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CPU Cores: How Many Do I Need?

CPU Cores: How Many Do I Need?

Daniel Horowitz
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Whether you want to run basic programs or you crave the most power from your new laptop or desktop PC, it’s helpful to know how many CPU cores you need before you start shopping.
These components can directly determine the type of software you can run and how many programs your PC can handle at once. Planning ahead for your computing needs can save you time, frustration, and expense down the road. However, knowing exactly how many cores are necessary for your optimal functionality can be tricky.
In this guide, we break down the number of CPU cores you may need for different computing tasks and how you can choose the best CPU for you. Keep in mind, though, that number of cores is only one aspect of shopping for the ideal CPU for your computer. Clock speed of your cores is the other thing you should keep in mind. You can read about CPU clock speed in our HP Tech Takes article here.

What are CPU cores?

The central processing unit (or CPU) is what allows your PC to perform tasks through applications and provides instructions that deliver information stored to RAM (random access memory).
CPU cores are the pathways made up of billions of microscopic transistors within a processor that help to make it work. For anyone interested in multi-tasking, you’ll need at least two cores to get the job done properly.
In 1971, when CPUs were first invented, they only had one CPU core. This was because computers typically only had to work on one task at a time. These CPUs didn’t need to launch and run the variety of applications we expect today. Over time, as computers needed to run several programs at once, it led to the introduction of more cores added to CPUs.
As of this writing, we are on generation 10 of Intel® Core™ processors, which add more power and capabilities than ever before. The more cores you have in your computer, the easier it is to work on a number of tasks at once.

How many CPU cores do I need?

Different computing tasks take different resources. The number one factor of whether programs will run smoothly is how many cores you have. If you want to run multiple apps at once or more resource-intensive programs, your device needs multiple CPU cores.
But if you plan to simply create text documents, browse the web, or complete other basic tasks, then your basic models should include two cores, which you can find in most standard-tier laptops.

1 core

In this day and age it’s tough to find a computer with one core. If you do have just one, don’t expect to be able to open more than one program at a time.

2 cores

Dual-core is the sweet spot for most budget users. You can access email, create and edit documents and spreadsheets, and have music playing without overloading your system. Don’t expect to render or edit video without crashing your system, though. Also, you can probably play many games on lower settings, but if you are serious about your gaming, you will want to consider upgrading to a quad-core processor.

4 cores

Quad-core CPUs allow you to render video (slowly) or play games (at lower resolutions) in addition to all your regular work or school tasks. Most gamers will be fine here as long as you are not playing the most processor-intensive games and you have a dedicated GPU.
However, if you work in video editing, graphic design and 3D rendering, sound editing, or a similar profession, you would be better served by more cores. These industries require applications that use more processing power, along with features like a dedicated GPU, increased storage space, and at least 16GB of RAM.

6 cores

You can use hexa-core processors for all of the aforementioned tasks as well as more complex software such as video and audio editing. For more advanced games and programs, this is a good choice since it allows you to run multiple applications at once. Most streamers will be able to both run and stream their games with 6 cores, while those who work with other forms of media will have plenty of power to get the job done.

8 or more cores

Octa-core CPUs are great if you’re a pro gamer or an aspiring one, a video editor, or an engineer. Video gamers who play, record, and stream intensive games should opt for more cores for as much power as possible. And if you routinely use power-intensive software like VR or AutoCAD, this is your sweet spot, too.
Many computers now come with an octa-core CPU as a customization option, so if you think you are likely to transition into any of these careers, then it may be worth spending a little more to beef up your computer, either by customizing when you buy it or upgrading down the road.

Deciding on your CPU

CPU vs GPU

Both CPU (central processing unit) and GPU (graphics processing unit) need to work together for optimal performance. The CPU allows you to handle a larger array of tasks more quickly, and is better used for logic-based tasks.
In contrast, a GPU allows you to render high-resolution images and video at the quality that you need. This is particularly important when performing high-intensity visual tasks such as gaming and video rendering. You can read here for more about CPU vs GPU for gaming.

Cores vs threads

Processors use a process called simultaneous multithreading, also known as hyper-threading on Intel processors. This is the splitting of a core into several virtual threads. A core will utilize threads in order to offer more power to specific programs, and most processors can provide twice as many threads as cores. Read more about threads and hyperthreading in our HP Tech Takes article here.

Overclocking

Overall, cores are used to transmit information throughout your computer and allow you to make changes to files. You can speed up the processing time of your CPU by having multiple cores and tinkering with overclocking (which you can read about here). Be careful though, overclocking can void your warranty and wear out your components faster.

CPU speed

Also called “clock speed,” CPU speed reveals how quickly the CPU retrieves information from your RAM that your computer requires for a given task. It can also help you to see whether or not you have enough cores available on your device and where you can make improvements in terms of RAM, graphics, and other key features.
The higher your CPU speed, the more likely it is that your computer will run well across multiple applications. CPU speed is measured in gigahertz (GHz), and a CPU speed of 3.5 GHz is more than enough for most users to run your preferred software. For gaming, video editing, and other applications that need several cores, aim for a CPU speed of 3.5 GHz to 4.0 GHz for best results.
While CPU speed is important, you must also consider how it can work with your cores and how that may affect your computing experience. These two aspects of your CPU should be evaluated together to determine whether or not your computer is running at optimum speed.

Is it better to have a higher CPU speed or more cores?

Whether you choose to have a higher CPU speed or to have more cores can depend on what exactly you want from your device. A faster CPU speed typically helps you to load applications faster, while having more cores allows you to have more programs running at the same time and to switch from one program to the other with more ease.
  • If you routinely load lots of software and run multiple programs at once, then you’ll want to have more cores and a lower CPU speed.
  • If you want to play processor intense video games or run programs that render large amounts of information at a fast pace, then opt for a high CPU speed and fewer cores.
This will determine the type of processor you want and its generation. Keep in mind, too, that newer processors are likely to run much more efficiently than older ones. Also, freeing up some space on your hard drive can make it easier for your CPU to access information, which is better for all of your computing.

How does cost factor into your decision on number of cores?

Price is a major issue in determining how many cores you choose to have on either your laptop or desktop PC.
While it would definitely be nice to be able to have both multiple cores and a high CPU speed, it can become pretty expensive to invest in both of these features. You also need to keep in mind that desktops and laptops usually have different configurations when it comes to how many cores are available.
When in doubt, you’ll need to consider which types of applications you are running. If you have programs like video games and video editing software, then a faster clock speed is usually the right option. However, if you plan to multitask and switch between software, then multiple cores may be the better solution for you.

Laptops CPU cores vs desktops CPU cores

Laptops typically have fewer cores than desktop PCs, primarily because laptops have less power than a comparable desktop.
Since you always have incoming power when connected to an outlet, you are already at an advantage when you use a desktop. A desktop PC also has more internal space for fans or cooling liquid, which means you can run more cores at one time without worrying about overheating.

Graphic designers

We recommend those using AutoCAD® and who are involved in graphic design or data science to check out our list of the 10 best HP workstation computers for AutoCAD, which include the HP Z4 G4 Workstation and the HP Z8 G2 Workstation. They’re designed with your profession and field in mind.

Gaming

The number of cores in a computer can directly impact your gaming experience. As a result, we generally recommend desktop PCs for hardcore or professional gamers, like those in the HP OMEN series of computers. You’ll find top-tier, customizable options that can handle pretty much any major game released today.

Improving laptop power

There have been some major developments when it comes to the processing power of laptops. Many are even available with quad-core processors, which can handle several demanding applications at once. And for most users, 4 cores should be more than enough.
Laptops may not be capable of the same cooling functions and power as a desktop PC, but you also can’t beat their portability and versatility. The HP ZBook series strikes an incredible balance between portability and power, and you’ll find many of these laptops can handle most of your needed applications.

Conclusion

When buying a new computer, whether a desktop PC or laptop, it’s important to know the number of cores in the processor. Most users are well served with 2 or 4 cores, but video editors, engineers, data analysts, and others in similar fields will want at least 6 cores.
The good news is that HP® makes it easy to know the number of cores in your next potential purchase by providing that information clearly on the specs tab of every device.
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About the Author: Daniel Horowitz is a contributing writer for HP® Tech Takes. Daniel is a New York-based author and has written for publications such as USA Today, Digital Trends, Unwinnable Magazine, and many other media outlets.

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