12 CPU specifications explained in plain English

| September 21, 2009 | (21)
how to choose a cpu

Picture by Fr3d.org

This is the first part out of five articles for this week, to help you understand and buy the right CPU.

Here’s a list of the articles in this series:

  1. 12 CPU specifications explained in plain English
  2. How to differentiate CPU models from AMD
  3. How to differentiate CPU models from Intel
  4. The Best CPU for your money: September 2009
  5. 19 of the best CPU articles

Let’s get started with the 12 CPU specifications

1. Brand:
You have two choice here: Intel or AMD. Both companies offer great products that will satisfy your needs. Simply make sure to research the pros and cons of each company’s products before stopping your choice on one.

Note that this choice will affect which motherboards are compatible with your cpu.

2. Processor type: Mobile, Desktop or Server.
I cover mainly desktop type of cpus, as they are the ones that you use to build a custom desktop computers, such as the custom Gaming PCs designs that I offer on Hardware Revolution.
Mobile cpus are used for notebooks and other mobile computers.
As for Server processors, the name says it all, they are used in servers.

Each type have different performance, power consumption and price.

If you’re building your own computer, you’ll must likely need a desktop chip, unless you’re building a server, with the appropriate motherboard, in which case you’ll go for a server type. As for mobile chips, you could use one to upgrade your laptop processor to a more powerful one, or one that consumes less power to extend your battery life.

3. Series:
A few examples of series include but are not limited to Core 2 Duo, Core i7, Athlon 64 x2, Phenom II x4, etc.

What is the difference between series?

  • Size (or lack) of cache
  • Number of cores
  • The core that is utilized
  • Thermal Power Design (TPD)
  • Price

The series help you quickly identify if the processor is a low-end, mainstream or high-end one. That in return will give you an idea of the price range and performance to expect.

For example, the Athlon II X4 series from AMD is a budget series with no L3 cache at all, which reduce performance a bit, but the CPUs in this series come at a lower price than the more powerful Phenom II CPUs.

To choose the right series, you need to figure out how much performance you want (think of the programs that you want to use on a regular basis) and your budget.

4. CPU Socket Type:
The cpu socket is where you will be installing your cpu. You simply need to make sure to match your motherboard socket type with your cpu socket type to ensure that they are compatible. A notable exception to this rule are AMD’s AM3 cpus, which will fit and function in some AM2, most AM2+ motherboards and of course, in AM3 motherboards.

You will notice that recent AMD processors and motherboards use the AM2, AM2+ and AM3 socket, while recent Intel ones use pin-count based sockets, such as the LGA 775, LGA 1156 and LGA 1366, which feature 775, 1156 and 1366 pins respectively.

Example: If you decide to buy an Intel Core i7 920 cpu, which is based on the LGA 1366, you have to buy a motherboard with a LGA 1366 socket for your cpu and motherboard to be compatible.

Note that matching socket type does not necessarily assure compatibility. An example of this would be an older Intel socket 775 motherboard which do not support the quad-core processors based on the Yorkfield core such as the Intel Core 2 Quad Q9200.

There are other requirements to ensure compatibility between a cpu and a motherboard, such as FSB speed and chipset, which I will tackle soon in a motherboard article.

5. Core:
This indicates the core that the cpu is based on. More recent cores will usually bring increased performance, reduced power consumption for the same performance compared to an older core, along with new features.

You’ll usually notice that a core is associated with a particular series. The core is a good indicator of performance, before considering other important factors such as frequency (speed in GHz) and cache (Very fast onboard cpu memory) that is.

A few examples from AMD:

  • Regor (Athlon II X2)
  • Deneb (Phenom II X4)
  • Propus (Athlon II X4)

From Intel:

  • Wofldale (Core 2 Duo E6300, E7xxx and E8xxx)
  • Yorkfield (Core 2 Quad Q8xxx and Q9xxx)
  • Nehalem (Socket 1366 i7)
  • Lynnfield (Socket 1156 i5 and i7)

Note that those were only a few examples, not an extensive list of all cores from AMD and Intel.

6. Multi-core: Dual, Triple or Quad Core
Back a few years ago, Intel and AMD would raise the performance of their cpus by raising the frequency and would put most of their marketing emphasis on that frequency. Eventually, they both hit a speed wall, making it very difficult to go beyond a certain speed.

So what did they do? Intel decided to take two of their cpu cores and to put it on a single chip. They had created the dual-core processor. AMD did the same not too long afterward. With advancement in manufacturing technologies, Intel and AMD now produce processor with up to four cores in the same processor, effectively making it a quad-core processor.

- Sweet right? So a quad-core 3GHz is like a 12GHz single core right?

No. When dual-core processors were introduced, the problem was that most software were not designed to take advantage of several cores, most of them being coded to run on the previous single-core processors. In the last few years, most popular software have launched new versions supporting multi-threading. Each core supports one or two threads, depending on the processor, enabling your program to run on several cores and/or you to run several programs at once without your computer slowing down.

Not everything is good yet, as most games still only will use two cores, even if you have a quad-core processor. It’s getting better and better with more recent games. Using a quad-core processor is highly recommended if you run a cpu intensive program, such as audio/photo/video editing, CAD/3d modeling and others, to speed up things and reduce your wait.

So, the rule of thumb is that the more core, the better, but keep in mind that more cores will increase power consumption too. Sometimes, less cores, but higher frequency, is the best solution.

7. Frequency:
Still the most important factor in performance for today’s cpus, the frequency represents the speed at which the processor runs, in GHz (1GHz = 1000MHz). Video games performance is very dependent on frequency, to the point where a fast dual-core processor will outperform a slower quad-core processor in most video games.

8. FSB, Hyper-Transport or QPI:
This is the speed at which your processor communicates with other components in your system, such as the memory for example. A higher speed means higher bandwidth, or in plain English, your system will be able to move more data in a given time, increasing performance in specific cases.

You must make sure that it meets or is lower than your motherboard supported speed  in order for your processor to function with the motherboard.

9. L2/L3 cache:
Cache is really quick on-board cpu memory, much faster than RAM, that your processor use to store data that is about to be processed and/or is used often. The more cache you have, the more data your processor can store for ultra-quick access and the more performance you’ll get out of your processor.

Video games performance greatly benefit from more L2 and L3 cache.

10. 64-bit support:

Whether your processor supports 64-bit software or not. Just like everyone switched from 16-bit to 32-bit many years ago, in order to be able to use more memory in our computers, we are now switching to 64-bit, in order to lift the 4GB memory limit of 32-bit.

11. Manufacturing Tech:
In nm, the manufacturing size at which the processor transistors are produced. A smaller number is better, as this allows for more transistors on the same surface and reduced power consumption compared to an higher number.

12. Thermal Power Design (TPD):

This is a general measurement that indicates how much power, in Watts, that your processor will consume in the worst case scenario. This is also used to have an idea of how much heat your processor will produce.

Same here, a lower number is desirable, to lower your electricity bill. A processor which consumes more power and emit more heat will also need a better heatsink, or a faster fan, which usually results in a more noisy computer.

Conclusion

I hope that this article was useful to you and helped you learn a thing or two on CPUs. I invite you to come back every day this week for more informative articles on CPUs.

I also invite you to comment and let me know your opinion on this article, ideas that you have or what you would do to improve this article.

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The cpu socket is where you will be installing your cpu. You simply need to make sure to match your motherboard socket type with your cpu socket type to ensure that they are compatible. A notable exception to this rule are AMD’s AM3 cpus, which will fit and function in some AM2 and most AM2+ motherboards.You will notice that recent AMD processors and motherboards use the AM2, AM2+ and AM3 socket, while recent Intel ones use pin-count based sockets, such as the LGA 775, LGA 1156 and LGA 1366, which feature 775, 1156 and 1366 pins respectively.

Example: If you decide to buy an Intel Core i7 920 cpu, which is based on the LGA 1366, you have to buy a motherboard with a LGA 1366 socket for your cpu and motherboard to be compatible.

Note that matching socket type does not necessarily insure compatibility. An example of this would be an older Intel socket 775 motherboard which do not support the quad-core processors based on the Yorkfield core such as the Intel Core 2 Quad Q9200.

There are other requirements, such as FSB speed and chipset, which I will describe later in this article.

Category: Choose PC Parts

About Mathieu Bourgie: HR Founder - Computer expert with over 14 years of experience in building, fixing and modifying PCs. Over the years, I’ve developed a passion for PC hardware and now I enjoy helping others build their own PCs! In April 2008, I launched Hardware Revolution and ... Read more at my about page .

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  • rigobert roelofs

    This was a very interesting articles, it helpt me a lot. Thanks. Go on with this very nice way of telling people how things are doing there things.

  • rigobert roelofs

    This was a very interesting articles, it helpt me a lot. Thanks. Go on with this very nice way of telling people how things are doing there things.

  • http://www.proworkflow.com Proworkflow

    The current programs requesting/requiring XBRL content is for the financial data. Obviously this lies with US GAAP & IFRS taxonomies and parties being interested in performing analysis on this data but what becomes of the narrative content that wraps around all of this financial data? Is the answer pairing XBRL with DITA?

  • pristine

    This article is the best CPUs article I have ever read. I have learnt many things which I thought once it is impossible to understand.
    thank you very much
    pristine

  • pristine

    This article is the best CPUs article I have ever read. I have learnt many things which I thought once it is impossible to understand.
    thank you very much
    pristine

    • http://www.hardware-revolution.com/ MathieuB

      Pristine,

      I'm glad to hear that the article was useful to you. If you'd like to learn more on computer parts, I recommend that you read the following article: Warning: 6 Surefire Ways of Blowing Up Your Computer Due to an Inadequate Power Supply, which is an article that explains power supplies in details and what to look for when you want to buy one.

      Cheers,
      Mathieu

      • Matrixrevolution36

        hey great job man and what about the secret ‘multicore’ which will be launched from Microsoft in 2014

    • beevo

      Thanks for taking the time to help others out by writing your articles. I get the gist of what you say but more examples are needed. For instance I’m looking at specs on argos for a desktop and I find it confusing when it says dual core and then adds i3 so you have something like intel core i3 dual core!!!!! I thought if it said i3 then it was now not dual core but some kind of tripple core.
      I can see by all your adulations from others below that I must be the only one that doesn’t fully understand your explanations.

      Also, I’ve been told to avoid Celeron cpus but quite a few of the desktops on the cheaper end are celeron – where does celeron come into the picture?

      Other advertised examples:
      Intel Core i7
      Intel Core 2 Duo

      I think a very practical way to explain things would be to take some real life examples of stuff being sold on the net on argos or pcworld and using their advertised descriptions/CPU labels, explain which is better and why.

      Thank you for all the time you’ve put into helping others.

  • http://www.hardware-revolution.com/ MathieuB

    Pristine,

    I'm glad to hear that the article was useful to you. If you'd like to learn more on computer parts, I recommend that you read the following article: Warning: 6 Surefire Ways of Blowing Up Your Computer Due to an Inadequate Power Supply, which is an article that explains power supplies in details and what to look for when you want to buy one.

    Cheers,
    Mathieu

  • Qasyah9

    So i must buy more 4MB cache processor or speed Ghz???

  • Djibrine

    First I want thank you for your Idea…This article is the best CPU’s article….Thank you very much

    Djibrine

  • guest

    something easy to understand finally! – thanks!

  • Mn Vamsi

    Awesome stuff. One of the best articles I have read sofar about processors. But I’m looking for more advanced stuff. Any helpful links ??

  • m8fyu

    cheers mate…very short and to the point. i have been enlightened!

  • Tony

    Well wrote and amazing. Going back to school for Information Technology and needed to brush up, this helped out so much. Thank you

  • Abdullah

    thank you for this HUGE useful article