The central processing unit (CPU) is considered the brain of your computer. It helps to interpret and execute all of the information given to it by other components within the system and provides support for any other devices connected via USB or Firewire ports.
CPUs come in two main varieties: Intel and AMD. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, which we will discuss further down in our guide to decide which one is best for your needs. We’ll also take a look at some compatible CPUs with specific graphics cards so that you get the most performance out of them when they’re used together in a build.
CPUs are made up of millions of transistors that work together to process the information given to them by other components. You can also overclock them for better performance, which we will explain how to do in a separate guide (coming soon) on our site.
Important CPU Specs
Most CPUs are pretty quiet at stock speeds even when pushed near their limits, so there’s no real need to buy anything elaborate unless you plan on overclocking or running them 24/7 at full load for extended periods. This can produce a considerable amount of heat over time if left unchecked, leading to stable operation at lower frequencies or possible damage in extreme cases.
If you plan to overclock your CPU, though, it might be worth spending a bit of extra money on a better heatsink and fan to keep temperatures under control. This can make a more significant difference than many people think, so I’ll try to go over the requirements for each type below while keeping the length down as much as possible.
One of the main benefits of going with an Intel chip is their processors are compatible with almost every socket ever used by them (LGA1155/6/7 & 2011 being the most commonly used), allowing you to select from a wide range of coolers already available for them just by making a few selections in the motherboard BIOS.
To find out which one can be used, refer to your motherboard’s manual or browse through their website for compatibility information; I always check both to confirm before selecting a particular model.
This will provide everything needed for a basic installation without any additional modifications and are usually designed with minimal advancement over their stock counterparts with only minor improvements that don’t warrant extra spending.
As noted earlier, though, they all use thermal paste rather than having it applied at the factory, so you’ll need to buy some along with the cooler unless you already have some on hand, depending on what kind was included (some will give you a pretty generous amount). The next step involves adding the new heatsink/fan combination to the processor and gently securing it in place using either the integrated clips or thermal paste.
To get a feel for how much force to use, I always try to push down on it as hard as possible without being able to move it; this should still leave you with some room to work before damaging anything so take note of that if you run into any issues with your installation.
This will produce a noticeable improvement in performance over their stock counterparts though they aren’t compatible with every case due to their unique mounting brackets, which may need extra clearance compared to standard heat sinks; make sure everything is installed correctly before powering on.
I also recommend buying an aftermarket fan rather than the cheap one since they tend to be extremely loud at anything over about 500RPM (some will spin faster depending on the design) even though they produce similar results with better reliability.
Intel uses thermal paste on most of their CPUs rather than applied, which isn’t necessarily bad since it performs pretty well if you take proper care with the installation. Still, some alternatives are available if you want to avoid using them altogether.
These offer superior performance because of the additional contact area between the cooler and processor. Still, they do come with some downsides that make them slightly less desirable than their thermal paste counterparts.
First of all, they tend to be quite a bit more expensive than the average thermal paste solution and sometimes require extra steps to install them correctly; this usually involves a small amount of liquid metal being applied directly on top of the die itself or even placing your CPU into something like an oven for several minutes.
The result is impressive, though, since temperatures remain lower compared to regular thermal pastes, which can inhibit performance on overclocked chips due to excessive heat buildup.
However, for most people, a decent air cooler should be suitable enough for staying under any reasonable load with minimal noise. Hence, it’s really up to the user whether they want to use thermal paste or liquid metal, but either way, you will need some heatsink/fan combination, assuming that no factory ones are installed on your motherboard.
If you’re using an AMD CPU, the installation process is quite a bit simpler due to their use of standard heatsinks/fans compatible with both LGA and AM3+ sockets.
This article should cover most of the basics while also providing some additional options if you’re interested in going above or beyond their recommendations; one thing it fails to mention, however, is that some high-end air coolers can be used on socket AM2/AM2+/AM3 processors just as long as they support the newer AM3 mounting accessories.
As far as liquid metal goes, there aren’t any good alternatives since Intel CPUs don’t support cooling blocks, so you’re going to have to stick with thermal paste if you want something better than stock.
However, there are some exciting options available such as a laser-drilled heatsink that I covered here, although it’s limited in its ability to scale, so unless you’re not overclocking anything higher than 100% CPU load 24/7, then you probably don’t need it; besides that, the installation process is almost the same as installing one of these on an LGA 1155 or 1150 socket.
A lot of people will argue that air coolers are inferior to liquid cooling systems, but that’s primarily due to a lack of understanding when it comes down to how they work; air coolers rely upon spreading the heat throughout their components so that each piece can absorb, transfer and dissipate the heat properly.
This requires a lot of surface area, which is why you see so many tall coolers with multiple fans; water cooling handles this by transferring heat through fluid instead, but it’s much harder to scale up to higher levels because the more heat that needs to be dealt with, the more power/electricity is necessary for it works properly.
There are some alternatives, such as using phase-change cooling solutions or even aluminum blocks like CoolIT. Still, these need unique materials to function properly without causing damage. They’re also quite expensive – not to mention their impracticality for overclocking since they are explicitly designed around keeping temperatures low at all times, even if it sacrifices power output.
So overall, air cooling handles heat better than water because it’s more efficient, but you also need to have a large enough heatsink to dissipate the heat while having sufficient airflow; otherwise, your temperatures will spike, which could damage the components.
While liquid cooling has its fair share of benefits in terms of overclocking power/overclocking potential, I don’t think that it’s worth the hassle or the money for most users since most systems won’t hit anywhere close to their full load 24/7, no matter how hard you’re pushing them; if anything, investing in a quality air cooler with high static pressure fans is much more important than buying a water-cooling kit since they can handle higher levels of stress without too much of a performance hit.
Suppose you’re still intent on using something liquid-based. In that case, there are four major manufacturers that I would recommend based on both their quality and reliability: Swiftech, CoolIT Technologies (Zalman), Phanteks, and Asetek – now if you already have an air cooler and prefer to add water cooling to it then keep in mind that the radiator will usually be much larger than your existing components so make sure that it has sufficient space for installation otherwise you may run into problems with compatibility.
Core count and thread count:
The more cores and threads you have, the faster your CPU will perform; all else is equal, of course.
I would recommend getting a quad-core processor since they’re still the most balanced when it comes down to price/performance. At the same time, high thread counts are generally only necessary for workloads that can benefit from them, such as rendering software. Otherwise, you’ll see minimal performance gains at best, if any at all, in games which don’t scale well enough for extra processor resources.
However, unless you’re doing something like streaming or recording, then i5’s are virtually identical to higher-end models. Hence, if you want any budget boost, get an i7 instead with hyperthreading since it will scale better.
If you have the money to spare, then I would recommend going for a hex-core model with hyperthreading since they’ll be able to handle anything that comes your way; plus, running eight threads can help make up for software deficiencies to perform similar to an octa-core chip – although doing so requires software that supports explicitly it and most games/productivity programs don’t support parallel processing yet.
However, if you do plan on overclocking, then make sure that you get something that has an unlocked multiplier since otherwise, it will stick the processor at whatever speed the motherboard manufacturer decides it should be; this is especially true for Skylake (and newer) chips which only have locked multipliers so make sure to do your research before purchasing one and avoid getting something that is locked at all costs.
If you’re sticking with air cooling, then the only thing left for us to cover here is how many cores/threads you should get since water cooling doesn’t play as much of a role in thermal performance – although it’s still worth mentioning that six or more cores will get quite hot regardless of what kind of setup you have so tried not to overload them too much otherwise you’ll end up paying the price for it later on down the line.
Although the clock speed of your processor is usually the most significant determining factor in how well it performs when benchmarked, keep in mind that higher clock speeds also mean more heat and power consumption; so unless you’re doing something like video editing or rendering, then I would recommend going for a lower clock speed model instead otherwise you might end up hurting yourself.
Suppose you are willing to get into overclocking territory. In that case, having a high clock speed can have some benefits – while more significant gains will be seen with chips such as Haswell (which can almost hit 4GHz) compared to much older CPUs like Ivy Bridge which can only go up to about 3.5GHZ before things start getting crazy.
Regardless of what kind of chip you end up getting, it’s always a good idea to keep your heat and power consumption in mind if you want to make sure that your processor is running at an appropriate level throughout the years; especially since cheaper CPUs tend not to be as efficient so don’t get anything that can’t handle itself unless you’re willing to buy two.
While clock speed tells us how fast our CPU can potentially work, TDP (or thermal design point) tells us how much power we have available based on temperature – which means that even if your computer is capable of reaching some pretty high clock speeds, theoretically speaking, overheating would cause it to throttle downwards until things cool down again.
I would recommend getting at least an 80 watts TDP if you plan on having a dedicated video card – since it will allow you to do some light overclocking (if needed) while also providing enough power for modern games; that being said, going above 100 watts is usually only valid if you’re running something high-end.
However, keep in mind that the higher your TDP, the hotter/more expensive your processor will be, so unless you have money to spare, I wouldn’t recommend getting anything over 150 watts TDP unless you need it.
Some companies such as Intel and AMD list their processors’ Turbo clock speed for marketing purposes – which means that they’re not the guaranteed maximum clock speed of every chip but instead the maximum clock speed that the chip can hit in specific types of workloads; something you should keep in mind if you plan on overclocking your chip.
However, for most people running a dedicated GPU then, this means that even if their CPU is capable of hitting high speeds under load (such as 4-5GHz), it will only do so while running software that utilizes the processor’s Turbo clock speed so if you want to get the most out of your CPU, then I’d recommend looking into this before making a purchase.
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