How do I choose an Intel processor?

7 minute read

Picking a processor for your new PC is a difficult but important decision. Intel processors currently have an edge over AMD processors and so I will be focusing on Intel for this build series.

The goal should be to pick the fastest, most efficient and most powerful processor you can afford. After all, the processor more commonly known as the central processing unit (CPU) is what handles tasks and decides what to do with them. The CPU’s speed and power determines how well it’s able to deal with tasks simultaneously without falling over.

Pick an Intel Processor in 6 Steps

There are many other features to consider when picking a CPU and it’s quite easy to drown in the sea of marketing hype from Intel. To limit the confusion and bring some order to these proceedings, I’ve split the decision making into steps.

Right from the start I’m going to eliminate Celeron and Pentium processors from our shortlist. They just aren’t worthy of a custom build pc anymore in my opinion.

Step 1: Choose from an i3 (fast), i5 (faster) or i7 (really fast) processor

Don’t think too much about this for the moment just pick one based on your needs. As we get further down the steps, you’ll start to realise the differences between i3, i5 and i7.

Step 2: Decide the socket size: 1150, 1151 or 2011-3?

Most desktop computers currently use the 1150 socket size and this is a good choice for those on a tight budget. These processors have been in use since the middle of 2013 which means they are more affordable.

The new 1151 socket size processors were released late 2015 and have all Intel’s latest features. They are at the higher price range but for a new build, this is the choice for future proofing. Most self-builders will probably be picking this socket size.

Socket size 2011 (released in late 2011) is the choice for extreme gamers and high end workstations. There are a few versions of socket 2011 for the different generation of processors but I would recommend the newer 2011-3 Haswell version (released in late 2014).

The 2011 socket CPU’s support more memory, 2 processors running in tandem, more data lanes and many more extreme features. This socket size is expensive and is for those with serious cash to spend.

What’s in a name? Intel uses codenames for processors before they’re released and it also uses ‘generation’ labels as well. All these names can get confusing, so here’s some recent ones to shed some light on these labels. Ivy Bridge (2012, 3rd gen), Haswell (2013, 4th gen), Broadwell (2014, 5th gen) and Skylake (2015, 6th gen).

Step 3: Choose the ‘generation’ of processor – 4th, 5th or 6th Gen?

Intel uses the label ‘generation’ to categorize the age and feature set of their processors. The socket size you chose in the previous step will have already determined which gen CPU you can buy.

Generation Codename Socket Size
4th Haswell 1150
5th Broadwell 1150 and 2011-3
6th Skylake 1151

As you can see both the 4th and 5th gen processors come in socket size 1150 giving you more choice for your build. Although newer generations have more features or improvements, if you really don’t need these you can build yourself a great 1150 budget pc.

Step 4: Pick the number of CPU cores and look out for Hyper-Threading (HT)

Think of cores as being separate CPU’s all living in the same apartment. One core by itself might take all day getting household chores done but four cores working simultaneously are sure to finish with enough time for a cup of tea!

Don’t go crazy with the cores though, applications that doesn’t multitask well will leave some of your cores sitting idle. Multiple cores are better for tasks like 3D gaming and photo/video editing but not so much for a simple office or web surfing build.

More cores cost more but don’t really offer any real increase in performance for light computer use.

Hyper Threading (HT) is another piece of the multitasking puzzle. HT separates the core processor into threads that can work independently and offer resources to applications as needed. HT prevents bottlenecks meaning tasks don’t have to queue up to wait their turn.

It’s like giving our CPU’s an extra pair of hands in our imaginary apartment. The number of cores remain the same but they have the ability to do double the work.

When selecting your CPU, the more threads the better but again keep in mind that not all games and applications will be able to take advantage of HT.

Step 5: Choose the highest clock speed that you can afford.

I want to know how fast your brain works so I bark instructions at you. As I do this I record how many instructions you complete in a set time over and over.

This is loosely what the processor clock speed is; the amount of instructions executed per clock cycle. In the past the clock speed used to be more important but nowadays it’s only a good measure of how fast the CPU is when comparing the same type and generation of processor.

Step 6: Look at other features the processor supports

By now, you will hopefully have a couple of processors on your list or in your shopping cart – good job! I hope that you’ve gained a better understanding of Intel processors and how to pick the best one for you. There are a couple of other things that I think are important in choosing a CPU:

Caches – the processors handy assistants

Let’s say I need the purchase number for that new laptop I just ordered. I check my phone, not there, I check my diary, still can’t find it. I check the draw in my desk – found it! Each step took longer than the last. In simple terms that’s how the L caches work on processors. The processor looks for data and goes to the fastest cache first: L1, if the data’s not there, to the L2 cache and so on.

This inbuilt memory on the processor also has the job of trying to guess (really clever guesses) the data required at that exact time. It improves response times and so bigger L1 and L2 caches should be another feature on your wishlist.

Wait for the end credits

Intel uses letters at the end of the CPU’s name to indicate the best area of use for them (they call them optimizations). There are several for desktop processors but the 2 important ones are the K and the X letters.

The K tells us the processor is unlocked and can be overclocked. The X is for the Extreme Series of processors intended for high end use. For example, the i7-6700K is an unlocked processor whereas the i7-5960X is an extreme processor.

What’s this overclocking business? In a nutshell you can push your processor and memory past the manufacturer’s normal limits. You’ll see processor and memory specs quote speeds with OC (overclocking) in brackets. This means you can get way better speeds but risk an unstable system.

Gamers and users with high end needs usually want to overclock and so ‘normal’ users should ignore the hype and marketing surrounding it.

Historically AMD has been the ‘go to’ processor for overclockers but in recent years things have changed. Intel are now embracing overclocking and have a range of unlocked processors that are intended for overclocking.

The process can be complicated and requires extra cooling systems for the extra heat that is produced inside your computer.

How hot is your processor?

Processors assess and complete tasks through complex mathematical calculations. The harder the processor works the more heat it generates and the more your computer heats up. Heat is the enemy and fans and cooling systems are the solutions. They add noise and expense to the build so ideally we should look for the best heat efficiency possible in a CPU.

For efficiency, look out for the Thermal Design Power (TDP). It’s an indicator of how much heat is produced by the CPU and the lower the value, the better. Think of TDP in terms of how much the CPU sweats – no one likes a sweaty processor!

A few last words

There are many other features that you might want to consider once you have picked several potential candidates. You can find exact specifications and features for Intel processors on the Intel website.

Use online shopping carts to narrow down my search, I added the best processors within my price range first. Slowly, after checking each processor’s features and prices I ended up with only one left. The ‘save it for later’ feature is also an excellent way to keep track of your research and gives you time to make up your mind. Choose from i3, i5 or i7.

One last tip, the processor you choose now determines your choice of compatible components later – so choose wisely and realise that your choice of CPU deserves a good chunk of your budget.