What Is CPU Cache, and Why Does It Matter?

Key Takeaways

CPU cache memory is the part of the processor where the most frequently needed data is held and retrieved. Accessing the cache is faster than RAM, so more cache can greatly improve CPU performance.

The amount of cache memory a CPU has is an oft-overlooked number on the specification sheet, but CPU cache is incredibly important to overall CPU performance. If you’ve never paid attention to CPU cache before, read this before buying another.

What Is a CPU Cache?

A CPU cache is a small, fast memory area built into a CPU (Central Processing Unit) or located on the processor’s die. The CPU cache stores frequently used data and instructions from the main memory to reduce the number of times the CPU has to access the main memory for this information. This can greatly improve system performance, as accessing data from the CPU cache is much faster than accessing data from the main memory.

Related: HTG Explains: How Does a CPU Actually Work?

What Do the Levels of CPU Cache (L1, L2, L3) Mean?

The “levels” of CPU cache refer to the hierarchy of cache memory built into a CPU. Most modern CPUs have multiple levels of cache, with each level having a larger capacity and slower access time than the level below it. The levels are typically numbered, with Level 1 (L1) being the smallest and fastest level of cache and Level 3 (L3) being the largest and slowest level of cache.

This hierarchy exists is to provide a balance between speed and capacity. The L1 cache is the fastest and is used to store the most frequently used data and instructions, while the L3 cache is the largest and holds less frequently used data and instructions.

What Software Benefits Most From a Large Cache?

Software that performs many repetitive tasks or requires quick access to large amounts of data may benefit from a larger cache. This can improve the performance of the software and reduce the time it takes to complete these tasks.

Some examples of software that benefit from larger cache sizes include:

  • Database management systems, often perform many repetitive queries and require quick access to large amounts of data stored in databases.
  • Video editing software, which may need to quickly access large amounts of video and audio data to perform real-time editing and playback.
  • Image and video processing software may perform many mathematical operations on large sets of data to process and manipulate images and videos.
  • Financial analysis software, which may need to quickly access and analyze large amounts of financial data to perform complex calculations and generate reports.

These are just a few examples of software that may benefit from a larger cache, but many other types of software may also apply.

Video games can benefit significantly from a large cache too. You can see this demonstrated by the gaming performance of the AMD 5800X3D, which provides a strong boost to CPU-heavy games.

Related: How to Benchmark Your Windows PC: 5 Free Benchmarking Tools

How Does Cache Work in a Multi-Core CPU?

In a multi-core CPU, each core has its own cache memory. This allows each core to store and access frequently used data and instructions independently without accessing another core’s main memory or cache. This can improve the CPU’s performance by reducing the time each core spends waiting for data and instructions from the main memory or other cores, allowing the CPU to perform more tasks simultaneously and improving its overall speed and responsiveness.

Related: How Many CPU Cores Do You Really Need for Gaming?

However, it’s important to note that the cache memory in a multi-core CPU is typically not shared between cores. This means that each core only has access to its cache, and not the cache of other cores. This limitation can affect the performance of the CPU if one or more cores are heavily reliant on data and instructions that are only available in the cache of another core. The performance of the CPU in that case may be limited by the size of the cache of the individual cores rather than the total size of the cache across all cores.

Some multi-core CPUs do have shared cache, which is a cache memory area that is accessible to all cores in the CPU. However, this cache is typically much slower than L1 cache inside a specific core. The use of shared cache can also introduce additional complexity and overhead in the CPU design.

Is More Cache Worth It?

When shopping for a new CPU right now, the price difference between two otherwise similar chips where one has more cache may be surprising. The amount of memory seems so tiny, but it’s expensive! The cost stems from cramming such a small, fast memory area into the processor die. So is it worth springing for more cache as a selling point for your next CPU?

As always, what really matters is how well a given CPU performs in the apps or games you want to use. If your favorite software packages or games get a significant boost from larger cache allocations, it makes sense to spend money on CPUs with more cache. In other words, don’t worry about the on-paper specifications. Instead, look up benchmarks for your intended software, and see whether a CPU with more cache (all else being equal) makes any real difference.

CPU designers are generally quite good at giving a processor the right amount of cache for its intended use. So if a CPU is marketed for gaming or video editing, or for use in servers, it will usually have a cache configuration that will work well for those jobs.


AMD Ryzen 7 5800X3D CPU

$318 $449 Save $131

The king of gaming CPUs blows much more expensive CPUs out of the water in gaming performance by offering ludicrous amounts of 3D stacked cache memory.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *