When Should You Upgrade Your CPU?

CG Director Author Alex Glawionby Alex Glawion   /  Published 
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When Should You Upgrade Your CPU?

Are you due for a CPU upgrade?

Well, imagine this, you’re browsing through the web. You got some nice music going, maybe a couple of other apps up as well.

All of a sudden, the good vibes come crashing down as your computer starts lagging.

Your PC is feeling a little sluggish, things loading a little slower, things are just not as snappy as when you first bought it.

It’s the CPUs fault, right?

Well, many different things could cause your computer to slow down.

Reasons to upgrade your CPU

And maybe that’s just how that fancy new Software or Game behaves normally.

How would you even know that you should upgrade your CPU?

When Should You Upgrade Your CPU?

First things first:

Age alone is almost never a reason for upgrading your CPU. CPUs can theoretically run forever, they don’t slow down over time if they are handled correctly.

But, Thermal paste doesn’t last forever and any fan and Heatsink or radiator can accumulate dust, which degrades its efficiency at cooling the CPU over time. This in turn increases the CPU’s heat, which in turn can harm the CPU long-term.

So if you haven’t cleaned and refreshed your Cooling every year or so, a CPU can fail as a result over time.

It shouldn’t get slower over time, though, it’ll either work or stop working entirely.

With that out of the way, let’s take a look at some of the giveaways that you are in for a CPU upgrade, but first, you have to consider the following:

Is your CPU performing up to spec?

Because slowdowns can have many reasons, you should first and foremost make sure that your CPU is actually performing as intended.

Even if it seems slow, yes, it might be too old and too slow in general for some of the applications you are running.

BUT it might also have another issue, like old thermal paste, a loose or broken CPU cooler, or bad BIOS settings that are the culprit for your PC’s sluggishness.

So, first, check these two:

  1. Make sure your CPU is performing up to spec (as intended by the manufacturer)
  2. Make sure it’s in fact the CPU that is causing the bad performance you are experiencing

The first step is easy: Run a couple of CPU Benchmarks such as Cinebench R23 and compare your score to online databases.

(Be sure to figure out the name of your CPU first. Here’s how.)

If it doesn’t perform up to spec, rather than upgrading your CPU, you should first fix the underlying issues that are keeping your CPU from performing to its full potential.

If your score is about on par with what others are measuring, your CPU is performing up to spec.

In that case, you should make sure it is in fact the CPU that is causing your PC’s sluggishness. Here are some pointers as to how you can do that:

Is the CPU your Bottleneck?

One easily accessible way to check would be to see how often your CPU is at 100% utilization.

Task Manager - Processes Tab

Unless you’re doing something that is very CPU bound like simulations, stress testing, running tons of applications, or other CPU heavy work, your total CPU utilization should generally hover at around 5% – 35%.

If your CPU utilization is over 90% for a majority of the time, even when you’re not doing any CPU-heavy work, that is a definite sign that you should probably look into upgrading your CPU.

Other than that, you should keep an eye out for lag when you have a lot of tabs open in your browser or when you open up multiple apps.

But the problem with that method is that there are many different things that could potentially slow down those sorts of operations,—the key ones being your disk (Hard Drive) or memory (RAM) utilization being at 100%.

Overall, a combination of keeping your eye open for lagginess and CPU utilization should give you a rough estimate of when you should upgrade your CPU—or at least a rough estimate of when you should look into cutting down on the browser tabs.

Is your CPU Bottlenecking Your GPU?

A bottleneck is something that happens when your computer has a component that hampers the rest of your computer from working as well as it can.

What is a CPU Bottleneck

A small bottleneck is kind of a given in any computer setup. It’s pretty hard to get a perfectly matching—performance-wise—CPU and GPU, so there’s usually a 5% – 10% bottleneck on certain applications.

But, sometimes, you could get a certain component that is far above what the rest of your system can handle, which then, in turn, makes the other components bottlenecks.

As we’re talking about CPUs, the usual bottleneck for them is GPUs.

CPUs generally have longer lifespans than GPUs in that they can perform at an adequate level for many years compared to the faster life cycle of a GPU.

Because of this, many people tend to keep upgrading their GPU while mostly ignoring their CPU.

This can eventually result in your CPU being multiple generations old whereas your GPU is brand-spanking new.

This then also results in your CPU not being able to keep up with the newer GPU because it’s so fast.

Your CPU simply can’t process the information that it needs to send to the GPU fast enough, so it has to leave the GPU waiting for information to get to it before it can start its work.

In certain applications like games or when rendering, this can affect the performance and fluidity of the application through stuttering and hang-ups that happen because of the imbalance.

You can diagnose this by going into the task manager and checking if your CPU is at 100% constantly while your GPU is just cruising along at below 60% utilization or thereabouts.

That usually means that your CPU is working overtime to get information to your GPU, hence the bottleneck.

On a side-note: One or multiple brand new GPUs can also be bottlenecked by insufficient CPU PCIe-Lanes.

Are you limited by CPU Cores?

Back in the ye olden days of the 2010s, the general consensus was that you only really needed 4 cores for most applications.

Anything over that was a waste and only professionals needed more than 4 cores.

Well, times have certainly changed.

CPUs nowadays are regularly hitting 8+ cores and some enthusiast level CPUs have core counts of 64+!

But, you generally don’t have to worry about all of that.

Most need around 6 – 8 Cores for fast active Work, depending on how heavy you go with the browser tabs and multi-tasking.

Most applications don’t require more than that, however, if you plan on using your CPU heavily through simulations, CPU rendering, AI work, and other CPU-heavy applications, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to have a CPU with 16+ cores.

You can see if your cores are limiting you by going to the performance tab in task manager and clicking on CPU.

Task Manager - Performance Tab

You will see something like the above.

See those graphs under “CPU”? Those represent all your cores, and how much each one is being utilized.

If you frequently see all your available cores being utilized at 100%, you’re most likely limited by the number of cores on your computer.

If you see only a few cores being utilized or all of the cores being moderately utilized, then that either means that whatever application(s) you’re running is not optimized for a large number of cores, or you’re not bottlenecked by your CPU.

In that case, you most likely don’t have to upgrade your CPU.

Limited by your CPUs Single-Core Performance?

Remember how we talked about how 100% CPU utilization is a clear give-away that you need to upgrade your CPU?

Be sure to look at the utilization of your individual Cores as well!

Depending on how you set up your Windows Taskmanager, you might see the consolidated CPU utilization of all Cores.

If you are using Software that uses just one core because it is badly optimized for multi-threading, chances are you will only see ~12,5% CPU Utilization, but the CPU is still the culprit of your slow PC.

The reason is simple: If you have 8 Cores, and one of those is working at 100% and the rest are idle at 0%, well, the consolidated percentage then is 12,5%.

So be sure sure to also check the utilization of your individual cores, not just your entire CPU.

Is your CPU incompatible With Modern Software?

Sometimes, your CPU is simply too old to learn new tricks.

Modern CPUs come with many special functions and instructions that allow them to perform certain “tricks” that older CPUs simply can’t.

These “tricks” can range from things like smart usage of available resources to be more efficient, the ability to boost speeds for short periods of time, security checks, special processes that allow certain applications to use the CPU better, etc.

And sometimes, some hardware & software require these new “tricks” to function as intended.

Take the Windows 11 Operating System for example. It only supports CPUs a couple of generations old.

Sadly, there’s no great way to check whether all applications will support your CPU.

The best you can do is to just get the application and see if it’ll run, or look up whether your CPU supports the application you’re trying to run.

Even if your current CPU knows all the tricks needed to run the software you intend to use, you might need to check the System Requirements and Recommended Specs if you plan on doing any heavy lifting and still want to work efficiently.

Some Software like Photoshop, After Effects or Premiere Pro have fairly low minimum Software Requirements, but you’ll need quite a bit more than the absolute minimum to truly work efficiently.

Do you want to overclock your CPU?

Maybe it’s not performance or incompatibilities or anything like that.

Maybe you just want to be able to overclock your CPU, but you can’t because your CPU is locked.

AMD Ryzen vs Intel CPU

It’s certainly not why most people upgrade their CPUs but maybe you just want to chase those amazing speeds and your current CPU is preventing you from doing that.

Though, because of the potential instability caused by overclocking, we generally don’t recommend overclocking for professional use cases.

What to Consider When Upgrading Your CPU

Similarly to upgrading your PC, there are a couple of things that you need to keep in mind before you run off and buy a CPU.

Compatibility

The main things that you need to check for compatibility are your motherboard and your CPU cooler.

If you upgrade your CPU, there’s a high chance that you’ll also need to upgrade your motherboard.

It generally depends on how old your CPU is, some motherboards support multiple generations of CPUs (some require BIOS updates), but if you’re buying a new motherboard and a CPU, I would recommend double-checking to make sure that they’re both compatible without any BIOS shenanigans.

Intercompatibility between components is key

If you require a BIOS update, it’s not the end of the world, but it’s certainly inconvenient.

The best way to check if your CPU and motherboard are compatible is to ask us in our forum, check through PCPARTPICKER, or Google something along the lines of “Is X CPU compatible with Y motherboard?”.

And if you’re overclocking, you need to make sure your motherboard actually supports this.

And as for the CPU cooler, they’re generally a lot more compatible than motherboards.

Choosing the right socket

They usually have different brackets that ensure compatibility with multiple generations of CPUs, but if your CPU cooler is really old, it might be a good idea to get a new CPU cooler along with your CPU.

Power Requirements

CPUs nowadays are getting more and more powerful, but that brings higher demands for energy as well.

A power supply that worked fine for your old CPU might not be enough for your new one—not to mention any other upgrades that you might be doing.

So it’s good to make sure that you check the power requirements of the CPU that you’re looking at to make sure your computer can actually handle it.

PSU manufacturer beQuiet has a nice Wattage calculator for this.

be quiet! Power Supply Calculator

Personal/Work Requirements

Why exactly are you upgrading your CPU?

Are you looking for better performance in your 3D Software of choice? Games perhaps? Or do you just want better performance in general?

Consumer CPU Applications

There’s no need to spend a ton of money on the best and shiniest CPU around if you’re never going to even utilize 10% of what it was made for.

Take a high-end AMD Threadripper for example. They’re amazing CPUs that can do parallelized CPU tasks like nothing else, but they cost a ton of money!

You could build two and a half great computers for the price of that one CPU.

But they’re that expensive because they’re made for very specific tasks like physics and fluid simulations, CPU rendering, server applications, AI applications, etc.

Professional CPU Applications

98% of people looking for a new CPU don’t need a Threadripper. They would never use all those cores, PCIe lanes, or RAM channels.

And not to mention that Threadrippers aren’t all that great with single-core tasks anyway—a majority of what your CPU will be doing.

They’re specialized CPUs, so if you try to play games or do other stuff with them, they will perform at about the same level as a $200 – $300 CPU.

Meaning that they’re just going to be a waste if they aren’t utilized the way they were meant to be utilized.

So as I said before. You should generally aim for CPUs with 6 – 8 cores if you’re not a professional that uses their CPU heavily for workloads that are optimized for multi-threading.

But if you are such a professional, you should look into getting a CPU with 16+ cores because you will most likely see a lot of speed-ups in your workflow from it.

Cost of a New CPU vs Performance Gains

CPUs are expensive. They’re an investment, and if you don’t really need the best of the best, you could be spending hundreds of dollars on a bad investment.

Pricing Difference - HEDT processors

One of the key things that you need to keep in mind is how much you’re willing to spend vs how much you will actually gain from it.

If, for example, your work is reliant on your CPU—maybe you render using your CPU—getting a better CPU that affects the speed of your renders directly benefits you and your work.

The ability to quickly and fluidly work in your viewport and jump into a viewport render without your workflow slowing down is invaluable.

You could potentially earn more money faster, or it could just give you the ability to speed up your work process and give you less stress and more free time.

But, if you’re more of a gamer, or maybe just use your computer for other less CPU-intensive tasks, you don’t need to spend hundreds, thousands of dollars on getting the highest-end CPUs.

90% of the time, that’s just an ineffective use of your money—unless you just enjoy it for its own sake.

In Summary

Hopefully, that gave you a good overview of whether or not you should upgrade your CPU.

It’s quite hard to figure out bottlenecks or performance problems through reading an article alone, so apart from trying recognizing any slowdowns yourself, I recommend you run Benchmarks every now and then to see if everything is still working as intended.

There’s also the fact that most CPUs generally take a long time to become completely useless, so if your CPU is at the very least somewhat relatively new, it should be fine for the most part, and wouldn’t really need to be upgraded.

But if your CPU is 6 – 10+ years old, I’d say it’s a good idea to see if you can upgrade it—but even that is only if you feel like it’s holding you back in some way.

All in all, if your CPU is working fine for you, there’s no need to just go and chase the new hotness just because it’s new.

FAQs

How long does a CPU usually last?

A CPU lasts forever unless it is handled incorrectly. Bad cooling, dust built up, dry thermal paste can be causes of the CPU overheating which can shorten its lifespan.

Is it worth upgrading your CPU?

You’ll first have to make sure it is in fact the CPU that will grant you increased performance and not another part of the PC. If it is, only you can decide the worth of increased performance for your work or fun on the PC.

Can a CPU be upgraded?

Yes, CPUs in Desktop PCs can usually be upgraded easily. You’ll have to make sure the CPU you want to get is compatible with the Motherboard and CPU Cooler that you already have. You might have to upgrade some other components as well to make the new CPU compatible.

Will an i7 fit in an i5 socket?

Yes, both Intel i5 and i7 CPUs have the same Socket within a generation. There isn’t an i5 or i7 Socket per-se. i5 and i7 classify an Intel CPU-type and not a Socket.

Over to you

Did that explain everything you need to know about when you should think about upgrading your CPU? Got any other unanswered questions? Ask us in the comments or our forum!

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Alex Glawion - post author

Hi, I’m Alex, a Freelance 3D Generalist, Motion Designer and Compositor.

I’ve built a multitude of Computers, Workstations and Renderfarms and love to optimize them as much as possible.

Feel free to comment and ask for suggestions on your PC-Build or 3D-related Problem, I’ll do my best to help out!

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