Building a Computer for A+ Study Part II: The CPU

Part two in series on the basics of building a computer to prepare for the A+ certification exams.

The CPU

One of the most important items that you need to consider purchasing for the computer you are building to help you prepare for the A+ certification exams is the CPU. The CPU (central processing unit) or processor is the brains of the computer. It processes instructions, manipulates data, and controls the interactions of the other components in a computer.
The two most recognizable manufacturers of CPUs are Intel and AMD. You can refer to the manufacturer’s website for more specific information about their individual CPUs. It is important to remember that both Intel and AMD use different sockets than one another so the motherboard must be designed for that particular manufacturer’s CPU.
One of the first things to consider when buying a CPU is how fast does it need to be. The processor frequency is the speed at which the CPU operates internally. Basically, the higher the frequency is for a given CPU, the faster it is. The CPU frequency is measured in Hertz. The frequency of current processors is expressed in Gigahertz (GHz), which equals to 1,000,000,000 Hertz or 1,000,000 kHz, or 1,000 MHz. Unless you are looking to overclock the computer, there is no need to be overly concerned about the frequency (other factors come into play on how well the computer performs). The motherboard’s firmware automatically detects the CPU speed and then adjusts the system bus speed accordingly. The only thing you have to be concerned with is buying a CPU that operates at a speed supported by the motherboard you purchase.
Most new computers have a multi-core CPU. Essentially, a multi-core CPU is like having two or more CPUs on the same chip for enhanced performance, reduced power consumption, and more efficient processing of multiple tasks simultaneously. Each core operate at the same frequency, but independently of each other. For example, a CPU that is considered dual-core can support four instructions at once. One with four cores (quad core) can support eight instructions at once.
Once installed in a computer, the CPU will generate heat and can get overheated quickly. This can damage the CPU as well as other components in your computer. This is where a good heatsink and fan assembly is important. A heatsink sits on top of a CPU to help keep it cool. Heatsinks are generally made of aluminum or copper. A grease-like substance known as a thermal compound (or thermal paste) is placed between the heatsink and the CPU. The thermal compound helps draw heat from the CPU. If you buy a boxed CPU that includes the heatsink and fan assembly, there may already be thermal compound preapplied  to it. In addition, there are other ways to cool the CPU such as liquid cooling systems, but remember to keep it simple with your first build.
What I picked
For my build, I choose the AMD A6-3500 Llano 2.1GHz CPU. Great performance for the price. It provides plenty of speed for a basic build (it’s a triple-core CPU). Furthermore, since this would be used primarily for studying for the A+ exams, it won’t be running high-end, graphic-intensive applications, which would normally require a separate graphics card. All video playback is great straight from the APU (Accelerated Processing Units). If I need to do so in the future, I can add a separate AMD Radeon graphics card to take advantage of both the discrete graphics card and the APU’s graphic power (This is know as AMD’s CrossFire technology, which allows multiple GPUs to be used in a single computer to improve graphics performance).

More detailed information about the CPU is covered under the PC Hardware Domain (1.6) of the 801 exam for the A+ certification.

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