When shopping for motherboards for a PC, two of the most important specifications are the CPU and the RAM. Both of these elements affect how fast your computer runs, but in very different ways, as they have very different functions. In order to get the most performance out of your computer, it’s best to understand the roles CPU and RAM play in your PC’s overall speed.
What is a CPU?
CPU stands for Central Processing Unit. The CPU is the brains of your computer. It processes all the mathematical calculations required to make programs run. The speed of your CPU is measured in hertz (scaling up to megahertz and gigahertz), or how many cycles it can process per second. When your computer runs programs, it’s essentially following a set of instructions one at a time. CPUs can have multiple cores (i.e. dual-core or quad-core), which allows it to perform several processes at once. In a way, it’s a bit like the checkout line at the grocery store—adding a core is like opening an additional register, allowing the CPU to process instructions twice as fast.
What is RAM?
RAM stands for Random Access Memory. This is a different kind of memory that is used to store files permanently on your hard drive. Rather, RAM could be considered short term memory. The data stored in your RAM is the information that is necessary to keep a program running or complete a process. Think of it a bit like the work space for a math problem where you work out the smaller calculations that help you determine the solution to the entire problem.
To this end, RAM is incredibly important to multitasking (i.e. running multiple programs at once). RAM allows a program to continue running in the background so you can return to it without re-launching it.
How RAM and the CPU work together
As a general rule of thumb, the more RAM you have, the faster your computer will be when running multiple applications. That’s because it’s much faster for the CPU to read data from the RAM than from the hard drive. For example, if the CPU were a carpenter, the RAM would be his tool belt. The bigger his tool belt, the less time he has to waste going all the way back to his truck or tool chest.
So, what will increase the speed of your computer the most? It depends on where the bottleneck is. You can check by opening the Task Manager in Windows (right-click the task bar and click Start Task Manager) and clicking Performance. You’ll see two graphs: CPU usage and Memory Usage. If your CPU is consistently running at high percentages, then you may need a faster CPU. If your memory is maxed out, then you may see a speed boost by buying more RAM. However, if your computer isn’t utilizing most of your RAM most of the time, investing in more RAM won’t likely give you a significant increase in performance.