Whether shopping for a new laptop or replacing the CPU in your old one. Users tend to believe that the higher the clock speed number, the better. But the whole picture as it relates to performance is a bit more complicated than that. To wit, how many GHz is good enough for gaming, graphic design work, and the average user? In most cases, 3.5 to 4 GHz is a good enough range for gaming, content creation, and graphic rendering. It can give you a speed boost up to 5 GHz without getting into overclocking. But let’s take a closer look at the whole picture.
What’s Clock Speed?
Modern CPUs (or processors) have gotten so fast that they’re now measured in GHz (gigahertz) – a unit of measures that tells you how many (in this case) billion cycles a CPU can handle in one second.
CPUs have a quartz crystal oscillator circuit like the one used in radio communication. This quartz oscillator sets the tempo for the entire processor.
Not long ago, people measured clock speeds only in MHz (megahertz). Recently, CPU manufacturing got cheaper, and companies started racing to higher clock rates.
The highest recorded rate ever is 8.429 GHz by the AMD Bulldozer FX-8150 Chip. This high speed was achieved by overclocking, but we’ll get into more about that in a minute.
Clock rates matter when you’re estimating a CPU’s performance. However, frequency isn’t the only factor to consider.
Sure, double the GHz on a constant number of cores means doubling the speed of the CPU. Realistically, that’s not how it works when shopping for a laptop and comparing options.
If one component runs fast, but the ancillary hardware can’t keep up. Then even the fastest CPU won’t translate into faster speeds for the system because the other components are creating a “bottleneck.”
To get a clearer picture of what CPU speed is all about, let’s think in terms of dynamic IPC (instructions per cycle).
For instance, Intel’s Core i3 processor can be faster than the company’s Pentium Four, even though it has a lower clock rate. But how? That’s because the i3 has a higher overall IPC.
A processor’s IPC depends on the microarchitecture (which is to say design), # of cores, and the number of threads those cores can produce. But once other factors start getting added to the equation, clock rates lose a bit of relevance.
Here are a few factors that affect processor performance:
Cores and Threads
To put it simply: a processor with four Cores and eight threads can do twice as much as four Cores alone. However, the caveat is that hyperthreading is only useful if the apps you use are optimized for multi-thread processing.
The most common computer software out there, like Microsoft Office, is single threaded. This means that the difference in computing speed you’ll get with hyperthreading isn’t going to matter much anyway.
Almost all laptops out there are now multi-cored. For gaming, aim for a processor with at least four to six Cores.
This terminology can be tricky to lay down but stick with us. A CPU’s line is defined by its architecture. The layout of the components in the chip is the microarchitecture.
We don’t have to get deep into the technical jargon, though. Just imagine the microarchitecture as a CPU’s infrastructure.
Different chips can perform the same type of tasks. It all comes down to the variable processing speed and power efficiency.
Another thing to consider is that new CPU generations aren’t always necessarily faster than outgoing models. However, they do have advanced designs that let the components within the chip perform better.
Generally, any average user can do fine with a Core i3 processor since these are basic performers. A Core i3 with up to four cores is low-key suitable for computing tasks up to and including gaming. Core i7s CPUs are reserved for heavy computing setups. So, you’ll find them in many mid- to higher-end gaming laptops.
You might notice more advanced processor families, like the i9, on the market. The truth is, these are only really needed for hard-core rendering. Otherwise, it may not be a good investment.
AMD has four generations of the Zen microarchitecture. The latest one, Zen 3, was released back in November 2020.
Both the 3rd and 4th generation AMD processors work well for high-speed computing. You can find them in the Ryzen 5000 APU Series.
Processors of the same generation have the same microarchitecture. Plus, they go through the same production lines. However, some products can end up below the ideal standard.
Companies limit the defective pieces to a lower GHz. In other words, they’re essentially putting a muzzle on the chip’s potential.
Processors are then labeled as slower CPUs and marketed at a lower price point. Now, some computer geeks found a way around this speed limit by overclocking the CPU’s multiplier.
In that sense, overclocking means unlocking a processor’s limit (removing the muzzle) to force it to perform faster than what it was manufactured to do.
All AMD Ryzen processors can be overclocked by accessing and unlocking the multiplier on the UEFI or BIOS screen.
Meanwhile, Intel CPUs are only eligible for overclocking if they have a “K” or “X’” in the model number. Both letters tell you that the CPU has an unlocked multiplier.
Of course, it’s not very useful to overclock a device used for regular computing. But hard-core tasks like video rendering can benefit from the boost you from an overclocked CPU.
You might also find that overclocking is suitable for dead-end devices that no longer have upgrades available.
The good news is that overclocking can get your device to perform faster without additional costs. The bad news is that it could also potentially damage your hardware.
Since the rest of your device likely wasn’t made to handle higher processing speeds. Overclocking is more likely to bottleneck, overheat, and crash your system.
You can try to prevent damage by upgrading the cooling system. However, that’s not always enough, and the set might end up fried anyway.
In many cases, overclocking usually voids the warranty of the device. So, think twice about the benefit-risk ratio before you decide to overclock a processor.
By now, we know better than to judge a device’s speed simply by its GHz value alone. It’s more practical to consider the CPU performance benefits as a whole package.
The fastest CPU out there is AMD’s Ryzen ThreadRipper 3990X. With a whooping 64-cores, 128 threads, 288 MB (megabytes) of combined cache, and a 2.9 to 4.3 clock rate. It’s quite an impressive chip!
With that being said, the ThreadRipper is overkill for most users. Yes, even hardcore gamers. We know the numbers on this beast makes the APU tempting. But for most applications it’s just an expensive processor without much performance benefit.
The main concern with the AMD ThreadRipper processor is that it forces the user to rely on aftermarket upgrades to accommodate the setup.
For a start, you need enough cooling airflow with ITX cases. You may also need to use extra power connectors.
Since the ThreadRipper isn’t ideal for most casual users. You might be circling back to questions like “How many GHz is good enough?” and “What kind of processor should I get?”
For gaming and graphic work, a Core i7 with 4- to 5- GHz and 25 MB cache is a better fit than the ThreadRipper. At least cost-wise. The same processor is a generous setup for the average user.
The two largest brand names out there are Intel and AMD.
Intel processors have been around since 1971. The “Intel Inside” marketing campaign helped push the brand as a computing staple for households worldwide.
While the Core family is the most common line (which you’ll find in most laptops). The Xeon, Pentium, Celeron, Atom, and Movidius are all Intel processor family lines too each with their own benefits (depending on application).
Some you might think of AMD as a new-wave company, they actually trace their roots back to 1969. Their first processor released was the K5.
While in-house products are gaining hype, outsourcing CPU parts is still a pretty common option.
Here’s a list of some of the hardware manufacturers that work with Intel and AMD to consider:
- Acer Inc.
Yes, there are a few problems that arise with higher clock rates. We know that it might sound weird, but too much speed capacity can be a bad thing when it comes to computing.
Whether your device has an originally high clock speed, or you had it modified by overclocking. There is a price to pay.
Here are some of the most common issues associated with higher GHz processors:
To run at a high clock speed, you need a stronger electric supply from the motherboard. The increase in power consumption is mostly a square function of the clock rate.
It’s much more energy-efficient to increase the number of cores and keep the frequency around 4 GHz. So, why would you bother boosting the rate to 8 GHz on a single core?
This consumption might not seem like a big deal in exchange for a faster processor. But it isn’t just wasteful. It can also lead to a cascade of other problems.
Because of the scale increase in power consumption, you can expect the device to overheat as you force it to run complicated tasks faster.
This is particularly common with graphic cards when both the clock rate and memory space max out. It’s not just graphics. Any software that has high requirements can overheat the processor.
You can tackle this issue by upgrading the cooling system, using thermal pads, and keeping your drivers up to date.
Whenever the device overheats, the cooling systems have to overcompensate to keep the temperature inside the device stable.
As a general rule, an overworked fan is a noisy fan. You’ll notice the difference if you compare a new processor to an older 2 GHz set.
Using quiet laptop fans is one way to reduce the humming. But in the end, the noise produced might have you reaching for a noise-canceling headset.
High-end CPUs don’t have an adequate return on investment for the average user. In many scenarios you’re paying for more computing power than you know what to do with.
Many processors have the same multiplier potential. Yet, they’re set at different price marks. That’s the main motivator behind overclocking in the first place.
Unless you do a lot of heavy computing daily, you don’t need overclocking. You don’t need to buy the fastest processor out there either. Moderation is the key in all things.