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2,862 Tutorials

Upgrade Your CPU

Upgrading your desktop PC's processor might sound intimidating, but it’s an easier than you think.

Upgrading your CPU can be a frustrating experience, even though the physical acts of removing an old processor and installing the new one are pretty easy. The more difficult questions to answer are these: When is the right time for me to upgrade a CPU? What processor will give me the best bang for the buck?

Complicating the matter for Intel CPU users is the plethora of socket formats that may be involved. At last count, Intel had four active socket formats for desktop PCs: LGA775, LGA1366, LGA1155, and LGA1156. While LGA1156 will probably be superseded soon, the other three are likely to be with us for some time--though LGA775 will probably be relegated to budget-oriented machines and, over time, phased out as well. Even 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 likely involves a motherboard upgrade.

AMD users are in a little better situation, but they, too, need to be careful. AMD has been using variants of its socket AM3 since 2009. Older socket AM2/AM2+ motherboards can use some of the newer 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've been looking forward to dropping in one of AMD's upcoming eight-core Bulldozer processors, however, the news is disappointing. Bulldozer will require a new socket, dubbed "socket AM3+," and it won't be compatible with older motherboard versions.

One rule of thumb is to upgrade to a faster CPU within an existing socket format if doing so 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 CPU, swapping in a Core 2 Quad Q9650 will boost your performance substantially--you'll get both a clock-rate boost and two more cores.

On the other hand, you need to pay attention to expenses, too: The aforementioned Q9650 costs around $340, whereas a much newer, faster Core i7-2600K CPU costs $330. The $10 price difference between the Q9650 and the 2600K could help pay for a brand-new motherboard to accommodate the 2600K.

Whether the processor you're upgrading is from Intel or AMD, keep these tips in mind before you start the installation process.

Disconnect all cabling and wiring that may be in your way: Make sure that you detach the connector powering the CPU cooling fan.

Carefully remove the CPU cooler: If you have an exotic or high-performance CPU cooler, read the directions or check the manufacturer's Website to ensure that you know how to reattach it. Some high-performance coolers have special mounting plates that mount under 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 computer case and motherboard, you might be better off removing 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.

Upgrade an Intel CPU

Let's begin by taking a step-by-step walk through the process of upgrading an Intel CPU. You should be aware of two general points before we start. First, Intel CPUs 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 CPU very carefully. Second, we'll be using the Intel reference cooler that ships in­­side Intel CPU retail packages. The sizes of the relevant parts may vary for different socket formats, but the in­­stallation and removal procedures are the same for each.

1. Rotate all four mounting pushpin caps to the left.

2. 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.

3. The CPU is often stuck to the heat sink with thermal compound, which helps transmit accumulated heat from the CPU heat spreader surface to the heat sink. Gently rotate the processor back and forth (you're rocking it around the vertical axis). As you do this, the CPU will gradually loosen. Eventually the heat sink will come free, and you can lift it up.

4. 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.

5. 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 CPU sockets.

6. Once the latch cover is open, gently grasp the CPU 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.

7. Place the CPU in an anti­static container for storage.

8. 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.

9. With the CPU in place, re­­latch the CPU socket cover.

10. If the heat sink has old thermal compound on it, remove the compound with isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol) and let it dry.

11. 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.

12. Rotate the heat-sink latch covers to the right and pull them up. Check to confirm that none of the actual split pushpins are bent.

13. 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.

14. Steady the heat sink with one hand to keep it level. Push each of the four pushpins in diagonal order until each is latched in place.

15. Attach the heat-sink fan connector to the assembly.

16. Reattach any wires or cables that you may have re­­moved, or reinstall the motherboard if you removed it at the beginning of the process.

Upgrade an AMD CPU

The steps for installing an AMD CPU are fairly 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.

1. The factory AMD heat sink has a hinged lever latch that locks the heat sink in place. Lift this latch up.

2. The heat sink 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 heat-sink bracket.

3. The CPU is often stuck to the heat sink with thermal compound, which helps transmit accumulated heat from the CPU heat spreader surface to the heat sink. Gently rotate the CPU back and forth (you're rocking it around the vertical axis). It will gradually loosen. Eventually the heat sink will come free, and you can lift it up.

4. The ZIF (zero-insertion force) lever locks the CPU 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.

5. Gently lift the CPU straight up to remove it.

6. Store the processor in an antistatic bag. Since the CPU has pins that can bend, press it into antistatic foam, if you have any, for storage.

7. Grasping the new CPU only by the edges, look for a small gold or silver triangle silk-screened onto one corner of the processor. Match this with a triangle of similar size that is engraved in the processor's socket corner.

8. Line up the triangles, and gently lower the CPU in place. You should feel the CPU nestle into position. If it doesn't settle fully, do not force it. Instead, lift the processor up and try again.

9. Once the CPU is in place, relatch the ZIF lever.

10. If the heat sink has old thermal compound on it, remove the compound with isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol) and let it dry.

11. 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.

12. Reattach the heat sink by latching it to one set of tabs on one side, and then carefully pushing the other side down while pressing the metal holes into position on the other set of tabs.

13. Swing the heat-sink lock lever into place.

14. Attach the heat-sink fan connector.

15. Reattach any wires or cables that you may have re­­moved, or reinstall the motherboard if you removed it at the beginning of the process.

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