WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN A COMPUTER PROCESSOR
The processor, also known as the CPU (for Central Processing Unit) is the brains of your computer.
This is Part 3 of the Buying A New Computer Series.
The CPU isn’t the only thing that will determine how well your computer performs, but it is an extremely important part. The CPU executes the code – which is to say, it runs the programs. The processor performs thousands upon thousands of calculations each second. It moves data in and out of memory. It writes information to disk and then fetches it when needed. The CPU is the boss as well as the traffic cop that makes your computer work.
How quickly the CPU executes instructions (i.e., how fast it is) is the speed that PC manufacturers brag about in their ads. Processor speeds are currently measured in Gigahertz, abbreviated as GHz.
There are many different types of CPUs in current computers, from two different manufacturers. The most commonly found Intel processors are
Celeron Pentium Dual Core Core 2 Duo Core 2 Quad Without getting deep into the specs, the processors are listed, from slower to faster, in the order of how quickly they can process data – which in plain English means how fast they are.
There is also a special case, the Atom, which Intel uses in NetBooks, those extra small, lightweight notebooks meant for web surfing and email. The Atom processor requires less power, so the battery lasts longer. However, it is also slower and less able to multi-task.
With computers, there is always a trade off between speed and battery life, so you are less likely to see the most powerful processors in notebook computers.
AMD, the other big player in the CPU field, generally sells its processors for less than Intel, resulting in a lower overall computer price for consumers.
There is a raging debate about Intel vs AMD, but just remember – for normal use, you might be able to save a few dollars by going with an AMD processor without sacrificing performance.
AMD makes it almost impossible to compare their CPU specs by giving the various processors meaningless names. The most commonly found AMD processors in desktop computers are:
Athlon Athlon X2 Dual Core Phenom X3 Triple Core Phenom X4 Quad Core Again, the list is ranked from slower to faster.
However, there is not a straight one-to-one comparison between AMD and Intel processors. An Athlon X2 Dual Core will not necessarily have the same specs as an Intel Core 2 Duo.
JUST PICK ONE
You don’t need to get tied up in knots over CPU specs. The computer company will give you a rough measure, in GHz, of the speed. You will also get an excellent predictor or performance in the price. A computer that costs $500 is almost guaranteed to be slower than one that costs $900
Small increases in CPU speed will not be as noticeable as increases in RAM. To the person sitting in front of the monitor, a 2.3 GHz CPU with 512 MB of RAM will seem much slower than a 2.1 GHz CPU with 2 GB of RAM.
BOTTOM LINE ADVICE
When you are selecting your computer, a faster CPU is better than an older, slower CPU because it will be better able to handle new applications that you may add in the next two or three years. New programs, from word processors to internet browsers, demand more and more CPU power to run.
So get the best processor you can afford, even if it is not the very fastest processor in the line.