Whether you want to build a desktop computer from scratch or upgrade one you already own, the most important single component is the processor (also known as the “central processing unit,” or CPU). The “brain” of your computer, it determines what you’re able to do and how quickly you’re able to do it. And with very few exceptions, the power you get from a CPU is directly related to the amount of money you spend to buy it.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re doomed to a slow computer if you’re watching every penny. As with most things in life, upgrading your CPU is really a matter of optimizing whatever resources you have. Making smart decisions about what you buy and why is therefore critical. Luckily, the process isn’t complicated. By addressing just a few basic issues, you can find a chip that will net you surprisingly fast computer—regardless of what you have to spend.
Usually, PC building or upgrading begins with asking, “What do I want to do?” Not this time. For all intents and purposes, you can perform all the same tasks with a $100 CPU that you can with a $500 one—the biggest difference is in how well you’re able to do them. Deciding your budget is the crucial first step, for purposes of managing expectations as much as anything else. If you know right out of the gate that you may need 10 minutes to render a video rather than 20 seconds, you won’t be disappointed when you discover your processor’s limitations. Figure out the most you can spend on one component, and then see where that figure lies between (approximately) $100 and $1,000. The closer it is to the former, the slower it’s probably going to be. There are exceptions to this we’ll get to shortly, but it’s a good rule of thumb.
AMD or Intel?
This question is vital when you’re upgrading, because AMD’s and Intel’s CPUs won’t work in the other standard’s motherboards, but it’s relatively inconsequential when you’re building a system for the first time. Though certain AMD and Intel CPUs do certain things better than others, very few people will ever discover those differences in ordinary, everyday computing. So don’t worry that you’ll be cutting yourself off from certain tasks or aspirations if you choose one over the other. But one aspect of this choice is related to the previous issue: Every CPU in AMD’s consumer catalog is available for under $300, while the most expensive Intel chip runs $1,000. Does Intel deliver oomph for the money? In most cases, yes—but you won’t necessarily be able to take advantage of it in every situation. Finding the right blend of performance and price for you may start with the CPU’s manufacturer, but never assume it ends there.