Jon Bach (President)

If Processors Were Cars

Written on August 8, 2015 by Jon Bach

Around Puget Systems, I think it is pretty common knowledge that I can't turn down a good comparison between PCs and automobiles. I talk about car branding, car service, car problems...I make a lot of analogies. I think it is because I appreciate cars, but I am definitely not an expert in that field. Making car analogies helps me see the PC industry from the outside...from the customer perspective.

There are lots of processor types and configurations to consider when buying a new PC. It's overwhelming to many people. Part of our role here at Puget Systems is to help people narrow down all those choices, and pick the option best for their needs. What makes one processor better than another for a given job? To help answer that question, I have an car analogy stuck in my head all week. Maybe if I write about it, I'll be able to get it out of my head!

Question: What would each processor type be if it were an automobile?

Intel Celeron/Core i3 = Moped

Intel Celeron



We'll start with an easy one. Intel Celeron or Core i3 processors are like a moped. They will get you where you need to go, but they won't quick. They won't carry much cargo (cargo = compute tasks), and if you will go even slower. Also, your geek friends will probably make fun of you. If all you need to do is get from point A to point B, and speed and cargo don't make any difference to you, it is an incredible value.

Our systems: Echo, Spirit (but only with the lowest end options)

BOTTOM LINE: If budget is your primary concern, and you can live with slower speed, this is your pick. Just make sure you go into it with proper expectations -- you get what you pay for.

Intel Haswell/Skylake (Core i5/i7, Xeon E3) = Car

Intel Core i5



Intel's mainstream segment is made up of their Haswell (Z97) and recently launched Skylake (Z170) products. Most of our customers running these platforms run Core i5 and Core i7 processors. This is IMPRESSIVE technology...they are like a mid-level Nissan coupe. They're fast, and get decent gas mileage. If you're goal is to get around quickly, this is your best bet. They aren't great at carrying cargo (remember, cargo = compute tasks), but they can do some of that. This is the right product for most people doing general work.

Our systems: Serenity, Obsidian, Deluge

BOTTOM LINE: If you're performing general PC tasks, or applications where your interaction with the PC is when the work is done, then this is most likely the right product segment for you. The PC needs to be zippy and maneuverable.

Intel Haswell-E/EP (Core i7, Xeon E5) = Truck

Intel Core i7



This is where it starts to get a bit more interesting, and where I see a lot of confusion...even from tech enthusiasts. Intel's Haswell-E and EP (X99) platforms have significantly more power. Eight core processors, quad channel memory, 40 PCI-E lanes...they have a lot of capability, and I think most people think of them like high end sports cars. I submit that a better analogy is they are like a big pickup truck. They are significantly better at carrying cargo, and they can use a lot of gas in the process. Are they faster? NOT ALWAYS! A lot of people assume they will be faster for just about any task, but we have study after study after study that shows otherwise. If all you are doing is zipping around town, these trucks will actually be slower! When you need them, you need them...but don't buy a truck unless you really expect to need what it is capable of.

Our systems: Genesis I, Peak Mini, Peak Tower

BOTTOM LINE: Intel X99 plaform is right for mid and high range compute tasks. If compute isn't part of your workload, then Intel Z170 is likely going to be FASTER and CHEAPER for you. I tend to think of it this way: is your CPU-work something that happens AS you interact with the PC? Examples: gaming, photo editing, CAD, financial trading. If so, consider Z170 as most likely to be your best choice, regardless of budget. But, if you set up the work, then hit "GO" and go grab a coffee while it churns away (post-production, rendering, simulations), then X99 is likely what you need. You need cargo capacity.

I'm sure there are plenty of places where this analogy breaks down, so cut me a little slack if you're a tech enthusiast and have holes to poke in this! But I think as a general rule of thumb, this will most often point you down the right path.

Dual Intel Haswell-EP (Xeon E5) = Cargo Truck

Intel Xeon


cargo truck

As we move up the workstation stack, we take the analogy even further. Dual CPU systems have even more capability, and in the right circumstances, that's exactly what you need. If you aren't doing compute tasks that scale well over multiple processors, then you're wasting your budget. Don't buy a cargo truck unless you have a lot of stuff to move! You could do your daily commute in a cargo truck, but it isn't going to be fast, comfortable, or gas efficient.

Our systems: Genesis II, Peak Dual Socket

BOTTOM LINE: Intel dual socket systems give even more power to high end, scalable compute tasks. If your application doesn't scale well to more than 4-8 cores, you shouldn't even be considering a dual socket system.

Quad Intel Haswell-EP (Xeon E5, E7) = Dump Truck

Intel Quad Xeon


dump truck

OK, you get the idea. Quad Xeon systems are even more extreme. For highly scalable jobs, they are excellent and can even replace small clusters. You have to really know your code and compute jobs to know if quad Xeon is right for you.

Our systems: Peak Quad Socket

BOTTOM LINE: If you are considering a quad Xeon system, you should be talking to Dr. Kinghorn, our resident HPC specialist.

Other Processors?

Those are just our most popular processors...I'm leaving out quite a few things, including AMD processors, and NVIDIA Tesla and Intel Phi co-processors. I think my analogy pretty much breaks if I try to go any further, but if you can come up with something that works, put it in the comments below!

Tags: CPU, scaling, performance, analogies