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What is Hyperthreading? Intel CPU multithreading explained



Intel CPU installed on a motherboard

Buying a CPU can be a bit of a task given the many options available. It gets even more difficult when you try to decipher the technologies these CPUs come with, as CPU makers add many different technologies to make their chips perform better. These technologies are sometimes difficult to understand for the average consumer. One of those technologies is Intel’s Hyper-Threading Technology.

Intel first introduced Hyper-Threading in 2002. They kick-started it with its Xeon line of processors. In the coming years, however, Intel has made Hyper-Threading a much more widely available feature. The best Intel CPUs today still come with Hyper-Threading, and it has become a feature to be aware of before purchasing an Intel CPU. So, what exactly is Hyper-Threading? Let’s break it down.

Also read: Arm vs x86: instruction sets, architecture, and all major differences explained

What is Multithreading?

To understand Intel’s Hyper-Threading technology, you must first understand multithreading. Let’s start with the basics. The programs that run on your computer are essentially a series of instructions that a CPU interprets and executes. When you start a program, these instructions make their way to the CPU. Usually the CPU executes only one channel of instructions at a time. Completing an individual instruction like this is called a clock cycle. The clock speed of a processor is actually a measure of the number of clock cycles it can go through in a second.

CPU cores are actual physical units that act like separate CPUs. So if you have a quad core CPU, it contains four physical units that function as individual CPUs and share a number of resources. This allows the CPU to execute four channels of instructions simultaneously, increasing the efficiency of your computer.

The word “Threads” has two meanings that are quite close to each other. A software thread is the channel of instructions we mentioned earlier. With a hardware thread, this is the virtual equivalent of a CPU core. A hardware thread is thus an individual unit that a software thread can process. With multiple hardware threads, each core can handle more than one software thread at a time, this is called multithreading.

Also see: Single-core vs multi-core processors: which ones are better for smartphones?

What is Hyperthreading?

Multithreading can be used to work even more efficiently on computers with super-scalar processors. These are CPUs that can process multiple instructions per clock cycle. In such CPUs, more than one thread can be executed at any stage of the clock cycle. This is called simultaneous multithreading (SMT). Unlike SMT, there is transient multithreading, which can only run one thread at a time at any given stage of the clock cycle. This is usually implemented for scalar processors.

So, what is Hyper-Threading? It is Intel’s brand for the implementation of simultaneous multithreading in its CPUs. An Intel CPU that supports Hyper-Threading technology can perform multithreading at the same time. When Hyper-Threading is enabled, hardware threads appear as separate cores for the operating system. Thus, the operating system serves one software thread for each hardware thread. This increases efficiency by ensuring that the CPU takes advantage of the idle time by putting the resting cores to work.

Hyper-Threading technology is enabled by default on supported Intel CPUs. You can enable or disable it in the BIOS settings.

Do you need Hyper-Threading?

Intel Hyper Threading graphic visualizing the technology with two lanes of cars

Hyper-Threading is a great feature for getting more out of your CPU. It makes the CPU perform more than just the sum of its physical cores. Of course, this depends on the type of work you are throwing to the CPU. If the workload consists of processes with threads that cannot run in parallel, Hyper-Threading will not matter much.

Hyper-Threading is beneficial when the workload requires heavy processing of tasks that can be run in parallel. In such cases, the workload is split into software threads that the operating system can assign to the hardware threads and run them simultaneously. Hyper-Threading can help with heavy multitasking and CPU intensive tasks such as graphics, video editing and even gaming.

Intel’s brand of SMT, or Hyper-Threading, is nothing exclusive. AMD also uses SMT for its Ryzen processors. You won’t miss a thing if you choose an SMT-compatible AMD CPU over an Intel CPU that supports Hyper-Threading technology.

Also see: AMD vs. Intel: Which One Is Better?

Is Hyper-Threading Better Than More Cores?

Simply put, no. Hyper-Threading offers a bit of an advantage over CPUs without it. It creates virtual CPU cores that the operating system treats as if they were real. In reality, however, they aren’t quite the real deal. According to Intel’s numbers, you get up to 30% performance improvement in server applications. This number is probably lower for the end user.

Having more cores directly translates to more room for performance. Hyper-Threading does not provide the same level of performance as an additional physical core on an equivalent processor. It’s a nice extra boost, but it’s not a substitute for having more cores, and you shouldn’t consider that either.

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