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CPUs
Somewhat amazingly, all of the CPUs we're recommending in this edition of the guide are recent arrivals. That's thanks to Intel, which has updated its desktop processor lineup with the Haswell Refresh and Devil's Canyon series—not to mention the Pentium Anniversary Edition, a bargain-basement dual-core chip with a fully unlocked upper multiplier. We're still a ways off from a true generational refresh, but these new models are all better deals than their predecessors, and their arrival is definitely welcome.

Sadly, AMD remains in a somewhat uncompetitive position. Its Socket AM3+ platform is growing long in the tooth, with relatively slow processors, excessive power consumption, and chipsets that date back to 2011. AMD's new Kaveri chips come with a newer platform and lower power use, but the retail-boxed versions of Kaveri are either unavailable or marked up excessively for how they perform. Last we heard, AMD was seeing high demand for Kaveri processors in China, and it had delayed the $119 A8-7600 until the second half of the year. That processor still isn't listed at Newegg today.

In the end, we're pretty much stuck with Intel, which continues to offer the best overall CPU performance, the smallest power envelopes, and the best upgrade path. (Motherboards based on the company's new 9-series chipsets should support next-gen Broadwell CPUs.) AMD's Kaveri processors do have better integrated graphics, but that doesn't help us much. Gaming on integrated graphics still yields a sub-par experience in many cases, especially in titles designed to take advantage of the new consoles. If you care the least bit about gaming performance, you ought to be buying a discrete graphics card. Sadly, that means there's not much point in us recommending an AMD processor right now.

Budget

Product Price Notable needs
Intel Pentium G3258 Anniversary Edition $74.99 LGA1150 motherboard,
Z97 chipset for overclocking
Intel Core i3-4150 $129.99 LGA1150 motherboard

The Pentium G3258, also known as the Anniversary Edition, is the first sub-$100, overclocking-friendly processor we've seen from Intel in years. It has only two cores, and it lacks both Hyper-Threading and Turbo Boost, but we managed to overclock ours from the base 3.2GHz speed to a blistering 4.8GHz. At that frequency, the Pentium G3258 can keep up with much faster, higher-priced chips in all but the most heavily multithreaded apps. The Pentium is surprisingly capable in games, too.

If you're not interested in overclocking, the Core i3-4150 may be a better budget buy. Its base clock speed is a little higher, at 3.5GHz, and it adds Hyper-Threading to the mix, which helps performance in multithreaded tasks. (The Core i3 also has AES acceleration, which the Pentium lacks.) Both of these chips are good choices for non-gamers, since they have basic integrated graphics built in.

Some people might be surprised to see us leave out AMD's low-end quad-core processors here. The thing is, those CPUs have rather poor single-threaded performance, and our numbers continue to show the importance of single-threaded speed in consumer apps and games. Multithreaded performance does matter, but in day-to-day use, two fast cores will feel noticeably quicker than four slow ones. The same holds true in games, where low single-threaded performance can act as a bottleneck and cause noticeable frame time spikes. (In the words of Jurjen Katsman, one of the guys behind the PC versions of Thief and Deus Ex: Human Revolution, most PC games "flatten off at one core.")

AMD's low-end quad-core chips have other disadvantages, as well, including high power consumption and, in the case of the FX series, an outdated platform. AMD's new A8-7600 would make a potentially suitable alternative here, thanks to its 65W TDP and its relatively modern Socket AM2+ platform, but it's still missing from e-tail listings.

Sweet spot

Product Price Notable needs
Intel Core i5-4460 $189.99 LGA1150 motherboard
Intel Core i5-4690K $239.99 LGA1150 motherboard,
Z97 chipset for overclocking
Intel Core i7-4790K $339.99

In our view, the processors in this price range make up the sweet spot of the desktop CPU market. They all have four fast cores, which ensure speed and responsiveness in both single-threaded tasks and heavily multithreaded ones. The ones with the letter "K" in their model numbers also have fully unlocked upper multipliers, which open the door to easy overclocking.

The Core i5-4460 belongs to the Haswell Refresh lineup, and it also happens to be Intel's most inexpensive quad-core desktop processor. This is a good, no-frills option if you plan to run at stock settings. Those folks wanting to overclock their CPUs will want to grab either the Core i5-4690K or the Core i7-4790K, which make up the new Devil's Canyon series.

Devil's Canyon is supposed to have more overclocking headroom than the original Haswell series, thanks to a new thermal interface material (TIM) that sits between the die and heat spreader. We didn't see much of a difference when overclocking our sample, but Intel seems to have high hopes those rare chips that, through miracles of fabrication, are imbued with unusually high headroom. Those chips might have been held back by the original TIM in the first-gen Haswell series.

Even assuming identical headroom, Devil's Canyon is worth it. These chips are the same price as their predecessors, but they're both faster out of the box. In the case of the Core i7-4790K, you're getting a 500MHz higher base speed essentially for free. Not only that, but these processors support two features that were disabled on the original Haswell K series: Virtualization Technology for Directed I/O, also known as VT-d, and transactional memory, or TSX. (VT-d and TSX are also absent from the Pentium and the Core i3 in our budget selections.)

AMD has a couple of processors in this price range: the $230 FX-9370 and $300 FX-9590, the latter of which is available with a bundled liquid cooler for $370. As refreshing as it is to see AMD competing above $200, these CPUs are difficult to recommend. They have extremely high power consumption, with thermal envelopes of 220W that dwarf Devil's Canyon's 88W TDP. That means they require a significant investment in cooling, preferably in the form of a water cooler with a large radiator. In spite of that fact, the FX-9000 series seems to keep up with competing Intel chips only in select workloads, and it's bound to the same old Socket AM3+ platform and outdated chipsets as the rest of the FX lineup.

High end

Product Price Notable needs
Intel Core i7-4930K $579.99 LGA2011 motherboard, quad-channel memory kit, discrete graphics, aftermarket cooler

The Core i7-4930K isn't a Haswell chip like our other picks. It's based on the Ivy Bridge-E architecture, which is older but fabbed on the same 22-nm process. The "E" suffix in the code name denotes the silicon's server and workstation pedigree: Ivy Bridge-E has more cores, more cache, more memory channels, and support for higher memory speeds than any Haswell processor available today. A similarly beefed-up offering called Haswell-E is expected later this year, but Ivy Bridge-E is worth considering if you'd rather not wait.

The Core i7-4930K has six cores, 12 threads, 12MB of L3 cache, and support for quad channels of DDR3-1866 memory (yielding peak theoretical bandwidth of almost 60 GB/s, up from about 26 GB/s for Haswell). It performs best in heavily multithreaded workloads or heavy multitasking scenarios. And yes, it has VT-d, so you can virtualize to your heart's content.

Intel sells an even faster Ivy Bridge-E, the Core i7-4960X. However, it costs over $1,000 and doesn't offer much beyond the Core i7-4930K—just a marginal clock speed increase and a little more cache. We think you're better off getting the Core i7-4930K and spending the difference on something more consequential, like a faster graphics card or a better solid-state drive.

Note that the Core i7-4930K requires a different motherboard than its Haswell siblings, and because it has a quad-channel memory controller, it needs at least four memory modules (one to populate each channel). Also, Intel doesn't include a heatsink and fan in the box; you'll need to supply your own. Finally, unlike Haswell, Ivy Bridge-E doesn't have integrated graphics, so it requires a discrete graphics card. Recommendations for all those components can be found on the next several pages.