What is Hyperthreading and Why Should You Care?

What is Hyperthreading and Why Should You Care

Let’s say you’re looking into buying a new processor and all of a sudden you have a decision between two products, both just about the same on paper, but one of them has a feature called hyperthreading and the other doesn’t.

Sure hyperthreading is a good thing because you have to pay extra, but what do you do? Most importantly, is it something you should be concerned about? With answers to these burning questions, we need to take a quick look at how CPUs do their thing.

Unlimited power!

Even if you’re not all interested in the fine technical details of computer technology, you’ve probably heard Moore’s Law before. It’s not really a natural law, but an observation that the basic components of integrated circuits have been doubling in density every two years or so.

In effect, this meant that the performance of a CPU would double every two years, which is an exponential rate of improvement. If the fastest car in the world was twice as fast as it came two years ago, and this trend continued for decades, we would have vehicles with the speeds of science fiction spaceships. So this is actually one of the most revolutionary things about computer technology.
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The problem is that the performance of a CPU is not only determined by the density of its components. It is the clock frequency that how many full computation cycles can perform, a second, is obviously important. If you have a CPU and you double the clock speed, it will be twice
as good. At least in theory.

The problem is that no matter how fast the processor is working, it can only do one thing at a time. What we perceive as “multitasking” is actually the processor jumping quickly between thousands of different jobs. A few years ago, we started hitting a couple of walls when it came down to a single faster and faster processor.
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So, one solution was to have more than one CPU in each processor so that the various jobs could be split between them. Today, quad-core CPUs are pretty much the mainstream configuration.

Hyperthreading (HT) is Intel’s name for simultaneous multithreading. Basically it means that one CPU core can work on two problems at the same time. It doesn’t mean that the CPU will have twice as much work. Just that it can do that all of your capacity by dealing with several simpler problems at once.

To your operating system, each real silicon CPU core looks like two, so it feeds each one to work as if they were separate. Because so much of what a CPU does is not enough to work to the maximum, HT makes sure you are getting your money’s worth from that chip.

Who Should Care About Hyperthreading?

This is another question that can be a little tricky, but is actually pretty straightforward when you break it down. First, let’s do the one thing about hyperthreading- this is almost always the case. If you have to choose between two processors that have the same number of threads but don’t have the same number of cores, go with the CPU having more physical cores.

For example, if you have a dual-core, hyper-threading CPU and a non-HT quad-core CPU, the quad-core option is a better choice. The fact of the matter is, they’re close together in single-thread, single-core performance. Why? Because the quad-core CPU has more physical handling hardware.

The real pickle comes when you have two CPUs with the same specs, but one has HT and the other doesn’t.
Now our question really has to do with the software you are trying to run. If you have software that can spawn enough threads to use HT threads as well, you’ll see a significant increase from opting for CPU with hyperthreading.
Simply because none of the processing capacity is wasted, and the component is working near its full potential for as much time as possible.

If the software you’re running doesn’t spawn enough threads to include the HT virtual cores, you’ll see literally no difference in performance.

Traditionally, operations like CPU 3D rendering, video encoding, and image manipulation create as many threads as your poor CPU can take. In other words, many modern professional applications are thread hungry. This is why Hyperthreading has been trimmed to pro-tier CPUs like the i7 and up.

Mainstream applications like word processors and web browsers don’t perform better with hyperthreading, even if they can spawn more threads. Simply because the needs of these applications used by most people don’t even give entry-level CPUs a hard time.

The big gaming question:

Video games are another mainstream application that is already quite apathetic to hyperthreading. At the time of writing, in
2019, the latest video game engines are starting to get more thread heavy.
Which means HT capable CPUs better in you. Older titles don’t see advantage at all, with the exception of a few simulation type games, that make heavy use of AI or other CPU-oriented processes.

Does that mean your next gaming PC should havehyperthreading? 

The thing is, we’re now in a mainstream CPU market where six-, eight- and twelve- core CPUs are the norm. So, it’s much better to have multiple physical cores where possible.
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The simple answer Hopefully the above explanation has been made clear enough, but let’s break it down the bottom line:

  • If you’re a professional, thread-heavy job, ask hyperthreading
  • If you’re a mainstream user, don’t worry!
  • If you’re a gamer, prioritize that more cores in your next build over HT, but HT in addition if the price is right.

Hyperthreading is a great technology, but it’s not worth the premium for everyone. Now you should know if that “someone” is you or not!

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