Processor Cores vs Clock Speed

Ok, so you’re looking at purchasing a new system or processor. But which should you look for more in a processor? More cores or a higher clock speed?

Of course it ultimately depends on exactly what you’re intending to use the system for, and what applications you’re likely to be running. Let’s take Apple’s new 2013 Mac Pro as a prime example of the cores vs clock speed debate. The Mac Pro is currently available in four different processor configurations, a 3.7GHz quad core version, a 6 core 3.5GHz version, an 8 core 3.0GHz version and a 12 core 2.7GHz version. Out of these four versions, the 12 core 2.7GHz model will be the slowest in terms of realtime performance and the 3.7GHz quad core model will be the fastest.

Clock speed generally determines how “fast” a processor performs calculations. The number of cores generally determines how many calculations a processor can perform at the same time. Back in the first days of dual core processors, the main advantage of this secondary core was to increase the processor’s power and thermal efficiency as less power was needed as the processor was running at lower clock cycles and less heat was generated by this lower clock speed. However today with our quad, 6, 8 and 12 core processor configurations, this is more about improving the performance of applications that can take advantage of a multi-core configuration.

For example, most everyday users would probably opt for a system with 2 or 4 cores. This is simply because most everyday applications can only take advantage of this number of cores. The same can be said for most computer video games, which even now, most aren’t optimised for multi-core systems. More optimised applications such as video editors can usually take advantage of more processor cores and this typically will improve the application’s performance with processor intensive operations such as exporting a video. This main multi-core advantage can especially be seen when running an application such as Cinebench. The image in Cinebench that is rendered by the processor is split up into multiple squares. A high clock speed will enable the processor to render these individual squares more quickly, but you’ll only be able to render an amount of squares that is the same as the number of processor cores. So if you’ve got a quad core system, your processor will render 4 of these squares at the same time, but if you had a 12 core system, 12 of these squares would be rendered at the same time, but slower for each square if the clock speed is lower.

So basically, if you’re only going to be using your computer for general tasks such as email and browsing, then you’d likely be ok with a dual or quad core processor. But the best configuration to go for, for an all-round everyday machine / production machine is a system with a healthy balance of both cores and clock speed.

What do you look for in regards to computer processors? Higher clock speed or lots of cores?