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Lesson 7: Processor component - Intel AMD CPU Processor

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In lesson 7 we'll cover both Intel and AMD CPU Processors, what features and specs to look for when shopping, and how much you can expect to pay.

The processor or CPU is the brains of the computer and does the majority of the PC’s work.

There are currently 2 major CPU makers, Intel and AMD.
Intel and AMD CPUs require a motherboard made specifically for them. The processor you buy will determine the type of motherboard you need for your system. See the motherboard component lesson coming up next for more on choosing a motherboard.
The design of the CPU, the process used to make it and the operating frequency, determine the performance of a CPU.
The design of a CPU is made up of a countless the number of features.  The number of transistors used, measured in hundreds of millions, the number of CPU cores, the amount of cache built onto the chip and many, many more. We'll go over CPU cores and cache in a moment. Generally the latest CPU design will be the most advanced, but both Intel and AMD occasionally introduce a CPU design that is meant to fill a gap in performance and price, left open by existing designs.
Multi Core
CPU’s with more than 1 core have become standard. It means there are the equivalents of 2 or more cpus in 1 cpu package. This can greatly increase the performance with programs made to take advantage of more than 1 cpu. 2, 3, 4, 6 and 8 core CPUs are available.
Cache is a small amount of memory on the CPU itself that is very fast and is used to hold small amounts of data the CPU needs often.  There can be 1 to 3 levels of cache on a CPU.  They are shown as level 1, level 2 and level 3.  The more levels of cache and the larger each cache is, the faster the CPU can perform. Cache sizes range from 128 KB to 16MB.
The process used to create a CPU is shown in nano meters or nm. By shrinking the process, CPU makers can put more transistor into the same size space, making higher performing CPUs.  The lower the nm, the less power the CPU consumes and the less heat it produces per transistor.  Both Intel and AMD have 32nm CPUs on the market. 22nm CPUs will come out in 2012.
Operating Frequency
The operating frequency is another way to measure the performance of a CPU.
In the past CPU performance was almost exclusively measured in operating frequency or clock cycles per second.  This is displayed in GHz. The higher the clock cycles per second, or GHz, the faster the processor was. 
Efficiency Per Clock Cycle
CPU performance is now more accurately measured in efficiency per clock cycle. 2 different CPU types from Intel or AMD, running at the same clock speed, can perform very differently because of their design and the process used to make them.  This is why you often see two CPUs, running at the same GHz, with drastically different prices and actual performance.
CPU Code Names
A quick way to identify the design and process of a CPU is to look for the CPU's code name. 

For example a Core i5 3450S Ivy Bridge running at 2.8GHz will perform better than a Core 2 Quad Q9550 Yorkfield running at 2.8GHz.

The Core i5, code name Ivy Bridge has an improved design with a faster connection to the rest of the system and more cache compared to the Core 2 Quad, code name Yorkfield.

i5: Quickpath 5GT's. 4 x 256KB L2, 6MB L3
C2Q: Front Side Bus 1333MHz. 128KB L1, 6MB L2

CPU's with the same code name were made with the same design and process, so the GHz per second is what separates their performance.
Stepping and Revisions
Within CPUs of the same code name there are small changes that the CPU maker introduces over time.  These a called stepping and or revisions.
For the most part these changes are not worth considering.  However there are occasionally changes made that are significant enough to warrant your attention. CPU with a certain revision or stepping are sometimes shown to be better at overclocking. 
The CPU makers will not advertise this but users and hardware reviewers who overclock CPU/s on a regular basis will notice the difference in overclockability. When this happens they will report it online or in magazines and give instructions for identifying the improved stepping. This is done by looking for a code, either on the CPU's retail box or on the chip itself.  
Power consumption can also be reduced with a revision or stepping. When this happens the CPU maker will put out a slightly different model number to show the improved power efficiency.  These CPUs will run cooler because of the decrease in power they need to run. This can also make the more power efficient version easier to overclock.
For instructions on overclocking your CPU, see the Overclocking Video Lessons on the website.
The range of performance levels are generally shown in the names of the processors.

For Intel. Celeron, Pentium and Core i3 CPUs make up the low end of performance. Core i5 are the mid-range. Core i7 are the high-end CPUs.

For AMD. Sempron, A4 and Athlon II CPUs are considered low end. Phenom II x2, A6 and A8 in the mid range and Phenom II x4, x6 and it’s FX line at the high end.

CPU Prices

CPU’s start out at around 30 dollars at the low end and go for as high as 1500 dollars for an extremely high end processor.

What you’re paying for, is performance. The more powerful the CPU, the faster your computer will be. A good rule is to buy the most powerful processor you can afford. It will provide the best experience using the system and will extend the usable life of your computer.

That being said, buying the fastest processor available can be overly expensive. Look to buy a CPU a step or two below the cutting edge. So if the fastest processor is 1000 dollars, you can buy the next slowest CPU for 700 or two steps down a CPU for 400 dollars and save some cash to buy a faster video card, more memory or a bigger hard drive.

There are cpu's well over 1000 dollars but these are really for bragging rights. You will pay a lot more for just a little bit more performance.

Cooling the CPU

The CPU also needs to be cooled. This is done using a metal heat sink attached to the top of the CPU that radiates the heat away from the processor with the help of a fan. If you buy the CPU in a retail box it will come with a heat sink and fan.  With the exception of Intel Socket 2011 CPUs which do not come with a heatsink and fan.

If you buy a CPU without the heat sink and fan, also known as a OEM CPU, be sure to buy a cooler that is made for your CPU and that it is capable of cooling the model of the CPU you choose.

If you decide to go with a 3rd party cooler there are a few features to look for. One is the use of a heat pipe to help in cooling. Heat pipes are basically a tube half filled with liquid that carry heat away from the CPU so it can be dissipate.

Use of copper in the cooler can help dissipate the heat further. Most coolers are aluminum and do a good job, but adding copper, which is a better conductor of heat, can help get rid of the heat a little quicker which is better for the CPU and also means the fan on the cooler doesn't have to run as fast which will make is quieter and extend it's lifetime.


Like the computers RAM, the CPU can also often be overclocked to get some extra performance. As with overclocking RAM, to overclock the CPU you need to change settings in the motherboards BIOS. This will also increase the heat from the CPU and therefor you will need a better, 3rd party, CPU cooler. Whether of not your CPU can be overclocked and by how much depends on how much extra speed and heat it can take. 
For more information on overclocking see the overclocking video lessons available on the website.

We recommend spending at least $150 on a CPU and the more you spend the happier you’ll be with the performance. 

When you go to Buy
  • Whether you choose an Intel or AMD processor, make sure the motherboard you buy supports the CPU.
  • Buy the fastest processor you can afford.
  • Consider the design of the CPU including the number of CPU cores, cache size and operating frequency when choosing your CPU
  • If you buy the heat sink and fan separate from the CPU, make sure it’s made for your CPU and is rated to cool the model of the processor you choose.

In the installation lessons we’ll go over how to install both Intel and AMD made CPU’s onto their motherboards and show how to attach the heat sink and cooling fan to the CPU’s.
Processor Warranties

Both Intel and AMD CPU Processors are generally very reliable and will last for many years. That said, it's best to buy a processor with at least a 3 year warranty.

To buy a processor with a 3 year warranty buy a CPU in a retail box. This will also include a cooler and fan.

Manufacturer Links

Processor Reviews

To find more reviews do a search in your favorite search engine (Google, Yahoo) for the model number of the processor you're interested in.

Buying a Processor

Whether you buy an Intel or AMD CPU Processor there is no shortage of choices. Below are several sites that will help you find the lowest price from a reputable merchant.


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