One Core, Two Cores, Three Cores, More?

If you are at all curious about computing products (PCs, smartphones, tablets), you may have noticed references to CPU "cores" - so what is that, and what does it mean if there are multiple cores? The Central Processing Unit (CPU) is traditionally a computing device's "brain", the place where all the data and number fly around. There may be other processing units too, but we'll stick with the main one, the CPU.

The image above shows a "Quad core" Intel processor (or at least the box it comes in). A Quad core means that inside the chip we call the CPU, there are actually effectively four little CPUs working away in a single device. An individual CPU can only do one thing at a time, although when it's done really really fast, it seems like there is a lot going on at once. Having more than one core available can result in a performance increase.

Imagine painting a house by yourself, versus painting a house with three friends; you would expect the process to be a lot quicker with your buds helping out - you can divvy up the work. Maybe not 4 times as fast, but substantially quicker. And so it is when more than one core available, although this is particularly dependent on whether the operating system and other software is able to take advantage of multiple cores. Imagine you friends had never painted anything before, and only spoke a little of your language; you would need to stop what you were doing from time to time to show them what to do, and so the benefit of having them help would be lessened.

Similarly, if the hardware is there, but the software is not able to marshal and direct those resources, then multiple CPU cores likely won't have a big impact.

So generally speaking, more cores give better performance, assuming the software and operating system are up to the task as well. Current versions of Windows, OS X, Linux, Android and iOS should all be capable of effectively utilizing the benefits of a multi-core CPU.

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