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CPUs
Since our last Guide, there's been a lot of price movement in the budget and mid-range CPU markets as Intel and AMD duke it out. The release of AMD's Ryzen 3 CPUs marks the arrival of the Zen architecture in the sub-$150 segment. These processors offer a full complement of four cores and offer particularly good performance for productivity tasks in their price segment, making them a potentially good choice for cash-strapped buyers. AMD's fine stock coolers and unlocked multipliers give enthusiasts on a budget reason to pay attention, as well.

Nowadays when the internet is discussing processors, roughly five out of every three words will have something to do with AMD's Ryzen Threadripper CPUs. The red team's engineers knocked it out of the park with one weird trick: gluing two Zeppelin dice together under a massive heat spreader. The Ryzen Threadripper family turns in an excellent standing in both performance and power efficiency. That's welcome news to anyone wanting to build a workstation PC, since choices for that type of machine were limited to Intel's high-end desktop CPUs until recently.

Intel hasn't been quiet, though. The manufacturer recently released a host of high-end CPUs based on its Skylake-X and Kaby Lake-X architectures, and more are coming. Today we're mostly interested in the Skylake-X parts, since those are the ones most likely to end up in high-end desktop or workstation builds. Compared to Broadwell-E before it, Skylake-X offers expanded L2 caches, AVX-512 support, and a double-barreled version of Intel's Turbo Boost Max 3.0 technology. What that all works out to is that the newer chips usually offer more performance within the same power envelopes and core counts. Skylake-X chips range from the hexa-core $600 Core i7-7820X up to the head honcho Core i9-7980XE and its 18 cores and 36 threads.

Internet arguments about "Threadripper or Core i9" will probably exist until the end of time, but our take is that AMD's Threadripper 1950X currently edges out its price-matched competitor Core i9-7900X thanks to the wealth of PCIe lanes on hand (a total of 60) and ECC memory support.  That latter characteristic is particularly appreciated in workstation builds to protect against the accidental bit-flip. Buying a high-end CPU isn't an automatic decision, though, and Skylake-X CPUs are still fine performers in their own right. Be sure to read our recent Ryzen Threadripper review to make sure you're getting the best chip for your particular needs.

Budget

Product Price Notable needs
Intel Pentium G4600 $86.99 Intel LGA1151 motherboard
Ryzen 3 1300X $129.99 AMD Socket AM4 motherboard

In this price range, we think Intel's Pentium G4600 is a great buy. Its healthy 3.6 GHz 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 $87, it's hard to find anything to complain about with this chip.

We could recommend the Pentium G4620 for this spot, but we found that the $13 or so it costs over the G4600 only gets you an extra 100 MHz of CPU clock. Those dollars have a higher purpose in life than that.

The next step up in the budget range is AMD's Ryzen 3 1300X. This CPU's four physical cores should often give it a small edge over the Core i3-7100's two-core, four-thread arrangement in productivity tasks. The Core i3-7100's slightly higher clock speeds and higher IPC mean the two chips are roughly even in games, though. What really tips us in the Ryzen 3 1300X's favor is that it's fully unlocked for overclocking with an affordable AMD B350 motherboard. We haven't enjoyed unlocked multipliers on a quad-core CPU in this price range before, and AMD's included cooler should let even the most penny-pinching gamers have a shot at pushing these chips to their limits.

The single drawback is that the Ryzen 3 1300X doesn't include an integrated graphics processor, so it only makes sense in a build when paired with a discrete graphics card. Rather conveniently, we picked out parts for just such a setup in our builds section a few pages ahead. If you're building a productivity machine or home-theater PC, Intel's Pentiums and Core i3s remain the way to go.

Sweet spot
This section got quite the shake-up since the last System Guide. You may be wondering why there are only two recommendations. Our benchmarking of the Core i9 and Ryzen Threadripper CPUs only reinforced the notion that when you wish for a certain CPU performance level, you need to choose a model that's tailored to the workload you'll be throwing at it. For that reason, we split off the more expensive CPU choices into High End and Workstation classes.

The second reason is that prices for mid-range CPUs are nowadays less spread out than they used to be. That makes it easier to pick fewer models that cover more bases instead of having to parcel out recommendations across a wide range of prices. Without further ado, here are our choices.

Product Price Notable needs
Ryzen 5 1600 $214.99 AMD Socket AM4 motherboard
Core i7-7740X $319.00 Intel X299 motherboard, cooler

Recent price drops at retail put the Ryzen 5 1600 in the limelight. This processor has six physical cores and SMT, meaning you'll get twelve compute threads to play with. The healthy 3.6 GHz turbo frequency of the Ryzen 5 1600 should prove a boon for gaming tasks, and overclockers will find unlocked multipliers common to the entire Ryzen lineup. The prices of Intel's Core i5-7600K have come down at retail to compensate, but the Intel chip's small 99th-percentile frame time advantage in our game testing doesn't make up for its lagging productivity performance. As the cherry on top, the Ryzen 5 1600 comes with AMD's very competent Wraith Spire CPU cooler. If you're not into super-duper overclocking, having this cooler in the box will save you a few bucks. Intel still doesn't include any kind of stock cooler with its unlocked CPUs.

If you do plan to overclock, our experience has shown that all Ryzen CPUs top out at about 4 GHz for all-core loads, and even non-X Ryzen chips handle those multiplier tweaks just as well as their more expensive brethren, if not better. We got our Ryzen 5 1600 up to 3.95 GHz on all of its cores with nothing more than AMD's premium Wraith Max cooler on top. Since all of AMD's SenseMI and XFR magic goes out the window when one starts overclocking Ryzen chips, it's not worth paying extra for CPUs with a wider XFR range or higher boost speeds when you're not going to use them anyway.

And now we reach the part where we have to ask readers to bear with us. I'm sure you've seen the Core i7-7740X in the table above, and you may already starting to type up a furious comment about the apparent lack of logic for that choice. Our reasoning is fairly simple, however. X299 motherboards used to go for more than $300, while the Core i7-7740X used to go for $350. As it happens, nowadays you can get pretty decent full-fat X299 mobos around the $220 mark, while the CPU itself can be found for around $320. If the rumors are right, eighth-gen Core CPUs are about to hit, and according to some reports, they'll require new mobos to go with them. We're far more comfortable recommending an X299 mobo with a wide range of upgrade paths instead of a Z270-based rig that could soon be a dead end.

Yes, you are paying more for the X299 platform to begin with, but we think the extra $100 or so you'll spend over a Z270 board isn't much to the total cost of a system that'll clear $1500 to begin with. Sure, you might have to bear some empty DIMM slots and some quirks with PCIe lane distribution by putting a Kaby Lake-X CPU into an X299 motherboard, but we don't think that's a whole lot different than the mostly-unused complement of PCIe slots on the average ATX motherboard in many enthusiasts' PCs these days. Once you overclock a Kaby Lake-X CPU, you'll understand.

Our Kaby Lake-X choice has four cores and eight threads to play with. That's a less-impressive figure than it used to be, but the 7740X still runs Intel's cutting-edge cores at stupid-high clocks. The default Turbo frequency is a sky-high 4.5 GHz, and our own experience suggests that 5.1 GHz or 5.2 GHz on all cores comes easy with some time in firmware. That makes the Core i7-7740X the leanest, meanest pure gaming chip around if you care about 99th-percentile frame times and you were already planning to overclock. Its productivity performance is no slouch, either. You'll need to obtain a third-party cooler to use this CPU, though, and we would recommend at least a large tower heatsink at a minimum. A 240-mm or 280-mm liquid cooler is not an unreasonable choice if you're building with Intel's top-end quad-core CPU.

High end
Thanks to their copious core counts and aggressive prices, AMD's Ryzen 7 CPUs make up both of our high-end CPU suggestions. Even if these chips' prices overlap a bit with our Sweet Spot parts this time around, don't take that as a sign of equivalence. As we've been saying, "high end" in this context means "multithreaded power," not "gaming champion." If you're not sure whether your workload requires eight cores and 16 threads, we'd suggest taking a look at the in-depth tests in our Ryzen review and picking the chip that best fits your needs. For gaming alone, that chip is certainly the Core i7-7740X listed above, not a Ryzen 7 eight-core part.

Product Price Notable needs
AMD Ryzen 7 1700X $309.99 AMD Socket AM4 motherboard
Third-party cooler
AMD Ryzen 7 1800X $430.89

All three of AMD's Ryzen 7 CPUs have their merits, but like the Ryzen 5 lineup, their individual appeal will depend on your feelings about overclocking. The Ryzen 7 1700 has a sturdy 3.7 GHz single-core Turbo clock, but its modest 3.0 GHz all-core Turbo speed is the price one pays for packing so many cores into a 65W power envelope. Since the 1700 features an unlocked multiplier, one can push its all-core Turbo speeds as high as cooling and the silicon lottery will allow. We've gotten our Ryzen 7 1700 stable with all of its cores ticking away at 3.9 GHz using a modest heatsink.

Overclocking a Ryzen CPU disables the chip's Turbo intelligence, though, meaning that the all-core multiplier one sets is as high as a Ryzen chip can boost after an overclock. Higher-end CPUs in the lineup like the Ryzen 7 1700X and 1800X might actually perform worse in lightly-threaded workloads if the all-core multiplier you can attain ends up being lower than what the chips can reach after AMD's Extended Frequency Range (XFR) tech and stock single-core Turbo speeds are accounted for.

Folks using a CPU to make money on critical projects likely won't want to risk overclocking, and our explorations of the Ryzen 7 1700X and 1800X suggests that AMD is tapping most of the extra frequency headroom one might get out of these chips to begin with. The Ryzen 7 1700X offers an appealing 3.8 GHz Turbo speed and a 3.4 GHz all-core clock, and AMD's XFR tech could boost those numbers to 3.9 GHz and 3.5 GHz with a reasonably-sized tower heatsink. The Ryzen 7 1800X offers an impressive 4.0 GHz Turbo clock and a 3.6 GHz base speed, and XFR will boost those numbers to 4.1 GHz and 3.7 GHz under a beefy-enough heatsink.

Those with computing workloads that can benefit a lot from cache or memory bandwidth (digital audio workstations, for example) should probably take a look at the Core i7-7800X in this price range. This six-core, twelve-thread CPU currently goes for about $375, and we think it should perform substantially better than Ryzen CPUs in those scenarios. We'd advise everyone else to stick with AMD's choices, though.

Workstation
Today's highest-end CPUs deserve a new tier above "high end," so we're going with the always-squishy term "workstation." Nowadays, you can build a machine for serious work with more sedately-priced CPU choices and a far wider motherboard selection than ever. We're talking, of course, about AMD's Ryzen Threadripper and Intel's higher-end Core i7 and Core i9 offerings.

Our comprehensive review of AMD's latest showed that Threadrippers came out swinging left and right. The performance of those CPUs is generally equal to or superior to similarly-priced Intel offerings outside of a couple specific scenarios, and they don't even do too badly at gaming (not that you'd ever game on your workstation, right?) We also think AMD's X399 platform is superior to Intel's X299, since Threadripper officially supports ECC RAM, a boon for workstation users. Threadripper CPUs also have a generous allotment of 60 PCIe 3.0 lanes that could come in handy for things like video capture cards, next-generation networking, and super-fast storage arrangements. The Threadripper platform seems to be pretty stable too, even though it's still in its infancy. While Ryzen motherboards initially had their quirks dealing with high-clocked RAM, we encountered no such problems during our Threadripper testing.

Intel continues to carefully segment its products with the Core X family of chips, so you won't ever find Core i7 or Core i9 CPUs with ECC memory support, and you only ever get 40 lanes of CPU-connected PCIe 3.0 connectivity on Core i9 parts. Lesser chips, like the Core i7-7800X and Core i7-7820X, still make do with just 28 CPU PCIe lanes. That limitation isn't as annoying as it used to be given the waning popularity of multiple graphics cards, but it's still an annoyance.

Regardless of your individual brand preference, we should stress this point: the best processor choice in the high-end and workstation arena is always workload-specific. We've tried to make general recommendations below, but you can and should go ahead and read our Threadripper review to see which CPU fits your workload best. Don't shell out multiple thousands of dollars for a many-core CPU going on core count alone.

Product Price Notable needs
Intel Core i7-7820X $579.99 Intel X299 motherboard, cooler
AMD Ryzen Threadripper 1950X $999.99 AMD X399 motherboard, cooler

Around the $600 mark, we find it hard to beat the Core i7-7820X. This chip has eight cores and 16 threads clocked at up to 4.3 GHz, and the X299 platform pairs them with four channels of memory. The overall performance of the i7-7820X doesn't lag too far behind the $800 Ryzen Threadripper 1920X. The Intel chip has a leg up on the 1920X in transcoding and digital audio tasks in particular. Even though they might sound similar on paper, the i7-7820X trounces the Ryzen 7 1800X core-for-core, too. The 1920X can pull ahead of the i7-7820X in some scenarios, however, so as always, be sure to check out our detailed performance results to make sure you're buying the right chip for your needs.

 If you're wondering about AMD's recently-released $550 Threadripper 1900X, we doubt its performance could hold up against the Core i7-7820X, given that our tests roughly match the Intel CPU with the more expensive 1920X. Unless you want a lot of PCIe lanes and quad-channel memory to go with eight Zen cores, we'd stick with Intel here.

The Threadripper 1950X, meanwhile, is one of the finest CPUs we've laid eyes on in quite a while. Our testing revealed that this 16-core, 32-thread monster delivers a serious performance punch at $1000. Save for its curiously weak performance in DAW tasks, we found that the 1950X excels at nearly everything we can throw at it. Paying a grand for a processor might sound obscene at first, but if you're in its target audience, this chip will pay for itself in a jiffy by making your work go faster. While the Core i9-7900X is about as fast as the 1950X, we have to hand the victory to the AMD chip's ECC support and prodigious PCIe bandwidth.