CPU Buying Guide

Dual-core and quad-core CPUs

CPU makers have struggled in recent years to keep upping the productivity of CPUs without adversely affecting either their power requirements or heat output. Put simply, the more power a CPU uses, the more heat it's likely to produce, which makes it costlier to run -- and requires ever larger power supplies -- as well as having a limiting effect on the lifespan of the processor itself, as greater heat will burn out a processor much more quickly.

Both AMD and Intel are combating the problem with multi-core CPUs. These are CPUs that contain not one, but two, three and four core processors, with dedicated cache memory for each processor. Dual-core CPUs were the first to hit the market with AMD's Athlon 64 X2 range of chips, and Intel's Pentium Processor Extreme Edition 840. Currently, the Core 2 Duo is Intel's most popular dual-core CPU, while AMD's X2 range is still going strong. Sticking two processors into a PC isn't entirely new, although it's largely been the domain of more enterprise-based computing to date. However, if you're running software that can take advantage of multiple processors, you should see improved performance with a dual-core CPU.

Likewise, if you're a fan of running several heavy-duty processor applications simultaneously -- say, running a virus scan while simultaneously encoding video and perhaps doing some light Web surfing -- you should see benefits from a dual-core approach. And quad-core CPUs offer even more scope for multitasking.

Intel's Core 2 Extreme QX6700 was the first quad-core CPU to hit the market, and it's essentially two Core 2 Duo E6700 CPUs in one package. AMD's Phenom CPUs contain four individual cores, rather than consisting of two dual-core parts, and AMD refers to this as a 'native' quad-core design. The use of individual cores has also allowed AMD to announce a CPU with three cores in it -- a tri-core CPU -- which may be a viable solution for users who want more power than what a dual-core CPU can offer, but who can't afford a high-end quad-core CPU.

If you think quad-core isn't enough for your needs, consider a dual-CPU socket system from AMD that can run two quad-core CPUs, for a total of eight cores! The octa-core platform, which requires a special motherboard with two Socket F sockets, can run two quad-core AMD Phenom FX CPUs.

Like 64-bit processors, dual-core, tri-core and quad-core CPUs will really hit their stride once more applications are specifically written with multiple cores in mind, as that's when software and hardware will be able to work together most effectively.

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