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CPUs
Unless you've been living under a rock or in a pineapple under the sea, you know that Intel's Kaby Lake desktop CPUs are out and about now. You can read our full review of Intel's latest, but the gist of it is that Kaby Lake offers clock speed bumps across the range for nearly the same prices as the Skylake chips they replaced. Not a revolution by any stretch, but hey, free clock speed bump. Can't go wrong with that.

Given that fact, our CPU choices this time around mostly replace Skylake chips with their Kaby successors, save for a couple exceptions. While we've long praised the Skylake Core i3-6100 for its near-perfect balance of clockspeed, power consumption, and price, we're not quite so enamored with its successor, the Core i3-7100, at $120. That's because of the Pentium G4620, a $92 chip that shares almost every one of the Core i3-7100's characteristics. The only downsides to the Pentium are a 200-MHz clock speed deficit and lack of support for AVX and TSX-NI instructions. We think that most people can be happy saving a few bucks with the Pentium G4620.

There's also AMD's upcoming Ryzen CPUs to consider. We're inching through AMD's "first quarter of 2017" release window, so while the new CPUs may not be blocks away, they've certainly crossed the state line. Recently, the company has demoed an eight-core, 16-thread Ryzen CPU roughly matching a Core i7-6900K monster. Even assuming Ryzen will deliver that kind of real-world performance, there's still scarce information on what AMD's actual CPU lineup will be short of a handful of rumors. If you're willing to wait a bit, Ryzen parts might be worth sitting tight for.

With all that said, here are our recommendations for today. Intel's 14-nm Kaby Lake chips are the best performers on the market by almost any measure. We won't rehash the reasons for why this is here—go read our Core i7-7700K review for all the details. Kaby Lake chips offer small-but-welcome increases in performance over Skylake parts pretty much across the board, and the new high-end Z720 chipset offers enough PCI Express lanes for plenty of next-generation storage and high-speed I/O ports.

It's also worth pointing out that Kaby Lake and Skylake chips are interchangeable between the new-fangled 200-series motherboards and the tried-and-true 100-series boards. Either type of CPU will also work on motherboards with the H270, Q270, Q250, and B250 chipsets, which we'll detail in the motherboards section right in the next page.

The only thing that Intel is restricting to the Kaby-and-200-series combo is support for Optane Memory, an as-yet-nebulous product that seems to be a small solid-state cache meant to sit between a hard drive and RAM in systems without an SSD. We wouldn't sweat this point too much since Intel hasn't shipped any Optane products yet.

While all that talk above mostly pertains to standard desktop and gaming systems, workstation builders and high-end enthusiasts may be interested in Intel's Broadwell-E CPUs. This range of chips piles on the cores and PCIe lanes, and tops out with the seriously-impressive 10-core, 20-thread Core i7-6950X.

The Broadwell architecture alone is only an evolutionary improvement over Haswell before it, but Intel has compensated for the single-threaded performance gap between Broadwell and newer CPUs somewhat with a new technology called Turbo Boost Max 3.0, or TBM3 for short. To make this technology work, Intel finds the core with the highest performance potential on each Broadwell-E CPU die during production, and a companion Windows driver prioritizes work to run on that core. On the Core i7-6950X in our labs, that means the best-performing core on the chip can boost up to 4GHz. At those speeds, a single-threaded Broadwell-E workload (namely, Cinebench) trails a Haswell Core i7-4790K by only 6%. The Core i7-6700K is only about 3% faster than the Core i7-4790K by that measure, so if you need all of Broadwell-E's cores, you can mostly have your cake and eat it too.

Broadwell-E's problem—if it can be called that—is its price tag. The Core i7-6950X sells for $1650 right now, a considerable jump over the eight-core, 16-thread Core i7-6900K and its $1050 price tag. For perspective, consider the fact that you can build a quite-impressive Core i7-7700K PC for just a little more than what the Core i7-6950X alone costs. We've never recommended the top-end Intel Extreme CPUs to begin with, and the Core i7-6900K and Core i7-6950X don't do anything to change that. Unless you're certain your workload can take advantage of all the resources the top-end Broadwell-E parts have to offer, we think most can safely forget about them.

Budget

Product Price Notable needs
Intel Pentium G4620 $92.99 Intel LGA1151 motherboard

In this price range, we think Intel's Pentium G4620 is a great buy. Its healthy 3.7GHz turbo 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 Pentium is a good choice for non-gamers, too, since it has basic integrated graphics. For $93, it's hard to find anything to complain about with this chip.

You may be wondering why we didn't pick the Core i3-7100 instead. That chip goes for $120—almost $30 more than the G4620—and it only has an extra 200MHz of clock speed and AVX and TSX-NI support to show for it. Given that every single dollar counts in a budget build, we think that money is better spent on a more powerful graphics card.

Some of you may be wondering why the Core i3-7320 and the unlocked Core i3-7350K aren't in our list, either. The way prices for those parts currently stand, the Core i3-7320 simply isn't a good deal at $165 when you can get a Core i5-7500 with four physical cores and 6MB of cache for $205. As for the Core i3-7350K, those who thought this chip would be the new super-overclockable Pentium Anniversary Edition will stop dead in their tracks once they see that it costs $180. For just $20 more, builders can get that same Core i5-7500, or stretch to the $240 Core i5-7600K.

We used to recommend some of AMD's budget CPU options here, but honestly, the performance gap between the Intel and AMD's entry-level CPUs is simply too great for us to be able to recommend them. Socket FM2+ is a dead-end platform with Ryzen's pending arrival, and there's simply no reason to consider any existing FM2+ CPU or APU any longer. Until we know more about how Ryzen performs, though, the Pentium G4620 is the unquestioned budget CPU champion.

Sweet spot

Product Price Notable needs
Intel Core i5-7500 $204.99 Intel LGA1151 motherboard
Intel Core i5-7600K $239.99 Intel LGA1151 motherboard, Z270 chipset for overclocking,
aftermarket CPU cooler
Intel Core i7-7700K $349.99

Moving up to our sweet-spot picks gets builders into Intel's quad-core CPUs. If you don't want to get into overclocking, the Core i5-7500 looks like the Goldilocks chip in this price range. For little over $200, the i5-7500 gives us 3.4GHz base and 3.8GHz turbo clocks in a trim 65W thermal envelope. The Core i5-6500 is also a great CPU for a VR-ready machine. As a warning, we aren't as enamored of the Core i5-7400. Suffice to say, the $5 less it costs versus the i5-7500 isn't worth any sort of performance decrease, much less a big drop in clock speeds.

If the Core i5-7500 isn't enough power, Intel's unlocked Kaby Lake parts seem like logical steps up to us. The Core i5-7600K offers four unlocked Kaby Lake cores running at 3.8GHz base and 4.2GHz Turbo speeds. At the top end of the lineup, the beastly Core i7-7700K adds Hyper-Threading and turns the clocks all the way up to 4.2GHz base and 4.5GHz Turbo speeds. Overclockers are free to explore these chips' upper limits with a Z270 (or Z170) motherboard, too.

Since Intel doesn't include a stock cooler with its K-series CPUs any longer, be sure to grab an aftermarket cooler from our selections later in this guide if you're building with a Core i5-7600K or a Core i7-7700K—and make sure it's a beefy one if you're choosing the i7-7700K. Our experience with that chip has shown that it's quite the challenge to cool, even for large tower heatsinks. A 240-mm or 280-mm liquid cooler is not an unreasonable choice if you're building with Intel's top-end Kaby Lake CPU.

High end
If the Z170 platform doesn't offer enough cores, PCIe lanes, memory bandwidth, or memory capacity for your needs, Intel's "Extreme" CPUs and X99 motherboards are the next step up for desktop PCs.

Product Price Notable needs
Intel Core i7-6800K $424.99 LGA2011-v3 motherboard,
quad-channel DDR4 memory kit,
discrete graphics, aftermarket CPU cooler
Intel Core i7-6850K $609.99

With the advent of Broadwell-E, we think the best CPU choice in the lineup is the $610, six-core, 12-thread Core i7-6850K. Like all Broadwell-E chips, the Core i7-6850K is unlocked for easy overclocking—just grab a beefy cooler to go with it.

If you want extra cores and threads and you don't need all 40 of the PCIe 3.0 lanes from fancier Broadwell-E chips, the Core i7-6800K and its 28 lanes of PCIe 3.0 connectivity fill the same role the hobbled Core i7-5820K did in the Haswell-E lineup. Even considering Nvidia's move to support only two-way SLI with its Pascal graphics cards, the Core i7-6800K comes up a little short for folks planning multi-GPU setups. Considering that limitation, we'll continue to conditionally recommend this chip for folks who are absolutely sure they won't miss the extra lanes.