Upgrading a desktop processor, or CPU, might sound intimidating, but it's an easier (and cheaper) way to boost your PC or laptop's speed than you think. PC Advisor explains how to upgrade your PC's processor.
Upgrading a CPU can be frustrating, even though the physical acts of removing a processor and installing its replacement are easy. The difficulty is in recognising the right time to upgrade and what processor will provide the best performance.
If you plump for an Intel processor, the matter is complicated by the plethora of socket formats involved. At the last count, Intel had four active desktop socket formats: LGA775, LGA1366, LGA1155 and LGA1156.
While LGA1156 will probably soon be superseded, the other three are likely to be with us for some time. LGA775 will probably be relegated to budget machines and eventually phased out. If you're dealing with a current-generation system, you have two possibilities: LGA1155 and LGA1366. This means that if you're contemplating a significant, generational upgrade for an Intel CPU, it will probably also involve replacing your motherboard.
Those plumping for an AMD processor have fewer options but must also be careful. AMD has been using variants of its socket AM3 since 2009. Older socket AM2/AM2+ motherboards can use some of the later AMD CPUs, but at the cost of losing key power-management capabilities. Socket AM3 users can upgrade to all Athlon II, Phenom and Phenom II processors.
If you intend to upgrade to one of AMD's forthcoming eight-core ‘Bulldozer' processors, however, you'll need to replace your motherboard. Bulldozer will require a redesigned socket type, dubbed ‘socket AM3+', and it won't be compatible with older motherboard versions.
A rule of thumb to avoid going wrong is to upgrade to a faster processor within an existing socket format – provided that it moves your computer two or three speed grades higher without overclocking. For example, if your PC runs an Intel-based LGA775 setup with a Core 2 Duo E6400 processor, upgrading to a Core 2 Quad Q9650 will boost your performance substantially as you'll get both a clock-rate boost and two more processor cores.
On the other hand, you also need to pay attention to expenses: at the time of writing the Intel Core 2 Quad Q9650 is available at Amazon UK for £259 inc VAT, whereas a much newer, faster Core i7-2600K CPU could be had for just £237 inc VAT. The £22 price difference could help pay for a motherboard that can accommodate the i7-2600K.
Whether the processor you're upgrading is from Intel or AMD, keep these tips in mind before you begin the installation process.
Disconnect all cabling and wiring that may be in your way: Make sure you detach the connector powering the CPU cooling fan.
Carefully remove the CPU cooler: If you have a high-performance processor cooler, read the manual or check the manufacturer's website for instructions on how to reattach it. Some high-performance CPU coolers have special mounting plates fitted below the motherboard. Take precautions to prevent the plate from falling away, or you may have to remove the motherboard to retrieve it.
Be prepared to pull out your motherboard: Depending on the design of your system case and motherboard, it might be easier to remove the motherboard if the CPU socket is difficult to reach. A little extra effort early in the process may help you avoid the high cost of having to replace a motherboard or CPU.
How to upgrade an Intel CPU
You should be aware of some general points before we begin explaining how to upgrade an Intel CPU. First, Intel processors have no pins; instead, the pins are in the socket. It's very easy to accidentally bend a pin in the CPU socket when you're installing or removing an Intel processor, so you need to handle the processor very carefully.
We'll be using the Intel reference cooler provided with Intel CPU retail packages. The sizes of the relevant parts may vary between socket formats, but the installation and removal procedures are the same for each.
Rotate all four mounting pushpin caps to the left. Gently pull one of the pushpins straight up until you feel it release. Use minimal force to accomplish this. Repeat the operation for all four pushpin latches.
The processor is often stuck to the heatsink with thermal compound, which helps transmit accumulated heat from the CPU heat spreader surface to the heatsink. Gently rotate the processor back and forth (rocking it around the vertical axis). As you do this, the processor will gradually loosen. Eventually the heatsink will come free and you can lift it up.
You'll see a latching lever on the side of the CPU. Push down on the lever, pull it slightly to the outside, and release it upward.
The socket cover will now lift up. Note that the socket cover for LGA775 swings in a different direction than it does for other Intel processor sockets.
Once the latch cover is open, gently grasp the processor by the edges. Lift it straight up. Do not slide it to one side. You may have to angle it a bit to get it out from under the latch cover, but try not to do this until the CPU is clear of all the pins in the socket. Place the CPU in an antistatic container for storage.
Handling the new CPU only by the edges, align the notches on the two opposing edges of the CPU with the tabs on the socket. Gently lower the processor straight down into the socket. Do not press it.
With the processor in place, close the CPU socket cover. If the heatsink has old thermal compound on it, remove it with isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol) and let it dry. Put a tiny bead of thermal compound on the surface of the processor. Spread it evenly over the surface with a knife or screwdriver blade.
Rotate the heatsink latch covers to the right and pull them up. Check to confirm that none of the split pushpins is bent.
Align the four plastic pushpins with the mounting holes in the motherboard. You should be able to feel the four pins settling into the mounting holes properly. Steady the heatsink with one hand to keep it level. Push each of the four pushpins in diagonal order until each is latched in place. Now attach the heatsink fan connector to the assembly.
Reattach any wires or cables that you may have removed, or reinstall the motherboard if you removed it at the beginning of the process.
See also: How to upgrade RAM
How to upgrade an AMD CPU
The steps for installing an AMD processor are similar to those for installing an Intel CPU. On AMD processors, however, the contact pins are located on the CPU rather than in the socket.
The factory AMD heatsink has a hinged lever latch that locks it into place. Lift up this latch. The heatsink is held in place by one or more tabs on the CPU socket. You may need to use a thin-bladed screwdriver to release the heatsink bracket.
The CPU is often stuck to the heatsink with thermal compound, which helps transmit accumulated heat from the CPU heat spreader surface to the heatsink.
Gently rotate the CPU back and forth (rocking it around the vertical axis). It will gradually loosen. Eventually the heatsink will come free and you can lift it up.
The zero-insertion force (ZIF) lever locks the processor in place. Lift it up and swing the lever as far as it will go. You may see the CPU shift slightly to one side. Gently lift the processor straight up to remove it.
Store the processor in an antistatic bag. Since the CPU has pins that can bend, you should ideally press it into antistatic foam for storage. Grasping the new CPU only by the edges, look for a small gold or silver triangle silk-screened on to one corner of the processor. Match this with a triangle of similar size that is engraved in the processor's socket corner.
Line up the triangles, then gently lower the CPU in place. You should feel the CPU nestle into position. Don't force it. If it doesn't settle fully, lift the processor up and try again. Close the ZIF lever.
If the heatsink has old thermal compound on it, remove the compound with isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol) and let it dry. Put a tiny bead of thermal compound on the surface of the CPU. Spread it evenly over the surface with a knife or screwdriver blade.
Reattach the heatsink by latching it to one set of tabs on one side, and then carefully pushing down the other side while pressing the metal holes into position on the other set of tabs. Swing the heatsink lock lever into place.
Attach the heatsink fan connector. Reattach any wires or cables that you may have removed, or reinstall the motherboard if you removed it earlier.
See also: How to overclock a PC