What Does Processor Count Mean?

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Processor Count refers to the amount of Cores a CPU has. A core is essentially a small processor built into a larger chipset that is capable of independent computations. The number of cores varies greatly, with some CPUs sporting two cores and beefed-up ones having up to 64 cores or more.

In the old days, when things were simpler, CPUs had just one core. Meaning there was single set of ALU, registers, cache memory etc. However, as we progressed, things changed and the CPU started featuring multiple physical entities called cores under a single chipset. When we talk about what does processor count mean, we are generally referring to these cores.

Each core handling one task will be independent of another core working on a different task. More cores let the CPU work on multiple tasks seamlessly.

In this article, we look further at what processor count means and what a core actually entails.

What Does Processor Count Mean?

As mentioned earlier, processor count basically is the number of cores on a processor.

Additionally, a single CPU core can be broken down into virtual processing units known as threads or logical processors. More on this below.

ONE CAVEAT – SERVER GRADE COMPUTERS!

What Does Processor Count Mean
Image: For server grade systems, Processor Count may refer to the actual number of CPU sockets, rather than core count. Image Source: Supermicro REV 2.01

In the server category, some motherboards have multiple CPU sockets which can take two or more separate CPUs for more demanding processing.

How Processor Count Influences CPU Performance

It’s time to see what does processor count mean for overall computer performance.

Multitasking is a staple of modern-day computers. It’s what lets you work, have multiple browser tabs open, watch a video, and do several other things on your computer at the same time seamlessly.

Higher core counts let you run multiple applications concurrently since each core handles a different data stream on its thread(s). In this kind of situation where you have multiple apps and services running, the more threads you have running different tasks, the better the performance.

Modern computers have a lot of background services and apps running without you knowing about the. Even when your PC is ideal, there are OS related services running in the background all utilizing the CPU resources.

Having many cores means you have more workers to handle the computation.

Additionally, some professional processes like encoding, rendering, machine learning or those that rely on massive amounts of computation require you to have many different workers (cores) processing small chunks of data simultaneously.

Also Read: Is a Quad Core Processor Good for Gaming?

Figuring Out How Many Cores You Have

You can figure out the number of cores in your processor using two methods:

1. Through Manufacturer’s Specsheet Online

You will  need to know the CPU make and model to search it up on Google for its specsheet.

What Does Processor Count Mean 2

Image: Under the CPU specifications, you can find out the number of cores a processor has in the manufacturer’s spechsheet. Source: Intel

2. Through Task Manager

Another simple method is to open Task Manager (CTRL + ALT + DELETE), head over to the “Performance” then press the “CPU” section and look for the Core Count.

In the following image you can see that the Intel Core i7-7700HQ has 4 cores.

Task manager core count
Image: Task manager showing the processor model as well as the core count for the processor.

You will also notice another field called Logical Processors (8 in this case), this however, does not pertain to the actual cores on your CPU. Instead, it relates to the amount of threads you have. Read more about Logical Processor here:

How Many Processor Count Do You Need?

The amount of cores you need depends upon your needs.

For Basic Computing 2-4 Cores

The most basic CPUs available at the moment for laptop and desktop are the Intel Celeron CPUs. These have 2 cores.

The next level of CPUs in the budget category are the AMD Athlon and the Intel Pentium series. These can feature upto 4 cores.

I generally do not recommend going for dual core Intel Celeron CPUs as they can show limitation even in the most basic work environments.

For basic computing, 4 cores is what I recommend.

Mainstream Computing

If you are a gamer, or a casual editor and a designer, 4-6 cores are recommended. You are looking into the likes of Intel Core i3/Core i5 and AMD Ryzen 3/Ryzen 5 CPUs here.

High Performance

These are often used by professional gamers and professionals needing a light workstation. Here you can expect to find CPUs offering 8 cores such as AMD Ryzen 7 or the Intel Core i7 processors

Workstation Grade CPUs

Here, sky is the limit. Workstation grade CPUs can feature upto 64 cores.

We have covered the basics till here, and by now you should have a good idea about what processor count means. However to learn about what does processor count mean, what cores mean, what single core and multi core performance means, we recommend you read the rest of the article.

What You Need to Know About Cores

quad core cpu diagram

Cores on a processor are by themselves individual processing units. This means that they come with actual capabilities to perform independent data processing. Think of them as a smaller processor within the main processor.

They share some resources like Level 3 cache, memory controllers, and the system interface which connect to other devices, however, the ALU, Control unit, and Level 1 and 2 cache are built internally into each core as far as the current architecture stands.

To understand the need of cores and how having more cores affect the performance let us start with understand what single core processors are/were.

Single Core Processors

In the early days of computing, processors only had one core. This was responsible for being the brain of the processor.

Some of the important sub units of CPU are as follows (You DON’T, need to know these for the purpose of this article)

  • Arithmetic Logic Unit: Where the logical and arithmetic operating happen. If CPU is the brain of a computer. ALU is the brain of a CPU.
  • Floating Point Unit: A supporting unit for ALU for performing computations with complex decimal number.
  • Registers: Temporary storage for executing operations. Also server as status flags.
  • Control Unit: For instruction execution. Works as the orchestrator.
  • Cache: Very fast memory for fetching data and instruction.

All of these sub units within a Single Core are the key ingredients of the Fetch-Decode-Execute cycle.

fetch execture decode cycle
Fetch Decode Execute Cycle. Source: Christopher Kalodikis.

Since a single core CPU has only a single set of the sub units it could only perform a single Fetch-Decode-Execute cycle at a time.

The scheduling algorithms used made it seem that the computer was multitasking, but in an actual sense, the core was just handling different processes and switching between them indiscernibly fast!

Limitations of Single Core and Introduction Of Multicore Processors

As the market demanded faster and faster performance from CPUs. Initially, the answer was to increase the clock speed of the Single Core CPU.

Hence, the single core clock speed of a Pentium III released in 1999, for instance, drastically improved over the single core clock speed of the Pentium II released in 1997.

This introduced two problems:

  • Heat
  • Context Switch Overhead

As the clockspeed became higher and higher, so did the heat generation. Cooling requirement and the power consumption was just not feasible enough.

The other issue was the Context Switch Overheard. A Context Switch Overhead is basically a delay that happens when a CPU has to switch from one task to another. So if you switch from a Word Document to an Excel Sheet, the CPU would experience a delay.

Now if you were to have two cores, you could have the Word Document loaded onto one core and the Excel Sheet onto the other, thus eliminating the Context Switch Overhead.

Therefore, in terms of multitasking efficiency, a single core processor was just not great enough.

Hence, as the prospects of multitasking and parallel processing gained momentum and as market started demanding better performance, multiple cores came out to be the answer.

Also Read: How to Check What is My Processor Architecture

MultiCores vs Multi-CPU Approach

Early attempts of having more processing units in a computer had engineers redesign motherboards to make them accommodate multiple CPU sockets. More CPUs inherently meant higher operational efficiency of computers.

This had issues though, first was the increased hardware requirements. Each extra CPU needed cooling, motherboards required new tracks to connect all sockets to various I/O devices and controllers.

Ironically, the builds weren’t as efficient as earlier thought out because along came latency issues. But, with miniaturization, it became possible to fit multiple processors onto a single silicon chip, and this gave rise to multicore processors.

Also Read: How to Check How Many Cores You Have in Your CPU?

What is a Multi Core Processor?

A CPU dye with four cores
Quad Core Dye Chart

A multicore processors is basically a CPU that has several independent smaller processors inside. This is also referred to as Processor Count.

Each core has its own ALU. FPU, registers, cache etc. There are few components that are shared across cores as well as such as the L3 cache memory, however, for the most part, each core works as an independent CPU.

The immediate benefit here is that it drastically improves the multitasking performance of a PC.

Also Read: Can I Upgrade My Laptop Processor from i5 to i7?

Single Core vs Multicore Performance

While having multiple cores, or processor count, can drastically improve the performance of a CPU, the Single Core performance is still a critical measurements of its prowess.

Single-Core Performance

As the name suggests, single core performance refers to how well a singular core performs.

This is an important measure since there are many applications and tasks out there that heavily utilize a single core and do not scale well with multiple cores.

For instance, many games and tasks in professional software like designing in AutoCAD is heavily reliant on a single core performance over the multi core performance of a CPU.

This is not a rare, but a very common observation. Hence when you look at the benchmark results for a CPU from a test suite such as Cinebench, you will see that they typically talk about both Single and Multi Core performance separately.

The CPU frequency is the most commonly used measurement of a computers single core performance. It is measured in Gigahertz (GHz) and higher values mean higher cycles which can be interpreted as a faster chip.

In reality, the individual performance of CPU cores depends on myriad of factors and not just the clockspeed, such as the design of the core, the architecture used, transistor size, cache memory etc.

Most single core on CPUs also tend to leverage higher clock speeds to boost performance when needed. The Ryzen 5 5600X, for instance, has a base frequency of 3.7GHz. A single core can boost to 4.6GHz whereas all six cores combined max out at 4.2GHz.

Also Read:

Multi Core Performance

Multi core performance is, again as the name suggests, the measure of how well the multiple cores working together perform.

Multiple cores have almost become a necessity since a typical computational needs have become so complex even for an average person.

After all, a typical PC can have so many background applications running at the same time. All those background operation would preferably require a core of their own to run smoothly.

Therefore, even if your game or your software uses a single core at most, the overall performance of the PC will benefit from a higher core count.

Where Multicore Performance Matters

If you need to perform multiple operations simultaneously, you will benefit from a multicore processor. With several processors onboard, one core can handle one instruction while another awaits for resources, and you will still get good performance benefits.

Works such as 3D modeling and rendering require a lot of parallel computing. This is also the same for things like virtualization, simulation, and video editing and encoding.

They make multitasking seamless and offer better performance. Gamers can enjoy the benefits as well since many newer titles can access multiple cores. At the same time, many simulation games that require fast and complex calculations also perform better on multicore processors.

These are however much more expensive. They are also harder to manage and build applications for them.

However, often newbies get carried away by the core count of the CPU not realizing that if their computational requirement is basic, they will never utilize the full potential of their CPU anyways.

Also Read: Figuring Out What CPU is Compatible with My Motherboard?

Threads, Multithreading and Logical Processor Count

As stated, cores are individual CPUs, each capable of performing its instruction cycle.

Multithreading (or hyperthreading for Intel CPUs and Hypertransport for AMD) breaks down the core into smaller processing-capable subunits called threads.

This allows single cores to work on essentially two tasks at a time.

Every process your CPU performs gets assigned to a thread, and each core can have two threads if it has multi-threading enabled. This means that a four-core CPU with multithreading enabled will have eight threads.

Your computer may read the threads as a processor as well. However, these are not physical processors but logical processors.

task manager logical processors
You can access the Task Manager to check your core and logical processor count. This processor has 4 Cores but 8 Logical Processor since it has hyper threading enabled.

Each process that you initialize creates a thread and the thread gets executed. Multiple threads executing different processes concurrently makes it look like the CPU is multitasking.

Unlike cores, threads aren’t physical segments on the processor. They are entirely logical units of processing whereas cores are actual processors on the chip. The creation of such processes and their disposal is handled by the CPU scheduler.

Also Read: Difference Between Pentium and Core i3 Processors

Benefits of Multithreading

Multithreading improves CPU performance particularly for multitasking and rendering work. It can be very beneficial for single-core CPUs by allowing the one core to handle multiple tasks simultaneously.

Also Read: What are Motherboard Standoffs?

Final Words

Knowing what does processor count mean is essential if you’re planning on buying or building a PC. If you often do some demanding productive work that involves complex calculations and a lot of virtualization, you’ll benefit from having many cores.

But for majority of the casual users you don’t really need more than 4 cores. For gamers and professionals having six cores is also a sweet spot.

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Author:

Atif Qazi
Atif Qazi is the founder of PCGuide101. He is a digital nomad who loves everything PC. He is a PC builder, tech enthusiast, engineer, and a lover of single player lore-rich RPG games.

2 thoughts on “What Does Processor Count Mean?”

  1. Thanks for this! I’ve got to buy a laptop for a 5 year old and I’m trying to make sure that I don’t under or overspend due to features that are overhyped or potentially hidden pitfalls.

    Reply

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