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CPUs
If the Intel-centric introduction to this System Guide wasn't enough of a hint, we think builders will be happiest planning their PCs around an Intel CPU. Dollar for dollar, and by almost any measure, we've found the blue team's chips are simply better than the AMD competition. Whatever your budget, we strongly recommend you build around an Intel chip.

That said, we continue to make room in the System Guide for a couple AMD CPUs, too. AMD entry-level chips can provide unique value propositions that Intel's offerings can't match.

Some builders may be tempted by AMD's FX-series CPUs, like the FX-8350. These chips pack a lot of cores at high clock speeds, often at lower prices than Intel's. We don't recommend them, though. In lightly threaded workloads, which are the most common for desktop systems, the stronger per-thread performance of Intel CPUs gives them an undeniable advantage. Intel's current processors also consume less power and throw off less heat than comparable AMD silicon. On top of that, FX-series chips are tied to aging chipsets and motherboards that often don't include modern niceties like USB 3.1, USB Type-C ports, M.2 storage connectors, DDR4 RAM support, and PCI Express 3.0 slots.

You may have deduced this fact already, but Intel's latest CPU architecture is called Skylake. Chips based on this 14-nm silicon offer small-but-welcome increases in performance pretty much across the board, and from what we've seen, there aren't substantial premiums for choosing Skylake-compatible motherboards or memory, even now. Skylake's platform improvements are also welcome: the highest-end Z170 chipset offers more PCI Express lanes for next-generation storage and high-speed I/O ports than Intel's 9-series boards. Given these advantages, we'd generally recommend building around a Skylake processor if possible.

While we said we'd be looking exclusively at Skylake parts in this guide, we do still need to mention Intel's Broadwell Core i7-5775C. This CPU is unique because of its 128MB of eDRAM, a resource that the i7-5775C can use as a large last-level cache. In our testing, we found that the 5775C appears to have a natural advantage in producing low frame times in games. This exotic chip could be the ticket to the smoothest gaming experience around, if you can find one. We've extensively discussed building with Broadwell on the desktop already, so if you're interested in knowing more, refer to our last guide for more info.

Pour one out for Intel's Pentium Anniversary Edition CPU here, too. While that chip was appealing in budget builds for a long time thanks to its unlocked multiplier and the considerable overclocking potential of twin Haswell cores, the game industry appears to be favoring CPUs with more than two threads for future titles. We've decided to play it safe by sticking to chips with dual cores and Hyper-Threading in our recs at a minimum.

Not all is lost for overclockers on a budget who favor Intel chips, though. Recently, motherboard makers discovered ways of using Skylake's isolated base clock domain to push even CPUs with locked multipliers to the moon on Z170 boards. That capability can apparently be added to motherboards with nothing more than a BIOS update. ASRock is the only mobo maker who has officially added this feature to its boards, but we'd expect it to come to boards from other companies, too, if Intel doesn't intervene somehow.

Budget

Product Price Notable needs
Intel Core i3-6100 $129.99 LGA1151 motherboard
AMD Athlon X4 860K $74.99 Socket FM2+ motherboard
AMD A8-7600 $84.99 Socket FM2+ motherboard

In this price range, we think Intel's Core i3-6100 is a great buy. Its healthy 3.7GHz clock speed should be brisk enough for most, and its Hyper-Threading support can boost performance in multithreaded tasks. It'll also appear as a quad-core CPU to games that require one. This Core i3 is a good choice for non-gamers, too, since it has basic integrated graphics. For $130, it's hard to find anything to complain about with this chip.

Over in the AMD aisle, we have two options.

Among AMD's current APUs, the A8-7600 is probably the best bargain. It's almost as fast as the more expensive A10-7800, and it has the same ability to lower its TDP to 45W when paired with the right motherboard. That thermal envelope is even lower than the Core i3-6100's 47W rating. The A8-7600 also boasts integrated graphics power on par with the Intel competition, too. For around $80, this APU might make sense for the more budget-constrained.

The Athlon X4 860K, on the other hand, is essentially a range-topping A10-7850K "Kaveri" APU with its integrated graphics disabled. Those looking for a budget overclocking build can take advantage of the 860K's unlocked multiplier. This chip's four integer cores should make it compatible with any recent game. The downside is that Kaveri chips are still handily outperformed by Intel CPUs clock-for-clock, and I can personally attest that overclocking the A10-7850K doesn't close the gap much.

Sweet spot

Product Price Notable needs
Intel Core i5-6500 $204.99 LGA1151 motherboard
Intel Core i5-6600K $279.99 LGA1151 motherboard, Z170 chipset for overclocking,
aftermarket CPU cooler
Intel Core i7-6700K $419.99

Moving up to the sweet-spot gets builders into Intel's quad-core CPUs. If you don't want to play with overclocking, the Core i5-6500 looks like the Goldilocks chip in this price range. For about $205, the i5-6500 gives us 3.2GHz base and 3.6GHz Turbo clocks in a miserly 65W thermal envelope. As a warning, we aren't as enamored of the Core i5-6400. Though it sells for only $15 less than the i5-6500, the i5-6400 pays for it with a big drop in clocks. That chip only rings in with 2.7GHz base and 3.3GHz Turbo speeds.

The logical step up from the Core i5-6500 is Intel's Core i5-6600K. This part gives us four cores at 3.5GHz base and 3.9GHz Turbo speeds, along with an unlocked multiplier that gives overclockers free rein. From there, the beastly Core i7-6700K adds Hyper-Threading and turns the clocks all the way up to 4GHz base and 4.2GHz Turbo speeds. Overclockers are free to explore the i7-6700K's upper limits, too.

Just be sure to grab an aftermarket cooler from our selections later in this guide if you're building with an i5-6600K or an i7-6700K. Intel doesn't include a boxed cooler with its Skylake K-series chips.

High end

Product Price Notable needs
Intel Core i7-5820K $389.99 LGA2011-v3 motherboard,
quad-channel DDR4 memory kit,
discrete graphics, aftermarket cooler
Intel Core i7-5930K $499.99

Last summer, Intel unleashed the Core i7-5960X, its fastest desktop processor to date. This monster is based on Haswell-E silicon with eight cores, 16 threads, 20MB of L3 cache, a quad-channel DDR4 memory controller, and 40 PCI Express Gen3 lanes built right into the CPU die. This is the desktop cousin of Haswell-EP, Intel's dual-socket Xeon server processor, and it performs accordingly—with an unlocked upper multiplier to boot.

Too bad it costs just over a thousand bucks.

For almost half the price, the Core i7-5930K serves up much of the same Haswell-E goodness. Yes, the cheaper chip has "only" six cores, 12 threads, and 15MB of L3 cache, but that still gives it a big leg up over Intel's lesser quad-core parts. The i7-5930K also has higher stock clock speeds than the i7-5960X, which might translate into even better performance than the thousand-dollar beast in many workloads. Finally, because the i7-5930K is fully unlocked, you may be able to push it even higher by overclocking.

If you can't swallow the Core i7-5930K's cost but still want six Haswell cores in your system, we conditionally recommend the Core i7-5820K. This chip has 12 of its PCIe lanes lopped off, for a total of 28. We think Intel's decision to cripple this processor in this fashion is unfortunate, because it removes one of the key advantages of "extreme" processors based on the X99 platform. Many folks who build systems based on these CPUs will want 16 lanes going to two different PCIe x16 slots for multi-GPU configs. With a 5820K installed, though, an X99 system can't deliver. It effectively has no more PCIe bandwidth for SLI and CrossFire than a quad-core Skylake chip based on the much more affordable Z170 platform.

If you're not using a lot of PCIe expansion cards, this limitation may not matter, but it's something to note. The i7-5820K is still unlocked for easy overclocking, and its $390 price tag is reasonable for what it offers.