Update: Think your CPU is powerful? A team at UC Davis has built a fully-functional 1,000-core processor. Check it out!
What makes a processor great? Some would say it's how much money you spend on it while others might suggest it's the number of cores that determines the quality of a CPU. In reality, it's a matter of personal preference.
You would likely be disappointed if you shelled out a small fortune just to build a machine that only ends up being used for typing up documents. Likewise, thinking you could save some money by skimping out on the CPU in your gaming rig would be an equally misguided decision.
The goal is to achieve the best performance possible on a set budget. Rest assured, there are plenty of options from the most popular chipmakers, AMD and Intel, focused on any number of different areas, productivity or otherwise.
Moreover, you'll need to take into consideration the rest of your PC's components. Pairing a top-end GTX 1080 graphics card with a $30 (£25, around AU$40) AMD Sempron simply wouldn't make sense. Whether you're building a budget computer 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 apathetic towards the idea of pushing your chip beyond its manufacturer-enforced clock speeds. However, if that's something you think you might be interested in down the line, it's never too early to start looking into overclock-friendly component solutions.
With this list, we're focused purely on consumer desktop processors; server and laptop CPUs, obsolete sockets and non-x86 parts will be covered elsewhere. So, without further ado, here are our picks for the top 10 greatest processors you can find right now for your desktop PC.
1. AMD A10-5800K
Piledriver cores and DX11 graphics
Processor Cores: 4 | Thermal Design Power: 100W | Graphics Controller: Radeon HD7660D | Clock Speed: 3.80GHz | Processor Socket: FM2 | L2 Cache: 4MB
This first choice is likely to be a bit controversial because it involved spending $120 (£70, about AU$160) on an APU (Accelerated Processing Unit) that is more than three years old and has been built on an older 32nm manufacturing process. That, combined with the fact that it 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. Ultimately, the USP here is an all-in-one, overclockable chip for a good price.
Read the full review: AMD A10-5800K
2. AMD FX-9590
Among AMD's best to offer
Processor Cores: 8 | Thermal Design Power: 220W | Graphics Controller: None (requires discrete GPU) | Clock Speed: 4.7GHz | Processor Socket: AM3+ | L2 Cache: 4 x 2MB
This is one of the best processors 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 pretty high TDP.
Why include the FX-9590 in this list? To quench the thirst of AMD loyalists, mostly. With a total of 16MB cache (there's 8MB L3 in there, too) and a speedy base clock speed of 4.7GHz (turbo boosted to 5.0GHz), it has proven to be a very, very difficult beast to cool.
Check whether your motherboard and cooling system will support it before taking this powerful plunge. Amazon sells it for $220 (£130, about AU$295), a price that (judiciously for AMD at least) excludes the heatsink and the fan. Yeah.
3. Intel Core i3-6100
Heavy lifting on the cheap
Processor Cores: 2 | Thermal Design Power: 65W | Graphics Controller: Intel HD Graphics 530 | Clock Speed: 3.7GHz | Processor Socket: LGA 1151 | L2 Cache: 2 x 256KB
Intel Core i3-6100
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 i3-6100 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 $116 (£100, about $156) on Amazon, it is a bargain. True, you'll want 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 65W TDP; its dual-core/4-thread configuration should make for a decent gaming rig, and the 4K-capable Intel HD 530 GPU is clocked at 350MHz.
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
AMD Sempron 3850
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. At $30 (£25, about AU$40) via Amazon, 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 $60 (£50, about AU$80). 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 just over $45 (£20, about AU$60).
5. Intel Pentium G3258
A downright excellent overclocker
Processor Cores: 2 | Thermal Design Power: 53W | Graphics Controller: Intel HD Graphics | Clock Speed: 3.2GHz | Processor Socket: LGA 1150 | L2 Cache: 2 x 256KB
Intel Pentium G3258
There are cheaper Intel processors out there, of course, the Celeron G1840 being the most notable. However, the Pentium G3258 is probably the best option at the low end of the market, and for good reason: it is an excellent overclocker.
At just under $67 (£56, about AU$90) through Amazon, this Haswell chip sports 3MB of L2 cache, hits 3.2GHz on its dual-core, two-thread setup with a TDP of 53W. What makes it extra special though is the unlocked multiplier, essentially Intel's way of recognizing the enthusiast community (The G3258 was launched to mark the 20th anniversary of the Pentium brand).
Don't buy it, though, if you only want to run it at 3.2GHz. Get a decent aftermarket heatsink fan, and you can almost certainly look to pushing it beyond 4.0GHz. Just make sure you pair it with a capable motherboard and don't push it too hard (keep tabs on the temperature).
6. Intel Core i7-6700K
This quad-core one's a bit different
Processor Cores: 4 | Thermal Design Power: 91W | Graphics Controller: Intel HD Graphics 530 | Clock Speed: 4.0GHz | Processor Socket: LGA 1151 | L2 Cache: 4 x 256KB
This is Skylake, Intel's sixth Core generation. The i7-6700K, which cost just under $345 (£290, about AU$463), is the company's most powerful Skylake model set to replace the Broadwell-based desktop processors in the short term.
Here we've got a pretty powerful processor boasting 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. 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.
Read the full review: Intel Core i7-6700K
7. Intel Core i5-4690K
One of Intel's best-selling parts
Processor Cores: 4 | Thermal Design Power: 88W | Graphics Controller: Intel HD Graphics 4600 | Clock Speed: 3.5GHz | Processor Socket: LGA 1150 | L2 Cache: 4 x 256KB
Intel Core i5-4690K
There is a good reason why the Intel Core i5-4690K is among the best-selling processors on Amazon.
This Devil's Canyon part is one of the most, if not the most affordable K-series processor from Intel's Core range at $239 (£182, about AU$321) 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.
The 4690K doesn't come with hyper-threading, but for the price it wasn't expected. The processor, bilt on the 22nm fabrication process, packs 6MB of L2 cache, an 88W TDP and even an Intel HD Graphics 4600 onboard GPU.
8. AMD FX-8320E
One of the cheapest octa-core chips around
Processor Cores: 8 | Thermal Design Power: 95W | Graphics Controller: None | Clock Speed: 3.2GHz | Processor Socket: AM3+ | L2 Cache: 4 x 2MB
Meet the AMD FX-8320E; this is one of the cheapest eight-core processors on the market and costs a smidgen under $110 (£108, about AU$148) on Amazon.
Built on a mature 32nm node, it's clear why the FX-8320E has such a high TDP (95W). Then again, maybe it's not an unusual spec given the 3.2GHz clock speed. Plus, when needed, it can even boost all the way to 4GHz.
But don't get your hopes too high, though. On most tasks, the FX-8320E will be outperformed even by a modest Haswell 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. Intel Core i7-5820K
Six cores pack with power
Processor Cores: 6 | Thermal Design Power: 140W | Graphics Controller: None | Clock Speed: 3.3GHz | Processor Socket: LGA 2011-v3 | L2 Cache: 6 x 256KB
Intel Core i7-5820K
With AMD ceding a bit of the limelight the past few years, Intel has gone back to releasing products that require a new socket on a quasi-yearly basis – great for sales, not great for customers. The Core i7-5820K, a Broadwell component, is no exception. It uses yet another socket aimed at the high-performance and server market.
What makes this little processor worth listing here is that even though it has all six cores intact, it isn't priced outrageously. At $389 (around £313, AU$507), it's really not a bad deal. Add in 15MB of 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
Processor Cores: 4 | Thermal Design Power: 95W | Graphics Controller: AMD Radeon R7 | Clock Speed: 3.9GHz | Processor Socket: FM2+ | L2 Cache: 2 x 2MB
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 with promise of better integrated graphics.
The A10-7870K is currently AMD's top performing APU for desktops, and comes with a rather affordable $140 (£107, about AU$188) Amazon price tag. It is built on a 28nm process, clocked at 3.9GHz, has four CPU cores and eight graphics 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, which should make thrifty/cash-strapped gamers happy.
Gabe Carey has also contributed to this article
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