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Choosing a CPU

Your Central Processing Unit (also referred to as your processor or CPU) is like the mastermind of your computer. The CPU processes the thousands of instructions and calculations per second that happen inside a computer, with a speed measured in gigahertz (GHz). Thus, your CPU provides a great deal of the computational power behind everything from creating graphics in PC games to executing functions on Excel spreadsheets.

Other components such as RAM and graphics cards help to determine the overall power of a computer. However, the CPU is ultimately the limiting factor in your PCs performance. A CPU with sufficient processing power is important for avoiding the CPU bottleneck phenomenon, which can limit the performance of other hardware, such as your GPU. That is why selecting your CPU is a major decision, and why it is so important to have a wide selection of CPU models to choose from.

Computer processors are available from two major brands: AMD and Intel. Both offer cutting edge processing technologies in their latest and most powerful incarnations, including Intel 12th Gen and AMD Ryzen Zen 4. Each, however, also offers a wide range of entry and mid level CPU options. The two CPU brands have many similarities: each function according to the same basic set of principles, each designates their product series using similar numbering schemes (such as Intel’s Core i3 and AMD’s Ryzen 3), and each can offer great performance on the right PC build.

That said, the two brands are not interchangeable. In fact, choosing a processor is a great place to start when building a PC because it will narrow down your remaining choices for other components. Motherboards specifically only support particular processors, making it very important when building a PC to be mindful of component compatibility. By choosing a processor that is a great fit for the rest of your components and your operating system, you will put your whole build on a firm footing for the performance you want.

What Do You Need From Your CPU?

The number of cores in a CPU plays a major role in determining its performance. Generally, a quad core processor or six core processor is the standard for a modern PC. Note that many processors now also include threading technologies — such as Intel’s hyper threading and AMD’s simultaneous multi threading — which create multiple logical threads within the same physical CPU core, greatly increasing the CPU’s efficiency and parallel processing capability. Multi threaded CPUs are perfect for digital artists, gamers, streamers and anyone else who needs their machine to handle multiple simultaneous apps and processes with no sweat.

As previously noted, you may have the best graphics card on the market, but if you do not pair it with the appropriate CPU, you might not see the full potential of your GPU. However, the best CPU for gaming may not necessarily be the most powerful. When it comes to gaming, CPUs don't need to be the most powerful because the graphics card handles the majority of the workload for video encoding. Instead, gaming CPUs are designed to work with modern graphics cards to create high quality gaming experiences without steep initial costs.

Top of the line mobile and desktop processors can be higher in cost and are typically reserved for such professional tasks as advanced simulations or high resolution renderings. This is why you will often find the most high powered processors used in workstations and applications such as professional 4k video editing. Additionally, if you are planning on doing any streaming or content creation, it may be worth getting a slightly more powerful processor than you initially need, or one with integrated graphics.

Matching Your CPU and Other Computer Hardware

When building a computer, finding a processor and compatible hardware, including a hard drive, RAM and motherboard, can be challenging and time consuming. CPU Motherboard Combos help to alleviate the stress of component purchases and highlight part compatibility while also saving money on initial costs.

On top of finding a compatible motherboard for your processor, you will need to find a CPU cooler that fits both components and your PC case. Luckily, some processors come with included coolers that ensure compatibility and provide quality performance for no additional costs. Both AMD’s Wraith Stealth Cooler technology and Intel’s stock cooling units can offer sufficient performance. When purchasing a separate CPU cooler, make sure you check which socket the cooler fits to be sure it matches your motherboard's socket, and that the device will be compatible with your build.

Browse our whole selection of Intel and AMD processors right here. If you have more questions about component compatibility or need some help with your next build, you can always use the Micro Center Custom PC Builder tool or computer build guides available from Micro Center.