What makes a processor the best? Some would say it's the price tag, and if money were no object this might hold weight. Others suggest that it's the number of cores or overclockability that determine how high a particular central processing unit (CPU) ranks in a price/performance chart.
In reality, it's simply a matter of taste, only made worst by the plethora of other variables to be taken into consideration. Which is why this lists contains a bit of everything; older processors, AMD APUs and even the odd Pentium.
You would be disappointed after handing over a small fortune to build a machine used exclusively for cranking out documents. At the same time, it would be an equally misguided decision to skimp on the CPU in your gaming rig just to save money.
In the end, it's not about achieving the best performance possible, but to do so and still meet a personalized budget. Certainly, if funds were limitless, we would all be rocking supercomputers.
Fortunately, there are plenty of less expensive options from both AMD and Intel focused on everything from word processing to gaming. With AMD’s latest 14-nanometer Zen CPUs all but released, Intel may have the upper hand in performance and value, but that’s subject to change very soon.
What's more, you'll have to take into consideration your PC’s other components. Pairing the best graphics card with a cheap processor would result in a severe bottleneck. Whether you're building a budget PC or a premium-priced server machine, you'll want to keep your parts consistent.
Overclocking, too, is worth your consideration. It's completely understandable if you're reluctant to push your chip beyond its stock speeds. But, if it piques your interest down the line, it’s safer to plan ahead and buy an unlocked CPU than to not.
With this list, we're focused purely on readily available desktop and server processors; laptop CPUs, obsolete sockets and non-x86 parts will be ignored.
So without further ado, here are our picks of the top 10 best processors you can buy right now for your desktop PC.
Note that they are not in any order of preference.
1. AMD A8-7670K
Ideal for AMD upgrades
Processor Cores: 4 | Thermal Design Power: 95W | Graphics Controller: Radeon R7 Series | Clock Speed: 3.6GHz | Processor Socket: FM2+ | L2 Cache: 4MB
If you are an AMD enthusiast (or just prefer rooting for the underdog), these are interesting times indeed. AMD is about to launch a series of processors based on a new architecture (Zen) which will obliterate its current generation of CPUs (and make it more competitive with Intel's finest).
So, of course, prices are falling accordingly. The A8-7670K remains one of the rare bright spots in AMD's lineup despite being more than two years old.
It is built on a 28nm manufacturing process which explains why it has a 95W TDP despite a relatively high base and turbo clock speed (3.6GHz and 3.9GHz respectively).
Its graphics performance is where it shines thanks to an onboard GPU that is slightly more powerful than the Radeon R7 240 GPU (six compute units, 384 shader cores, 757MHz GPU clock speed).
2. Intel Xeon E5-2660
Best for tinkerers
Processor cores: 8 | Thermal Design Power: 115W | Graphics Controller: None | Clockspeed: 2.2GHz | Processor socket: FCLGA1011 | Cache: 20MB
There are many little-known secrets in the world of computer hardware. One of the best-kept is that, occasionally, data centers – globally operated by some of the biggest tech companies in the world – dump their processors as they upgrade to newer models. In effect, you probably can’t help but wonder what they do with all of their used-up goods.
In most cases, they wind up on eBay or Amazon from second-hand sellers. From there, you can purchase these older, “slower” CPUs for a fraction of their going rate.
The Intel Xeon E5-2660 v1 is one of them. Based on the tried (and still very much trusted) Sandy Bridge architecture, it is one of the best processors Intel has launched in the past decade. You can nab it for one-twentieth of what it would have cost to buy them new.
Snag a pair of Xeon twins (you can get two for less than £100 from eBay) and you’ll be ready to assemble a hardy workstation rig like this one, complete with 16 cores, 32 threads and a whopping 40MB cache.
Sure, the technology is now obsolete and there's plenty to rile about. But if you're looking for the absolute bargain of the century and you know your way around, then, this CPU is probably the best Intel has to offer.
3. Intel Core i3-7100
Heavy lifting on the cheap
Processor Cores: 2 | Thermal Design Power: 51W | Graphics Controller: Intel HD Graphics 630 | Clock Speed: 3.9GHz | Processor Socket: LGA 1151 | L2 Cache: 3MB
If you want to do some heavy lifting but don't want to blow your savings on a piece of silicon, then check out this chip. The Intel Core i3-7100 is the cheapest Core processor based on the new KabyLake architecture, and you don't have to fork out a fortune for it.
Using a 14nm node, it reaches 3.9GHz with a 51W TDP; its dual-core/4-thread configuration should make for a decent gaming rig, and the 4K-capable Intel HD 630 GPU is clocked at 350MHz. Oh and it should make a fairly good overclocker as well.
True, you'll want to pair it with a motherboard with a decent chipset (Z170) in order to run faster memory (DDR4-2400), but that isn't necessary. It is not a K-model, and there are two SKUs, the 7100 (higher TDP and higher clock speed) and the 7100T (lower TDP, lower clock speeds) so make sure you choose the right one.
4. AMD Sempron 3850
Its most affordable quad-core chip
Processor Cores: 4 | Thermal Design Power: 25W | Graphics Controller: AMD Radeon HD 8280 | Clock Speed: 1.3GHz | Processor Socket: AM1 | L2 Cache: 2MB
At the other end of the spectrum is the Sempron 3850, one of AMD's cheapest quad-core processors. 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 systems at least.
The best part though has to be the price; it is cheap especially, as it includes the heat sink and the fan; that means that you can envisage getting a motherboard bundle for less than Intel's cheapest CPU. A 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 about 10 percent more.
5. Intel Pentium G4400
Skylake on a budget
Processor Cores: 2 | Thermal Design Power: 65W | Graphics Controller: Intel HD Graphics 510 | Clock Speed: 3.3GHz | Processor Socket: FCLGA1151 | L2 Cache: 3MB
Its predecessor, the Pentium G3258, was one of the best options at the lower end of the market, and the G4400 is a shoe-in replacement offering Skylake architecture on a budget. The laws of supply and demand means that it is actually retailing for cheaper than the G3258 or the slower Celeron parts.
This chip sports 3MB of L2 cache, hits 3.3GHz on its dual-core, two-thread setup with a TDP of 54W. It doesn't have an unlocked multiplier like the G3258 though but its improved processor graphics (HD510) can support DirectX 12, 4K resolutions at 60Hz over DisplayPort which makes it great for a home theatre PC.
Note that there is a slower version (G4400TE, with a much lower TDP), which is great if you want an even quieter model to build your rig on. Costing less than half the price of a Core i3, it is a decent alternative if you're trying to put together a system without breaking the bank.
6. Intel Core i7-7700K
This quad-core one's a bit different
Processor Cores: 4 | Thermal Design Power: 91W | Graphics Controller: Intel HD Graphics 630 | Clock Speed: 4.2GHz | Processor Socket: LGA 1151 | L2 Cache: 8MB
This is KabyLake, Intel's seventh Core generation, at its best and the one that AMD's Zen will have to contend with. The i7-7700K is the company's most powerful model set to replace the Skylake-based desktop processors in the short term.
We've got a pretty powerful processor boasting four cores, eight threads, 8MB cache, a base clock speed of 4.2GHz, a turbo-boost of 4.5GHz and an Intel HD Graphics 630 subsystem inside.
All are step changes from the 6600K but at least the price didn't go up significantly. Overclocking is what may get some of us excited, however, as it's the distinguishing feature of the "K" models such as itself.
Pair that with a decent 100-series chipset, an oversized HSF and a couple of overclocker-friendly DDR4 memory modules, and watch it fly.
And, although you'll want to pay close attention to that 91W TDP, 5.0GHz isn't a lofty goal with the 6700K.
7. Intel Core i5-7500
Expect this to be a best seller
Processor Cores: 4 | Thermal Design Power: 65W | Graphics Controller: Intel HD Graphics 630 | Clock Speed: 3.54Hz | Processor Socket: LGA 1151 | L2 Cache: 6MB
There is a good reason why this Intel Core i5-7500 is likely to become one the best-selling processors in the Kaby Lake family.
It manages to deliver most of the performance/feature set of the Core i7-7700 at with a massive 40% discount.
Don't expect the performance delta to be that big though, more likely to be around 20% in most cases.
The three big differences are in hyper-threading support, in the base/turbo frequencies and in the amount of cache.
Manufactured using a 14nm process, the 7500 has four cores clocked at 3.4GHz with 6MB cache and a 65W TDP. It shares the same HD 630 graphics subsystem as the i7-7700 and offers support for vPro, something its bigger brother surprisingly doesn't.
8. AMD FX-8300 Black Edition
The cheapest octa-core chip around
Processor Cores: 8 | Thermal Design Power: 95W | Graphics Controller: None | Clock Speed: 3.3GHz | Processor Socket: AM3+ | L2 Cache: 8MB
Meet the AMD FX-8300, one of the cheapest eight-core processors on the market. Built on a mature 32nm node, it's clear why the FX-8300 has such a high TDP (95W).
Then again, maybe it's not an unusual spec given the 3.3GHz clock speed. Plus, when needed, it can even boost all the way to 4GHz.
But don't get your hopes too high, though. On single-thread, the FX-8300 will be outperformed even by a modest Core i3.
Where it truly shines is 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 the chip easily using a non-stock heatsink fan, some all the way up to 4.8GHz.
9. AMD Athlon x4-860K
Ideal for upgrading an existing AMD rig
Processor Cores: 4 | Thermal Design Power: 95W | Graphics Controller: None | Clock Speed: 3.7GHz | Processor Socket: FM2+ | L2 Cache: 4MB
Like most other AMD CPUs in this list, this is an old CPU which managed to remain relevant by combining decent performance with a superbly low price. Since this is an Athlon model, it doesn't come with a GPU. It does however offer an unlocked clock multiplier which means that it is ideal if you want to overclock it.
It has all the necessary ingredients to be at the core of a great entry level computer. It is cheap, has four cores clocked at 3.6GHz (4GHz turbo) and, thanks to its 28nm manufacturing process, has a rather reasonable 95W TDP.
Expect it to roughly match a Skylake-based Core i3-6100T CPUs albeit with a far higher TDP (three times) but almost half the price.
Gabe Carey has also contributed to this article