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Guide To Single, Dual, Triple, Quad, or Six Core: Which Is Best For Your PC?

Updated on September 11, 2010

When purchasing a new computer, the first choice that needs to be made is the number of cores. No other aspect of computer components creates as much confusion or is subject to so much obfuscation and outright misinformation as the number of cores.

Many computer users think that they need a PhD in computer science to figure out what CPU is best for them. Microprocessor forums are so packed with discussions of ALU, AGU, FMAC, nm, SMT, and L3 latencies that only the pontiffs who can correctly interpret the sacred goat entrails are allowed access to the inner sanctum. The beginner can't expect to find any comprehensible information there!

It doesn't have to be that difficult to figure out whether you need one, two, three, four, or six cores in your next system. Here is a basic entry-level guide to figuring out what's best for you.

What Is A Core Anyway?

A CPU or microprocessor is the main data processing center. Consider it the brain of the computer. Each microprocessor has a speed rating. That's like the maximum speed of a car. If you buy a Smart Car you are not going to expect it to go as fast as a Ferrari Enzo. Similarly if you buy a CPU rated at 1 GHz, you can't expect it to be as fast as one rated at 3 GHz.

When the first personal computers were introduced in the Eighties, all had a single core, or brain center. As CPU technology was very new back then, pretty well all of the manufacturers were working on the same page. You could easily compare the AMD Am286 20MHz with the Intel 80286 20MHz as they were essentially the same.

As computers kept getting faster, the manufacturers started running into a roadblock around 4 GHz. It got to be so difficult to make a CPU run faster than around that speed that the only way to keep providing more power to the user was to double up on the cores.

Multiple Core Speeds: The Biggest Misunderstanding

Two cores running at 3 GHz do not give you the same performance as one core running at 6 GHz. That's like saying that if you buy two Ferraris that can do 200 miles an hour each, you can go 400 mph. So why have two cores at all? Two or more cores can accommodate software that's specifically written to be processed in two cores at the same time, or in "parallel."

Therefore, when this "multi-threaded" software is run on a dual core system some of it will run on core 1, some will run on core 2, and the result is a much faster effect to the user. To continue on the Ferrari metaphor, still not 200 mph + 200 mph = 400 mph, but you will get somewhere around 275 mph total, which is pretty darn fast!.

So the key to getting use out of your multiple core system is always the software. Whatever you're running check the specs on the reviews or the manufacturer's site. If it says "multi-threaded" (or something along those lines) then you're going to get great performance on a multiple core system. If it doesn't, it's only going to run on one core at a time, so you're wasting your money and your time.

There are thousands of commercial software packages, games, etc. and it's hard to believe but the majority of them are still not multi-threaded. So running them on a six core system will give you very few advantages over a single core.

The Future Is Multiple Core

The determination of just how fast software will run on any given system involves as many equations as the Large Hadron Collider. However, a general rule of thumb is that two CPUs of similar architecture (or way they're designed... it makes a huge difference too) will run single threaded software at about the same speed, regardless of how many cores you have.

Let's compare the Intel i7 980X six core, 3.33GHz monster with an Intel i5 680 dual core running at 3.6 GHz. Although you can buy four of the dual core 680s for the price of one 980X, it is completely feasible for you to run a particular game or a single-threaded software faster on the dual core than on the six core! However, go to a powerful multi-threaded app like Adobe Photoshop, and the six core will leave the dual gasping for air.

You also have to consider future-proofing. The computing universe is turning to multiple cores, so if you plan to keep your computer for a while you should look at going for as many cores as you can afford. Single threaded software will soon be used only by shareware and student programmers.

Right now the sweet spot is the quad core range. There is the most competition and therefore you can get a great quad for about the price of a dual core. Also pay close attention to architecture as was mentioned earlier. An Intel Core i7 quad of identical speed to an AMD Phenom X4 quad will wipe the floor with the poor pathetic green team entry. The architecture which the i7 is built upon is two full generations more advanced than the Phenom. Therefore always check performance charts and benchmarks on the processors in the price range you want to buy. You'll find the differences are staggering.

General Core Guidelines

Single Core - You use primarily single threaded applications, use your computer for web surfing, writing letters, doing the occasional spreadsheet, and you're on a budget.

Dual Core - You use a mix of software or you're a gamer and you want to get the most bang for your buck right now, with an eye to possibly upgrading in a year or two.

Quad Core - You are a power user who wants to use highly advanced software at its maximum potential and prefers to keep your PC for at least two years or more.

Six Core - You have more money than brains. Right now there is no justification for spending $1,000 on a six core Intel processor. Wait for the prices to come way down. And buy an AMD six core at your peril. Lots of Intel quads will way outperform the AMD sixes.

Why is there no Triple Core in there? AMD is the only company which sells triples, and that's because their quality control is so bad that when they make quad cores a lot of them have one core that doesn't work! So they sell it as a triple. Selling defective CPUs is a complete ripoff. Run away from triples at all costs.

You can buy a perfectly suitable processor for well under $100 these days and the vast majority of users would never be able to tell the difference between the performance it provides, and a processor that costs 4 or 5 times that much.

At the time of writing the best value low priced processors included:

  • Intel E3300 - A dual core 2.5 GHz powerhouse for fifty bucks. Yes, you read that right: $50!
  • Intel E6700 - A powerful 3.2 GHz dual for under $100! You can run most software faster on it than you can on many quads!
  • Intel Q8300 - Shop around and you can find this mind-blowing quad for well under $150.

I don't usually recommend AMD processors since they are engineering generations behind Intel, but if you absolutely have to go green team, the AMD X2 7850 Black Edition is not a bad dual, it's generally a couple of bucks lower priced than the Intel E3300 and offers reasonable performance. Having said that, ignore it and buy an Intel.

If I had to pick out one computer configuration right now to suit the vast majority of computer users to give them the absolute best performance for their money and allow them to enjoy it for a good two to three years, the choice is easy:

Intel Q8300 Quad. You can't get a better CPU for the money anywhere!


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    • profile image

      Dan 7 years ago

      I'm not exactly sure when this was written, but if it was after the Phenom IIs were released, I'm very surprised you didn't include them. The Phenom IIs give the same performance as the 45nm Wolfdale Core 2s, yet cost substantially less. The PII x2 555BE gives much better performance than the e6700, and costs a lot less as well. Similarly, a PII x4 costs about 2/3 the price of a Q9550, yet offers the same performance as the chip as well.

      You're right in saying that AMD's engineering is behind Intel's, but that's only when comparing the highest end chips, and in this case, we're not looking at the Core i series. When looking at pure power, Intel wins. When looking at the best bang for your buck, AMD wins.

    • Hal Licino profile image

      Hal Licino 7 years ago from Toronto

      Hey, as an Italian I know all about upthrust. After all... do you know why Italians always like to make love on the bottom? Because we always f*** up! :)

    • quicksand profile image

      quicksand 7 years ago

      Here is something for general audiences; The viscosity of quicksand is 1, the same as water, but there is no upthrust! You might ask how come? Well, that's the way quicksand works! :lol:

    • Hal Licino profile image

      Hal Licino 7 years ago from Toronto

      I'm working on a colloid hydrogel viscosity chart that's so sexy it might get an X rating. (I'm stopping way short of the "sucking" one-liners) :)

    • quicksand profile image

      quicksand 7 years ago

      How very kind of you! :)

    • Hal Licino profile image

      Hal Licino 7 years ago from Toronto

      I'll be glad to. My next article will be A Beginner's Guide To The Viscosity Of Quicksand. :)

    • quicksand profile image

      quicksand 7 years ago

      Thanks Hal, that was very informative. Got the answers to many unasked questions. More articles like this would be welcome. Cheers!

    • Hal Licino profile image

      Hal Licino 7 years ago from Toronto

      You are so right about the majority of users simply expecting software to multi-thread just because they're using multi-cores. That has to be the #1 biggest misunderstanding in the history of personal computers. As for sealing off a RAM or EPROM that is a very common procedure but when AMD does it, they don't take into consideration the parallelism aspects as well as the point of: if this one core is so bad that it had to be sealed off, what shape are the other 3 cores in? I've found through my own experience that AMD triples are a bad buy 100% of the time. Besides, the price diff between them and quads is usually the cost of a cheap lunch. Why risk handicapping an entire system to save ten bucks? :)

    • nicomp profile image

      nicomp really 7 years ago from Ohio, USA

      "Selling defective CPUs is a complete ripoff. Run away from triples at all costs."

      Well... We've been doing this for 30 years and it's worked fine. RAM chips and EPROM chips that were 1/2 bad were rebadged and sold as models with 1/2 the intended capacity. Everyone knew it and no one had a problem with it. Perhaps a CPU is a horse (!) of a different color.

    • nicomp profile image

      nicomp really 7 years ago from Ohio, USA

      "Two or more cores can accommodate software that's specifically written to be processed in two cores at the same time, or in "parallel."

      Spot on. Most software benefits not one bit (!) from multiple cores. Application programs, operating systems, and every other hunk of code must be designed from the ground up to make use of parallel processing. It's not a simple matter of dropping more cores and sitting back in amazement as legacy software automagically begins to run faster.


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