GUIDE: Should you upgrade your CPU?
With GPU prices skyrocketing, you may be thinking of upgrading other components instead to get that small bit of extra performance. One such component is your CPU—the brains of your computer. With this in mind, should you upgrade your CPU if you’re looking for a performance upgrade?
As the “brains” of your computer, the speed of your CPU will generally dictate your computer’s overall speed. So, does that mean that you should upgrade your CPU? The answer is a bit more complicated than that.
The first question you need to ask is whether or not you can upgrade your CPU in the first place. Different CPUs from different manufacturers require different motherboards with different CPU sockets.
AMD tends to be better in this regard. Its AM4 socket has been around since 2016. This means it’s much easier to upgrade an older AMD CPU with a newer one.
Upgrading an Intel CPU, on the other hand, can be a bit more complicated. Intel tends to change CPU sockets more frequently, so you may not be able to upgrade to a newer CPU if you’re on an older motherboard. (Read: New Intel contract foundry set to compete against TSMC, Samsung)
That said, even if you can upgrade, whether you should upgrade and what you should upgrade to is also a complicated question.
Your workload matters when upgrading your CPU
Back in the day, when CPUs only ran a single thread on a single core, the question of whether or not to upgrade was pretty easy to answer. Pure clock speed was king, after all, when your CPU was only running one thread.
These days, CPUs come with multiple cores and can run even more threads. More importantly, different programs and different workloads take advantage of these cores and threads very differently.
Simply put, some programs and workloads do take advantage of these cores and threads. Other workloads, on the other hand, are more reliant on single-threaded performance. This means that simply adding more cores will not help.
Most productivity workloads will benefit from multiple cores. This includes heavy workloads such as video production and even some 3D rendering. That said, even less intensive workloads such as word processing and surfing the internet will benefit from more cores.
What doesn’t benefit as much from more cores and prefers better single-threaded performance is gaming. Even as CPUs have gained more cores, games still tend to prefer single-threaded performance and higher clock speeds.
Complicating your decision to upgrade is that different CPU brands tend to do better at certain workloads. For the longest time, Intel CPUs were the kings of single-threaded performance.
On the other hand, AMD CPUs were preferred for productivity workloads thanks to their larger number of cores. They were also cheaper, meaning that they were preferred for budget builds.
But things have changed with the latest CPUs from both companies.
AMD’s Ryzen 5000 line has just about taken the gaming performance crown, especially with the top-of-the-line Ryzen 9 5950x. Meanwhile, Intel has dropped the ball somewhat with their latest, 11th generation CPUs, which haven’t seen as big a performance boost. But the company is making up by making them cheaper than their Ryzen counterparts.
So what should you upgrade to?
Now, not everyone is upgrading to the latest CPUs. Depending on what you have, you may not need to upgrade to the latest CPUs to get a good performance upgrade. In other words, your current CPU is an important factor to not just if you should upgrade, but what you should upgrade to.
Whether or not you should upgrade your CPU then depends on both what workload you need the performance for and what your current CPU is.
If you’re focusing mostly on gaming and are on a relatively powerful 10th-gen Intel Core CPU, such as a Core i7 10700k then you won’t really benefit from upgrading to a newer, 11th-gen Core CPU. Meanwhile, if you’re on a Ryzen 3000 CPU, such as a Ryzen 5 3600x, then you will see a performance boost from upgrading to a 5th-gen Ryzen CPU.
But if you’re focused on productivity, then your upgrade path may look a bit different. Instead of upgrading to a newer CPU, it might be much better to upgrade to one from the same generation but with more cores. For example, going from a 6 core Ryzen 5 3500x to an 8 core Ryzen 7 3700x may be a better, more cost-effective upgrade path—especially with how much more expensive Ryzen 5000’s CPUs can be. (Read: Ryzen 6000 leak hints that AMD’s next-gen APUs will see a significant graphical boost)
Of course, if you’re on a much older CPU, such as an older Ryzen 2000 series, then an upgrade will bring performance enhancements. All you need to make sure is that your motherboard supports newer CPUs.
At the end of the day, an upgrade is an upgrade. What’s important then is making sure that what you upgrade to fits your needs.
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