Does the Processor choice in your PC really matter anymore?

The last time you bought a PC, did you really spend any time deciding what processor to get with it?  I bet not much if any.

The processor is one part of your PC that is impractible to upgrade in a PC today, the solution is just to get another PC.

I’m often asked if someone’s 4 year old PC will work well enough to run the latest Practice Management application or CBCT imaging app.  Often my answer is “It will work, but it won’t be the same as on a newer PC”.  “But it’s only 4 years old!” is the usual comment they plead in reply.

The fact is that the software programmers develop the new version of applications on the newest equipment and are always craving more power.  Sadly, the result is that this leaves evenly moderately older computers behind.  The computers don’t get slower, the apps do.  Have you ever upgraded an application and noticed that afterwards the program seems to be more sluggish?  I know I sure have.   I think programmers should be forced to use computers that are exactly same as the companies published minimum hardware requirements (not the ‘recommended requirements’) and this would lead to apps that run well on those older platforms, but that’s a totally different article.

Processor Evolution
I want to share some interesting nuggets about the CPU performance improvements in the last 5 years.  The change has been quiet but remarkable.

Most people (including me) don’t normally have a clue if a Core2 Duo is faster than a Dual Core (I have to look it up).  Intel has a great marketing machine, and has jumped on the “Everything cool has to start with an i” bandwagon.  Their latest generation processors are the i3, i5 and i7 models.

Intel_core_i5

In recent years Intel’s processor have evolved with names like:

  • Pentium 4
  • Pentium D
  • Dual Core
  • Core2 Duo
  • Quad Core
  • i3
  • i5
  • i7

Gone are the good old days of Pentium II, III and 4 when it was clear which was better.  Around the time of the introduction of the Pentium D, Intel introduced HyperThreading.  Essentially, they started to incorporate ways to have more than one processor module (core) on a single chip.  Today, you may have a Server in your office with 24 or more processor cores.  This allows the chip to do its thinking in parallel with two or more brains working on the same or different problems at the same time.  Cool!  More gets done faster.

It used to be all about the GigaHertz (GHz).  More GHz used to mean faster.  It still does, but a chip running with 2 cores at 3GHz might actually have less overall ability than a 4 core chip that runs at 2.33GHz.   Confusing I know.  Generally though, more GHz is still better once you have settled on a processor.

If you want to find out how much faster one processor is compared to another, what we really need is a benchmark to compare them with.  Fortunately there is a simple to use website that tests every chip out there and publishes the results in a simple to understand rating.   www.CPUbenchmark.net has a great graph that shows them all, and a search tool that you can just type in the name of the processor you are interested in (like Pentium 4 2.4Ghz).  It gives shows you the rating of that chip, along with every other.  In my Pentium 4 example, it gets a score of 314.  The higher the score, the better.  A CPU with a score twice as high as another is essentially twice as capable.

How does your current PC rate?
Wondering how your current processor rates?  Or wondering even how to tell which processor you have?  You can find your processor model and speed by right clicking “My Computer” (for Windows XP) or “Computer” (for Vista and Windows 7) and selecting Properties.  The properties page that load lists the processor on it.

On Windows 7 it will look something like this:

My_processor_on_7

On Windows XP it will look something like this:

My_processor_on_xp

Then, go look it up on CPUBenchmark.net.

Looking Back 5 years
Let’s look at the CPUBenchmark.net scores for the typical processors that would have been in typical Dell business PCs over the past 5 years.

  • 5 year old Dell Optiplex GX 620 with a 2.8Ghz Pentium D Processor
  • 3 year old Dell  Optiplex 745 with a 2.4GHz Core2 Duo Processor
  • 2 year old Dell Optiplex 780 with a 3.0Ghz Core2Duo processor
  • 1 year old Dell Optiplex 780 with a 2.66Ghz Quad Core processor
  • New Dell Optiplex 790 with an i3 (2100 3.1GHz) processor
  • New Dell Optiplex 790 with an i5 (2400 3.1GHz) processor
  • New Dell Optiplex 790 with an i7 (2600 3.4GHz) processor
Cpu_graph

Wow, what a range!  The new processors leave even the recent ones in the dust.  What can we conclude from this?

  • The 5 year Pentium D has just 12% of the ability of a modern i5.  One-eighth the speed – this is why my answer to “will my old computer still work” is such a reluctant yes.  The programmer is working on a computer 8 times faster.
  • The 3 year old Core2Duo, just 25% of the ability of a modern i5
  • The 2 year old Core2Duo just 37% of the ability of a modern i5
  • The 1 year old Quad Core just 56% of the ability of a modern i5.   The Quad Core was top of the line just 1 year ago and the new top of the line i7 is 3 times faster!  Ahhhhh!!!!!
  • Even the most basic new i3 processor is as fast as the fastest previous generation Quad Core processor.  No fluke here, it’s planned that way.  So, you can feel good getting an i3 knowing it’s as fast as anything that existed just a year ago, but at a much reduced cost.
  • The new i5 processor is nearly 50% faster the basic i3.  The i5 is priced in the ‘best value for money’ mid-point, and is a favorite of mine for most every application today.
  • The new i7 is nearly 50% faster than the i5, but carries a large price premium.  This is normal for the fastest processor on the market.

What to do?
Don’t let this give you anxiety, it has gone on for the last 30 years, and will continue.   Use a computer as long as it does the job, and replace it with what you can afford when it’s time.  If you keep waiting for ‘the next model’ you’ll never make a choice since they are constantly evolving.  Here’s my summary of the current offerings:

  • i3 – Good basic processor and a great choice for a low cost PC that has to do only basic functions like email, word processing and web surfing.
  • i5 – Very capable processor that is good for about everything in a practice including CBCT 3D visualization.
  • i7 – Awesome, but expensive.  Can do anything you throw at it, but I would only consider it for the most demanding applications.    Might be worth investing in if you want to maximize the lifespan of the PC.  Awesome today will suck in 5 years!

I usually look for the sweet spot just behind the bleeding edge.  Today (and I do mean today as I write this), I’d say that’s the i5 2400.  It’s the best balance of performance for cost.  I’d get a basic i3 if I knew the PC didn’t have to do much or an i7 if processing ability is critical.

So, when it’s time to pick a processor with your new computer keep this in mind, check out your options on CPUBenchmark.net and dive in.

Since your existing IT person didn’t share this with you, perhaps you would consider working with the people that did. If you need a little help with your Practice, this is what MME Consulting does. Just give us a call at 866-419-1102 or check us out online at www.mmeconsulting.com.

Want more hear about more Tips and Tricks like this? Sign up to to get updates by eMail as soon as we add them.

I’d like to hear your comments on this topic. Please leave your comments here on this blog.