April 16, 2010

“How Much CPU Power Is Really Needed?”

Tech Tip 263

“How Much CPU Power Is Really Needed?”

by Mark Tiongco – April 11, 2010

Let’s start off with some rhetorical questions. How often do you proactively and manually do a virus scan on your system when you check your email? Do you use Photoshop for more than just editing out red-eye (or at all)? When was the last time you multi-tasked with lots of programs? (More than just running FireFox, iTunes and Microsoft Word simultaneously) While most mainstream computers today have multi-core processors that can juggle several tasks, it can get confusing about how much processing power is really required for simple everyday applications. This article will discuss how multi-core CPUs relate to everyday real life computing needs.

Multi-Core? Say What?

Regarding the concept of multiple CPUs, Intel introduced this technology with its Pentium 4 processor. Even though there was only 1 physical CPU, Hyper-Threading fooled Windows XP by indicating there are 2 (virtual) CPUs running which helped a little with multi-tasking. Currently, chip makers such as Intel and AMD engineer their CPUs to have 1, 2, 3 and even 4 processors on a single chip package. The good news is that Windows 7 and Mac OS X Snow Leopard have the ability to utilize all available processors to make the operating system run smoother.

Practical Applications

Despite its advantages, the biggest issue with multi-core processors is the fact there aren’t many software programs for the average-joe PC user that take advantage of multiple CPUs. For software makers, it’s very labor-intensive to code software to utilize more than one CPU.In the last 10 years, we have seen many advances in CPU technologies that range from Intel’s SpeedStep which lowers CPU speed to save laptop battery life to AMD’s innovative integrated memory controller which increases performance. Still, one thing that hasn’t really changed is the majority of PC users still use their computer for checking email, listening to music and running Microsoft Office.Which brings us to the question, “how many CPUs do I really need?”To answer this question, let us examine commonly used software program CPU requirements:

  • Windows XP – 233 Mhz Pentium CPU or higher
  • Windows Vistaonline prescription viagra style=”font-family: 'Verdana','sans-serif'; font-size: 9.5pt”> – 1Ghz 32-bit or 64-bit CPU or higher
  • Windows 7 – 1 Ghz 32-bit or 64-bit CPU or higher
  • Mac OS X Snow Leopard – Intel CPU
  • Office 2007 – 500 Mhz CPU or higher
  • FireFox – 233 Mhz CPU or higher
  • Adobe CS4 – 1.8Ghz CPU or higher
  • iTunes – 1Ghz CPU or higher

From this list, we can see that many of the programs used every day require about a 1Ghz CPU to run smoothly. Most modern CPUs, regardless of performance class, run at least 1.5 times or twice these required speeds regardless of performance class. For the average PC user who routinely uses a computer for checking email with multiple browser tabs, writing school papers on MS Word, and playing music on iTunes, a Dual-Core CPU is plenty fast enough for these tasks.Below are examples of lower-end CPUs which have plenty of power for basic computing needs:

If you’re a moderate enthusiast who enjoys casual gaming and/or does lots of research for school or work and needs more horsepower, consider the following:

PC games released now are being written to utilize multiple cores which help make AI (artificial intelligence) more challenging for the gamer.For hardcore gamers who demand the most for the best graphical output or for multimedia professionals who need the computing muscle for Adobe CS4, the following are recommended:

Programs like Adobe CS4 can actually utilize all available cores, thus making whatever resource-intensive task such as image rendering take less time.


Since dual-core CPUs have become virtually mainstream, chip makers have bridged the gap between these and their high-performance quad-core counterparts. One trend is to disable 1 or 2 CPUs during manufacturing and offer it at a lower price. Thus, AMD’s Phenom X3 is actually a Phenom X4 quad-core with one CPU disabled. AMD can market this chip as a middle-of-the-road between budget and high performance. Intel has considered this approach and is releasing their Core i7 (code-named Gulftown) 6-core CPU.Another trend that Intel has introduced is the return of Hyper-Threading. As in the Pentium 4 processor, Hyper-Threading is inside all Core i3, i5 and i7 CPUs. So, for example, a computer will recognize a Core i7 as having 8 processors even though there are only 4 physical CPUs on the chip. In addition, Intel is adding Hyper-Threading to their low-power Atom CPU which is designed for netbooks. Starting with the N280 chip, the Intel Atom netbook can now mimic a multi-core computer while maintaining its tiny footprint and minimal power consumption.

Buying Your Next PC

If you’re in the market to purchase a new PC, keep in mind the reasons for your purchase. For example, if the salesperson is urging you to buy a fully-loaded $800 quad-core CPU desktop or laptop computer and you specifically told him it’s only for web research, email and watching YouTube videos, a $450 dual-core CPU system makes more sense.

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