Which should I get: a faster CPU, or more memory?
May 7, 2010 2:08 PM   Subscribe

I'm ready to buy a new desktop PC with Windows 7, and I can't decide whether to spend more money on a faster CPU or more memory, if either. Which would be better in the long run: i7-860 (or even i7-920) with 6 GB RAM, or i5 with 8 GB of RAM? Considering the CPU alone, is an i7 instead of an i5 worth the extra money?

I'm not a gamer, but I'm a fairly heavy computer user -- I usually have several tabs of Google Chrome open as well as iTunes (both of which are pretty memory-intensive), and I do a lot of multitasking and occasional downloading of applications. I watch a fair amount of video, too.

I'm planning to buy a Dell, if that's helpful. (No Dell-bashing here, please; my current computer is a Dell and it's held up fine for seven years, and through my job I can get a really nice discount on another one.)

My main concern is future-proofing. I'm sure an i5 with
6 GB would be fine for right now (especially compared to my current computer, which is 7 years old and has 1 GB of RAM -- the max it can take -- and a Pentium 4). But I'd like to be able to use my new computer comfortably for at least the next five years without it getting sluggish. It seems like I wouldn't see an appreciable difference in speed between the i5 and the i7 right now, but will that change as my computer fills with bloat over the next few years and newer, more resource-intensive operating systems and applications come out? Or should I spend the money on more memory instead?
posted by Tin Man to Computers & Internet (12 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
It is much easier (and more cost effective) to install/replace RAM down the road than it is to upgrade to a newer processor. RAM is a standardized chip that slots in, and DDR3 RAM isn't going anywhere anytime soon (so it'll get cheaper per GB before it gets more expensive.) Processors, however, are often reliant on iffy things like BIOS updates, voltage requirements, etc. when upgrading. Not to mention the sometimes messy process of cleaning and replacing the thermal paste/retention hardware during the install process.

Go with the beefier processor. The group of people who actively max out 6GB of RAM today is pretty tiny.
posted by Phyltre at 2:18 PM on May 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

To provide a non-answer: 6GB is a lot for a desktop user as is an i5. I'd actually try to spend money on a faster disk, possibly a SSD. That will provide a much bigger boost to the end-user experience than either an incremental CPU or RAM upgrade.

Having said that, I'd go for CPU over RAM in this case if you can't get a SSD.
posted by GuyZero at 2:25 PM on May 7, 2010

Rule of thumb is in the long run, it costs less to buy more ram to add later on then to buy a faster processor. Honestly either processor should be plenty of power for the next few years, I built a PC about a year and a half ago with a 2.66 GHz Intel Yorkfield and I plan on running this computer for another 3 -4 years at least.

If it were me and I could afford it without breaking the bank I would go with the i7 and add in another 2 GB stick down the road if I see it for a good price on newegg.com. 6GB of ram should be enough for your multitasking, my roommate has 6 gigs and he plays valve games at the same time as having firefox with 20 tabs open and winamp playing music. He has no problem doing all of this, and also uses the same processor as me (but he has better and more ram then me). So I can't see any problem for you with either choice.
posted by token-ring at 2:25 PM on May 7, 2010

Unless you're doing something really preposterous, 6G is more than you'll need.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 2:55 PM on May 7, 2010

I would get the cheapest LGA1366 i7 you can find. i5s and some i7s use a LGA1156 socket. Having an LGA1366 motherboard will give you slightly more future-proofing than an i5 or lga1156 i7 would give you. A year down the line, you'll be able to pick up some kind of crazy 6core 12mB cache i7 for pennies on today's dollar, but not if you have an lga1156 motherboard.
posted by duckstab at 3:00 PM on May 7, 2010

Also, a modern system with 6 gigs of ram is probably using triple channel ram (3x2gb), whereas with 8 gb you're using double channel (2x4gb or 4x2gb)
posted by duckstab at 3:05 PM on May 7, 2010

If it is a fixed budget, and you were going to get integrated graphics, I would suggest that you downgrade to i5 (instead of i7) and spend the leftover money on discrete graphics. Even if you are not gaming, having a discrete graphics card with dedicated RAM makes a huge difference and frees up the main CPU and RAM for other stuff. And btw, 4GB is plenty sufficient for many many browser tabs and iTunes and much more. So, I'd go with 4GB now and later on upgrade to 8GB when the DDR3 prices go ultra cheap.
posted by thewildgreen at 4:32 PM on May 7, 2010

I recommend you take a look at Hardware Revolution's "Best X for your money" set of articles before you set anything in stone. Personally, based on what you've said, I think I'd suggest you get an under-$200 AMD processor that has more bang for the buck than an Intel core i5 or i7, 6GB or even 4GB of ram, and put the rest of the money into an decent SSD system drive, say a 60-80 GB model. I'm not sure how much flexibility you will have with Dell, though.
posted by BeerFilter at 4:37 PM on May 7, 2010

I have a Intel i3-530, 2.93ghz with 4gb of g-skill DDR3 ram.
My motherboard is an Intel DH55TC.

I run Windows 7 ultimate.

I can run most recent games with medium graphic. I can multitask a lot. I use firefox.

No slowdown whatsoever.

If anything, only an SSD will make it faster at this point.
posted by PowerCat at 5:24 PM on May 7, 2010

Thanks everyone. These are all great answers. I guess I don't need so much memory right now, because you're right, I can add it later. And maybe I don't even need the i5. It doesn't look like I can get a SSD on a pre-built Dell.

I'll keep checking this post to see what other people say.
posted by Tin Man at 5:47 PM on May 7, 2010

I've got 8 GB, and (not that I regret it but) it's overkill. You'll be fine with 6 GB unless you have a particularly memory intensive application you're running -- which you would know about if you did. Go for the faster processor.
posted by Simon Barclay at 8:22 PM on May 7, 2010

If you're like the rest of us, you'll be running Win7-64, but mostly using 32-bit apps. The 32-bit apps run in a virtual 32-bit machine and are still limited to 2G of memory, so even if they're maxing out, you'd need to be running a couple of them at the same time, plus a lot of other stuff, in order to saturate 6G of RAM.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:44 PM on May 7, 2010

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