How important is PC processor speed, really?

Is it worth spending big bucks on a highfalutin CPU if all you're doing is watching "Gangnam Style" on YouTube?

Rick Broida Senior Editor
Rick Broida is the author of numerous books and thousands of reviews, features and blog posts. He writes CNET's popular Cheapskate blog and co-hosts Protocol 1: A Travelers Podcast (about the TV show Travelers). He lives in Michigan, where he previously owned two escape rooms (chronicled in the ebook "I Was a Middle-Aged Zombie").
Rick Broida
2 min read


In the old days, choosing a computer was easy: you bought the one with the fastest processor you could afford. And you knew which processor was fastest (more or less) by its numerical clock-speed rating.

These days it's a lot trickier. Only hard-core techies (and those with the patience to search in Google) know the difference between, say, an AMD A4-3305M and an Intel Core i3-2350M.

And even then, does it really matter? There's a strong argument to be made that processor performance, even in low-cost, entry-level PCs, has reached a level that's good enough for most users -- folks who use their machines mostly for word processing, e-mail, and Web stuff.

Of course, more and more users are turning to tablets for those activities, but that's another topic entirely.

Obviously some people need all the processing power they can get -- though usually that's for graphics-intensive tasks like gaming, video editing, and Photoshop. And that's where you need a desktop with a decent video card or a laptop with decent discrete graphics. Dual-core versus quad-core versus Core-this-or-that is less of a factor.

There's another factor that can contribute to overall PC performance, one that can actually trump the hardware you have. See, I own a fairly state-of-the-art Core i7 machine with 8GB of RAM, a 750GB hard drive, discrete graphics, and the like. It's barely two years old. And you know what? It's a slowpoke compared with the cheap dual-core laptop I bought less than a year ago. It takes several minutes to boot and often just seems to bog down for no reason.

Know why? Windows. Even a system with top-tier hardware can turn to molasses when Windows' arteries get clogged, which in my experience tends to happen 12 to 18 months in. Granted, I install and uninstall a lot of software on my primary system, and the aforementioned cheapie laptop has little more than Mozilla Thunderbird and Kingsoft Office.

In other words, it runs lean, which is how it's able to stay speedy even when supposedly faster hardware bogs down.

But that just proves my point: even a "slow" PC can get the job done, especially if you stick to basic computing tasks.

What are your thoughts on this? Is the processor still a key consideration when you buy a new PC? Or do you agree that it's not a big deal anymore?