Choosing The Right Parts For Your Build (Part 1) - Picking the perfect processor

5/18/2012 5:17:51 PM

Ian Jackson looks at how to pick the right parts for your PC build

Picking the perfect processor

The CPU beats at the heart of all PC systems. It’s usually the first component listed in a pre-built system’s spec, and it’s a very important performance-determining component. CPUs range in price from under $60 to well over $1,050 depending on capability and complexity, but rather than simply buying the fastest clock speed you can afford, there are several questions you should ask yourself when picking your perfect processor.

Description: Socket FM1

Socket FM1

One of the first choices you need to make is whether to opt for an AMD or for an Intel product. These two old foes have battled for CPU supremacy for many years, with both companies holding a significant advantage at different times in history. In recent times, however, it has been Intel that has had the absolute performance advantage, leaving AMD to battle with its entry level and mid-ranged products while it keeps the lucrative high-end market all to itself.

If you’re looking to build as cheap a system as you possibly can, it’s easy to fall into the trap of buying into technology that has already become obsolete. Some seemingly great deals may exist for Socket AM2 products, but as these platforms have no upgrade path, you’re buying into a system that has no future expandability. For this reason, we therefore recommend that those looking to make a new budget box focus their searches on Socket FM1 products if looking for an AMD system, or a Socket 1155 processor of preferring to go down the Intel route.


Description: Socket 1155 processor

Socket 1155 processor

AMD’s entry-level chips are the A4 series and come in two speeds: the 3300 and the 3400. These are clocked at 2.5GHz and 2.7GHz respectively and feature a dual-core architecture. The two chips are seemingly separated by less than $15, and can be picked up for less than $75 a pop. For a similar price you can instead go for an entry-level AMD A6 series processor: the 3500. This is a triple-cored architecture, but it has a significantly lower clock speed at 2.1GHz. Which is the better choice depends on how you use your PC. If you do a fair amount of multitasking or regularly use software that is multi-threaded in nature (video encoding and photo editing are two examples), the triple-core will generally be faster. For general computing, however, the higher clock speed will feel more responsive.

For a similar price to these entry-level AMD options, Intel will sell you its Pentium G series of Socket 1155 processors. In a nutshell, the Intel chips are quite a bit faster in single-threaded CPU-bottlenecked tasks, but the integrated GPU is roughly half as quick. For a box where the primary use for the Intel architecture is therefore a good choice. If your plans are more multimedia-heavy and you want greater flexibility when it comes to playback options for video, or if your intended tasks include some casual gaming, the AMD Llano options certainly hold an advantage.

If we raise our budget a little, things get quite a bit more interesting. AMD offers its A6 3670 chip for around the $150 mark, while Intel offers its entry-level Core i3 product, the 2300, for a few pounds more. AMD’s flagship FM1 chip, the A8, also hovers close to this price and can be snapped up for around the $165 mark. At these prices, AMD is fighting Intel’s inherently greater efficiency with double the cores. In performance, therefore, we see two contrasting trends. In traditional workloads, the Intel chips hold a significant advantage, with their higher clock speed and higher ‘instructions-per-clock’ resulting in almost double the performance. In workloads where the AMD platform can flex the muscle of its multi-cored design, things are much more competitive. Regardless of how you look at it, the sad news for AMD fans is that even the A8 cannot keep up with the Core i3 in general purpose CPU-limited workloads, let alone the A6.

Description: ADM A8 – 3800 Series

ADM A8 – 3800 Series

AMD argues that the raw CPU performance plays a less relevant role in overall system speed than it once did. Multimedia playback and video creation is now a major reason for consumers wanting to upgrade their processors, and it is here that the Llano excels. In video encoding, for example, the extra cores of the Llano mean it is quite competitive with the i3, whereas for casual gaming the A6 and the A8 totally destroy the Intel competition. Measuring raw GPU performance using a synthetic benchmark like 3DMark Vantage shows the AMD chips to be at least three times faster, demonstrating playability at settings the i3 chips can only dream of. Once again, for office workloads the Intel is a clearly better choice here, whereas for the home user who needs to mix a little play in with their work, the AMD Llanos may end up providing a better balance.

At a price $225, we have the socket AM3+, eight-cored AMD FX processors, better known by their ‘Bulldozer’ code-name, and the Intel Core i5 series. $225 wont quite buy you an unlocked Core i5 2500K, but it will buy you an i5 2400 – a 3.1GHz quad-core part. Once again, AMD is fighting Intel’s greater per-core efficiency wit more cores, but as most applications fail to address four cores effectively, let alone eight, it’s a game of diminishing returns. Most applications simply can’t take advantage of that level of multi-threading, leaving the Bulldozer’s performance lagging well behind its nemesis. Quite simply, unless you’re constantly hammering your PC with content creation or video transcoding, you’ll want an Intel chip in your system at this price.

At prices above $225, Intel pretty much has the whole market to itself. The i5 2500K has been called ‘the only chip that matters’ by many an enthusiast, courtesy of its proximity in performance to the much more expensive Core i7, and its fully unlocked multipliers. Arm yourself with a good cooler and a decent motherboard and these chips will happily reward you with more than 1GHz of extra performance.

Description: Intel Core i5

Intel Core i5

For those with the deepest pockets, Intel now offers a six-cored version of the Sandy Bridge. These chips have their own special socket (Socket 2011) and cost the best part of $750 each. Unless you work in an industry where CPU performance really does make a difference to your bottom line (rendering and transcoding spring to mind), these chips are going to be overkill. Once again, the number of applications actually able to take advantage of their extra two cores are very thin on the ground.

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