The choice of processor to use in a computer daunts many people. Unless you actually take the time to read up on these things on a regular basis, and even then the press releases can be downright misleading, you have no choice but to rely on the information supplied to you by your vendor. Sales tactics vary from place to place, with some companies placing emphasis on profit margins before customer satisfaction. The result is often inadequate specification to suit the intended application.
Your eventual choice of processor should be determined by your usage profile. If you use your computer for emails and web browsing you definitely won’t be looking at a top, or even mid-range processor. If you like to get creative with programs like Adobe Photoshop, video-editing applications, or even the odd bit of CAD, you want to start looking at higher end processors. Hardcore gamers will definitely be looking at the top end offerings.
For the scope of this article, we will be discussing processors only, though it needs to be noted that a properly specified computer is based on the sum of its components, not only the processor. Motherboard, RAM, and storage selection all play an important part in determining the overall performance of a computer, especially when you are looking for superior performance.
Up until now, those on a budget, or simply using their computers for basic office work, have taken advantage of motherboards with integrated graphics chips on the motherboard, negating the need for the additional expense of an addon graphics card.
Enter the Sandybridge architecture, (Codename for the 2nd Generation Intel® Core™ i3/i5/i7 processor and motherboard combination), and as a first for Intel®, we now have graphics processing on the actual processor, completely eliminating the need for additional chipsets on the motherboard to perform this function.
What is the significance of this? Well, for starters it is a ‘greener’ option as there is no need for the inclusion of an additional graphics processing chipset on the motherboard. Secondly, it places decent graphics processing power in any system with a lot less overhead in terms of power usage, and expense.
Even more amazing is the fact that Intel® have managed to include this on their existing processor chips without increasing the size of the chip itself. Intel® was slow to follow AMD’s lead when AMD integrated the memory controller on the processing chip itself (negating the need for the additional memory controller chipset on the motherboard), but have since followed suit, and as of the release of its Sandybridge chips, have gone one step further to include a GPU (graphics processing unit) on-die (on the processor).
Then we have improved Turbo Boost(2.0) with the 2nd generation chips. Turbo Boost was introduced with the 1st generation Core™ i3/i5/i7 chips, whereby the processor would intelligently ramp up its speed to compensate for increased performance requirements. Essentially the processor would operate at a lower frequency, reducing power usage, until it sensed the need for increased performance whereupon it would step up its operating frequency to a predefined, safe, maximum to deliver results faster.
Intel®'s Core™ i3 processor line is the budget option
• Dual cores with Hyper-Threading (virtual core for each physical core, therefore showing up as a Quad core in device manager)
• No Turbo Boost
• No vPro (hardware virtualization)
• No AES encryption technology
Intel® Core™ i5 mainstream processors all have
• Quad cores without Hyper-Threading
• Turbo Boost
• vPro (selected models)
Both Core™ i3 and i5 processor lines have the 2000 series IGP (Integrated Graphics Processor), which is limited to 1100Mhz and 6 execution cores.
Intel® Core™ i7 enthusiast processors are the top of the crop, and feature:
• Quad cores with Hyper-Threading (four physical cores and four virtual cores)
• 100Mhz higher base clock speed
• Turbo Boost
• Series 3000 IGP with 1350Mhz clock speed and 12 execution cores.
• vPro (selected models)
In an effort to provide ‘greener’ options, Intel® also has other designations spread across all three processor ranges. Intel® uses a 4 number classification system and using the Intel® Core™ i5 2500 as an example, where the suffix is:
• none – This is the mainstream release of Intel's processor ranges and the one you will most commonly find instore unless you specifically order one of the other three iterations - locked multiplier.
• K – the clock multiplier is unlocked for overclockers trying to eke that bit of extra performance out of the processor itself, and even the IGP by manually setting the clock speed.
• S – a lower TDP (Thermal Design Power) than the straight Core™ i5 2500 edition, which uses less power, operates at a lower frequency, and ramps up speed to a predefined maximum when system load demands it.
• T – the ultra low power iteration of the Core™ i5 2500 series, which operates at an even lower frequency and ramps up to a lower maximum frequency than either the straight or S iterations of the chip.
The 2500 and 2500K have a TDP of 95 Watts, the S has a TDP of 65 Watts, and the K a TDP of 45W. Essentially, because we don’t always use all of the processing power in our systems all the time, the logic is that the processor will run at a lower frequency, using less electricity, until such time as we put the processor under load, at which time it will intelligently increase the processor speed, and power usage, as needed.
A casual user that does basic tasks on their computer such as reading emails, web surfing, and even watching movies, will get away with an Intel® Core™ i3, and still be more than happy with the performance of their system, but be warned – usage profiles tend to change as users discover new things, so it might be an idea to invest in an entry level Core™ i5 if you even remotely suspect this might be the case with you.
The Core™ i5 will be suitable for most users, in most circumstances. The K series Core™ i5 is only really suitable for an experienced user on a budget wanting to get that extra bang for buck out of their system.
The Core™ i7 is for enthusiast gamer, and media manipulator (photos and videos) where most modern applications take advantage of the Hyper-Threading abilities of the processor.
If you are serious about 3D rendering, and video editing, you probably want to look at a dual socket Intel® Xeon® system which is the industrial offering by Intel®. Intel® Xeon® processors fall out of the budgets of most users because all the components (motherboard, RAM, chassis) are priced according to their specialist nature.
Different motherboards are based on different chipsets and when configuring a system one needs to pay attention to the different features offered by each individual chipset – that is not covered in the scope of this article.