Buyer’s Guide to Understanding Computer Processors

Jaron Branham
Sep 17, 2017 · 4 min read

Far too often I hear people fall trap to the misconception that a processor’s capability or quality is based on simply identifying one aspect; this is reflected in statements such as “my computer has an i5” or “my computer has quad-core” but what do these statement really mean? I hope to shed some light on what specifications a consumer needs to look at to understand just how good a processor is so that you don’t fall prey to common sales tactics.

Intel has been selling processors since 1971 but I will be focusing on the most popular processors seen in today’s products, the Pentium, i3, i5 & i7 models. The first misconception that salesmen will try to push is that all i5 processors are equal or even close in performance but that is far from the truth, without knowing the full model number it is actually impossible to determine the capabilities or speed of a processor with just knowing it is an “i5” this extends to other assumptions as well in that knowing a processor is an i3 does not automatically make it slower or inferior to an i5. This applies to all single-lines of information when looking at a processor such as “dual core/quad core”, “this generation vs last generation”, “3.0 gigahertz”, “5 mb cache”- all of this is meaningless alone but with enough pieces we can better understand what the processor can do.

So what do all these things mean? Well let’s examine the pieces in relatable terms. The easiest comparison of a processor is a series of bus routes; a bus stops and picks up people(information) and moves along the route moving people from stop to stop while more buses travel difference routes.

When a bus makes a stop, how long before the next bus comes to the same stop? This is close to how clock speed works on a processor and is frequently represented in Gigahertz (Ghz). Clock speed represents how frequent information is picked up and moved. Generally the higher the better and this is where “the speed” of the processor is determined.

Processor cache, which in this case would be the people (information) that have their own sports car and though they drive on the same roads as the buses, they are much faster but only carry limited passengers but while a four seat sports car doesn’t carry very many people, it is still double that of a two seat and that is the comparison for cache memory; usually measured in only a few megabytes- the more the better.

So what about the processor cores- well core-count is a very interesting aspect as the usefulness varies. In the above scenario, the number of cores would be the number of bus routes and while this would increase the total number of people we can move over an hour, this doesn’t do much when looking at how many people we move to one location since our bus routes don’t go to the same places. In computer processors, unless you are pushing a lot of information to a lot of different places at a constant rate, then you will not likely see any difference when comparing the number of cores. Would you need more bus routes in a suburb or in a city? Obviously the city would need more routes as there are more people trying to get to different places all at once where as the suburb might be able to have one bus moving the same few people around the same route. Unless you are using specific programs that utilize specific technology, you won’t get much from having more cores, it is perfectly fine to use a dual-core processor for general every day computer use.

Lastly, I would like to cover generations; the generation of a processor represents the architecture of the processor. In the example above, a generation compared to the bus would also be a newer design of a bus. While this doesn’t directly effect the number of people (or information) that can be moved, the newer bus design might have features that the previous did not such as a new sheet metal exterior that is safer but is lighter weight allowing the bus to go faster or better tires for less wear. The same can be said about processor generations, they are general improvements that can slightly impact the efficiency of the processor in various ways but it is safe to say the newer the generation, the more advanced the technology so try to get the latest generation CPU.

I admit my comparisons are crude and not totally accurate and I am sure someone wiser than me can explain these concepts better but I hope the average consumer can take from this blog that the complexity of a processor’s performance can not be summed up by one aspect.

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