Choosing the Right CPU for Pro Graphics

Although the graphics card is the most important component in a graphics workstation, the CPU still has a massive effect on performance. Today's CPU market is dominated by Intel, which produces a huge range of different processors at price points varying from as little as £30 to as much as £2,200. The reason for such a huge span is that each of these models is optimised for different tasks, be it basic internet browsing, word processing, watching films, playing games or digital content creation such as creating and editing graphics, video and music.

The latest Intel processors are based on the Skylake architecture which delivers excellent performance while consuming less power than earlier CPUs. This is important as it means modern PCs cost less to run and are quieter than their predecessors. With so many CPUs to choose from here is our guide to the most popular models.

Intel Core CPUs
Core i3 These dual-core processors are much faster than the cheaper Celeron and Pentium models thanks to having more cache memory and support for Hyper-Threading which enables them to process up to four threads at a time. A Core i3 is the cheapest CPU we recommend for a workstation, but it only suited to entry-level workloads in applications such as Autodesk AutoCAD and Adobe Photoshop.
Core i5 The most affordable quad-core Intel processors, Core i5 CPUs provide the most bang-per-buck and so are a great choice for a CAD workstation using applications such as Autodesk Inventor. Look out for models with a K on the end of the name as they can be overclocked for even greater performance.
Core i7 These quad-core processors have more cache memory than the Core i5s and also support Hyper-Threading, allowing them to work on up to eight threads simultaneously. A Core i7 is the ideal choice for a high-end workstation and is much faster than a Core i5 when it comes to rendering complex models and multi-threaded calculations. Models with a K on the end of the name are overclockable for an added performance boost.
Core i7 Enthusiast Sitting above the normal Core i7 processors is a special range of Core i7 Enthusiast CPUs which require a LGA2011-3 motherboard. Available with either six, eight or ten cores plus Hyper-Threading these CPUs are incredibly fast, delivering the ultimate performance in a single-socket workstation.
Intel Core i3 i5 i7 CPUs

Intel Xeon E3 1200

A Xeon E3 1200 is a special professional quad-core CPU. Unlike the consumer-grade Core i5, the Xeon E3 1200 supports ECC RAM that detects and corrects memory errors on the fly. This makes workstations with a Xeon E3 1200 around 2-3% slower than Core i5 workstations, but with superior reliability, making them ideal for processing large datasets that may take several days to work through.

Intel Xeon E5 2600

If your application is heavily multithreaded then a pair of Xeon E5 2600 CPUs will provide the ultimate in performance. These CPUs are available as basic quad-core models all the way up to 18 cores, giving a massive 36 cores if a pair of CPUs is fitted. Xeon E5 2600 supports more RAM than Core i7s and support ECC Registered memory, which provides maximum reliability.

Intel Xeon CPUs

The following graphs show the relative performance you can expect from the different CPU series in a variety of CPU-intensive professional graphics workflows.

Maxon Cinema 4D

CPU rendering in Cinebench of a 3D scene comprising 300,000 polygons

Intel Core i3

350

Intel Xeon E3 1200

590

Intel Core i5

600

Intel Core i7

900

Intel Core i7 Enthusiast

1850

2x Intel Xeon E5 2600

3000

Performance is shown as score, with a higher number indicating a shorter render time

Caselab Euler 3D

CFD (Computational Fluid Dynamics) simulation of airflow over an aircraft wing

Intel Core i3

3.6

Intel Xeon E3 1200

5

Intel Core i5

5.1

Intel Core i7

7.5

Intel Core i7 Enthusiast

12

2x Intel Xeon E5 2600

22.2

Performance is shown in hertz, with a higher number indicating a faster frequency of CFD cycles