February 11, 2010

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Process this
How to choose a CPU
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com.

Picking a computer processor is never easy. Intel and AMD seem to do everything they can to name their CPUs as meaninglessly as possible, while publishing complicated guides to help us understand their marketing.

Should it be such hard work to figure out how to get the most for your money? Absolutely not. That’s where this handy dandy guide comes in.

Intel
The dominant chipmaker has actually trimmed down its product offerings, so it’s not as confusing as it used to be to compare.

At the top of the lineup is the Core series. While you can still buy Core 2 Duo and Core 2 Quad machines, new PCs are coming with Core i7, i5 or i3 processors. Guess which is best? If you picked the biggest prime number, congratulations. The i7 includes models with two or four separate cores, and Intel’s Hyper-Threading technology splits each core in two so that each one can focus on two tasks at once. Meanwhile, their Turbo Boost feature can increase the speed of busy cores when other cores aren’t doing as much.

Every Core i5 can handle four simultaneous threads, either by having four cores or two Hyper-Threaded cores, and they all have Turbo Boost. Each Core i3has two Hyper-Threaded cores but no Turbo Boost.

If you’re a sucker for classic names, you can still get a Pentium or Celeron processor for lame and tremendously lame performance, respectively. No, that’s not fair; current models are better than their forebears ever were, but since they’re no longer flagship products, it’s best to steer clear.

Finally, Intel’s Atom processor is just about the only one you’ll find in low-cost and ultra-mobile netbooks. It’s good for its intended purpose; let’s leave it at that.

AMD
Always the underdog, AMD has a bunch of different names for its processors, along with codes for individual features. Remember these two simple rules:

• The capital letter X followed by a number tells you how many cores the processor has.

• If the name sounds more impressive, it probably is.

Both laptop and desktop lines start with the humble Sempron, AMD’s answer to Intel’s Celeron. The Athlon series, then, is analogous to the Pentium. The Athlon comes in both single- and dual-core models, while the Athlon II can have three or four cores. The Athlon Neo is specifically made to use less power and get less hot for use in really thin laptops.

For more power on the desktop, you can step up to the Phenom or Phenom II. There’s not much quantifiable difference between the two, just a bigger focus on high definition and faster speeds in the Phenom II. They both come in three-and four-core versions, as well as a two-core version for the Phenom II.

The best AMD notebook processors kind of break my second rule, because Turion doesn’t sound particularly speedy. Truth be told, they’re not that speedy — at least compared to Intel’s top of the line. Don’t look for more than two cores here, because X2 is as high as you’ll get.

Benchmarks
For actual performance ratings of particular processors that you can compare, even between AMD and Intel, what you want are comparative benchmarks. A single number will never tell you everything you need to know, but it gives you a good starting point. CPUBenchmark.net has lots of raw numbers. From there, Google around for reviews and detailed specs.