Desktop Processor Buying Guide 2016

The CPU most determines how a PC performs, which is why finding the right computer processor is essential for making a system upgrade or starting a new build. It is important to buy a desktop processor that can handle the tasks you need your computer to perform. Equally as critical are budget considerations; you want the best CPU performance for the dollar, and do not want to pay for unneeded features. With hundreds of CPUs to choose from, options abound. Understanding how CPU specifications and model numbers relate to performance will help you make a proper processor comparison.

Brands: AMD vs Intel

When it comes to desktop CPUs, consumers have two choices: AMD and Intel.

In 2016, AMD is typically associated with budget processors, with the Intel brand better known for performance computing. Both AMD and Intel have options at all points of the performance spectrum. We will go into more detail about specific CPUs below.

Anyway, discussion around brand dominance usually contains more bluster than substance. You will want to pay attention to features and compatibility, as well as cost-to-performance considerations when choosing a desktop processor—these are more important than brand.

Compatibility: Motherboard Sockets

Whether a CPU and motherboard share compatibility is determined by the type of CPU socket on the motherboard. If you are purchasing a CPU to upgrade an existing system, you must know which CPU socket your motherboard has in order to pick the right CPU.

If you are building a new system, usually you will shop for the CPU and motherboard together. Sometimes retailers offer discounts on CPUs and compatible motherboards.  Just make sure to pick a CPU that fits the processor socket and vice versa.

As you might guess, AMD and Intel hardware are incompatible with each others’ motherboard sockets. Not all AMD processors are compatible with all AMD motherboards, either—and likewise with Intel hardware.

Clock Speed or Operating Frequency (Ghz)

A CPU’s clock speed is measured in gigahertz (Ghz), a frequency metric of how many times per second a processor cycles. In the old days of single-core processing, frequency was really tied to performance—the more hertz, the faster your system.  Today, as technology has moved to multi-core processing, clock speed is less of a performance indicator than other facets of a CPU.

Where clock speed remains a factor is when comparing CPUs that have otherwise similar specifications—the same number of cores and amount of cache memory, for instance. This is why CPU models of the same processor family are organized by SKU in increments of operating frequency.

You can filter CPUs by clock speed in the Desktop Processor store.

Multi-Core CPUs

Modern processors commonly have several individual CPUs—called cores— built onto one die. Operating systems recognize each core as its own separate CPU and yield a system  performance boost when performing multiple tasks at the same time.  The physics is the same as having multiple CPUs in your system.

Most if not all mainstream desktop processors on the market are dual- or quad-core CPUs. Certain models of AMD desktop processors have six or eight cores. Multiple cores help a computer work on several tasks at the same time, or run complex applications like creative programs and analytical software.

For basic web browsing and office work, a dual core suffices most of the time. For running specialized software, a quad core is likely the way to go.

You can filter CPUs by number of cores in the Desktop Processor store.

Cache Memory

Cache memory is what a processor uses to access the main memory of a computer faster. CPUs have a small amount of RAM built into them called—you guessed it—the cache. The cache stores frequently or recently used files and instructions for faster recall and processing similar to how a web browser would store frequently accessed URLs in its memory. CPU cache makes for more responsive system performance for the end user.

CPUs in 2016 have multiple layers of cache, referred to as L1, L2, and L3.  Data stored in L1 is recalled fastest, but is smallest in terms of capacity. L2 has a larger capacity and more latency. L3 has the largest storage space and the most latency.

Generally speaking, the higher capacity the cache memory, the faster the system responds.

You can filter CPUs by cache memory capacity in the Desktop Processor store.

Multithreading (Hyperthreading)

The tasks that a CPU core executes are called threads. Normally a CPU core can execute one thread at a time every time they cycle. Multithreading allows the CPU core to schedule multiple tasks that are processed in a more time-efficient matter. This results in better throughput and performance gains for the end user.

Note that enhanced performance will only be experienced when running multithreaded applications, however.

Examples of applications that benefit from a multithreaded processor:  video editing, 3D rendering, mathematics and analytical applications, programming, heavy multi-tasking, or if a computer is used as a server. Typical office work normally does not benefit from a multithreaded processor.

Intel uses the term hyperthreading to talk about its multithreaded CPUs.

You can filter processors by multithreading in the Desktop Processor Store.

Instructions Per Cycle

Perhaps the best raw indicator of CPU performance, Instructions Per Cycle (IPC) measures how many instructions a processor executes in each clock cycle. High end CPUs are able to complete more instructions per cycle and therefore will outperform a CPU with a comparatively lower clock speed when used for the same application. IPC can vary depending on other components in a system and the applications running, which is why vendors tend not to publish the metric. To find IPC you have to look at independent benchmark testing.

Benchmarking

Several sites on the Internet publish CPU benchmark tests. Benchmarking results are a fine way to do a processor comparison, just make sure you look for benchmark testing performed in a system with similar specifications and running similar applications as what you have or are planning to use.

What is an APU?

APU is a creation of AMD’s marketing efforts. Certain CPUs are designed to act as a CPU and graphics accelerator (GPU) on one chip. The AMD A-Series processor are examples of APUs. Many Intel processors have integrated  GPUs as well, but do not denote processors in a different manner.

Budget processors ($40-$100)

AMD offers several options in the sub-$100 price range. You will find lots of AMD A-Series and older model AMD Athlons here. On the Intel side, Pentium and Celeron processors round out the budget arena.  For basic office work and web browsing, any of these processors will suffice.

Mainstream processors ($100-$200)

System builders can get a very capable CPU for under $200. Browsers in this range can handle moderate multi-tasking, programming, and creative applications. Unless users are running multi-threaded applications, there is little reason to purchase more than a quad-core Intel Core i5 processor.

On the lower end of the mainstream spectrum, Intel Core i3 and mid-range AMD A-Series processors are more than capable for light multi-tasking with office programs or SaaS work in a web browser.

Performance processors ($200+)

When it comes to the market for CPUs, Intel Core i7 is the dominant processor for performance builds; in 2015, the Haswell-E Intel Core i7 processors were the top selling CPUs at NeweggBusiness.  Users in AMD environments typically opt for a high-end FX-series processor for workstation builds.

Processor Comparison Charts

The charts below show how groups of processors break down by performance. Certain metrics like clock frequency fall into a range across SKUs within processor groupings. More information about specific processors can be found on NeweggBusiness product pages.

Desktop processor chart 2016

 

Hopefully this information helps with making a proper processor comparison; note that NeweggBusiness product pages in the Processor – Desktop store have additional details and pricing for individual computer processors.

Intel’s Core i7-5960X processor

Haswell Extreme cranks up the core countcpus-top

FOR A PC HOBBYIST who’s into building high-end systems with elaborate water-cooling setups and multiple GPUs, it doesn’t get any better than Intel’s Core i7 Extreme processors. They’re pricey, sure, but they’re clearly the fastest, most capable CPUs on the planet.

Except, you know, when they aren’t.

The last generation of Intel’s Extreme CPUs lost much of its luster earlier this year when the Devil’s Canyon chips arrived in mid-range desktops with higher clock speeds and sometimes superior performance. It didn’t help that the Core i7-4960X and friends were saddled with the older X79 chipset, whose selection of USB and SATA ports left much to be desired.ports-socket

Happily, Intel has been cooking up a new high-end platform that should remove all doubt about who’s top dog. The CPU is known as Haswell-E, and it brings with it an updated companion chipset, the X99. Together, this dynamic duo offers more of absolutely everything you’d want in a high-end rig: more cores, larger caches, and a huge increase in high-speed I/O ports. Haswell-E is also the first desktop CPU to support DDR4 memory, which promises faster transfer rates than DDR3.
We’ve been waiting impatiently for Haswell-E’s arrival for most of the year. At last, it’s finally here. We’ve had the top CPU in the lineup, the Core i7-5960X, up and running in Damage Labs for a while now—and we’ve tested it more ways than is probably healthy. Read on for our in-depth assessment.

The E is for Extreme
Compared to the prior-gen Ivy Bridge-E chips, the new Haswell-E silicon is an upgrade on just about every front—except maybe one. Both chips are built using Intel’s 22-nm fabrication process with tri-gate transistors. Intel is on the cusp of releasing 14-nm chips for use in tablets and laptops, but these big chips probably won’t move to the new process for another year.die-shot

The most notable change in Haswell-E is embedded in its name: the transition to newer CPU cores based on the Haswell microarchitecture. Compared to Ivy Bridge, Haswell cores can execute about 5-10% more instructions in each clock cycle—and possibly more if programs make use of AVX2 instructions for fast parallel processing. Haswell also brings its voltage regulation circuitry onto the CPU die, which can allow for faster, finer-grained control over the delivery of power around the chip.cpus-top
Those improvements are welcome, but Intel hasn’t left anything to chance. The Core i7-5960X packs eight cores, and its L3 cache capacity is a beefy 20MB. That’s two more cores and 5MB more cache than the prior-gen Core i7-4960X, which should be enough to ensure the new chip’s performance superiority in multithreaded workloads.cpus-bottom

To feed all of those cores, Haswell-E can transfer tremendous, almost unreasonable amounts of data. One of the key enablers here is DDR4 memory, which offers transfer rates of 2133 MT/s on these first products—up from DDR3 at 1866 MT/s in Ivy-E—and promises to scale up from there. Haswell-E has four memory channels, so it’s starting with 68 GB/s of memory bandwidth. In theory, that’s 20 GB/s more than the last gen. That’s also, coincidentally, the same amount of memory throughput the Xbox One has dedicated to both its CPU cores and graphics.

Speaking of graphics, one of the big selling points for these Extreme platforms is PCI Express bandwidth for use with multiple graphics cards. Haswell-E doesn’t disappoint on that front, with 40 lanes of PCIe 3.0 connectivity coming directly off the CPU die. The CPU can host multi-GPU configs with 16 lanes dedicated to two different graphics cards—or up to four graphics cards with eight lanes each. That’s the same basic config as in the last gen, with a few tweaks. One change is the ability to host a 5×8 setup, if the motherboard is built to support it. Indeed, the Asus X99 Deluxe board in our test system has five PCIe x16 slots onboard. I’m not quite sure what you’d do with five graphics cards at once, but it is apparently a possibility now.

All of this beefy hardware makes for a complex chip. Haswell-E is certainly that, at roughly 2.6 billion transistors and 356 mm². The quad-core Haswell chip is only 177 mm², or about half the size, and that’s with integrated graphics. You can see the difference in the dimensions of the packages used for the socketed processors below.

Yeah, this is big and substantial hardware. Here’s a look at the three new Haswell-E-based CPU models alongside their quad-core Haswell cousins.

The Core i7-5960X gives up some clock frequency to cram eight cores into its 140W power envelope. Those base and boost clocks of 3.0 and 3.5GHz are down quite a bit from the 3.6/4.0GHz speeds of the Core i7-4960X. Even with Haswell’s per-clock performance improvements, those lower frequencies will have consequences in workloads that don’t scale up to 16 threads perfectly.

As usual, Intel charges a big premium for its top-end processor. You’re probably better off buying the Core i7-5930K for over 400 bucks less, as long as you can live with “only” six cores (and 12 threads via Hyper-Threading.) The 5930K has the added advantage of slightly higher clock speeds, too. Then again, I’m not sure how much stock clocks matter since all of the X- and K-series parts shown above come with unlocked multipliers for dead-simple overclocking.

One product you’ll probably want to avoid is the Core i7-5820K, which Intel has ruined by disabling a bunch of the PCI Express lanes. I swear, if there’s a way to tune a knob or dial in order to gimp a CPU for the sake of product segmentation, Intel’s product people will find that knob and turn it, no matter what. In this case, the Core i7-5820K loses the ability to host a dual-graphics setup with 16 lanes to each PCIe slot. Have fun explaining that one to your friend who popped $389 for a CPU and about the same for a fancy X99 motherboard, only to find that it’s no better—not even in theory—than a 4790K for dual-GPU setups. This issue is more pressing now that AMD relies on PCI Express bandwidth for transferring CrossFire frames between GPUs.

We have in the past considered CPUs like the Core i7-3820 to be a nice entry point into Intel’s higher-end platforms. That ends here. The 5820K’s hobbled PCIe removes a major rationale for the X99 platform’s adoption among PC gamers. Unless you really know what you’re doing, stay away from it.

Intel starts baking speedy FPGAs into chips

Intel is packing Altera Arria 10 FPGAs with Xeon E5-2600 v4 processors in a multichip module

intel-chip-100653007-gallery
With rivals Nvidia and AMD both offering graphics processors, Intel is now deploying screaming co-processors of its own in the form of FPGAs.

FPGAs (field programmable gate arrays) are extremely fast chips that can be reprogrammed to do specific tasks. Intel last year acquired Altera for $16.7 billion as it started thinking beyond CPUs and stressing co-processors for demanding computing tasks.

Intel recently started shipping server chips paired with FPGAs as part of a pilot program. The company is packing Altera Arria 10 FPGAs along with its Xeon E5-2600 v4 processors, code-named Broadwell-EP, in a multichip module. The Xeon E5 chips were introduced last month.

Over time the FPGA technology will be integrated in the “same piece of silicon die as the CPU,” an Intel spokesman said.

The shipment announcement was made at the ongoing Intel Developer Forum in Shenzhen, China.

FPGAs are being used by Microsoft to deliver faster Bing results and by Baidu for image search. FPGAs are less flexible than GPUs and execute tasks based on functionality programmed into a chip. FPGAs can be faster than GPUs on specific tasks, but are also very power hungry.

Intel plans to put FPGAs in cars, robots, servers, supercomputers and IoT devices. The chip maker has provided examples of how FPGAs could be programmed for genomics, or how the chips could tackle specific functions in a car. Integration of the FPGA into a chip will bring down power consumption and provide a direct path of communication with the CPU.

FPGAs are also being used in communications equipment, a market that Intel is chasing as 5G deployments are expected to grow exponentially. Intel’s components and equipment could also be the backbone of many IoT installations, which already use FPGAs to connect devices with cloud services.

Intel’s New Core M CPU: Everything You Need to Know

macbook core m

Things are finally heating up for Intel’s cool-running processor, with Apple utilizing a 1.1 and 1.3GHz dual-core versions in its latest, and first fanless, MacBook. Intel company first announced its Core M CPU at Computex Taipei in June, providing few details but touting the platform’s ability to power a new generation of fanless tablets and 2-in-1 laptops. Manufacturers such as Lenovo and Dell have announced products based on Core M.

Intel Core M

The first CPU based on Intel’s next-generation, 14nm Broadwell architecture, Core M operates at a TDP (Thermal Design Power) of just 4.5 watts, which compares very favorably to the previous “Haswell” notebook CPUs, which have TDPs ranging from 11.5 watts for a low-end Core i5 or Celeron to 57 watts for a quad-core, Core i7. Having lower TDP means not only longer battery life, but less heat to dissipate. With Core M, the TDP is low enough that hardware vendors can use passive cooling methods instead of fans.

TDP from 1st Gen Core to Core M

Going fanless allows manufacturers to build thinner devices that make less noise. For example, the latest MacBook half an inch thick; the second-generation Lenovo ThinkPad Helix is just .38 inches thick, compared to its .46-inch, Core i5-powered predecessor. Where the original Helix’s keyboard dock had a hinge with dual fans built-in, the new Ultrabook Keyboard has not even one fan. Last year’s model lasted just 5 hours and 48 minutes when detached from its dock, but the Lenovo promises 8 hours of endurance from the Core M-powered Helix.