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What is Processor Speed and Why Does It Matter?
December 18, 2018
With technology, increased productivity goals, faster internet, and more devices, we’ve created a need for speed wherever we go. We’re used to getting results instantaneously and expect our devices to keep up with our requests as we multi-task our way through life. Computer processors and their clock speed are two features we most commonly associate with high-performing, fast technology.
Computer processor speed (CPU speed) is one of the most important elements to consider when comparing computers. The CPU is often referred to as “the brain” of your computer, so ensuring it’s working properly is very important to the longevity and functionality of your computer. Understanding what makes a good processor speed starts with understanding what exactly a processor does - and what its components do to improve the functionality of your computer.
Let’s break down the specifics of what makes your CPU fast, cores versus clock speeds, what makes them important, and what to look for when buying a new computer.
What is a PC processor and what does it do?
A central processing unit, or CPU, is a piece of hardware that enables your computer to interact with all of the applications and programs installed. A CPU interprets the program’s instructions and creates the output that you interface with when you’re using a computer.
A processor is made up of hardware that works together to deliver information, allowing your computer to complete the tasks that you request when you open an application or make changes to a file. Whether it processes quickly or painfully slowly can make a big impact on your computing experience.
Processor cores and clock speeds determine how much information can be received at a time, and how quickly that information can be processed on your computer. The speed at which your computer’s cores and clock speed work together is considered its processing speed.
Processor cores versus clock speed
Processor cores and clock speed are very different functions, but they’re working toward the same goal. Many techies talk about which you should give more weight to when buying a computer - but they depend on each other equally to help your computer function at its best.
Knowing the differences between the two can help you get a better idea of what each does and what kind of processor speed you need depending on how you’re planning to use your computer. If you’re planning to use your computer for complex video editing rather than just for standard programs and internet browsing, you will have different processor core and clock speed requirements. Let’s explore these two technologies and the numbers you’ll want to look out for when comparing computers.
What is a processor core?
Processor cores are individual processing units within the computer’s central processing unit (CPU). The processor core receives instructions from a single computing task, working with the clock speed to quickly process this information and temporarily store it in the Random Access Memory (RAM). Permanent information is saved to your hard drive when you request it.
Most computers now have multiple processor cores that enable your computer to complete multiple tasks at once. Having the ability to run numerous programs and request multiple tasks like making edits to a document, while watching a video, while opening a new program, is made possible with multiple processor core units.
For complex video games or programs, it is essential to have a CPU that can keep up with information like the audio and video feed being distributed rapidly. In a digital age where we’re all expert multi-taskers, processor cores have become increasingly important to computer users.
Multiple processor cores and hyper-threading technology are virtually essential in both gaming and everyday computers alike. Having multiple processor cores gives you the freedom to increase productivity at work, play complex video games, or explore a new world with virtual reality.
What is clock speed?
A computer’s processor clock speed determines how quickly the central processing unit (CPU) can retrieve and interpret instructions. This helps your computer complete more tasks by getting them done faster.
Clock speeds are measured in gigahertz (GHz), with a higher number equating to higher clock speed. Multi-core processors were developed to help CPUs run faster as it became more difficult to increase clock speed.
Faster clock speeds mean that you’ll see tasks ordered from your CPU completed quicker, making your experience seamless and reducing the time you wait to interface with your favorite applications and programs.
How do I choose between more processor cores or a higher clock speed?
As we mentioned before, both processor cores and clock speed are essential to operating your computer. Buying a computer with multiple cores and a super high clock speed sounds ideal - but what does this all really mean for functionality in your computer?
Basically, having a high clock speed but just one or two cores means your computer will be able to load and interact with a single application quickly. Conversely, having more processor cores, but a slower clock speed means your computer can work with more applications at a time, but each may run a little slower.
When comparing computers, it’s most important to think about your own lifestyle. Not everyone needs the same level of processing speeds or cores. We’ll discuss how gaming computers and day-to-day work or personal computers differ when it comes to these features in a bit. First, we’ll get into what these mean for laptop and desktop computers.
What is a good processor speed for a laptop versus desktop?
Laptop CPUs are different from those in desktops. If you’re wondering what is a good processor speed for a laptop or desktop, or simply which style will work best for you, read on for important distinctions to consider before making any purchasing moves.
Note: CPUs can also affect a computer’s hardware so these are important to note if you have specific hardware requirements like the portability of a laptop or you need the robust nature of a dual-display desktop computer.
In general, laptops tend to have less power and flexibility when it comes to processors. They’re obviously super-convenient for users who like the mobility of a laptop, but if you need a super-high-speed processor or high clock speed, you may want to look at a desktop computer to meet your processing needs.
Thankfully with amazing developments in multi-core processors and hyper-threading methods, laptops are now able to hold their own. Most laptops have dual-core processors, which meet the needs of most everyday users. And some use quad-core processors which can elevate your laptop computer’s processing abilities.
Desktops are able to generate more power than laptops, thanks to their robust hardware which can translate to more processing ability and higher clock speeds. Because they have more space in the chassis than a laptop, desktops typically have better cooling systems, which allows the processor to keep working hard without getting overheated.
Desktop CPUs can usually be removed, unlike a laptop's CPU which is integrated into the motherboard. This means the CPU is easier to upgrade or change on a desktop PC than a laptop. If you choose the right processor speed for you then you shouldn’t have to fuss with your CPU.
Whether you’re using a laptop or desktop, you’ll ultimately want to consider what you plan on using your computer for as this more directly correlates to the computer processor speed that you’ll need.
Need for speed
Gaming has become increasingly complex over the years and seems to advance daily. All of these added features and realistic experiences demand a processor that can keep up to keep you on your game. Most games use 1 to 4 cores and many require more even processor cores for an optimal experience. A quad-core processor occupies the safe zone when it comes to core units.
Games like World of Warcraft are constantly advancing the gaming experience with updated gaming abilities and game scapes that require more powerful processing. CPU-intensive gaming takes advantage of multi-core technology to make graphics, audio, and play come together to develop a hyper-realistic game experience.
A single-core processor is expert at completing single tasks, but it may affect your gaming and could slow down functionality. More cores can help achieve a higher quality gaming experience.
If you’re a serious gamer who values the integrity of the developer’s designed experience, you may want to consider a quad-core or higher processor like the Intel® Core™ i7-8750H processor featured in the HP OMEN 15-inch gaming laptop. This powerful processing unit uses 6 cores to display the game scape and respond to gaming technique with unparalleled agility.
A clock speed of 3.5 GHz to 4.0 GHz is generally considered a good clock speed for gaming but it’s more important to have good single-thread performance. This means that your CPU does a good job of understanding and completing single tasks.
This is not to be confused with having a single-core processor. Having more cores means your CPU is able to understand instructions of multiple tasks, while optimal single threading means it’s able to process each of those individually, and really well.
Video games are about transporting you to another world and giving you the chance to explore new territory. Don’t let a lack of processing power take the magic away from your world.
Everyday use processors
A dual-core processor is usually the sweet spot for everyday use. It’s able to multi-task and reduce the time spent waiting for applications to open or updates to happen. A quad-core processor can help you take your productivity to the next level and give you consistency for a better computing experience, no matter what you’re working on.
If you’re more of a creative type who does video editing or runs complex applications on a daily basis, you may want to consider getting a computer with more processor cores and a higher clock speed so that your applications can run smoothly. The HP ZBook 15-inch mobile workstation features a 6 core processor that’s engineered to take on intense editing and design for creatives.
Clock speed isn’t quite as important to think about if you’re using your computer for basic tasks like occasional video-streaming and checking email. The HP 14z laptop with a dual-core processor may be what you’re looking for daily basic use. This model is able to handle general tasks with ease in a traditional package that’s easy to use.
High-performance computing processors
High-performance computing refers to computer usage that includes extremely complex and data-intensive programs. High-performance users are often engineers, researchers, and military or government users.
These users consistently run multiple programs and are constantly retrieving and inputting information into software systems. This kind of computing typically requires a more advanced processor and higher clock speed to keep up.
Immersive computing and Virtual Reality (VR) processors
Similar to gaming augmented reality and virtual reality rely on high-quality graphics, audio, and navigational features. To really feel like you’re experiencing a new reality, it’s essential to have a multi-core processor with high clock speeds.
Choose a computer that’s right for you
Most individuals know what their computer usage looks like; either you’re a gamer or not, you use your computer daily or you don’t. Knowing this information about your own habits makes choosing a processor easier.
If you’re running a lot of applications at once or playing complex games, you’ll likely need a 4 or even 8 core processor. If you’re just looking for a computer to get basic tasks done efficiently, a dual-core processor will probably work for your needs.
For CPU intensive computing like video editing or gaming, you’ll want a higher clock speed close to 4.0 GHz, while basic computing needs don’t require such an advanced clock speed.
Although processor cores and speed are both important, the CPU isn’t the only thing to consider when buying a computer. You’ll also want to think about what computer fits into your lifestyle. HP® has a fleet of laptops and desktops that will suit all of your computer needs.
About the Author: Sophie Sirois is a contributing writer for HP® Tech Takes. Sophie is a San Diego-based content creation specialist covering the latest in tech and digital news.