Multiple cores or multiple threads? We explain what you need to known when buying a CPU.

Gaming PC Processor: Understanding the Difference Between Cores and Threads

One of the main decisions that you need to make when you’re ready to buy a new gaming computer is which processor you want. There are actually several to choose from, include various brands that make gaming computer processors, and different models that offer a different number of “cores.” In addition you may hear about processors that have more “threads” and wonder what difference that will make in your gaming experience. Here’s a quick explainer on the difference between processor cores and threads, and how you can evaluate what you need.

Cores vs Threads

To evaluate your specific needs, it’s first important to understand what it means when you’re discussing cores and threads.

  • Cores: the cores in your processor are physical hardware units, so a dual-core has two processing units, a quad-core has four, and so on. One core can handle one task, so having more cores means that your computer can do more things simultaneously.
  • Threads: threads are a virtual process, and they’re more like organizers than actual processors. Having multiple threads can organize the workload more efficiently for the processor(s) but it can’t perform any of the processing tasks. 

Processor Cores and PC Gaming

The cores do all the heavy lifting on your computer, and the idea of multiple cores in a processor first appeared in 2006 with the Intel Core 2 Duo. So if you only had a single core, you could still play a video game, but you would not be able to perform any other tasks on the computer, like listening to music on Spotify, recording your gameplay, or streaming in a browser window. To perform these things simultaneously you need multiple cores, and most experts recommend at least four cores (a quad-core processor).

When You May Want Additional Threads

Threads help deliver specific workload and tasks to the CPU, so having multiple threads can help organize your tasks into a more efficient work queue. For computers that are performing a lot of tasks at once, it can provide some improvement in processing speed to ensure that it happens as efficiently as possible.

For example, if you are gaming and you also want to live stream, threads can help your computer maintain an efficient frame rate while still performing the tasks related to recording and streaming. Without hyper-threading, your computer won’t always prioritize the right tasks at the right time, which can impact both your game and your streaming efforts.

Having said that, most games themselves don’t require more than a single processor and can’t really take advantage of multi-thread technology (hyper-threading) because each action depends on the actions previously taken and the result of those action. It’s not running several different threads and actions simultaneously.

The Bottom Line

You should first prioritize the number of cores in your CPU, getting at least four and up to eight for maximum gaming performance. Once you have that, adding multiple threads or hyper-threading can improve performance even more, but it’s not required for today’s games.