Tuesday Tech Tips

1 Core, 2 Cores, 3 Cores, 4….How many processors do you really need?

Depends. Depends on what you do with your computer. If you hang around here enough, you’ll see that line enough, but that’s the foundation for much of what you need to know before you get roped into buying the next system.

“Cores” are physical computing units within the central processing unit or “CPU.” Most computers, except for the new surge in the “netbook” market, single core processors had gone out of manufacturing for most all computing systems in the main stream of use for home and business. The basic, budget computer you would buy today has a dual core (2 CPUs) and many have either 3 or more 4 cores.

So, what does this mean? You can save some money, if that’s an issue, by just getting a dual core system, assuming you are one who uses your system for basic email/web surfing and some light office applications (Word/Excel/Quicken/Quickbooks).

The biggest issue is that software has not been re-written to be able to use more than one core for any given function, so most of the cores sit basically idle and generating heat, inside the computer case. Why? One reason is rewriting major, mostly functional software is costly. Think of the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” philosophy.

Secondly, it is a major mental challenge to be able to design software to slice up it’s tasking of single functions at a time and re-direct them into several paths. On top of that, making sure the data stays intact on the other side of the command execution. for what the base of programmers know now, it’s a nightmare. One day, it won’t be, but right now, it’s a problem.

On top of that, it will require a much greater amount of programming, just to ensure the data is handled properly, as it will have to be validated at each core’s output, then checked again when the data points are put together for use after it comes through the multiple cores.

That’s sort of like asking 4 people to all share in solving an addition problem. No one of them will be allowed to make all the computations, but each one only gets a piece of the problem to work on. If they do them in a serial fashion, letting each prior person do their part, then it’s no more effective than using a single core. If they each solve their part, then put them out on the table, so to speak, then someone else will have to step in and validate the work for accuracy. Now, unlike the single core/serial method, it actually becomes more ineffective, adding a second processing function to check the first step.

On the other hand, if you the type of computer user, who knows Windows/Mac/Linux allows you to run many separate tasks in different programs at once, then a multi-core processor becomes more useful. The ability of operating systems to allow directed programs to the less busy cores is becoming more common, and therefore, you get some mileage out of the extra processor.

Right now, anti-virus/anti-spyware programs generally are able to work “in the background,” by using a less tasked core on just about every system.

If you’re planning to do high end video, audio or photo-editing on your computer, and you have the high end programs like PhotoShop and Premiere, those programs will actively seek out and get the use of the extra cores in your system, MicroSoft Office, not some much.

For the time being, I’d not anticipate a major break through in programming to support regular use of many cores, so, if you’re running on a budget, don’t get roped into getting a 4 core machine, if a dual core one will do.

Oh, and an Intel i7 is a nice toy, but still pricy for a home or office user right now. Yes, it’s the latest, but….the programmers and the software won’t really let you get all the power out of your system. Give it a few years, or about the time a machine you bought in the last 2-3 years is ready to be replaced before making that jump.

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