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The Easy Guide to CPUs

Ah, the central processing unit; this integral part is at the heart of any PC build.

Despite that, it can be deceptively hard to learn about what makes a CPU good and which one you should buy for your next build.

That’s why today’s feature is here to guide you through

  • The makings of a CPU
  • What elements to focus on depending on your needs (e.g. gaming, production)
  • Some FAQs (i3 vs i5, dual-core vs quad-core, etc.)

We’ve also included our top recommendations if you’re just after the best CPU for your budget/requirements without being bogged down by the details!

Table of Contents

Dual Core vs Quad Core vs Six Core vs Eight Core 6

What makes a CPU good?

The easiest way to answer this question is to break-down the main parts that make up a CPU.

Clock Speed

If you’ve seen processors advertised before, you’ll be familiar with seeing clock speeds (or the clock rate) in GHz.

What this indicates is how many times per second your CPU can perform tasks. So, if your processor has a speed of 3GHz (3,000,000,000 hertz), it can perform up to 3 billion cycles a second (more is better).

Base Clock vs Max Clock (or Boost Clock)

Most Ryzen/Intel CPUs today record their clock rate with multiple figures, usually “base speed” and “max speed”/”up to”.

Essentially, CPUs today are intelligently built to only use the clock speed that is required for the tasks at hand in order to conserve power.

If you have an expensive processor and are just running Netflix, there’s no reason for the hardware to heat up and run at max capacity!

The base clock, as the name suggests, is what your CPU runs at when idling/during low intensity.

The max clock is how much individual CPU cores can climb up to in power when performing intensive tasks (e.g. gaming, rendering).

Both are important, and a higher value for either means a faster system in different circumstances (in most cases, the 2 values increase at a similar rate to each other with more expensive CPUs).


The other term you’re probably already familiar with when seeing CPUs on Amazon; a core is an integral part of buying a processor today.

Essentially, each core is its own individual processor within your CPU.

So, for example, a quad-core CPU is essentially 4 CPUs in one, each capable of performing its own tasks.

Most processors today are between 4 and 8 cores, but the full range is anything from 1 to 128.

Sounds pretty awesome right? Well, for the most part, it is!

But there is an important point to make, using quad-core as an example: 4 x the cores does not mean 4 x the power in individual processes.

In simplistic terms, having 4 cores means you can perform 4 independent operations as fast as 1 core can perform 1 operation.

If you’re trying to get 4 cores to target the same task (e.g. playing a game), then the clock speeds, IPC, and other aspects of how your CPU works for a single core will be integral too.

That’s not to say having more cores doesn’t help individual processes, many applications (including games, as we’ll discuss further below) are developed with multi-core use in mind and can utilize some of their power.

Cores are important, and the days of single-core are over (with dual-core also on its way out), but we’re just trying to stress that there is no reason to go too crazy with cores. We expect 99% of readers would see close to 0 benefits from more than 16 cores, and many will see diminishing returns past 4-8 (we break this down for each PC type further below).


Multithreading is a technology that is used by Ryzen (SMT or simultaneous multithreaded) and Intel (hyperthreading) to allocate multiple  “virtual cores” (i.e. threads) inside each core.

In simple terms, this allows cores to split up certain types of workload (e.g. when 1 thread is waiting on information to complete a task, the second thread can be busy doing “prep work” for that task).

They both share the same physical specs of the core, so real-world performance gains are usually only marginal from your thread count.

There’s good news for learners too: nearly every mainstream CPU today has 2 threads per core. Therefore there’s no significant need to focus on thread count when you’re already considering cores.

Dual Core vs Quad Core vs Six Core vs Eight Core 9


The IPC is best described as the “hidden ingredient” for what makes a CPU good, as it is often not as discussed as the more marketable specs above and below.

Despite that, it’s very important in establishing speed; IPC stands for instructions per cycle/clock.

As you might expect from the name, IPC indicates how many tasks/instructions your CPU can perform for each cycle.

This is an underutilized spec as you could have a CPU with a very high clock speed, but if its IPC is low, it will be slower than a low-clock speed CPU with notably higher IPC.

IPC is often indicated or tested in CPU reviews/benchmarks as opposed to product listings.

The good news/rule of thumb is that newer generation processors from Ryzen and Intel will provide better IPCs than their predecessors, so although this spec is integral, you don’t have to overthink it too hard.


Thermal design profile (or TDP) is how much power your CPU demands in watts (e.g. 65W).

If just one TDP figure is provided, this is nearly always the max wattage required by your CPU (under heavy loads). Sometimes listings also include the idle/base TDPs, which refer to how much power is drawn at calmer usage.

In terms of performance, TDP does not directly affect your CPU (yes, higher TDP tends to mean a more powerful processor, but this isn’t a great metric, focus on the specs above).

Instead, what TDP is good for is understanding what level of CPU cooling you need and the PSU requirements of your CPU.

It’s also the best indication of how much you can expect your CPU to increase your energy bill (higher = more) but the difference between a modest and high TDP usually won’t mean more than $5-$20 per year.


Processor cache is the onboard caching system on a CPU that is used to interact with your RAM and access frequently used information from it as required.

The cache is important, but the values between modern CPUs are going to be very similar, and any differences are going to have immense diminishing returns in real-world performance compared to clock speed, core count and IPC. We included this for completeness but would recommend most users to not worry about this spec in their buying decision.

Integrated Graphics

Depending on the model of CPU you’re purchasing, you may have a processor designed to also do the job of a GPU included.

This is more useful if you are building a very budget/basic general use PC or a smaller computer with less graphical requirements to avoid the spatial needs of a graphics card (a common example is building a home theatre PC in a horizontal case).

If you’re building a mid-range desktop or something for gaming, you’ll definitely want a graphics card over integrated graphics; an independent GPU provides much more power (having the integrated functionality may still be useful to have as a backup if your GPU has issues and you need to troubleshoot, but isn’t essential if you’re on a budget).

The same logic goes for laptops, many have integrated GPUs to save on space; this is fine if you are a general user, but you’ll want a laptop with a GPU for gaming, video editing, or longevity.

Which CPU specs are the most important?

We’ve included all the main parts for completeness, but the short answer is how good a CPU is for most users is mostly determined by a mixture of its clock speed, IPC, and core count.

If you’re confused, a great rule of thumb to follow is that the latest generation of Intel and Ryzen processors will be the best “bang for your buck” at each of their respective price ranges and contain the latest innovations in clock speed, IPC, and core counts (we’ve provided some of the best options below).

Dual Core vs Quad Core vs Six Core vs Eight Core 5

How to choose the right CPU for your needs

The utility of a CPU usually overlaps into multiple areas (i.e. a processor good for gaming will be good for general use and media).

The question on how to chose is really around how much power you need.

If you do high-end development (rendering, intensive video editing, etc.) you’ll need a more powerful CPU than the average gamer.

This section is about providing a guideline depending on your individual requirements.

Choosing a CPU for Gaming

How many cores do you need for gaming?

4 is the absolute minimum today, as many developers have begun to use multi-core technology in the fundamentals of their game engines. If you’re using a single/dual-core, you’ll likely not meet the minimum specs for many titles.

While 4/quad core is the minimum, we’re now past the days where it’s recommended. We’ve noticed other resources saying “4 cores are all you need” – but this is an outdated statement.

Many PC gaming benchmarks have tested the average FPS of new popular titles at 1080p, 1440p, and 4k and it’s clear there can be a significant difference between 4 and 6 cores, a notable increase from 6 to 8, and a lesser-but-fair improvement from 8 to 10/12 (above this amount is when diminishing returns really settle in).

Now, benchmarks are examples, and of course don’t reflect your exact setup (GPU, motherboard, cooling, graphics settings, etc.). Additionally, each game has different CPU requirements (with simulation/larger-scale games usually benefitting more from increased processor power).

But the differences noted in various benchmarks demonstrate that the average user is likely to see real-world improvement above 4 cores.

Bear in mind all this advice is about shopping with the latest generation of Intel/Ryzen CPUs (10th gen and 5000 series); a previous-gen 8 core CPU may run slower than a current-gen 6 core CPU.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that the latest generation consoles (PS5 and Xbox One X) are built with 8 core/16 thread CPUs. This doesn’t mean that you need this for gaming, but there will likely be some advantage to having a similar architecture in your gaming PC once developers begin to focus on this layout with major cross-platform titles.

With all that said, a good rule of thumb for gaming core requirement is:

  • 4 cores at a bare minimum 
  • 6 cores as a good standard for budget/lower mid-range 
  • 8 cores for the optimal sweet-spot/mid-range and to match the new console gen standards
  • 10/12 cores for a premium gaming desktop

How many threads do you need for gaming?

We see this question asked a fair bit, but as mentioned in the first section: nearly all mainstream CPUs (especially those focused on gaming) have 2 threads per cores, with the latter half being a more important overall indicator.

In other words, don’t focus on threads, focus on cores.

What other CPU specs are important for gaming?

Clock speed and IPC are also very important, but it’s harder to break these down in the same way as threads/cores (as they vary notably between choices). 

The easiest suggestion is to focus on the latest generation CPUs which will be tailored for the optimum clock speeds/IPCs at each price-range (we list the best for different budget types just below).

Ryzen vs Intel for gaming

No CPU discussion would be complete without a word on Intel vs AMD processors for gaming!

It’s a very close race for the most part.

AMD tends to have a focus on increased core/thread count, while Intel’s focus is on achieving the highest single-core clock speed.

For gaming, single-core clock speed is very important, and typically you’d expect Intel’s approach to win out here.

However, AMD sometimes offers better prices for similar performance and as we’ve seen from benchmarks, core/thread count does also play a notable role in avoiding bottlenecking a GPU’s performance.

We would say it’s usually common for AMD to come out on top, but right now, it’s really too close to call for gaming. As you’ll see in our recommendations below, we choose CPUs from both vendors and the best value is really going to depend on the state of the market at any given time (ignore CPU brand loyalty, it’s a waste of time!).

Best CPU for Gaming (Mid-Range): Intel Core i7-10700K

It’s a very close race for the best gaming CPU between the 10700k and AMD’s new 5800X.

The 5800X usually averages 2-3% FPS improvement in gaming benchmarks but comes at a near 20% increased cost (and is short in stock) therefore we give the crown to the 10700k.

This beastly Intel processor hits the sweet spot with 8 cores/16 threads to match new console architecture, and with fantastic clock speeds/IPC, it’s one of the best CPUs for RTX 3070 & 3080 builders.

Best CPU for Gaming (High-End):
AMD Ryzen 9 5900X

For those after a high-end gaming desktop CPU, we give this accolade to the fantastic new 5900X.

With an impressive 12 cores & 24 threads alongside immense clock speeds, the combinations on offer here is what we consider the maximum you need in a CPU today for gaming (anything more is where you start to see notable diminishing returns), with the right GPU you’ll be able to throw pretty much any game at this CPU and get a great result in 1440p or 4k.

You don’t just have one of the best CPUs for RTX 3090 builds (and other premium gaming machines) but also a CPU capable of working alongside other high-end parts for intensive production work (be it development, rendering, or high-scale video editing).

After the best high-end Intel gaming CPU? Your best option will be the i9-10900K.

Best Budget CPU for Gaming: AMD Ryzen 5 5600X

For cheaper builds, the new budget offering in AMD’s Ryzen 5000 series is a fantastic choice.

The 5600X still hits 6 cores / 12 threads with the excellent clock speeds and IPC you expect from the latest generation of gaming processors.

What’s more, unlike the other 5000-series CPUs, the 5600X comes bundled with AMD’s Wraith Cooler, which is a pretty decent option as far as stock coolers go (especially for a budget build).

We would say, however, that if you could stretch that little bit further and get our top i7-10700K choice (or the Ryzen 7 4800X), we think that is the best value for money in the gaming space today.

But rest assured; if not, this is still a great processor and would work well alongside an RTX 2000 series GPU or even the RTX 3060 when released.

If you’re looking for something even cheaper while still hitting our recommend 6 cores for a budget build, the Core i5-10600K is your best bet.

Choosing a CPU for Streaming

If you’re looking to stream on Twitch or another platform, you can usually expect a couple of cores to be pre-occupied with the streaming tasks.

So as a rule of thumb; follow our gaming core requirements above and +2 for streaming (6 minimum, 8 budget, 10/12 mid-range, and more for premium).

Best CPU for Streaming: AMD Ryzen 9 5900X

With AMD’s focus on cores, you not only have a great CPU for gaming here but something that has enough spatial capacity to handle even demanding streaming requirements.

If you’re after an option that’s cheaper, Intel, or more readily in stock right now, the i9-10900K is a good second place.

Choosing a CPU for General Use

If you’re after a non-gaming CPU and your tasks aren’t much more than internet browsing, Netflix, and business applications (Word, PowerPoint, etc.) or an HTPC/media build, then you can get away with a significantly cheaper processor.

We never recommend too cheap of course, even decent budget CPUs today with the latest motherboard sockets still offer decent core/thread counts to make sure you have a relatively smooth experience, you can just afford to lose the high clock speeds/IPC offered by the more expensive options.

Note: by general use, we do not mean more hefty production tasks like video editing or development work (those are discussed below).

Best CPU for General Use: Intel Core i5-10400

At a fantastic low price-point, the 10400 has enough juice to run a smooth budget non-gaming build.

One of the really nice things about this processor is the integrated Intel UHD 630 graphics, which have enough capability to act as a GPU solution for a basic build (and can reportedly run/stream 4k video, so could be a great option for a budget HTPC).

Choosing a CPU for Video Editing (or Production)

Although people think that a GPU is the be-all-end-all for video editing, most popular software, including Adobe Premiere, Final Cut Pro & Sony Vegas, are all designed to make good use of high core/thread counts.

Therefore, you benefit significantly from the newest generations of CPUs with their excellent core/thread provisions (the same advice goes for other medium intensity software requirements like mid-range animation or development work).

So how many cores for video editing are recommended? We would advise at least six, but more will improve your experience notably too.

Best CPU for Video Editing: Ryzen 9 5900X

It’s another win for the fantastic 5900X, its 12-core 24-thread capability simply provides so much performance potential for a video editing desktop (including 4k/8k).

Do you need to spend this much on a video editing CPU? Of course not, you could still manage edits on a lesser CPU (like the 5600X from our budget gaming picks) but if you’re serious about a productive rig, this is an ideal choice.

The i9-10900K is your best choice for something mid-range or for those after Intel and is still a great choice with its 10 core/20 thread setup.

HEDT CPU for High-End Development & Production

To be clear; an overwhelming majority of users do not need a high-end desktop CPU (HEDT).

HEDT CPUs are specifically designed for very high-end production work; think industry-standard rendering, server builds, and other intensive requirements.

That said, if any of these sound like you, there is a select set of CPUs designed for some incredible levels of computation going up to 64 cores/128 threads while still retaining great clock speeds and enormous caches.

Best HEDT CPU: AMD Ryzen Threadripper 3990X

Arguably the most powerful CPU on the market today, the 3990X includes an immense 64 cores and 128 threads while still retaining other decent specs.

Of course, its single-core clock speeds are not as high, but this isn’t a chip for gaming, it’s about large-scale production work; its productivity potential will be pretty much unmatched by any mainstream CPU line.

Bear in mind that the Threadripper series runs on the TRX40 chipset and requires a different motherboard type to many mainstream choices, we have a recommendation on a good option in our EATX motherboards feature.

Needing a budget HEDT CPU? The best we’d recommend is the brand new Ryzen 9 5950X which is still a productivity machine (with less diminishing returns).

Other Build Types

We’ve aimed to cover a large majority of build types in the picks above, but appreciate some of you may have very refined requirements.

We’d reiterate an earlier point made: if you’re focussing on the latest generation of Intel and Ryzen chips (10th gen and 5000 series) then you’ll be in a good spot to get the best value for whatever budget you have.

The processors this gen are also fairly well balanced between various spec types, so you can take our above gaming/production picks as a template, and we’d expect they would apply to most other purpose you’re looking for (as a rule of thumb).

Dual Core vs Quad Core vs Six Core vs Eight Core 4

CPU FAQs & Head-to-Heads

There are not many things more common in the CPU space than people asking questions like:

What’s the difference between dual-core and quad-core?


What’s better, a core i3 or core i5?

And we’re not surprised! The processor industry doesn’t always do a great job of making what actually makes a CPU good clear.

The answers to these questions aren’t always clear-cut, but we’re going to give you the best summation for someone after the essential knowledge when buying a CPU.

Note: don’t feel inclined to read through all of the FAQs to learn about CPUs; our key knowledge/recommendations are above. These are specifically here for those of you who want a little more clarity on certain areas.

Intel Core i3 vs i5 vs i7 vs i9 CPUs

This i naming structure is how Intel allows users to have a quick reference point to compare CPUs in the same generation depending on their needs as follows:

  • i3 CPUs are the cheapest/budget options (still fairly powerful with the current 10th gen CPUs)
  • i5 CPUs are budget/low mid-range options
  • i7 CPUs are the higher mid-range choices
  • i9 CPUs are for enthusiasts and professionals (i.e. maximizing your productivity or gaming capability, with some diminishing returns for the latter).

These aren’t definitions set in stone, but usually how the I-series go and is a good guideline for you to make sense of all the different offerings (i.e. the higher the number, the better the processor usually is).

There are other non-i processors (like the Pentium series) but in today’s market, for anyone reading this list (providing you have the budget) it’s good to stick to at least i3 for a somewhat smooth experience.

It’s key to remember that these comparisons only make sense for Intel CPUs in the same generation. 

For example, an i5 9400F (9th gen) will provide about the same performance as an i3-10100 (10th gen). This is because the 10100 comes from the next generation which is created using more efficient practices than the 9th gen.

Any resource that says i3 “has X cores or Y clock speed” is false. i3 (or any of the i CPUs) have lots of different meanings depending on the generation, only use these terms as a guideline!

Ryzen 3 vs 5 vs 7 vs 9 CPUs

Very similarly to the Intel naming standard, AMD uses these terms as a guideline naming convention in place to allow you to compare same generation CPUs with some ease:

  • Ryzen 3 CPUs are the lower end choices (still capable for general use)
  • Ryzen 5 CPUs are budget/ lower mid-range choices
  • Ryzen 7 CPUs are the mid-range choices on the premium-side
  • Ryzen 9 CPUs are the enthusiast options

It’s worth noting that we don’t know if there will be a Ryzen 3 5000 CPU as of yet, AMD has only announced Ryzen 5, 7 & 9 5000 series CPUs.

Remember, the terms only work for comparison if the Ryzen CPUs are from the same series.

Intel vs Ryzen CPUs (Non-Gaming)

We touched on Intel vs Ryzen early, specifically for gaming, where the winner isn’t too decisive.

Now, what about other areas like general use, business productivity, and production (mid-range or high end)?

Well, both companies do still have great options.

However, with non-gaming software, it is a lot more common to see more beneficial use from multi-core/thread performance that AMD specializes in (as opposed to Intel’s single-core performance gains).

So generally speaking, AMD comes out on top for providing the best value for non-gaming desktops.

But this is not universal, which is why we highly recommend sticking to our recommended CPU picks above, where both brands are offered for different requirements.

dual core vs quad core vs six core vs eight core

Core head-to-heads

We see many users asking questions about values of specific core quantities and how they compare to others, so we’ve put together a quick-fire reference for some of the most common “battles”.

These head-to-heads are for a rule of thumb only because in reality, for example, a 4 core and 8 core will nearly always have different clock speeds, IPCs, etc. These examples are based on the assumption that all the other specs of the CPUs are identical (other than threads, which we are assuming will be 2 x the core quantity).