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Clock speed vs. core count

March 26, 2018

Clock speed vs. core count

We interviewed Samuel Alt, technical support specialist at Ingram Micro, to settle the clock speed vs. core count debate. He spends his days supporting SMB customers who have tech questions just like this. Here’s Samuel’s thoughts based on real-world IT experience.

Can you give us the recent history of processing speeds?

It really wasn’t that long ago when every processor on the market was single core. And the originals were running on hertz. Not megahertz or gigahertz—just hertz. We’re talking extremely slow systems compared to today. So it made sense why CPU clock speed was king back then, because multi-core processors didn’t hit the mainstream market until around 2005.

So is clock speed no longer king?

Clock speed now shares the glory with multi-core processors. It’s a good thing because there are technological limitations when it comes to increasing speed on single-core processors. When dual-core processors entered the market, everyone was raving about how fast they were. Today, we see quad-cores, octa-cores and beyond. This is why I don’t see a need for, say, a 10 GHz processor.

Why aren’t processing speeds increasing like we thought they would?

Multiple tasks are being completed faster than ever, even though clock speeds have remained the same. The primary reason is because programs are taking advantage of the multiple cores.

Here’s a simplified illustration: At a large construction site, you never see just one fast worker on the job. Even if he or she is the quickest worker available, it’s proven that multiple workers are still required to finish large jobs on time. In the computing world, increasing clock speed is rarely more efficient than increasing core count. There’s strength in numbers and multitasking.  

What else is worth mentioning in the speed conversation?

We’re seeing more “stuff” crammed into CPUs than before, which may be another reason processing speeds haven’t increased much. Thanks to ever-shrinking components, we’re asking computers to do more than what they were originally designed for. Examples include advanced, built-in networking cards, RAID functionality and microcontrollers. Additional circuitry on the CPU now goes beyond just compute.

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