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How to buy the best CPU for your PC

It is your PC

There’s nothing more pivotal to your computing experience than the CPU – after all, it is what actually does the “computing” within your personal computer. Desktop CPUs are a versatile bunch which can perform almost every task thrown at them. It’s as generic as they come because the average Joe, i.e. You, like to throw all sort of applications at it. Be it video editing, be it 3D rendering, running your spreadsheets, penning the next best-seller novel or simply looking at the world’s largest collection of dank memes, the everyday computer is built to serve you. So what should you keep in mind as you go about buying such an important component of your PC?

Needless to say, it is pretty much between these two

What to consider

  • Use case – CPUs have something called instruction sets. These are basically what perform the actual computing. There are instruction sets which are better at running certain tasks like additions but they might not be so good at performing other tasks. Then there are instruction sets which work great with large numbers but are completely under-utilised in more generic use cases. CPUs are segregated based on these use cases. Which is why you have Intel Core series and AMD Ryzen series CPUs for general purpose computing while the same brands also have Xeon and EPYC, respectively, which are better suited for server workloads. The key thing to remember about these is that they’re both capable of running all tasks but they excel in certain scenarios. So you may get a Xeon for general computing and be perfectly fine with running spreadsheets and word files along with running web-server related tasks or anything else that the Xeon excels at. There are also certain advantages with server CPUs – they support multi-CPU configurations. So if you need more computing power, you can get a dual socket motherboard and add another CPU as long as the configuration is compatible with the same.
  • Cores / Threads – CPU cores are what you need to consider when the tasks that you’ll primarily be working on are multi-threaded. Multi-threading is what most applications are headed towards. Which means each task can be broken down into minuscule parts which are divided amongst the individual cores. It so happens that developers have greater control over this facet since it’s up to them to make use of the multi-threaded features that CPUs offer. Traditionally, video games can’t make use of more than 4 threads, so there’s no point getting a CPU with more than that many cores if gaming is your primary objective. However, over the last year, we’ve seen more game developers making use of as many cores as they can get but this is still a minority. Similarly, tasks like video rendering and 3D modelling are multi-threaded and make use of all threads given to them, so for such tasks, you might want to get a CPU with a high core-count.

    Multi-threading may or may not be present on your CPU and that matters a lot if you need more computing capability. Multi-threading simply allows one CPU core to handle two-threads of instructions. So essentially if you have four cores, you operating systems sees eight.
  • Socket – The socket is primarily about compatibility with the entire ecosystem. CPUs have pins or pads which act as the interface to the motherboard and they have to match if you wish to use a CPU with a motherboard. However, sometimes, simply matching the pins on your CPU with the socket will not ensure proper functionality.
  • Brand – This is very simple. Platforms are walled out so they don’t work with each other. You can’t use an Intel CPU with an AMD motherboard or vice-versa.
  • Lanes – PCIe is one of the interfaces that the CPU uses to communicate with other components and peripherals. Which is why if you don’t have enough PCIe lanes available, then you can’t add another add-in card to your system. Motherboards ship with many peripheral connectivity slots, but more than one slot can be vying for the same PCIe lanes which is why the number of available lanes matter. Up until a few years ago, the PCIe lanes were fixed for the platform. However, now you have different sets of PCIe lanes across the same platform. The X299 platform from Intel would be the prime example of that. If you were to install a 7740X on a high-end X299 platform, then you can’t make use of all the peripheral slots. So always check to see if the lane count on your CPU matches the feature set of the motherboard. Or else, you’ll be left with a few components which cannot be used at all unless you remove some other component – which is not a situation you want to be in when you’re building your own system.
If you don’t have enough PCIe lanes available, then you can’t add another add-in card
  • Integrated Graphics – Integrated graphics have become very powerful over the last two years. Before then, they used to be the butt of all jokes within the PCMASTERRACE discussion forums. Now, you can play competitive video games with ease on integrated graphics and get about 60 FPS on medium settings. It’s just the advanced graphics APIs which require a separate graphics card and that too isn’t going to add much to the visual fidelity. Integrated graphics have always been good enough for most daily computing tasks but there are certain tasks which can be accelerated by the IGP on CPUs. One such feature is QuickSync which is a feature of Intel HD Graphics on certain Intel CPUs. QuickSync accelerates video transcoding features. However, each encoder leaves some artefacts in the results. Especially, the ones that work fast. Both Intel and AMD CPUs are good at the moment, however, the only consideration you need to give IGP is whether you’ll be getting a graphics card now or later.
  • Unlocked multiplier – Overclocking is part and parcel of every CPU. While overclocking increasing the CPU clock speed, there are also methods to reduce the clock speed to save power or to prevent overheating. While there are different methods of getting this done within the CPU, the simplest implementation of this is the boost clock that is advertised on all CPUs. Similarly, there are power saving methods which pull down the clock speed while there is a need for the same. However, all of the above methods are not available for the consumer to fiddle with. What you do get is the ability to play with the multiplier i.e. the upper limit for the clock speed. Increasing the multiplier allows your CPU to achieve a higher clock speed as long as certain criteria are met. Cooling is one of them and the other being the design characteristics of the CPU microarchitecture. An unlocked multiplier comes into play when you want more performance than what your boost clock can give for a certain task or if you want to get into the overclocking scene.
An unlocked multiplier comes into play if you want to get into the overclocking scene

What not to consider

  • Cache – Surprisingly, the cache is important but it’s not going to affect your buying decision because you don’t get different cache sizes for the same CPU. Moreover, the CPU cache is very closely tied to the capabilities of the CPU so when a certain model is manufactured, the company (Intel / AMD) comes up with a cache size that’s optimal for the CPU’s capabilities and workload characteristics. You’ll need a bigger cache for tasks like big data, but those tasks are better run on server CPUs – which is why you see server CPUs sporting huge levels of L3 and L2 cache sizes.
  • TDP – TDP is the Thermal Design Power which is calculated based on the thermal characteristics of the CPU to decide what kind of cooler would be most optimal. However, like cache, the TDP of a range of CPUs have already been considered by cooler manufacturers. So there’s really nothing you can do here. However, if you are into overclocking then the CPU’s TDP is something you’d want to consider when getting a better cooler. Cheap coolers with cheap fans will work wonderfully for most of the workloads that a CPU is given. However, when you are looking at consistently high workloads, then your cheap cooler will not suffice. Also, coolers support a wide variety of sockets, so getting a budget cooler for a HEDT system isn’t a prudent decision.

The best place to get it

  • Mumbai – Lamington Road
  • Kolkata – Chandni Chowk
  • Bangalore – SP Road
  • Delhi – Nehru Place
  • Pan-India – Amazon / Flipkart
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Mithun Mohandas

While not dishing out lethal doses of sarcasm, this curious creature can often be found tinkering with tech, playing vidya' games or exploring the darkest corners of the Internets. #PCMasterRace