How Many CPU Cores Do You Need?

Are We There Yet?

In the early years of the new millennium, with CPU clock speeds finally accelerating past the 1 GHz mark, some folks (Ed.: including Intel itself) predicted that the company's new NetBurst architecture would reach speeds of 10 GHz in the future. PC enthusiasts looked forward to a new world where CPU clocks kept increasing at an accelerating pace. Need more power? Just add clock speed.

Newton’s apple inevitably fell soundly on the heads of those starry-eyed dreamers who looked to MHz as the easiest way to continue scaling PC performance. Physics doesn’t allow for exponential increases in clock rate without exponential increases in heat, and there were a number of other challenges to consider, such as manufacturing technology. Indeed, the fastest commercial CPUs have been hovering between 3 GHz and 4 GHz for a number of years now.

Of course, progress can’t be stopped when money is involved, and with folks willing to shell out cash for more powerful computers, engineers set out to find ways to increase performance by improving efficiency rather than relying solely on clock speed. Parallelism presented itself as a solution--if you can’t make the CPU faster, well, why not add additional compute resources?

The pentium EE 840, the first commercially available dual-core CPU

The trouble with parallelism is that software has to be specifically written to run in multiple threads--it doesn't offer an immediate return on investment, like clock speed. Back in 2005, when the first dual-core CPUs were seeing the light of day, they didn’t offer much in the way of tangible performance increases because there was so little desktop software available properly supporting them. In fact, most dual-core CPUs were slower than single-core CPUs in a great majority of tasks because single-core CPUs were available at higher clock speeds.

However, that was four years ago and a lot has changed. Many software developers have since been hard at work optimizing their applications to take advantage of multiple cores. Single-core CPUs are actually hard to find and two-, three-, and four-core CPUS are now the norm.

Which begs the question: how many CPU cores are right for me? Is a triple-core processor good enough for gaming, or should you splurge on a quad-core chip? Is a dual-core CPU good enough for the average user, or do more cores really make a difference? Which applications are optimized for multiple cores and which ones react only to specifications like frequency or cache size?

We thought it would be a good time to run some tests with apps from our updated benchmark suite (there are still more to come, too), running the gamut of one, two, three, and quad-core configurations to illustrate what multi-core CPUs really offer in 2009.

  • Wayoffbase
    Very neat article, this is the kind of thing i read tom's for.
  • SpadeM
    Good piece, this will probably clear up some misunderstandings about dual vs. quad core processors. With just a clarification, that this article is based on the same clock speed (2.7Ghz) for ALL processor cores. And so, in some cases where the software isn't optimized for a multi core experience then going up on the Mhz scale is a valid option. If it wouldn't be, why do we overclock :).
  • You have to consider that dual-core processors will often be clocked faster than a quad-core processor at the same price range (Intel Core 2 Duo E8400 @ 3.0GHz vs. Quad Q8200 @ 2.33GHz at $165 on Newegg). Inversely, to get the same clock speed, to get the same clock speed for a quad-core as a dual-core, you will have to pay 2x or more of the dual-core price (E8400 vs. Quad Q9650 - $165 v. $325). You have to ask yourself whether a 30% increase in speed justifies a 100% increase in cost. In certain scenarios, yes, it is worth it. For the average user on a budget, however, dual-core will often be the most cost-effective. Not to mention the over clocking power of mature dual-core processors (but then, an overclocker is not an average user).
  • giovanni86
    Great article, i enjoyed seeing some of the gaming conclusions. I guess my CPU having 4 cores is a bit useless even though on some of your graphs it still shows 2 to 3 frames more in some of them compared to having only 3 cores. None the less though great article i enjoyed it very much.
  • martindamp
    What about the average user running multiple programs at the same time. I often run both virus scanner, office applications and multimedia encoding at the same time. With four cores this runs smoothly, but with only one core it would be a pain.
  • WheelsOfConfusion
    Very informative! I keep seeing comments regarding which applications or games are good for multi-core versus single etc, it's good to have some hard data.
    And that's a neat trick for creating a standardized platform for the tests, eliminating the architectural differences between single and various multi-core processors.

    Since I see a lot of Tom's articles considering power efficiency and read a lot of comments asking for underclock results, it would have been nice to throw some data about power usage with each configuration. Does disabling a core (or three) significantly reduce power consumption? What about temps?
  • Proximon
    I too expected to see some even priced CPU comparison, but this worked out well. Since it's so easy with any quad core system, all we need now is some gamer with a ton of titles to put up a list.

    Oh, such things already exist, whaddya know :)
  • I second martindamp's question... what happens when you run iTunes, lame, antivirus, and winrar on 1-4 cores?

    But what I'm most interested in is what would happen when you move this to a Corei7. It seems to me that some of the apps that see a slowdown while moving to four cores are likely bumping into bandwidth and bus arbitration overheads, as the Q6600 is essentially two C2D's packaged on the same chip, sharing the FSB. The Corei7 eliminates this bottleneck, and I'd be willing to bet the performance decrease from 3->4 cores goes away as well. And when you play around with the i7, you can toy with Turbo and HyperThreading as well, but it'd be most interesting to directly compare the two architectures based on real cores.
  • swyn01
    Nice article. A few comments for thought though. On the first page it is mentioned how single core CPUs often had a higher clock of newer dual-core CPUs. This fact still exists today between dual-core and quad-core. For example, on newegg, a 2.33 GHz quad-core is about $165. A 3.0 GHz dual-core is $168. That's almost a 29% clock increase for the same amount of money. In the gaming benchmarks, if you multiply the dual-core results by 1.29, you will find that this shows an increased performance over the quad-core benchmark. Just like it did years ago (a faster single core cpu was better for gaming than a slower dual-core), this shows that a faster dual-core is still better for gaming than a slower quad core. At least for now. This will change in the future just as it did for single and dual cores, but I'm sure it will take still a few more years before a higher-clocked dual-core is dethroned to a slower quad-core.
  • Summer Leigh Castle
    Is there a comparison between the i7 and a standard 4-core CPU? I was wondering if the real-world gains are there to justify spending more money for a 4-core hyperthreading CPU?