overall ‘speed’ of a processor. Depending what software is being operated on the PC, an i3 operating at a higher clock speed can outperform an i5 at a lower clock speed, running a single-threaded application. Using an application that can take advantage of multi-threading, the i5 will perform better as the four multiple cores are more efficient than the i3’s two cores.

Graphics: All of the Core processors have graphics capabilities built in known as Intel HD graphics. Previously it was up to the motherboard manufacturers to include on board video, but now they don’t have to as it’s in the processor. The Intel HD graphics capabilities are perfectly adequate for everyday use and some light gaming. However if you are seriously into playing games or other high-end graphic, photo or video use then installing a dedicated graphics card specifically for this purpose is recommended.

To summarise this article, it is clear that the Core i7 processors are the top of the line, i5’s are middle ground & i3’s are at the lower end.

Reflecting on the questions at the top of this article, consider what the PC will be used for and you can then determine which type of processor will be best suited for your needs.

In a nutshell:

Core i7 processors are designed for high-end workstations that require a great deal of processing power. Video & photo editing, computer aided design (CAD) and similar applications that will make use of the i7’s capabilities.

Core i5 processors are perfect for the majority of users who like to run multiple applications simultaneously and to have a little room to move (so to speak).

Core i3 processors are suitable for simple day-to-day type operations, including web browsing, office apps and other non-demanding applications. They are also suitable for point of sale (POS) terminals or computers that only need to perform relatively simple operations.

If you’d like further information on processors, or if your computer isn’t running as fast or as efficient as you would like, please feel free to contact us. We are happy to do a FREE PC health check and determine ways your system can be improved. Our number is 0447 619 397 or you can send us an enquiry, either through our contact page, by Facebook or by email, helpme@ckpcomputers.com.au.

Posted in Educational, Hardware.

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