How Many CPU Cores Do You Need?

How many CPU cores do you even need today? How many is enough for your use case? Here is the ultimate guide to help you pick the right CPU.

Answer:

  • Single-cores 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 is the sweet-spot for gaming, it is cheap and solid for productivity work.
  • Eight-core CPUs are amazing in all tasks. Great for productivity and heavy gaming.
  • Ten or more core CPUs scale a lot more in pricing, so we recommended them only for those that rely on productivity work.

With every new generation release from AMD or Intel, we get introduced to higher clock speeds, new technologies, and sometimes, more cores.

These past few years, after the release of the first generation of Ryzen processors, the number of cores in a CPU is much more important for both gaming and productivity work than it used to be. Before that, the most expensive consumer CPU (i7-X700K) had 4 cores and 8 threads at most. To put that into perspective, today’s $800 flagship from AMD, 5950X, has 4 times more cores and threads (16 cores/32 threads) than Intel’s 7700K (4c/8t).

However, do more cores make a CPU better? Do we really need to pay so much more to get more of them? It’s normal to wonder, how many CPU cores do I really need?

To help you get an answer to these questions, we’ll explain how cores can be useful and where you can benefit most from them.

Related:What Is A CPU?CPU Hierarchy 2021 – PC Processors Tier ListWhat Is CPU Cache? (L1, L2, And L3 Cache)

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CPU Cores Explained

2nd Generation Intel Core Proce or Die Map

A CPU has the role of executing program instructions. Adding/removing data, moving data around, and a lot more. In the past, a CPU was only one processing unit, processing one instruction at a time.

But, as 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.

What this means is that one processor can process multiple instructions at a time which considerably increases the speed of one CPU. This allows computers to run several programs or video games at once.

For even more performance and better multi-tasking, 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.

Basically, this means that 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 have a look at some of today’s models and core count.

Modern CPU Core Standards And Requirements

The Best CPU Benchmarking Software

Naturally, you can’t pick exactly how many cores you need, but you can choose a CPU model that has the number of cores you need.

If you think you need 5 cores, you will need to get a 6-core processor because that’s the standard. There are no 5-core CPUs since 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, threads are almost always double the cores. A unique exception would be Intel’s Alder Lake.

To make it a bit easier for you, we’ll show you some of the most common core/thread combinations and how they affect productivity, work, and gaming.

Single-Core Processors

CPU illu tration
Good luck finding a single-core CPU today

Processors with just a single core are incredibly uncommon these days. After searching through Intel’s Pentium library (their cheapest offers) we weren’t able to find a single-core CPU, so they probably don’t exist at all in newer generations.

And, for a good reason. Most operating systems of 2021 including Windows 10, macOS Big Sur, or Linux run smoother on multiple cores or threads. Programs/apps too can utilize multiple processing units.

Using any kind of program on this kind of CPU is going to be extremely infuriating. Video games are a definite no. The same applies to productivity work.

Dual-Core Processors

Dual Core Proce or illu tration

Dual-core CPUs are also uncommon, but they are definitely still present in new CPU generations such as Intel’s Pentium and i3 lineup or AMD’s Athlon APUs. CPUs with only two cores are quite outdated and even trying to run a browser may push it to the limits.

Fortunately, today’s dual-core CPUs have 4 threads thanks to multithreading.

If the cores are fast enough, 4 threads can make a user’s experience in running basic word processing programs, browsers, and some video games such as League of Legends or Counter-Strike Global Offensive much more satisfying. It is possible to run more demanding games, but the experience might not be as smooth and pleasant.

Rendering or video encoding is also possible, but it is going to be slow.

Recommendations:

  • Intel Pentium Gold G6405 – It’s going to offer enough power to handle any basic work 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 much more powerful than Intel’s UHD.

Quad-Core Processors

Quad Core Proce or illu tration

Processors with 4 cores and 8 threads are a lot 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 their agenda for all SKUs to have multithreading unlocked.

CPUs with 8 threads are going to be a completely different experience compared to a system with four threads. You can have multiple programs opened 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 a lot from more cores, so it’s definitely be going to be slower than 8 or 12 cores.

What’s more, 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 6700K for an affordable price. Even though these CPUs are a bit outdated in 2021, they are still quite powerful.

Recommendations:

  • 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 – Faster than the two options above and with a considerably faster GPU. Unfortunately, finding this CPU might prove difficult as it can be found in OEM systems only.

Hexa-Core Processors

Hexa Core Proce or illu tration

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 most probably will change soon.

So many people have jumped to six cores because processors such as AMD’s Ryzen 5 3600 orIntel’s i5-10600K offer amazing performance for a budget price. The Ryzen 3600 regularly goes on sale for less than $200, so we understand why it can be difficult for so many of you to pass up on that offer.

Six cores, or more precisely, twelve threads are a considerable upgrade over 8 threads. Most people are satisfied with this number of cores for a good reason.

Most of today’s latest 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 like Blender, Adobe Premiere, Photoshop, and others would benefit a lot from those two extra cores.

Recommendations:

  • Ryzen 3600/X – Undoubtebly the best value six-core processor on the market. In 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 at the time 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.

Octa-Core Processors

Intel and AMD are currently at the height of their battle, constantly throwing blows, pushing down prices, increasing frequency, core count, and more.

This strong competition between the two conglomerates means that eight-core processors might slowly become a lot more affordable and maybe even the standard in a few years. At the time 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, performance improvement in productivity work is considerable. Anyone looking to work on their computer, but also game, 8-core processors are the way to go.

Recommendations:

  • Intel i7-10700K/11700K – These two processors are almost identical in performance, so get whichever 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 the fastest 8-core CPU right now and it is much less power-hungry.
  • Ryzen 3700X – Not in the same boat as the 5800X or 11700K in terms of gaming performance, but you can grab it for $100 less, it’s still fast and it is great in productivity work. If you are building a PC on a budget, definitely go with this one.

Even More Cores

For those that are not limited by a budget or want the best possible performance in productivity, there are consumer CPUs with a lot more cores.

If money isn’t a problem at all, we heavily recommend AMD’s $800 Ryzen 5950X. This 16c/32t not only will it power through any rendering you through at it, but it will also give you more FPS in games than any of the CPUs we mentioned above.

Alternatively, go for Ryzen 5900X(12c/24t). It’s $250 cheaper, it is just as fast and it loses only 4 cores.

An Intel alternative would be the i9-10980XE which is an 18c/36t, but it is not as fast and it will set you back $1000.

Getting The Right Amount Of CPU Cores

With the extensive explanation of CPU cores above and CPU recommendations, you should be able to decide which model you should exactly get.

But, if you still cannot decide how many cores you need, here are a few factors you should use to make this whole process much easier:

  • Consider what you will be using your computer for.
  • How much time would 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.

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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.