To really make an educated decision about a computer, you have to dig into the technical specifications, and processors specs are notorious for throwing otherwise savvy people off when comparing devices. The reason is that CPU architecture has advanced so far that merely comparing clock-speed just isn’t going to tell you which is better. This is what you need to know to make a real comparison between different computer processors, whether on a PC or even a smartphone.
Cache Size and Performance
Your computer has its own main memory in the form of RAM, but processors also have a small amount of built-in memory that they use to keep frequently requested information on-deck for the processor to access quickly. In the infographic you see below, the cache size for Intel’s Core i5 processor can be as large as 6 MB. That might not seem like a lot, but it can be enough to prevent millions of requests from system memory, which takes much longer to access than the cache by comparison.
All those nanoseconds of saved access-time can add up to eliminate lag in videos, much faster processing for video- and photo-editing programs and significantly better performance in demanding video games. A larger cache really does make a difference. How much of a difference depends on what kind of programs you’re running, how many you run simultaneously and other performance bottlenecks in your computer.
Number of Cores and Multithreading
CPUs used to have just one core that processed all tasks one at a time. Processor architecture started to plateau a few years ago until multiple cores started to be introduced. You can see in this infographic that the Core family of processors range from two to four cores. That means that each processor can handle processing tasks in parallel, eliminating a lot of waiting that individual programs had to do when the processor was really busy. That, combined with a larger cache, really helps the computer deal with heavy performance demands.
More cores allow software that’s been written to take advantage of their multitasking ability to operate much more quickly and efficiently by tasking multiple operations (or “threads”) to the CPU simultaneously. Right now, it’s usually video games or high-demand video and photo software that are designed to make use of multithreading technology and multi-core CPUs.
For multi-core processors, the speed listed for the CPU is really the clock-speed for each individual core. This is still a big difference in performance, but as you can see from the overlapping speed ranges for each of the Core processors, it’s not the only consideration for performance. So take speed differences into account only if you’re also keeping other performance characteristics in mind.
That should be enough information to help you make real comparisons when you’re examining similar computers and other devices. The processor is a big focal point in any device, so it’s important to know how it can affect your end-user experience for better or worse.
Jared Jacobs has professional and personal interests in technology. As an employee of Dell, he has to stay up to date on the latest innovations in large enterprise solutions and consumer electronics buying trends. Personally, he loves making additions to his media rooms and experimenting with surround sound equipment. He’s also a big Rockets and Texans fan.