Overall, the cost of computers has come down a lot. (Adjusted for inflation, the mid-’90s equivalent of today’s $ 650 base computers was around $ 4,000.) But PCs still aren’t. cheap– it is therefore understandable that in order to respect a tight budget, some manufacturers seek to cut corners where they can.
One way to do this is to buy an older processor, which is even older than the latest generation of parts. Such processors can be hard to find, but sometimes appear here and there. This strategy is also common among buy PC components on the second-hand market. Buy older, lightly used chips and you can save a good chunk of money.
But how far do we have to go back? The best answer to this often-asked question varies from person to person, and so in order to make the right choice you need to weigh the importance of the following four factors. Don’t have a lot of time? Do not worry. We also have some specific recommendations below.
Google / Natascha Eibl
Go too far in your search for a cheap processor, and you might have a hard time finding one that meets the requirements of security. You should always ask yourself if there are any outstanding security vulnerabilities and how easily you can fix them. For example, Specter and Meltdown fixes mostly come from motherboard updateswhich means that you need to be sure that you can get a motherboard that offers the latest security protections for the processor you are considering.
Beyond security vulnerabilities, you should also ask yourself how security updates will affect your chip’s performance. To use the same example, the Specter and Meltdown fixes are known to reduce CPU performance on older Intel processors. The amount varies, but in our test on a Kaby Lake R system, we saw a 14% drop in the Cinebench benchmark R15.
As you might expect, the older the motherboard, the harder it will be to find one, especially a new one. Doing some research to see how easily you can get a motherboard for the generation of processor you are considering should also play a role in your choice of chip.
This question weighs much more heavily when you are interested in an older Intel processor, as Team Blue likes to change the socket and chipsets to their latest and greatest. Unless you’re buying second-hand, it can be difficult and expensive to get your hands on a motherboard that supports processors prior to 8th Gen Core (Coffee Lake) parts. Your main options for new cards are third-party resellers, who typically charge a hefty premium for obsolete equipment. Buying through a reseller can also make it difficult to get warranty support if something goes wrong.
AMD Ryzen processors, on the other hand, are far easier to get a new motherboard for. Choose an X470 or B450 motherboard with a BIOS update for make it compatible with Ryzen 5000 processors, and you can start with a 1st or 2nd gen Zen chip, and then upgrade to a 5000 series part later when the prices for those drop significantly. You might not see the same clearance prices on these as on previous generations, but you can often find good prices down the road. This is especially true if you are shopping second-hand.
Gordon Mah Ung / IDG
A chip’s performance is not limited to its clock speed: generational improvements that result in higher instructions per clock (IPC) can lead to better performance at lower clock speeds. It is important to look at the benchmark results, as it helps to know how much of a jump occurs from one generation to the next.
But the CPI isn’t the whole story either. Depending on your usual tasks, you might be better off with an older chip that has more cores (or at the very least, more threads) than a slightly newer chip with a lower count. Having those extra cores and threads can help you cycle through encodings and renders faster, for example. Again, look at the references to make that call, and pay close attention to the results for the types of software you’ll be using most often.
To be a little more specific, how far you want to go back depends a bit on the brand. For AMD, 1st Gen Ryzen begins the story of the company’s comeback, and then gains increasing momentum with each subsequent generation. Intel processors offer more measured but consistent performance increases with each generation. But arguably, performance shouldn’t dominate your decision, as the practical concerns about motherboard security and availability outlined above are significant.
Future system upgrades
Gordon Mah Ung / IDG
No matter what price you build at, durability is often a consideration. The most important point to consider in this regard is upgrading the processor. Buying an older processor usually means you have a modest budget, and equally limited PC updates will follow. The latter can mean alone a CPU swap, rather than a replacement of both the processor and its motherboard.
Since compatible motherboards for Intel processors change more frequently, you’ll be much more limited in which generations to target and how far you can go later. You need to decide which generations you are comfortable committing to with your motherboard purchase (you usually only get two). However, you don’t have the same restriction for AMD motherboards. If you get the right B450 or X470 motherboard, it will work with Ryzen 1000, 2000, 3000, and 5000 processors. This gives plenty of room to delay an upgrade until you can afford a bigger step on. the road. (For example, going from a first generation Zen chip to a Zen 3 replacement.)
You can also factor in support for PCIe 4.0, but you won’t be able to go very far back at all – one gen for AMD and zero gen for Intel. You should stick to Ryzen 3000 or newer for Team Red and current Rocket Lake processors for Team Blue.
Don’t want to think about it too much? No problem. To get the best mix of security protection, motherboard uptime, and performance, start with these two generations and move forward based on processor uptime and your budget.
AMD: 2nd Generation Zen Processors (Ryzen 2000 Series)
Alaina Yee is PCWorld’s resident bargain hunter. When not covering PC building, computer components, mini-PCs, etc., she is looking for the best technology deals. Previously, his work has appeared in PC Gamer, IGN, Maximum PC, and Official Xbox Magazine. You can find her on Twitter at @morphingball.