CPU cores vs threads is a question that seems to constantly pop-up on forums and message boards ever since the internet became widely accessible. Not only that, but it has become more prevalent in recent years due to the ever increasing minimum requirements for some of the top end AAA games and applications. Ultimately, people want to know what makes a CPU more useful for their task; thread count or core count? Unsurprisingly, as with most technical questions related to computer power, there is no straightforward answer and depends entirely on the user.
Simply put, CPU threads help the cores process information efficiently. However, CPU threads may only show physical performance boosts when being utilized for specific tasks. Therefore, a hyper-threaded CPU may not give you any boost for the task that you intend to conduct, because it simply doesn’t support the technology.
Difference between a core and a thread
CPU cores are physical hardware components that are inside your computer. Threads are virtual components that help to manage workload and computer tasks efficiently. The CPU can interact with multiple threads at once if needed or if the first thread is unreliable or slow.
Both Intel and AMD CPUs utilize cores and threads. However, multithreading and hyper-threading are slight variations of the same thing. Intel owns the concept for hyper-threading, which allows Intel processing units to process threads more efficiently. However, AMD’s answer to this was to release the Ryzen line of processors, which came equipped with more cores, to allow them to stand toe-to-toe with Intel products.
What is Hyper-Threading?
Despite the futuristic name, hyper-threading came onto the commercial scene in 2002 in the form of Pentium 4. It was Intel’s way of increasing the performance of the average personal computer, without having to spend outlandish amounts of money.
Essentially, hyper-threading tells your operating system that threads are actually physical CPU cores. Therefore, information is shared fasted, and decoding is more streamlined. Intel boasts that this technology alone should bring a performance increase of up to 30%.
Hyper-threading is patented by Sun Microsystems.
What are cache misses?
A cache miss occurs when data requested is not found in the CPU cache memory. When this failure happen, the information has to be fetched from other cache levels or memory, like storage disks or RAM. The delayed fetch can cause latency which will end up hindering the performance of your CPU. Running multiple threads allows the CPU to schedule information beforehand, which minimizes down time. Regardless of the application running, reducing cache misses will improve performance and speed across the board.
How do CPU cores and threads work?
As we briefly outlined above, CPU cores are physical hardware components of the processor, and the threads are virtual helpers that enable the CPU to schedule tasks efficiently. If a CPU lacks multithreading or hyper-threading (which is rare in today’s standards), the processor will have to work extra hard to complete a task.
A single core can be assigned to one task at a time, but multiple cores enable you to run several applications with ease. For instance, as I’m writing this, I have Spotify playing in the background, as well as World of Warcraft, but in terms of performance, there are no noticeable speed reductions to my computer.
Multithreading makes CPUs more efficient at their job, which will give you better overall performance. However, this additional computer power will utilize more electricity. It’s important that you equip yourself with a suitable PSU if you’re building your own PC.
In summary, if you’re considering making a CPU upgrade, the more threads you have, the more improved your multitasking capabilities will be. Multithreading might receive diminishing returns with PC games, unless you’re constantly tabbing out and doing other things like me. If you render videos though, you’ll find your PC is barely usable during the render if you don’t have many threads.
Cores vs threads for gaming
The simple answer to this question is that cores are far more important for PC gaming than threads. Running a PC game in fullscreen isn’t too difficult for a CPU with an average clock speed and cache.
However, how many people only ‘just’ game these days? A substantial amount of people livestream/record their games, listen to background music via YouTube and Spotify, or just chat to friends over Discord. It is these types of people where multithreading and hyper-threading comes into play. The more threads you have to the smoother all of your applications and tasks will be. There is nothing worse than having your FPS drop in your game, just because you opened Discord.
It seems that single player offline titles are the culprits for increasing the average minimum CPU requirements in games these days. On the other hand, if your main focus is online competitive or esport titles like Dota 2 and Overwatch, then you’ll be fine with a smaller amount of threads as these types of games don’t really utilize hyper-threading or multithreading. This allows the games to be more accessible for more people.
Hopefully this write-up has helped explained the differences between cores and threads, as well as help to enable you to make an informed decision on whether you need to upgrade your current processing unit or not.
In summary, if your focus is multi-tasking applications, video editing and rendering, then you will benefit from more threads. However, only a small amount of computer games will benefit from the extra threads.
Of course, if you have the budget, then purchasing the best computer processing unit that you can is a good way of future proofing your rig.