- Single-core CPUs are not recommended.
- Dual-core CPUs for basic tasks, word processing, browsing, and light gaming.
- Quad-core CPUs for acceptable gaming performance and responsive operation.
- Six-core CPUs are the sweet spot for gaming; it is cheap and solid for productivity work.
- Eight-core CPUs are amazing at all tasks. Great for productivity work and heavy gaming.
- Ten or more core CPUs scale greatly in price, so we recommended them only for those that rely on productivity work.
With every new generation release from AMD or Intel, we are introduced to higher clock speeds, new technologies, and, sometimes, more cores.
In recent years, since the release of the first generation of Ryzen processors, the number of cores in a CPU is far more important for both gaming and productivity work than it used to be.
Before that, the most expensive consumer CPU (i7 7700K) had 4 cores and 8 threads at most. To put that in perspective, today’s $800 flagship from AMD, the 5950X, has four times more cores and threads (16 cores/32 threads) than Intel’s 7700K (4c/8t).
Do more cores make a CPU better? Do we really need to pay so much to get more of them? You might be asking yourself, how many CPU cores do I really need?
To help you answer these questions, we will explain how cores can be useful and where you might benefit from them the most.
Let’s get started!
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CPU Cores Explained
A CPU has the role of executing program instructions. This includes adding/removing data, moving data around, and much more. In the past, a CPU was only one processing unit, able to process one instruction at a time.
However, since operating systems, programs, and video games have a lot more data and provide considerably more instructions for CPUs, we now have multiple processing units in one processor. We now refer to these processing units as cores.
This means one processor can process multiple instructions at a time, which significantly increases the speed of the CPU. This allows computers to run several programs or video games at once.
For even better performance and multitasking, cores are split into threads (if the operating system allows it). This is called multithreading, hyper-threading for Intel, or simultaneous multithreading (SMT) for AMD.
Essentially, this means virtual cores can be created to help the operating system better utilize the CPU’s physical cores. So, how many of these cores or threads do you really need? Let’s take a look at some of today’s models and core counts.
Modern CPU Core Standards And Requirements
It’s rare that you will be able to pick exactly how many cores you need, but you can choose a CPU model that includes the number of cores you need.
If you think you will need five cores, you need to get a 6-core processor because that’s the standard. There are no 5-core CPUs as cores are always mirrored. That is why cores come in pairs: 2,4,6,8, and so on. Selling SKUs with an odd number of cores wouldn’t be cost-effective for AMD or intel. Additionally, the thread count is almost always double the cores. A rare exception would be Intel’s Alder Lake.
To make it a bit easier, we will show you some of the most common core/thread combinations and how they affect productivity, work, and gaming.
Processors with only a single core are very uncommon these days. Even when searching through Intel’s Pentium library (their cheapest offers), we were unable to find a single-core CPU, so they probably don’t exist at all in newer generations.
This is with good reason. Most operating systems of 2023, including Windows 10, macOS Big Sur, and Linux, run smoother on multiple cores or threads. Programs/apps can also utilize multiple processing units.
Running any program on a single-core CPU is going to be extremely frustrating. Video games are out of the question. The same applies to productivity work.
Dual-core CPUs are also uncommon today, but they are still present in new CPU generations such as Intel’s Pentium and i3 lineup or AMD’s Athlon APUs. CPUs with just two cores are quite outdated, and even trying to run a browser may be difficult.
Fortunately, today’s dual-core CPUs have four threads thanks to multithreading.
If the cores are fast enough, four threads can make a user’s experience when running basic word processing programs, browsers, and some video games such as League of Legends or Counter-Strike Global Offensive far more satisfying. It is possible to run more demanding games, but the experience will likely be far less smooth.
Rendering or video encoding is also possible, but it will be slow.
- Intel Pentium Gold G6405 – This will provide enough power to handle any basic task you throw at it. In terms of gaming performance, it is slower but comparable to an i3.
- AMD Athlon 3000GE – A solid choice, especially if you do not have a dedicated GPU. The integrated Vega GPU is far more powerful than Intel’s UHD.
Processors with 4 cores and 8 threads are far more common than dual or single cores. Intel’s i3 lineup is full of 4-core/8-thread CPUs. Previously, i3s were all locked to 4 threads until AMD started pushing for all SKUs to have multithreading unlocked.
CPUs with 8 threads will provide a completely different experience compared to a system with four threads. You can have multiple programs running and even a game, too, without any severe stuttering or hitching.
Video encoding or rendering is going to be much quicker. Still, this kind of productivity work benefits greatly from more cores, so it will definitely be slower than 8 or 12 cores.
Furthermore, people who want to build a powerful gaming PC on a budget will have access to older Intel i7 generations, such as the 7700K or the 6700K, for an affordable price. Although these CPUs are a bit outdated in 2023, they are still quite powerful.
- Intel i7-7700K – Better than new generation i3s thanks to its high clocks and single-core performance, but it does show its age. We recommend the 7700K only if you manage to find a good deal. Alternatively, try to find a 6600K.
- Intel i3-10300 – A 4c/8t i3 for less than $150 with a boost clock of 4.40GHz is an okay deal, but we recommend checking out the 6-core options first.
- Ryzen 5300G – Quicker than the two options above and with a considerably faster GPU. Unfortunately, finding this CPU might prove difficult as it can only be found in OEM systems.
Hexa-core or six-core processors are today’s mid-range standard. On Steam’s Hardware Survey of August 2021, 34% of Steam users have a six-core processor. That’s still not the majority, as 40% are still on 4-cores, but that will most likely change soon.
So many people jumped to six cores because processors such as AMD’s Ryzen 5 3600 or Intel’s i5-10600K offer amazing performance at a budget price. The Ryzen 3600 regularly goes on sale for less than $200, so we understand why it can be difficult to pass up that offer.
Six cores or, more precisely, 12 threads are a considerable upgrade over 8 threads. Most people are satisfied with this number of cores, and with good reason.
Most of today’s most popular games run extremely well on six cores. In fact, most games won’t show a significant improvement in FPS by jumping to 8, 10, 12, or more cores.
Productivity work would also be significantly faster. Programs such as Blender, Adobe Premiere, Photoshop, and others will benefit greatly from the two extra cores.
- Ryzen 3600/X – Undoubtedly the best value six-core processor on the market. Under normal conditions, you should be able to find this Ryzen for about $180. If you can find a good deal for the X version, get it. If not, we recommend the non-X.
- Ryzen 5600X – Probably the fastest six-core processor as of writing, comparable in gaming performance to Intel’s and AMD’s flagships. For about $300, it is a great choice.
- Intel i5-11600K – A bit slower than the 5600X, but it is also about $40 cheaper. A no-brainer if you want to go with an Intel platform.
Intel and AMD are currently at the height of their battle, constantly trading blows by pushing down prices, increasing frequency, core count, and more.
This intense competition between the two brands means that eight-core processors might steadily become a lot more affordable and perhaps even the standard in a few years. As of writing this article, Steam’s Hardware Survey shows 14.40% of users running 8-core processors.
The performance improvement in games won’t be as noticeable when jumping from 6 to 8 cores as it would be from 4 to 6 cores.
However, the improvement in productivity work is considerable. For anyone looking to work on their computer but also wanting to game, 8-core processors are the way to go.
- Intel i7-10700K/11700K – These two processors are almost identical in performance, so get whichever one offers better value. One of the fastest CPUs on the market right now, but very power-hungry and has disappointing thermals.
- Ryzen 5800X – $50 more expensive than the 11700K, but it is currently the fastest 8-core CPU, and it is far less power-hungry.
- Ryzen 3700X – Not in the same boat as the 5800X or 11700K in terms of gaming performance, but you can grab one for $100 less. It’s still fast and is great for productivity work. If you are building a PC on a budget, definitely choose this.
Even More Cores
If you are not limited by a budget or want the best possible performance in productivity, there are consumer CPUs with far more cores.
If money isn’t a problem, we strongly recommend AMD’s $800 Ryzen 5950X. This 16c/32t CPU will not only power through any rendering tasks you throw at it, but it will also give you more FPS in games than any of the CPUs we mentioned previously.
Alternatively, go for the Ryzen 5900X(12c/24t). It is $250 cheaper, it is just as fast, and it only loses 4 cores.
An Intel alternative would be the i9-10980XE which is an 18c/36t, but it is not as fast and will set you back $1000.
Getting The Right Amount Of CPU Cores
With the extensive explanation of CPU cores above and our CPU recommendations, you should be able to decide which model to choose.
If you still cannot decide how many cores you need, here are a few factors you should consider to make the whole process much easier:
- What will you be using your computer for?
- How much time will you spend working?
- How long will you be gaming?
- Will you be playing competitive or graphically demanding video games?
- Will you be doing any productivity work such as rendering, encoding, etc.?
With these questions answered, you should be able to pick the right CPU for your needs.