By Marshall Honorof
Upgrade your computer's CPU with some tools and a little know-how
If you built your PC from scratch, then upgrading your central processing unit (aka processor, or CPU) shouldn't present too much of a challenge — just reverse the steps you used to install it. However, if you purchased a pre-built gaming desktop, or had some help from a more tech-savvy friend, rooting through your computer's guts to swap out its very heart may sound downright daunting.
The good news is that swapping out a CPU is not very difficult, provided you have all the right information and tools at your disposal. In fact, there's a good chance you'll spend more time prepping for the process than you will spend actually upgrading the processor. With that in mind, here are a few simple steps for choosing and installing a brand-new CPU for your favorite gaming or productivity PC.
- Buy one of the best gaming desktops
- Play the best PC games
- See how to benchmark your graphics card
Bear in mind that we took these photos with an Intel processor; installing or replacing an AMD processor will involve a slightly different process.
1. Ensure that your CPU is compatible with your motherboard.
Nothing will stop your CPU upgrade in its tracks faster than finding out that your computer can't support your new processor. The bad news is that this requires a lot of research up front to confirm what will and won't work; the good news is that there are lots of resources online to help you with that research.
The best tool I've found in my search is a site calledCPU-Upgrade. This resource lets you look up your motherboard, then examine which Intel and AMD chips will work with it. The site isn't 100% complete — there are no Lenovo/Skybay motherboards listed, for instance — but it's an excellent place to start your search.
And yes, it's going to look a little imposing, because there are about 1,000 variables that go into motherboard/CPU compatibility. My best advice is just to dive in and stick to the broad strokes. Are your motherboard and CPU compatible? Good! Then you don't need to sweat the minutiae.
For the record, in order to find out what kind of motherboard you have, go into the Windows search bar and type "msinfo32." This will bring you to the System Information panel, where you'll find BaseBoard Manufacturer (e.g., ASUS) and BaseBoard Product (e.g., P7P55 WS SUPERCOMPUTER).
If, for whatever reason, you can't find compatibility info at CPU-Upgrade, do a Google search, or try Reddit (opens in new tab) or the Tom's Hardware forums. Someone will almost certainly help out, as long as you ask nicely.
2. (Optional) Back up your data.
I admit that I'm a little superstitious about this, but my philosophy is this: If you're going to swap out a computer part, back up anything that you can't bear to lose first. Theoretically, swapping out your CPU should not affect your hard drive at all, even if you botch the process beyond all hope of repair. (Take heart; this is very hard to do.)
However, there are simply a lot of factors at play every time you crack open your computer case, and you'll be glad you backed up your files if you run afoul of static electricity, or screwdriver slippage, or some well-meaning pet knocking the whole system down a flight of stairs. So take a few minutes and save your files externally. You can upload them to a USB stick or hard drive — or you can employ one of the best cloud backup services to save your files online.
3. (Optional) Update your BIOS.
Updating your Basic Input/Output System (BIOS) is one of those things you don't strictly have to do, but could help head off a potential problem at the pass. Think of BIOS as your motherboard's operating system – the software that runs the computer if you don't have Windows or Linux installed. However, your BIOS version is extremely important, since it can influence settings like voltage and hardware compatibility. The odds of you needing to update your BIOS before you install a new CPU are small — but they do exist.
Unfortunately, there's no catch-all guide to updating your BIOS, as it really depends on what kind of system you have. Newer systems might have software packages built right into Windows; older systems might need you to download software to your hard drive and track it down during a restart. (If youhaven't updated your BIOS in a few years, you may even have to upgrade to every version in-between yours and the current one first.)
As with many things, the best solution is to Google "(your motherboard) BIOS update" and see what comes up. Just be absolutely sure that you don't accidentally try to update your system with a similarly named BIOS program. The best-case scenario is that it won't work; the worst-case scenario is that it will brick your computer. See the Tom's Hardware'scomprehensive guide to BIOS functionality.
In order to upgrade your CPU, you'll need a soft cloth, paper towels, rubbing alcohol and thermal paste (opens in new tab). You'll almost certainly need a screwdriver, although what kind depends on how your heatsink and computer case are secured. I got by just fine with a small Phillips head; your needs may vary.
You can also wear an anti-static band if you want to play things really safe. Personally, I found it easier to just ground myself every so often. You can do this with anything, from a sink faucet to the outside of your computer case, so long as it's made of metal.
Similarly, you'll want a hard surface on which to work, such as a workbench, or even a hardwood floor. (You should probably clean said section of floor first.) A bowl to hold loose screws never hurt anyone, either. Avoid rugs and carpets; take your socks off if you're especially superstitious, and don't wear a fuzzy sweater.
5. Crack open your PC.
Unsurprisingly, you've got to open up your PC before you do any work inside of it. (Apologies for the absolute mess of wires inside mine; you keep things as clean as you can, but at a certain point, you just accept the chaos for what it is.)
Since you've opened up your computer, it never hurts to grab a can of compressed air and blow the dust out of everything.
6. Remove the heatsink or fan.
The heatsink is the part of your computer that connects to your processor on one end, and your fan on the other end. You may also have a simple fan instead. The heatsink's function is to collect and dissipate heat generated by the CPU. The fan's function is to provide cool air inside your PC. As such, you'll have to remove either one before you can access the CPU itself.
Exactly how you accomplish this task will depend on what kind of heatsink or fan you have, but you'll probably have to unscrew whatever's keeping it in place first. Just use common sense here: Unscrew whatever needs to be unscrewed, and don't pull too hard if something doesn't come loose at first. If you have any trouble removing it, find the model number and look it up online. Someone may have tips on how to remove it safely.
7. Clean off the old thermal paste.
Technically, the world wouldn't end if you leave old thermal paste on your heatsink or fan. But since you're about to apply a new coat anyway, it's better to get rid of the old stuff and start fresh. (You don't want a layer of thermal paste on top of another layer of thermal paste, since this would reduce its conductivity and render the heatsink less effective.)
Luckily, old thermal paste is very easy to remove. Just use some rubbing alcohol and a paper towel. If you get a few drops of alcohol elsewhere in your computer, it's not going to do any harm; just make sure you don't get any stray bits of paper towel in there.
8. Remove the old processor.
Under the heatsink or fan, you'll see the old processor in its housing. There should be a small metal lever somewhere to lift the housing off. Word to the wise: You may have to gently press the lever down and to the side first. As with other steps in this process, if you find yourself pulling hard on a component, you're probably missing a very easy, gentle way to remove it.
Once you've raised the housing, all you have to do is lift the processor out. There's nothing else securing it.
9. Secure the new processor.
In what is, by far, the simplest part of the whole process, gently place your new processor down where your old one used to be. There will be two small indentations on the side of the processor, so make sure that they match up with the indentations in the housing. You'll know the processor is in correctly when it's sitting flat. Then, lower the housing and secure it with the metal bar again.
10. Apply thermal paste.
If you ask online, you're going to get a lot of opinions about the "best" way to apply thermal paste. Drawing an X, making a cross, spreading it in advance, letting gravity do the work — there are plenty of methods, and some evidence in favor of (and against) each one.
The short version is that unless you're building some kind of supercharged, overclocked powerhouse, how you apply thermal paste is not going to make or break the machine. I personally went with the "grain of rice" method, and made a very small ball right in the center of the processor. The heatsink — and the heat of the processor itself — should take care of spreading it over time.
Basically, when it comes to thermal paste, less is more, and you can always redo it if you find that your computer is running way too hot. It's the most open-ended part of the procedure, but it's not the hardest, unless you drive yourself crazy over it.
11. Reinstall the heatsink or fan.
Whatever you did to take the heatsink or fan out, reverse the process. Screw everything back in tightly, but not so tightly that it will bend or break the cooling unit's structure.
12. Close up the computer.
You're done! Reconnect your computer to its power source, boot it up, and makes sure everything is working properly. Your BIOS should recognize the presence of a new CPU and run through a short setup process. Just follow the prompts, then let the computer restart.
Since thermal paste spreads and settles by the application of heat, you'll want to run your computer for a few hours when you get a chance. You should do something taxing, like edit videos or play a demanding game, and ensure that the CPU's heat stays within acceptable parameters. (I like theIntel XTU software for this, but there are other options, too.) If it doesn't, there are ways to mitigate your heat output, such cleaning out the fans, or investing in better cooling options.
- Is PC gaming worth the hassle?
- Best PC controllers
- Gaming desktop buying guide
Be In the Know
Get instant access to breaking news, the hottest reviews, great deals and helpful tips.
Marshall Honorof is a senior editor for Tom's Guide, overseeing the site's coverage of gaming hardware and software. He comes from a science writing background, having studied paleomammalogy, biological anthropology, and the history of science and technology. After hours, you can find him practicing taekwondo or doing deep dives on classic sci-fi.
What should I upgrade my CPU to? ›
Ensure that any CPU you upgrade to is from the last two generations at the oldest, so Intel 11th and 12th generation or AMD Ryzen 3000 or 5000. Within the same architectural family (like if you're comparing two different Ryzen 5000 CPUs), CPUs with higher clock speeds usually have better gaming performance.Can you upgrade CPU easily? ›
Thankfully, upgrading CPUs is incredibly simple and relatively quick depending on your setup. All you need is: A screwdriver. A tube of thermal paste.Is it worth just upgrading a CPU? ›
If you use CPU-intensive applications, such as for professional editing, then it's usually worth upgrading your CPU every two or three CPU generations. Similarly, if you're running a very old CPU you might want to upgrade just to improve your day-to-day desktop experience.When should I upgrade my CPU? ›
For many people, the best time to replace their CPU is when their current system no longer meets their needs. Some prefer to upgrade to maintain the fastest processing speed. Others want to ensure they have the latest features. If your current system can't perform the functions you need, you will want to replace it.How do I upgrade my CPU RAM? ›
To upgrade or add new RAM to your laptop, locate the RAM slot inside your computer and align the new RAM module to fit into position. Then, press down gently on the RAM cartridge until you hear a click signaling that the module has locked into the RAM clips inside your laptop.What makes a CPU good? ›
Higher clock speeds and core counts can make a major difference in performance, providing a snappier system, smoother gameplay and faster completion of intensive tasks such as video editing and transcoding.What makes a CPU good for gaming? ›
Clock speed - The speed at which a CPU can execute instructions, measured in hertz. A processor with a 3.7 GHz clock speed can process 3.7 billion instructions a second. Clock speed is one of the most critical factors for determining performance in games and workload functions.How much CPU do you really need? ›
When buying a new computer, whether a desktop PC or laptop, it's important to know the number of cores in the processor. Most users are well served with 2 or 4 cores, but video editors, engineers, data analysts, and others in similar fields will want at least 6 cores.Is it worth upgrading CPU for gaming? ›
The money you would spend upgrading your CPU is better spent on a new graphics card (or maybe even a 4K gaming monitor if you were already planning on upgrading). Even with that, most of the complexity comes down to the games you play.Can I upgrade CPU without changing motherboard? ›
YOU can change a processor keeping the motherboardif it uses the same socket as the old one. Always check the motherboard's website for the list of supported CPU to see what CPUs a motherboard can use.
Can I just swap out a CPU? ›
If you have a processor that is compatible with the motherboard and the BIOS, you should be able to just change it and bam, it works. However, if that does not happen, put the old processor back, update the BIOS and all other drivers, then try again. New BIOS revisions add support for newer CPUs as well as fix bugs.Will changing CPU affect anything? ›
Upgrading your CPU should not affect your Windows activation or licensing, it is only if you change the motherboard that would affect the Windows licence, because that is associated to a chip on the motherboard. Power to the Developer!Will I get more FPS if I upgrade my CPU? ›
The amount of GPU usage also matters. For example, if it's around 80-90%, upgrading your CPU will increase your frame rate, but not by much. By contrast, if your GPU usage is close to 50%, you could potentially double your frame rate by upgrading to a better CPU.Should I upgrade my CPU or RAM? ›
A more powerful processor will help with tasks such as streaming or running multiple programs. At the same time, large amounts of RAM will help with multitasking but will primarily improve performance in complex programs and operations.Should I be using 100% of my CPU? ›
CPUs are designed to run safely at 100% CPU utilization. However, these situations can also impact the performance of high-intensity games and applications. Learning how to fix high CPU usage can resolve some of the most common problems. However, not all CPU issues require software fixes.Should your PC be using 100% CPU? ›
If the CPU usage is around 100%, this means that your computer is trying to do more work than it has the capacity for. This is usually OK, but it means that programs may slow down a little. Computers tend to use close to 100% of the CPU when they are doing computationally-intensive things like running games.Does CPU matter for gaming? ›
Does CPU matter for gaming? Highly yes, the game engine requires CPU to run. The more things in the game's engine, The more CPU and Ram you need. If the game has fancy graphics then you would need a powerful graphics card and more cores and threads.How much RAM does a CPU need? ›
Generally, we recommend 8GB of RAM for casual computer usage and internet browsing, 16GB for spreadsheets and other office programs, and at least 32GB for gamers and multimedia creators.Will adding more RAM help CPU? ›
RAM and CPU Performance
RAM not only allows your CPU to access files faster, it can also help your processor run more processes at the same time. The more RAM you have, and the faster the RAM cycles in MHz, the more processes your CPU can run.
8GB of RAM is the minimum amount of RAM for any gaming PC. With 8GB RAM, you will be able to play most released games without many problems, but some games might not play at the highest quality, and you might have to shut down other applications.
What's the most important thing for a CPU? ›
The main things to consider when buying a CPU are the number of cores needed, what the computer will be used for, the type of software to be run, processor compatibility, and the speed of the CPU.What is the most important thing in CPU? ›
Central Processing Unit (CPU)
The central processing unit (CPU) - commonly referred to as the processor - is the 'brain' of your computer. The CPU solves all the sophisticated algorithms and programming your computer does while running programs or applications.
Cache memory stores only the most important information for the CPU. Many computers use a microprocessor, which is a small chip that contains both the ALU and the CU on the same piece.What CPU can run all games? ›
When it comes to gaming, you should aim for a Hexa core processor or higher. With six cores, you should have no problem running most games.Does CPU matter for FPS? ›
Yes, there is a possibility of affecting FPS by the performance of the CPU. Also, it can be challenging to go through them all to arrive at the best gaming PC for your needs. If that's the case, then you've come to the correct spot. FPS is influenced by the CPU, although only to a limited extent.How much CPU do I need for gaming? ›
For ideal results, a machine running an Intel® Core™ i7 processor or better with at least 8GB of RAM is sufficient for playing games and streaming at the same time. If you're hoping for less impact on your gaming performance, an Intel® Core™ i9 processor makes for an even smoother experience. Find out more.How do I choose a CPU? ›
- Step 1: Figuring Out What You Need in a CPU. Before you can decide on a CPU, consider where you want to use your PC. ...
- Step 2: Learn How the CPU Works. ...
- Step 3: Consider Additional CPU Features. ...
- Step 4: Find the Right Intel® Core™ Processor for You. ...
- Step 5: Check the Benchmarks.
Your computer can run at 100% CPU usage as long as the temperature remains under control. Overheating as a result of full usage can be damaging to your computer, but it can still run for a good 3-4 hours.How do I know which CPU is better? ›
When buying a new PC, you can check the CPU's name to get its age and approximate performance level. The blurb should also tell you the clock speed and whether it's a dual core or quad-core chip. More GHz and more cores are always better, though a dual-core chip can still be faster than a quad-core.Should I get better CPU or GPU? ›
Simply put, if you're building a PC to play games, then the GPU will be your most important purchase. Other components can also impact performance, such as the CPU, storage, and RAM, but the GPU has the most direct connection to what you see on screen when playing.
Is My CPU Bottlenecking My GPU? ›
The one you want to look at is “CPU Impact on FPS,” which should be 10% or lower. This number will tell you whether a mismatch between CPU and GPU is causing a bottleneck, and whether upgrading either component will resolve the issue.How often should CPU be upgraded? ›
If you are a professional you should upgrade your cpu every 3–4 years and GPU every 2- 3 years. Your CPU will be fine a lot longer than the GPU. Probably twice as long. So GPU can be upgraded every 2-3 years, CPU therefore every 4-6 years, or if you have a killer CPU it probably lasts even longer.Do all CPUs fit all motherboards? ›
Just because a motherboard has the proper socket doesn't mean it can necessarily accept any processor that uses that socket. Before you begin an upgrade, verify the compatibility of your motherboard with the upgrade processor you are considering. (See Computer Motherboards.)Can I upgrade my CPU without reinstalling Windows? ›
No, you don't need to reinstall Windows 10 after replacing the motherboard and CPU. However, it's recommended to reinstall windows after a CPU and motherboard upgrade to prevent OS compatibility issues. But you can first run your old OS and see if there are any issues.How can I upgrade my CPU without reinstalling Windows? ›
Go to Settings > Update & security > Troubleshoot > I changed hardware on this device recently. Next, sign in your Microsoft Account again and click the Activate button. Then, Windows 10 will grab the activation key from your online Microsoft account and re-link it to your computer with its freshly-upgraded hardware.Can old motherboard support new CPU? ›
Unfortunately, motherboard technology advances at similar pace to CPUs and your motherboard might not be compatible with a new chip. While the best way to be sure of which CPUs will work is to check your motherboard's specs, there are four potential areas of incompatibility.How do I update my BIOS with a new CPU? ›
- Download the latest BIOS (UEFI) from manufacturer's website.
- Unzip it, if necessary, and copy to a USB flash drive formatted to FAT32 (NTFS may not be supported)
- Restart your computer and enter the BIOS (UEFI) by pressing the appropriate key on your keyboard (commonly F2, Del or F10)
Look it up on the motherboard manufacturer's website. They will have a product page for your motherboard with a list of compatible CPUs. Note that some CPUs may require a specific BIOS version to be installed on your motherboard.Can you just install a new CPU? ›
The good news is that swapping out a CPU is not very difficult, provided you have all the right information and tools at your disposal. In fact, there's a good chance you'll spend more time prepping for the process than you will spend actually upgrading the processor.What is a CPU upgrade? ›
Replacing the processor with a faster model is one of the most effective and cost-efficient upgrades you can make on an older system. In some cases, you can double or triple CPU performance at a relatively small cost. Unfortunately, not all systems are good candidates for a processor upgrade.
Can I upgrade my Intel CPU? ›
Intel recommends you contact your system or motherboard manufacturer before attempting to upgrade your laptop processor. Your manufacturer is familiar with your system specifications, what processors it supports, and the possible upgrade options available.Do I need to install anything for CPU? ›
In general, no. CPUs don't have drivers and don't need them to run. Your system does need to install its chipset drivers — related to the motherboard — in order to integrate all the components together and use all of your system's features.Is a higher CPU better? ›
To put it as plainly as possible, the more powerful your CPU, the more powerful your PC. That being said, all components, like your RAM, CPU, or even GPU, need to be within a certain range of power, or you may create bottlenecks within your system that prevent you from reaching maximum possible performance.