The desktop CPU market isn't a terribly competitive place right now.
AMD's Socket AM3+ platform is growing long in the tooth, with relatively slow processors, excessive power consumption, and chipsets that date back from 2011. AMD's new Kaveri chips come with a newer platform and lower power use, but they haven't all made it into e-tail listings yet. The few that have aren't priced nearly as aggressively as they ought to be, given their CPU performance. Due in part to the state of AMD's lineup, the pricing and performance of Intel's desktop offerings has been largely stagnant for the past couple of years.
What we're left with is a limited selection of chips worth recommending—and an inevitable bias toward Intel, which still offers the best overall CPU performance in the smallest power envelopes. 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 games, 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. And that, sadly, means there's not much point in us recommending an AMD processor right now.
The good news here is that Intel's CPU offerings are really quite good, with low power consumption and strong per-thread performance. We just wish the prices weren't so static.
|Intel Core i3-4130||$124.99||LGA1150 motherboard|
The Core i3-4130 is the most affordable Core i3 chip based on Intel's latest Haswell architecture. It has two cores, four threads (thanks to Hyper-Threading), and a teeny 54W power envelope. This model should perform very well in both single- and dual-threaded workloads, and it should be easy to cool quietly, too. We recommending this processor over cheaper derivatives with fewer threads or lower clock speeds. Price differences are small in this range, and we don't want to sacrifice too much performance.
Some of you might still have reservations about buying a dual-core, quad-thread processor when the latest consoles feature eight-core chips. Won't the new breed of cross-platform games need just as many cores on the PC? Well, no. The processors inside the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One are based on AMD's lightweight Jaguar architecture, which is far slower clock-for-clock than Haswell. Our Core i3 could easily do the same work with its two cores and four threads. Also, everything we know about game programming tells us that, at least on the PC, single-threaded performance remains very important. In the words of Jurjen Katsman, one of the guys behind the PC versions of Thief and Deus Ex: Human Revolution, most games "flatten off at one core."
In short, the Core i3-4130 is a fine choice for a budget gaming build. We'd certainly recommend it over similarly priced alternatives from AMD like the FX-6300, which is saddled with poor single-threaded performance, high power consumption, and an outdated platform. AMD's Kaveri APU might make a decent alternative, but alas, no variants of it are currently available at this price.
Oh, and for what it's worth, the Core i3-4130 is also a good choice for non-gamers. Like the rest of Intel's Haswell family, it has integrated graphics. No need to buy a discrete graphics card with this puppy.
|Intel Core i5-4430||$189.99||LGA1150 motherboard|
|Intel Core i5-4670K||$239.99|
|Intel Core i7-4770K||$339.99|
The real sweet spot for desktop processors lies in this price range, where quad-core Haswell processors dwell. These offerings' single- and dual-threaded performance is in the same ballpark as the Core i3-4130, but their extra cores make them equally fast in workloads with up to four threads, including medium-to-heavy multitasking.
There are three main options we think you should consider: the Core i5-4430, which is the most affordable quad-core Haswell variant; the Core i5-4670K, the most affordable model with an unlocked upper multiplier; and the Core i7-4770K, which is the fastest unlocked Haswell CPU.
Unlocked upper multipliers allow for easy overclocking, provided the processor has some extra clock headroom. To overclock an unlocked chip, one simply raises the clock multiplier, which in turn raises the clock speed. The amount of available headroom isn't guaranteed, though, and it tends to vary from chip to chip. For example, we weren't able to push our own Core i7-4770K very far when we overclocked it last June. It's possible equivalent retail offerings are just as limited. Then again, Intel's manufacturing process has matured since we conducted our test, so it's quite possible the Haswell chips sitting on store shelves today have more headroom.
Folks uninterested in overclocking might want to look at the non-K versions of the aforementioned CPUs: the Core i5-4670 and Core i7-4770. These are about $20 cheaper than their unlocked, K-branded siblings, and they have support for couple of important features: Intel's Virtualization Technology for Directed I/O, also known as VT-d, and a key Haswell feature known as transactional memory, or TSX. Inexplicably, unlocked Haswell CPUs lack both TSX and VT-d support. Intel's illogical product segmentation strikes again.
AMD recently began offering a couple of processors in this price range: the $249.99 FX-9370 and $299.99 FX-9590. As refreshing as it is to see AMD competing, these products are very difficult to recommend. They have extremely high power consumption, with TDP ratings of 220W (vs. 84W for quad-core Haswell processors). That means they will require a significant investment in cooling, probably in the form of a water cooler with a large radiator. Even so, they seem to be competitive with their Intel rivals only in select workloads. Also, they're bound to the same old Socket AM3+ platform and outdated chipsets as other FX-series chips.
|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 an Ivy Bridge-E specimen. That means it's based on a slightly older architecture, albeit one built on the same 22-nm fab process. However, the E suffix means this CPU borrows a page from Intel's server and workstation processors. It 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 rumored to be coming later this year.
For now, the Core i7-4930K is a mighty fast chip, with 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). This CPU is a great pick for folks who run heavily multithreaded workloads or who do very heavy multitasking. 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 it 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 put 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 LGA2011-compatible motherboards, quad-channel memory kits, graphics cards, and aftermarket coolers can be found in the upcoming pages.