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How to Upgrade a CPU, part 1

AMD vs. Intel, New RAM, New PC!

January 11, 2010

Upgrading a CPU is always a what-if proposition. Sometimes you can do it, sometimes you can't. First question to answer is does your motherboard support a newer CPU? If the answer is Yes, chances are you will then get sucked into a whirlwind of Yes-Buts. Yes, but maybe I'll need a bigger CPU cooler, and maybe there isn't room. Yes, but it doesn't support faster RAM, and shouldn't I have faster RAM to get the most out of my CPU? Yes, but it might require a BIOS upgrade, and do I really want to hassle with that?

Then there is the question of how many cores. Two, three, four? The more-is-better mentality can suck you into spending a lot of money. Dual-core is easy: yes, two are better than one in nearly all circumstances. Some factors to keep in mind:

  • Applications need to be written to take advantage of multiple cores to get any performance increase
  • CPU-intensive tasks like audio encoding do better with higher clock speeds. If your choice is two or three cores at higher clock speeds, or quad at lower clock speeds, go with the higher clock speeds and fewer cores
  • Multi-threaded tasks go faster on more cores
  • Running several applications at one time go faster with multiple cores
  • Single-tasking users might as well save their money and stick with single-core CPUs. These are the folks who open one application at a time, do one task at a time, then close it and go to their next task. There is nothing wrong with working like this, and the money saved can go for something fun.
Then there are differences between the various CPU architectures, so an application optimized for one won't perform as well on another. There are zillions of sites that publish benchmarks and comparisons, so I shall leave these details for you fine readers to sort out.

AMD vs. Intel

AMD or Intel? I haven't used many Intel processors in recent years because AMD have traditionally cost less, and performed well. The Intel multi-core processors have been getting great press and dominating the benchmarks, though AMD has been holding its own. But that would have required a new motherboard. My existing board supports Socket AM2 and AM2+, and with a BIOS upgrade AM3. My board, like so many of them, requires a DOS boot floppy disk to flash the BIOS. I don't even have a floppy disk drive, and depending on Windows for a BIOS flash is stupid, hey how about that proprietary innovation.

My existing board has one more limitation, and that is support for a maximum 95 watts TDP (thermal design power). Some processors go as high as 140 watts.

So I chose the path of least work and expense, and went with a Phenom 8750 X3 Black Edition, $73 and free shipping from Newegg. This replaced an Athlon LE-1620, 2.4GHz Single Core. The Phenom has three 2.4GHz cores, and hardware virtualization support

The Phenom presents some interesting possibilities: the Black Edition has an unlocked multiplier, and it has a disabled fourth core. The fourth core is disabled because it failed AMD's quality control; that is where Phenom X3s come from, failed X4s. A defective core is no good, of course, but it will be fun to try a bit of overclocking and unlocking. Sometimes the fourth core does work. If you really want four cores, buy four cores; it's not worth gambling on getting a magic X3 just to save a few dollars.

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