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How Many CPU Cores Do We Really Need?

by Sean P. Aune | February 16, 2010February 16, 2010 8:43 pm PST

When shopping for a new computer, do you get lured in by listings that tell you how many cores the processor is?  Do you think, “Oh, more means better, so I better go for the one with a bigger number!”  Well, are you sure you’re the type of computer user that really needs to do this?

While CPUs (central processing units) used to be judged solely on their clock speeds, once chips hit into the 3 GHz range, there was a radical shift from a focus on speed to that of performance.  The decision was made to put go to a multi-core arrangement that would put multiple processing cores on to the same chip, and those began appearing in late 2005/early 2006.

i7logosThere was, however, a problem that immediately perked up that your average end user program wasn’t built to take full advantage of such processing architecture.  While consumers were paying for this new technology, they weren’t getting anywhere near the full benefits they would think they would because the computer applications simply did not know what to do with the extra power.  While it took some time for this problem to disappear as programs needed to be rewritten, is there really a need for you to spend the extra funds to go for a larger multi-core chip?

The answer is not a simple one, and it totally dependent on the type of computer user you are.

Last April, Tom’s Hardware ran an extensive series of tests on a quad-core chip by running the exact same trials on the chip while disabling one core at a time.  Depending on what the activity was, such as ripping a CD to MP3 format, the speed difference was a matter of just seconds between one core and four cores, hardly worth the extra money one would spend.  There was a major difference in the speed of an anti-virus program running through from 14 minutes, 37 seconds on the single core, to 4 minutes, 32 seconds with all four cores being active.

A program you would have thought would have been optimized for multiple cores, Adobe Photoshop CS3 ran at the exact same speed no matter how many cores were active, although it was one second faster with only two cores active.  So the problems of unoptimized software is still floating around out there.

To no one’s great surprise, video games seemed to get the biggest benefit from multiple cores, but was aren’t talking things like Minesweeper or some Flash-based game, we’re talking hard-core, graphics memory hogging monsters.  Frame rates for the animation jumped exponentially with each core that was added, but wasn’t this kind of a “gimme” test?  Games have always been on the cutting edge of computer technology.

So, in short, six-core chips are on their way, but if you’re in the market for a new computer, think about how you use your computer.  If you’re a casual user that doesn’t do much more than surf the Web, you can afford to go cheaper, if you want to do serious processing or video gaming, than yes, you need to spend every cent you can on more cores.  For me, I’m happy with dual core for now … blogging doesn’t take a whole lot of power!


Sean P. Aune

Sean P. Aune has been a professional technology blogger since July 2007, but his love of tech dates back to at least 1976 when his parents bought...

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