What Is A CPU?

What is a CPU and what do all the terms related to CPUs such as core count, clock speed and generation mean? Here is the ultimate guide to processors.

If you’ve just entered the world of PC gaming and hardware, you’re probably already overloaded with tons of new information and terms such as GPU, CPU, etc.

To ease your transition into the PC community, we’re writing this article to specifically explain what a CPU is, its main purpose, and the different types of CPUs available on the market.

Related:What CPU Do I Have?CPU vs. GPU – What Is The Difference?

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Central Processing Unit

What CPU Do I Have

So what does CPU stand for? Well, CPU is an abbreviation of “central processing unit” which is sometimes referred to as just a processor.

The processor is what makes every computer whole. Without this crucial piece of hardware, computers wouldn’t be nearly as smart as they are today. It’s the brains of the whole operation.

But, what exactly does the CPU do?

In short, the CPU executes instructions issued by a program. That program can be anything from Windows Explorer to Google Chrome opening YouTube or running a video game.

How Does It Work?

PC

Above we shared a basic explanation, but the whole process of executing just one instruction is incredibly complicated. Of course, we won’t have to get into the scientific part of how CPUs work, but we can go into a bit of detail.

When you give a command with your mouse to a certain program, the processor grabs the instruction from the system RAM, deciphers the instruction, and then executes it. The result from the execution can be a variety of things. It could activate the GPU, the storage drives, or even your Wi-Fi stick. This whole process takes only a fragment of a second.

In that fragment, the CPU solves basic logic or arithmetic operations and does a bunch of other tasks such as moving around the 1s and 0s. It’s basically a glorified number cruncher. A very complicated calculator.

Types Of Processors

The Best CPU Benchmarking Software

Opening up the CPU category in any PC shop, you’ll be met with several dozen different models. All of these models can be different in many ways, but the way they work and their purpose is the same.

The difference is in their architecture and their performance.

Nowadays, a consumer has only two options when it comes to a desktop CPU. Either AMD or Intel.

Here are some of AMD’s processors:

Low-end Mid-end High-end Workstation/Server
Ryzen 3 3300XRyzen 5 3600XRyzen 7 3900XEPYC 7702P
Ryzen 3 2200GRyzen 5 5600XRyzen 7 5800XEPYC 7742
Ryzen 3 2400GRyzen 5 3600Ryzen 7 5900XThreadripper 3995WX
Ryzen 3 3200GRyzen 5 2600XRyzen 7 5950XThreadripper 5990X

Those in the lower-end category are usually clocked much lower and some are locked to just 4 cores without multithreading while others do have it.

Some of them also come with an integrated GPU unlike those in the mid-end and high-end categories.

The mid-end category is filled with 6-core/12-thread CPUs with a budget-friendly price tag. The 3600X was a favorite for a long-time for many enthusiasts.

The high-end category is usually with SKUs with 8-core/16-thread. Some of them with up to 16 cores and 32 threads even.

The workstation/server category is a whole different level. These processors are not meant for the typical consumer for gaming or basic rendering. Instead, these are recommended for rendering professionals, businesses, workstations, servers, etc.

For example, the Threadripper Pro 3995WX is a 64-core/128-thread processor. But, it also costs well over $5,000.

EPYC processors are even more expensive than that.

Here’s how Intel’s lineup looks like:

Low-end Mid-end High-end Workstation/Server
i3-10100i5-11400i7-11700Xeon Gold 5315Y
i3-10300i5-11500i7-11700KXeon Gold 6338
i3-10305i5-11600i7-11900Xeon Platinum 8362
i3-10325i5-11600Ki7-11900KXeon Platinum 8380

Intel follows the same trend as AMD. The SKUs in the low-end category are usually with 4 cores and 8 threads.

Mid-range processors come with 6-cores and 12 threads. Note: Processors with the letters K and KF are overclockable while the rest are not.

In the high-end category are Intel’s fastest processors that provide some of the best gaming performance. These usually come with an 8-core/16-thread setup. Although, that might change with Intel’s 12th generation of CPUs, Alder Lake since this will be the first time the company will be implementing a hybrid big.LITTLE architecture.

Cores

Intel CPU

We’ve been throwing around the word cores and threads throughout this article, but we never explained what they really mean.

If we go back to the 2000s, we will be able to find a bunch of processors that had no more than one core. Inside of this core is where all of the computational tasks are executed. So, processors from that age could go through instructions one-by-one.

As CPU architecture got smaller and more advanced, dual-core processors started showing up on the market. Dual cores meant that one CPU could execute two completely different instructions at the same time, effectively making a computer faster.

Opening Google Chrome and a video game at the same time became much smoother.

In 2021, processors are far more advanced than those 2 core models. Today’s consumer CPUs have up to 16 cores that come with a fair price. So, this means that a modern CPU can handle multiple instructions at the same time.

And, taking into consideration that every core is split into two virtual cores which are called threads, that means that a 16-core CPU can execute 32 instructions simultaneously.

Keep in mind, not every CPU has simultaneous multithreading. For example, Intel’s i7-9700K (from 2018) doesn’t have Hyper-threading (Intel’s trademarked term for multithreading). Although, it still performs just as well as other high-end CPUs.

Clock Speeds

How To Overclock Your CPU

How fast a CPU can take, process, and send data is determined by its clock speed.

Specifically, the speed is measured in clock cycles per second. The point of these cycles is to synchronize every operation in the processor. More cycles per second equals a more efficient execution of instructions.

Nowadays, clock speeds are measured in frequencies, so you’ll often see CPUs that have a clock speed of several gigahertz. Some of Intel’s CPUs go well above 5.0 GHz.

However, because of the difference in architecture, clock speeds can only be compared in the same family of processors. To put it simply, Intel’s 5.0 GHz is not the same as AMD’s 5.0 GHz. We can get a good example by comparing AMD’s Ryzen 5900X (max boost clock 4.8 GHz) and Intel’s i5-11600K (max boost clock of 4.9 GHz).

Even though the i5 has a higher clock speed, the Ryzen processor is still considerably faster in every aspect because of their difference in architecture.

Costs

Money Key
Cluse Up of Green Money Key with Cash Symbol on a Keyboard.

So, what does it take to get your hands on a modern CPU? Well, thanks to the current fierce competition between Intel and AMD, today’s processors are quite affordable.

Those looking for a low-powered CPU to run the most basic tasks such as watching videos, word processing, surfing, etc. consider some of these:

  • AMD Ryzen 3 3300X – one of the most powerful 4-core, 8-thread CPUs on the market with an MSRP of just $120. Remarkably good for gaming too.
  • AMD Ryzen 3 3200G – Considerably slower in single-core performance than the 3300X, but it is cheaper at $100. Additionally, it has an integrated GPU, making it a great choice for office computers.
  • Intel i3-10100 – Near 3300X performance and at the same $120 price point. A solid low-end choice.

For more power, better productivity, and FPS in-game, mid-range CPUs provide the perfect balance between performance and price. Here are some popular options:

  • Intel i5-10600K – One of the best price-per-performance CPUs coming from Intel. With a price of around $250 and a performance almost as good as some of the most expensive CPUs on the market, it’s a bargain.
  • Ryzen 3 3600 – It may be from an older generation, but considering that you can get incredibly fast 6 cores and 12 threads for less than $180, it’s a no-brainer.
  • Ryzen 5 5600X – A surprisingly pricier Ryzen ($300) with a similar performance to the i5 mentioned above. Not most budget-friendly choice, but a great pick for those that need some extra multi-core performance (productivity workloads).

The high-end processors of today are something remarkable. Their single-core and multi-core performance are comparable to professional SKUs. You could even run an i7 as a server these days.

Here are some of the best high-end CPUs on the market:

  • Ryzen 7 5900X – This is one of the fastest processors at the time of writing. It comes with a price tag of $550, but you’ll also be getting 12 cores and 24 threads. Even with such a high-core count, it still delivers some of the best single-core performance.
  • Ryzen 7 5950X – The 5950X is a direct upgrade to the 5900X. Nearly identical single-core performance, but with 4 more cores. That makes it a 16-core, 32-thread, but at $850.
  • Intel i7-11700K – The 11700k is Intel’s high-end offer that’s as good as the above-mentioned Ryzen processors or maybe even better when it comes to gaming even though it only has 8 cores and 16 threads. Combining that kind of performance with just a $400 MSRP, it might be the best value offer in this category.

Final Words

There is a lot more to what a CPU is, how it works and how it will develop in the future. But, for entry-level tech enthusiasts, understanding some of these basics is more than enough to get you into the PC community.

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Branko Gapo
Branko Gapo

Keeping up with the incredibly fast evolution of computer technology is almost impossible. That's why Branko will be using his knowledge on this matter to share news and information on all the latest essential technological innovations and advancements related to CPUs.