CPU Cores vs Threads – What is the Difference?

Austin
| Last Updated: May 31, 2021

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Are you torn between getting a CPU with more cores or threads for an enhanced system performance?

Understanding how cores and threads impact a computer’s performance can be confusing even for techies who’ve been around computers for some time. Some have confused one term to mean the other when talking about CPU components.

The article will explain the differences and correlation of the two in simple and understandable terms.

TL;DR: CPU Cores vs Threads

Cores increase the number of tasks executed at a time. Threads improve the overall performance of a process which includes computational speed. 

Cores are the hardware components on a chipset, while threads are virtual cores that manage task processes.

While threads operate numerous processes using multiple CPUs, cores use content switching.

More cores and threads in a CPU means faster execution of tasks. 

The most straightforward and practical analogy to understand cores and threads is a human being—one person with two hands. You are the core, and your hands are the threads.

You can control two things in your hands simultaneously. Depending on how best your brain can coordinate activities in your hands, two hands would be better than one.

What is a CPU Core?

A CPU core is the computers’ processor that receives, analyzes, and logically executes instructions. When CPUs first came in, they only had one CPU core, which means the processor could only perform one task at a time.

Today, technological advancements have seen computers come with multiple cores whereby each core can run a different task independently. The more cores there are in a CPU, the more efficient it is.

Most processors, especially those used in laptops, have two cores, but some have four. For instance, Intel’s 8th generation processor has four. 

For efficient performance, always aim for four cores or more in your machine if it’s within your reach.

Many processors use hyperthreading or simultaneous multithreading (SMT) to split physical cores into virtual cores. These virtual cores are called threads. When cores are split, they double the number of virtual cores (threads), which is efficient when running intensive tasks like video editing.

An example is Intel CPUs that mostly come with two cores. The CPU uses a hyper-threading process to give four threads for efficient execution of demanding tasks.

Types of CPU Cores

There are a variety of CPU Cores on the market today with different levels of performance. You’ve probably heard of CPUs like Pentium and Celeron. 

Below we discuss the six major types of CPU Cores you’re likely going to come across.

Single-core CPU

The single-core is the oldest CPU core and is mainly used in official and personal computers. It can only run one command at a time. There will be a notable decline in performance when two commands are executed simultaneously. 

One operation will have to finish processing before the next one picks up.

CPU performance is determined by measuring the power of its clock speed-number of cycles that the CPU can execute per second measured in gigahertz (GHz).

Dual-core CPU

A dual-core CPU is a single CPU with two powerful cores and operates like a dual CPU. The CPU will manage multitasking well by switching between tasks if more threads are executed. 

For a more effective operation, operating systems and other running programs require simultaneous multi-threading (SMT). Dual-core is an upgrade from single-core and performs better.

Quad-core CPU

The quad-core CPU is a single CPU with four cores. It is more efficient for multi-tasking as it divides the workload further for the four cores for parallel processing. 

Each core operates alongside other circuits that include cache, I/O ports, and memory management.

Hexa Core Processors

Hexa core processor is a multiple-core CPU with six cores in its chip and works faster than dual-core and quad-core CPUs. The chipset uses both dual and quad-core processors.

Octa-core Processors

Octa-core processor is a further upgrade from the CPU processors listed above. Octa-core comes with eight cores and will perform up to 200% faster than quad-core processors. 

Some octa-core processors have two sets of quad-core processors assigned to different tasks depending on the chipset’s ability and task intensity.

Deca-core Processors

Deca-core processor is the best option in this list as it comes with the most core count, which means speedy execution of tasks. The processor will deploy up to ten cores, making your system operate exceptionally fast. 

Smartphone companies are already producing flagship model smartphones with deca-core processors.

What Are CPU Threads? 

CPU Threads are virtual codes or components that divide a CPU’s physical core into virtual cores to increase performance. For example, a single CPU core can have two threads, and a dual-core CPU can have up to four threads.

Operation

A process creates threads. Opening any application on a computer creates a thread to handle tasks associated with that particular application. Opening and running more applications creates more threads.

The operating system creates threads to perform a task of a particular application. A single thread performs computations on a core. After receiving information from the user, it will create another thread and assign it the task.

Upon receiving another instruction, the OS will create one more thread making it two threads. Threads will continue to increase as more instructions are introduced.

A good example is in a smartphone. You’ll notice a circle that spins continuously when you open an app. That process is made possible by a thread explicitly intended for it. The second thread then loads the information and presents it in the GUI.

The creation of threads can only be limited by the physical CPU, a characteristic that varies from one CPU to the other.

So, threads are vital in enabling a computer to multitask and speed up operations. Because of threads, you can listen to music in the background while browsing the web simultaneously.

What is Multithreading?

Multithreading is the occurrence and execution of more than one thread in a system. The thread executions may come in two types, Parallel and Concurrent multithreaded implementations.

To understand multithreading, you need to know what the below two terms mean:

  1. Thread: A thread is a basic or independent unit of a process.

  2. Process: A program under execution is the process. There are multiple threads in a process.

The execution of a thread and a process is both parallel and concurrent.

Photo credit: ecollect.medium.com

  • Parallel Execution: A parallel execution is when each thread can run a different processor in a multithreaded process simultaneously.

  • Concurrent Execution: A concurrent execution is when a processor can switch execution resources linking threads on a multithreaded process on a single-core CPU.

What is Hyper-Threading?

Hyper-threading is Intels’ technology that allows several threads to run on one core for enhanced performance. The process enables sharing of information, which in turn speeds up the decoding process. 

According to Intel, hyper-threading will increase performance speed up to 30%.

Relevant Characteristics Between CPU Cores and Threads

CPU Cores

CPU Threads

Single-core

Method of Operation

Parallel Execution

Independent

Applications

Combined with Cores

4.03Ghz Clock Speed

Speed

8 Threads

Single Processing

Processing Units

Multiple Processing

Similarities and Differences 

Cores and threads will work to improve the overall performance of a system. However, that does not make them similar in structure and mode of operation. 

Below we discuss the differences and similarities between these CPU components and how they can affect task executions.

CPU Core and CPU Thread Differences 

Let's begin with the differences between the two.

How a Core and a Thread Work

A core is located in the CPU chipset as physical hardware designed to run one task at a time. Running several applications at the same time means you’ll require multiple cores. 

For instance, a user seeking to game and run a Facebook or even skype in the background will need a multi-core processor.

On the other hand, a CPU thread is a virtual core that works to speed up these processes by reducing the response time through multithreading. Multithreading will quickly sort out relevant information for processing and heighten power consumption while keeping temperatures low.

Processing Units

A core will effectively work on a single processing unit to perform a task, whereas a thread requires multiple processing units to execute and assign functions to a core.

Properties

A core will support multi-core or parallel execution. Tasks are subdivided and assigned to each core. The subdivision is only possible in a multi-core process used in commercial settings.

Multi-threading will execute multiple threads within a kernel to run a common operation task. Smartphones are good examples whereby data extracted from the internet is rendered to the Graphical User Interface (GUI) to display a task or open an application.

Limitations

At increased loading, a core will require more power consumption to operate efficiently. On the other hand, threads will coordinate with the operating system and kernel if several processes require simultaneous execution.

Applications

Cores and threads combined will increase production output. Gaming is a good example. Threads joined with cores work well in productivity-oriented and software-based applications like video editing.

Example

CPU Cores will execute several applications simultaneously while CPU threads execute through web crawlers as a group/cluster.

Merits

Cores give the count of tasks completed while threads increase the computational speed and GUI response and minimize deployment cost.

Deployment

The core implementation is possible by interweaving operations while multiple CPU processors are utilized to perform a thread.

CPU Core and CPU Thread Similarities

Although CPU core and CPU threads have more notable differences, including one being virtual(thread) and the other one (core), a physical component, below are a few features they share.

  • Both work mutually in speeding up computational applications.
  • CPU core and CPU threads can be deployed at the same time during task execution. One relies on the other to perform effectively.

  • CPU cores will work at optimum speed when the number of cores directly corresponds with the processes introduced. An extra program will cause a noticeable decline in speed. 

The same is true for threads. Threads will double up in direct correspondence to available numbers or cores. When you introduce excess programs, even with hyper-threading, there’ll still be a noticeable decline in processing speed.

How Do the CPU Core and Threads Affect the OS?

When you turn on a computer, the CPU passes information about its functional features to the motherboard Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI), which then uses the information for initializing the motherboard and booting the system. 

If UEFI fails to identify the CPU appropriately, the motherboard will not boot.

The CPU core count might be lower, leading to this problem. If it happens, the problem is reported to the operating system and the UEFI.

The scheduler is another critical component of the operating system that uses the OS to assign GPU and CPU tasks to complete the booting process. The thread is always the smallest unit managed by an OS scheduler but plays a significant role in booting the PC system.  

In case you want to make an analogy, you might compare a thread to a single step in the assembly line. A single step above the thread is equivalent to one process. 

Bottom Line

From the exhaustive comparison above, it is clear that more threads and cores will give a better performance. In case you are looking to perform intense activities like video editing, or run several programs simultaneously, then consider a multi-core processor with hyper-threading.

But, for light activities that may include office tasks, a single core will suffice. 

You may consider a quad-core processor for gaming. Such activities are less intense for a processor and might not necessarily require boosting through additional threads.

High-end games might require a multithreading processor.

People Also Ask

Many computer users have used cores and threads interchangeably, which can be pretty misleading, and you might end up purchasing a CPU with features that won’t match your needs.

Below we answer some common questions from users.

Is it Better to Have More Cores or More Threads?

More cores mean more threads. More threads mean better performance. With a dual-core CPU, hyper-threading will double the number of threads to four. 

So, you may consider a processor with fewer cores and hyper-threading to double the number of threads for enhanced performance.

Can You Add Threads to Your CPU?

When you start a computer process, for example, opening photoshop, more threads will be introduced. As you continue opening other programs, the number of threads will keep increasing. Note that this is only possible if your CPU has a double thread count.

Some CPUs have a corresponding number of cores to threads. For example, four cores/ 4 threads. In such a case, you’ll not be able to increase the number of threads no matter how many programs you run.

Are a Thread and a Process the Same Thing?

A process refers to a program under execution, whereas a thread is a program within the process. Threads are also lighter and take less context switching time than a process that requires much time for context switching since they are heavy.

Austin

When the tech company I worked for restructured and I ended up jobless, I decided to put the wealth of knowledge and management skills to use somewhere new. I’d checked out a few buyer’s guides on the site in the past and reached out to the previous owner. A few months later, here we are. Now, I get to be behind the scenes, helping people find the best tech.