What makes a processor great depends on two factors: how much you want to spend on it and what you want to do with it. It doesn't seem logical to spend £100 on a processor destined to be at the heart of a gaming rig and you would probably be bonkers to spend £500 on a CPU only to do word processing: achieving the best possible value for your money is what we're after.
There's plenty of options available in the market, both from AMD and from Intel, and the concept of best value for money processor, while very much a debatable topic is one worthy of.
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Obviously, your propensity to take things apart - and back together - as well as the specification of the rest of your system also come into play, but we digress.
There's also the fact that different options arise depending on where you are on the purchase curve: are you building a new computer or updating an existing one (and sticking to the existing motherboard).
And lest not forget the fact that some of us will be more confident than others when it comes to the art of overclocking while others may be tempted to buy second hand/burn-in CPUs.
To make things simpler for everyone, we've decided to narrow down the list to the more popular sockets and stock keeping units. So no server CPUs, soldered processors (embedded or laptop), obsolete sockets and, to pre-empt any further discussion, no non-x86 parts.
We also went for the cheaper SKU where possible (i.e. without cooler). Just bear in mind that stocks and prices change all the time (thanks Amazon Dynamic Pricing).
As always, if you think there are better Intel/AMD alternatives? Give us a shout in the comment section. So without further ado and in no particular order here are our top 10 processors in no order of preference.
1. AMD A10-5800K
- Socket: FM2
- Specification: 4C/4T, 4MB cache, boxed, 3.8GHz
- Best for: Existing FM2 users looking to extend the lifespan of their systems.
This first choice is likely to be a bit controversial because it involved spending £70 on an APU (Accelerated Processing Unit) that is more than two years old and has been built on an older 32nm manufacturing process. That, combined with the fact that it – the AMD A10-5800K - has a relatively high TDP of 100W explains why its turbo boost speed only hits 4.2GHz, a less-than-stellar 10%, boost although you should be able to overclock it further if you swap the bundled HSF for something beefier. The A10-5800K integrates a Radeon HD 7660D GPU, pushing its core count to 12 and the boxed edition comes with a three-year warranty. Check out our review of the AMD A10-5800K.
2. AMD FX-9590
- Socket: AM3+
- Specification: 8C/8T, 16MB cache, CPU only, 4.7GHz
- Best for: Deep-pocket aficionados looking to extract the maximum from their AMD rig at all cost.
This is the best processor AMD has to offer to its consumer fans. This is a 2-year old Vishera-based product that has been etched on a 32nm technology – not even the 28nm one used by its own APU - and has a TDP of 220W. Intel's much maligned Pentium Extreme Edition 955 hit a relatively cooler 130W back in the days. Why include the FX-9590 in this list? To quench the thirst of AMD fanboys mostly. With a total of 16MB cache (8MB L2 and 8MB L3) and a base clock speed of 4.7GHz (turbo boosted to 5GHz), it has proven to be a very, very difficult beast to cool. Check whether your motherboard and cooling system will support it before taking the plunge. Ebuyer sells it for £183, a price that (judiciously for AMD at least) excludes the heatsink and the fan. Yeah.
3. Intel Core i3-6100
- Socket: Socket 1151
- Specification: 2C/4T, 3MB cache, boxed, 3.7GHz
- Best for: For those looking to build a solid system that is likely to last a few years.
If you want to do some heavy lifting but don't want to spend hundreds of pounds on a piece of silicon, then check out this processor. The Intel Core i3-6100 is the cheapest Core processor based on the new Skylake architecture and you don't have to fork out a fortune for it. At less than £93, it is a bargain; true, you need to pair it with a motherboard with a decent chipset (Z710) in order to run faster memory (2.66GHz) but that isn't necessary. It is not a K-model and there are two SKUs, the 6100 (higher TDP and higher clock speed) and the 6100T (lower TDP, lower clock speeds) so make sure you choose the right one. Using a 14nm node, it reaches 3.7GHz with a 51W TDP; its two cores/4-thread configuration should make for a decent gaming gear and the 4K-capable Intel HD 530 GPU is clocked at 350MHz.
4. AMD Sempron 3850
- Socket: AM1
- Specification: 4C/4T, 2MB cache, boxed, 1.3GHz
- Best for: Those looking to build a super cheap, basic PC and slap the AMD logo on it
At the other end of the spectrum is the Sempron 3850, AMD's cheapest quad-core processor. It sports a Kabini core and is built on a 28nm process which explains why its TDP only reaches 25W, almost one seventh of the FX-9590. Obviously, the fact that it runs at only 1.3GHz also helps a lot. Add in the fact that it comes with an integrated AMD Radeon HD 8280 GPU (basic but decent) and you get something that's better than most Baytrail-based system on the market. The best part though has to be the price. At £25.78, it is cheap especially as it includes the heat sink and the fan; that means that you can envisage getting a motherboard bundle for under £50. Shame that it has only one memory channel though. Note that the Athlon X2 340, a different beast altogether (a different socket and no GPU) is AMD's next cheapest processor costing just under £20.
5. Intel Pentium G3258
- Socket: LGA 1150
- Specification: 2C/2T, 3MB cache, boxed, 3.2GHz
- Best for: Building an overclockable gaming machine on a very tight budget.
There are cheaper Intel processors on the market, the Celeron G1840 being the cheapest we sourced. However, the Pentium G3258 is probably the best option at the low end of the market for a good reason. It is an excellent overclocker; at just over £52, this Haswell part sports 3MB L2 cache, hits 3.2GHz on its two-core, two-thread setup with a TDP of 53W. What makes it special though is that it has an unlocked multiplier, essentially Intel's way of saying thanks to the enthusiast community (The G3258 was launched to mark the 20th anniversary of the Pentium brand). Don't buy it if you only want to run it at 3.2GHz. Get a decent aftermarket heatsink fan and you can almost certainly look pushing it beyond 4GHz. Just make sure you pair it with a capable motherboard and don't push it too much (watch the temperature).
6. Intel Core i7-6700K
- Socket: LGA 1151
- Specification: 4C/8T, 8MB cache, boxed, 4GHz
- Best for: The bleeding, cutting edge from Intel with an inclination for extreme overclocking.
This is Skylake, Intel's sixth Core generation (yes, 6th). The i7-6700K, which cost just under £300 at Eclipse Computers, is the company's most powerful Skylake model and It will replace the Broadwell-based desktop processors in the short term; we've got a pretty powerful processor with four cores, eight threads, 8MB cache, a base clock speed of 4GHz, a turbo-boost of 4.2GHz and an Intel HD Graphics 530 subsystem inside. Overclock is what may get some of us excited; this is a K-model and one built on a 14nm process. Pair that with a decent 100-series chipset, an oversized HSF and a couple of overclocker-friendly DDR4 memory modules and watch it fly. 5GHz anyone (although watch out for the 91W TDP)? Check out our review of the Core i7-6700K.
7. Intel Core i5-4690K
- Socket: LGA 1151
- Specification: 4C/4T, 6MB cache, boxed, 3.5GHz
- Best for: Building a mid-range system with some serious overlocking potential.
There is a good reason why the Intel Core i5-4690K is the best-selling processor on Amazon. This Devil Canyon's part is one of the most, if not the most affordable K-series processor from Intel's Core range at £168 and as such can overclock fairly easily with modest efforts. It has a base frequency of 3.5GHz with many users reporting being able to hit 25% increase in speed using a decent aftermarket HSF. It doesn't come with hyper-threading but for the price, just under £168, that wasn't expected. The processor has 6MB L2 cache, is built using a 22nm process, has an 88W TDP and integrates an Intel HD Graphics 4600 GPU.
8. AMD FX-8320E
- Socket: AM3+
- Specification: 8C/8T, 8MB cache, boxed, 3.5GHz
- Best for: Anyone looking for cores, a lot of them, on a tight budget.
Meet the AMD FX-8320E; this is the cheapest 8-core processor on the market and costs a smidgen under £100 at Amazon. It is built on a mature 32nm node which explains why it has a high TDP (95W) although not that high given that it is clocked at 3.2GHz with a boosted speed of 4GHz. But don't get your hopes too high though; on most tasks, it will be outperformed even by the modest Haswell Core i3 but will truly shine when you throw multi-threaded jobs (encryption, encoding etc) at it, where it can beat even the more expensive Core i5 parts. What's more, many users have been able to overclock this part easily using a non-stock heatsink fan, some up to 4.8GHz. You can read our review of the FX-8320E.
9. Intel Core i7-5820K
- Socket: LGA2011-v3
- Specification: 6C/12T, 15MB cache, boxed, 3.3GHz
- Best for: Building a relatively powerful system that can do games AND do some serious number crunching.
With AMD being a mere shadow of itself, Intel has gone back to releasing products that require a new socket on a quasi-yearly basis; great for sales, not great for customers as it hampers upgrades. The Core i7-5820K, a Broadwell part, is no exception; it uses yet another socket aimed at the performance and server market. What makes this little processor worth listing here is the fact that it is a 6-core part and doesn't actually cost a lot. At £289.95, at Amazon, it's a decent deal. Add in 15MB cache, 12 threads and 28 PCI Express lanes and you get a compelling compute solution. Shame about the TDP, a whopping 140W for a part that's clocked at 3.3GHz.
10. AMD A10-7870K
- Socket: FM2+
- Specification: 4C/4T, 4MB cache, boxed, 3.9GHz
- Best for: Building a decent e-sport rig on a shoe-string budget.
AMD bet the company's future on APU which combines the traditional processor (CPU) with the graphics processing unit (GPU). The Accelerated Processing Unit was born and with it the promise of better integrated graphics. The A10-7870K is currently AMD's top performing APU for desktop and comes with a rather affordable £105.98 at Amazon. It is built on a 28nm process, clocked at 3.9GHz, has four CPU cores and eight graphic cores and manages to keep the power dissipation south of 100W. Just make sure you use two memory modules (highest clock speed possible) to pair with the APU. AMD says it was designed to run most mainstream games at 30FPS at 1080p, so should make thrifty/cash-strapped gamers happy.