Monday, December 13, 2010

Intel Westemere - Internal

(Assembled is a series in which The Indian Geek will be looking at how to choose the components for assembling your own home Desktop PC, over the course of a few weeks. This week's article is about choosing the CPU or processor)

If you are someone who takes the time to visit a blog with the word ‘geek’ in it and have started reading this article, we’re guessing that you probably know a fair bit about computers. While actually walking out to a TATA Croma retail outlet and picking a Desktop computer might be fairly easy, for the majority of Indians, we’d like to take home an assembled PC. This isn’t very hard in itself; any computer shop worth its salt in SP Road, Bangalore or Ritchie Street, Chennai should be able to assemble the PC for you. What they would not be able to do, is choose the right components, which can turn out to be a daunting task. If this is a conundrum that haunts you in your dreams every night, read on!

In this short series that we are starting, we will share with you our thought process in selecting the right components that will give you the most bang for your buck. Our goal is to help you build a desktop computer that’s an all-rounder of sorts; something that can handle general office/web use, multitasking, music, movies, and a moderate bit of gaming. while keeping the cost as well as your electricity bill down. A hex-core Intel Core i7-based desktop computer might be able calculate the meaning of life in under 3 seconds, but it’s even quicker at making you bankrupt. An Intel Atom-based desktop computer might be cheap, small and energy efficient, but unless you like watching slideshows, you can forget about watching beautiful high-definition films or fragging (killing) Nazi zombies in the latest Call of Duty. In this series, we’re not going to cover all the options and products out there, but rather follow a linear path and discuss just the choices that we have based on our decision to build an all-in-one PC on a modest budget. Today, we’re starting with the most important part of a computer, the processor (or CPU).

Which brand?

Intel Core i7 AMD Phenom II X3

When it comes to processors (CPUs), the first and biggest question that comes up is whether to go with an Intel processor or an AMD processor? Sadly, instead of looking into what products both manufacturers have, most people just go with Intel because it sounds more familiar. Unlike your refrigerator and TV, choosing the more well-known brand is not going to get you anywhere with processors. Both Intel and AMD processors perform very well and are extremely reliable. The processor is usually the most reliable component of your entire computer.

Intel processors have a reputation of being the faster of the two. This is true to some extent. AMD processors are well behind the performance of Intel’s Core i7 series of processors. But we’re talking about value for money here; not just outright speed. For example, Intel’s current flagship, the Core i7-980X Extreme, is far faster than the fastest AMD, but the processor alone costs around Rs. 45,000/-.

We should note here that the chief geeks at The Indian Geek currently (and always will) have a difference of opinion with regard to the brand of the CPU that’s “best” for a home computer. However, we all are unanimous in noting that AMD processors offer way more value-for-money than Intel processors have ever offered. If you want to extract every paisa’s value from your desktop computer, all of us here at The Indian Geek would urge you to stick with AMD, provided you are within the target category of this article.

How many Cores?

Intel Westmere

Now that we’ve established that going by the brand name is the wrong approach, let’s look at what we consider to be the deciding factors. The first thing you’d want to decide is the number of cores. While single core processors are all but gone, you still have dual, triple, quad and hex-core CPUs to choose from. This depends on what you plan to use your computer primarily for. Even though multicore CPUs have been around for a while, very few software are currently available that can truly multithread (use multiple CPU cores simultaneously). Even most of today’s high-end games and CPU-intensive software use only two or maybe three cores. So if you just bought a hex-core processor hoping to get Crysis to run better, you’re out of luck. The game is only going to use two of those six CPU cores; the remaining four cores are going to be idle.

So why get more than two cores you might ask. The age old saying ‘More is better’ applies here somewhat. If you just plan to play games, it might be better to go for the fastest dual or triple core CPU you can get. But like us, if you are in the habit of editing large RAW images in Photoshop, while having multiple browser windows open, running widgets on your desktop, chatting away in Skype or Google Talk, playing the latest music album and encoding your latest homemade film to Blu-ray all at the same time, you are going to need at least four cores. Though most games will be happier with a speedier dual core, there are still those that can use however many cores your CPU has to offer. Six cores would be even better, but at this point, the rare occasion that you may need more than four cores is definitely not worth the premium cost. So our suggestion for an all-rounder PC would be to buy a quad-core CPU.

What cost?

Now that we have decided on the number of cores, we need to decide which processor to choose. The budget we have set for our processor is about Rs. 7,500/-. It is our opinion that spending any more than that on a processor will not be worth the small increase in performance. That extra cash will take you further if spent on another component, such as faster RAM or a better graphics card. This budget limit weeds out the AMD Phenom II X6 series, Intel Core i5 series, Intel Core i7 series and most Intel Core 2 Quad processors. While Intel has only one processor currently available within this budget, AMD has several options to choose from. In fact, except for the AMD Phenom II X4 965 and 970, all AMD quad core processors are within this budget.

AMD Athlon II X4

To get straight to the point, the indubitable best value-for-money quad-core CPU available is the AMD Athlon II X4 640. At a little less than Rs. 5,000/-, it is the cheapest quad-core CPU in the market today, but it certainly does not perform like one. With four cores running at 3 GHz it is fast and a brilliant multitasker. It will easily outrun Intel’s cheapest quad core currently available, the Core 2 Quad 8200 which costs Rs. 2,500/- more.

If you want something a little faster, we recommend buying a Phenom II X4. It is very similar to the cheaper Athlon II; plus, it has L3 cache memory. The Phenom II X4 945 is available for around Rs. 6,000/-. With 6MB L3 cache and a 3GHz clock speed, it’s a solid performer. For another Rs. 1,500/- you can get AMD’s former flagship CPU, the Phenom II X4 955 Black Edition. It was made to compete with the Intel Core 2 Quad 9550 and 9650. With an unlocked clock multiplier, overclocking this CPU is a breeze. The Intel Core 2 Quad 8200 is also available for the same price, but as we mentioned earlier, buying it for that much money makes no sense at all. We’re putting a large ‘DO NOT BUY’ sticker on it.

Intel Core i5

As you may have noticed, we just are unable to find any Intel processors that we could recommend. But if you want something faster than the Phenom II and don’t mind spending about Rs. 9,000/-, we would recommend the Core i5 760. While it is a very good buy and faster than any of AMD’s quad core CPUs, it still can’t beat the cheaper AMD CPUs in terms of value-for-money. Anything above this processor is just not worth the extra cost, unless your work involves a lot of high-profile photo/video-editing or you are simply loaded with cash and want to buy “the best PC that money can buy” or something along those lines.

The reason we recommend AMD processors is more than just value-for-money. All the processors we have suggested in this article use the AM3 slot. AM3 slot processors will fit in AM3 as well as older AM2+ motherboards. They support both DDR2 and DDR3 memory controllers. So if you have an older AM2+ motherboard and want a faster CPU, all you need to do is pop in a new AM3 processor (a BIOS update might be required though – please verify with your motherboard manufacturer before heading out to buy your new processor). Further, Phenom II processors are known for their capacity to be overclocked. Tom's Hardware has an article on the AMD Phenom II X4 955 being overclocked - here and a video about the overclocking has been posted by AMD to YouTube, as below, which shows the Phenom II X4 955 being overclocked to a record-shattering 7 Ghz.

While liquid nitrogen might be required to pull that off (we’re serious! Not kidding), you should be able to get a boost of 0.5-1.0GHz increase with just a few changes in your BIOS settings.

Final thoughts

We’d like to reiterate though, that while quad core CPUs are great all-rounders, if your main focus is gaming and less on multitasking, you might want to look for processors with fewer but faster cores. posts an excellent article on this every month – Tom’s Hardware : Best CPU

We hope this guide helped you pick the right CPU. Our favourite is the Phenom II X4 955 Black Edition (We just love things which have the words “Black” and “Edition” attached to them!). All the AMD processors we recommended use the AM3 slot and therefore the same motherboard. Our next article in this series will be on choosing the right video card. Till then, happy hunting at your local PC retail store for your CPU!

Our sources

Engadget; HotHardware; AnandTech; Tom’s Hardware; AMD Desktop Processors

Other articles in the Assembled series:

How to choose your Graphics card

Hard drives made easy

All about motherboard basics

Selecting RAM, chassis case and Power Supply Unit


Ronnie Gracious said...

By far the best processor for anything and everything under the sun has to be an AMD.

John said...

this is a very good laptop. 
sell laptop

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