Buying a new computer can be an expensive ordeal. When you go to a big box retailer or manufacturer, you often pay for components you don’t need or get overcharged for the ones you do. The best solution is to build your own computer. What most people don’t realize is it’s actually surprisingly easy to do. To help you design your next computer, or just to become familiar with what to look for, WorldStart is doing a 10-part series on the components you’ll need to build your own computer.
In each part, I’ll offer recommendations on the components discussed. I’ll recommend parts to accommodate those both looking for value and those looking for high performance. Since manufacturers are always updating styles and features, your final decision should be based on your own judgment, aided by the knowledge you gain from these articles. You know what you want from your PC, I’m here to help you design it.
Part Four: The Processor
Your computer’s processor, or CPU, may be the most important component you choose. The processor is the brain of the computer, and its speed and features will directly effect your day-to-day experience using the computer. Two major companies provide processors for desktop computers: Intel and AMD. In recent years the performance gap between the two has widened and in almost all situations an Intel processor now offers more performance for your money. To choose the right processor, it’s important to understand some terminology that goes along with them.
Socket: The socket refers to the area of the motherboard where the processor chip in plugged in. The sockets are designed to fit only one specific style of chip. It’s critical that the motherboard’s specifications list your socket. Common sockets right now for Intel processors are LGA 1150 for Haswell series processors and LGA 1155 for Ivybridge and Sandybridge series processors. Common sockets for AMD are AM3+ for FX series processors and FM2 for A series processors.
Series / Core Technology: When manufacturers improve on the designs of their processors but wish to keep a popular series name, they will indicate the difference by changing the identification number to indicate which series or technology was used to design the processor. Examples from Intel are: (from newest to oldest) Haswell, Ivybridge, Sandybridge and Clarkdale. Examples from AMD are: Vishera, Richland, Trinity, Llano and Athlon. Generally speaking, the newer series processors perform faster than older series processors of the same speed/core count.
Ghz Rating / CPU Cores: The Ghz number rates the speed of the processor. The CPU core counts the number of individual processors contained inside of the processor package. Higher GHZ ratings will generally mean faster performance. Higher CPU core counts will mean your computer will be able to work on more things at once (for example virus scan in background, check e-mail and browse the web) without slowing down. Some programs are designed to use multiple cores to process more complicated information at the same time for deliver quicker results.
This sounds simple until you find out that the Ghz and CPU core count between processor companies and even between series are not apple-to-apples comparisons. For example, Intel has a I5 4670 3.4 Ghz and AMD has a FX-4300 3.8 Ghz, but they are vastly differently in performance. While the FX-4300 and I5-4670 both have 4 CPU cores the I5’s significant advantage in technology means its performance in single applications is up to 75% faster, and in multiple applications or applications that use multiple CPU cores at the same time, it is 60% faster.
Integrated Graphics: In recent years processor manufacturers have started building in an integrated graphics processor. Some offer good performance for desktop, multimedia viewing and light gaming, plus remove the need for a dedicated graphics card. If a processor contains integrated graphics it will be identified in the specifications and the integrated graphics will list a speed rating and number of graphics cores. Again, the speed rating and core count isn’t apples-to-apples across manufacturers or processor series.
STOP! Information overload! How do I choose?!?
If you’re cross-eyed after reading some of the terms and realizing that it’s nearly impossible to judge just based on listed specifications, I don’t blame you. This is why, even among computer enthusiasts, the best way to compare processors is to look at benchmark software results. Benchmark software tests give you a common number to evaluate different processors.
Once you’ve looked through the specifications and prices and narrowed down your choices to a few interesting processors, you can perform a web search for the series of processor and the word benchmark, example: “a10-6800k benchmark.” Look for benchmarks performed by popular testing sites such as Tom’s Hardware, Anandtech or CPU-world. You can then use the benchmarks on the various tests to decide which processor is ideal for you. You can also search two processors to see if anyone has performed a head-to-head performance comparison.
While I love AMD, my first home-built PC used an AMD K5 processor, they are significantly behind Intel in performance. I’m going to only recommend one AMD CPU and only as an alternate to my budget recommendation when video games are a consideration. This isn’t to say if you buy an AMD processor you won’t have a fast computer, just that Intel currently offers better performance and faster speeds for the money in most situations.
Budget Processor – i3-4130 Hawell 3.4 Ghz – $129.99
The Intel i3 is based on the Haswell processor technology and features two CPU cores running at 3.4 Ghz with Hyper-Threading technology which allows each core to process two threads of information at the same time. This results in the processor appearing as a four core processor to your operating system. The integrated HD 4600 graphics processor does a great job of desktop and multimedia and will play nearly all browser-based games.
AMD Budget Processor – A10-6800K Richland 4.1 Ghz – $149.99
The AMD A10 is based on the on Richland series technology and features four CPU cores operating at 4.1 Ghz. While performance on a per core basis is slower then an i3 or i5 Intel processor, AMD really shines when it comes to graphics performance. The integrated HD 8670D graphics processor will let you play most modern games at low to medium quality settings. You’ll need the fastest DDR3 memory you can buy to get the most out of this processor, but if you want to game but don’t want to buy a dedicated graphics card, this isn’t a bad choice. The unlocked multiplier allows you to overclock this processor with many users reaching over 5 Ghz.
Premium Processor – i7-4770k Haswell 3.5 Ghz – $339.99
The i7-4770k is based on the Haswell processor technology and offers four processor cores running at 3.5 Ghz with Hyper-Threading technology for a total of eight cores visible to the operating system. The integrated HD 4600 graphics processor offers enough video power for desktop work, multimedia viewing and browser based gaming. This chip features an unlocked multipler allowing you to overclock your system. Many high end boards feature an automatic overclocking utility and 4.2 to 4.5 Ghz is a very realistic target. This is the processor to have for future-proofed system with more power then most users need.
P.S. You may be wondering if Hyper-Threading produces a processor just as fast as if it had double the number of physical CPU cores. The answer is no, but it gets pretty close. It is a feature that is definitely worth paying a few extra dollars more when comparing processors in the i3 series as some offer Hyper-Threading and some do not.