Whether you’re building a new computer or just upgrading your current one, the CPU (central processing unit)—being the ‘brain’ of the computer—is an important component to get right.
But, with all the improvements and advancements in recent years on both the hardware and software sides, how many CPU cores do you need?
Well, first you need to ask three identifying questions:
- What are you using the computer for?
- How often are you using it for that task?
- Are you more limited by budget or time?
What Are You Using the Computer For?
Pretty straightforward to answer. You’re likely building or upgrading because it’s not performing as well as it needs to, usually in one or more related tasks. Perhaps you need it for office work, or gaming, or video editing, or 3D rendering, or 2D photo editing, or music production—the list goes on (and on, and on).
Making it a tad more annoying, the software you use can also have an impact. Some programs prefer more cores, and others prefer higher clock speeds.
How Frequently Will You Be Performing that Task?
Prioritise your most frequent use cases. If it’s a 3D rendering computer, but you like to play games on it regularly during your downtime, factor that in. if you only edit videos once in a blue moon, however, it probably isn’t important enough to spare much thought.
Are You More Limited by Budget or Time?
Both time and money are limited assets: we don’t have an infinite supply of either. You need to work out whether you spend more money to save some time or vice versa.
Try to achieve some form of balance between the two, as you don’t need a 12-core processor to do office work (even if you want to be ‘future-proof’) and it would be similarly crazy to do modern video editing on a dual-core processor.
The Use Case
Here’s the nitty-gritty, the part of the article that you’re probably the most interested in. Below you’ll find a series of tasks, and how many cores and/or threads you should be aiming for (what is a processor thread?).
Additionally, for most of the categories, I’ll list both a minimum processor and a recommended processor. The minimum is what should get you across the line without it being a frustrating experience. You’re free to purchase more expensive or less expensive CPUs than what I list, as your needs may not 100% fit the average situation for each use case.
Office Work: 2+ Cores
This is pretty straightforward for a computer—it’s really easy and (compared to everything else in this list) it isn’t going to tax your system much, if at all. Tasks include word processing, spreadsheets, emails, accounting software, and perhaps some Youtube or Netflix for down-time.
You could easily get away with a dual-core processor from either Intel or AMD, as long as you get one with four threads. If future-proofing your system is important to you, feel free to get a quad-core processor. Neither Intel nor AMD sells dual-core desktop CPUs in its current generation, but the price of current quad-cores is about the same as dual-cores from four years ago.
Gaming (High Framerate): 6+ Cores
Surprisingly (or perhaps unsurprisingly to some), if your focus is a higher framerate (e.g. 144Hz rather than 60Hz) then you’ll need a more powerful processor than someone focusing on a 60Hz 4K gaming system.
But … Why is that?
Even though the GPU is handling 95% of the tasks, the processor is still processing other complex instructions, such as AI and pathfinding, certain physics, object manipulation, netcode if the game is online, and handling the transference of data between RAM, the GPU, peripherals, and the storage drives. Basically, a higher FPS means the CPU is processing more data more frequently. But this kind of processing work doesn’t really increase as resolution increases, so it’s more important for high frame rates than for high resolutions.
Thus, I suggest a hexa-core (six-core) processor at minimum, with an octa-core (eight-core) as a recommendation. Current AAA games take advantage of multi-threading much better than AAA games of even three years ago, so the more threads the merrier—at least if you wish to future-proof. Please note that the following Intel processors do not have Hyperthreading (they have one thread per core), whereas the AMD processors have SMT (two threads per core).
Gaming (High Resolution): 4+ Cores
With a resolution-focused system, you can technically get away with a cheaper CPU since the processor processes the complex instructions less frequently compared to the FPS-focused system (and since GPUs for 4K are rather pricey); however, quad-core midrange processors are quickly becoming scarce, so you’re pretty much stuck with a six-core processor anyway. But, if need be, you can get away with a quad-core processor with eight threads.
Home Theater: 4+ Cores
Irrespective of the medium used (discs, storage drives, streaming online), you typically don’t need a lot of processing power to watch movies, so the focus for these types of systems is low-wattage processors. This will keep the heat and noise levels down in the system, which is especially helpful if using a cramped HTPC case. You can easily use either an AMD or Intel quad-core processor.
Video Editing: 6+ Cores
Even though your GPU will be engaged when editing video, you still need a powerful processor (as encoding and decoding uses a lot of processing power). GPUs are becoming more relevant to video editing every year, but it’s still a highly CPU-intensive task. At any rate, it really depends on your workload.
At a minimum, you should get a hexa-core processor, but an octa-core or more is even better. Clock speed is important too—aim to get a boost speed of at least 4.0GHz.
Photo Editing and Graphic Design: 4+ Cores
Manipulating a single image, or perhaps at most several images, isn’t hugely taxing compared to video editing, but it can still be a bit of a workout for a CPU—especially when you add in several layers and effects while working with very-high-resolution images. Unfortunately, most photo editing and image manipulation software isn’t heavily multi-threaded, often only taking advantage of up to four cores. The key here is clock speed (which helps increase instructions per cycle).
One of AMD’s or Intel’s budget products would be perfectly fine, but some hexa-core processors have higher clock speeds, so they are often a better choice.
3D Rendering and Animation: 4+ Cores
Even though GPU rendering is becoming more commonplace, the CPU is still an important factor in how quickly a model or animation is rendered. Of course, this depends on the program that you use. But most programs will, even when rendering via the GPU, need a dependable CPU—especially since GPU rendering is (slightly) less accurate than CPU rendering, and depending on the workload, could have VRAM limitations.
If the software you’re using is primarily GPU-focused, then a basic quad-core would be perfectly fine. If you prefer to use your CPU, however, then definitely look at least at the hexa-core options.
Audio Production: 6+ Cores
A fast CPU is vital for serious audio production. Unlike 2D and 3D rendering, you can’t really take advantage of a graphics card to help speed up audio rendering. Fortunately, when it comes to using (most) audio software, they are pretty adept at taking advantage of multiple cores and higher clock speeds.
Because of that, a hexa-core processor is the minimum you should aim for, providing you don’t want to wait too long for everything to complete. If you want to complete your work even quicker, an octa-core or better is recommended.
Since AMD released the Ryzen series of processors a few years ago, a new era of CPU performance increases has been ushered in. Many of the programs that we used five years ago would barely make use of more than four, or at most six processing cores. But with AMD continually pushing the number of cores on their CPUs, and Intel following suit and respectively increasing their core counts, software has been taking advantage of these extra resources.
As you decide on a processor, keep in mind that balance is key. I don’t mean that the CPU and GPU/SSD/RAM/other component need to cost the same, but that they all need to work together. Your computer is only as fast as the slowest part. But, to take that further, your computer is only as fast as it needs to be. That’s why it’s relatively redundant to purchase a $800 CPU and a low-tier discrete GPU for any given task. Once you reach a certain point, faster storage, more RAM, and a better GPU will improve your workflow better than a faster CPU. If you want more specific guidance on balancing your build, you can check out the full balanced build options in our main build chart.
The above suggestions have all been based on a few factors, such as value for money, time spent completing the task, and potential future use. I mentioned before that you can purchase a cheaper or pricier processor if you wish—it’s all based on what kind of performance you need, and what your budget will allow.