The desktop CPU market is in less of a rut today than it was a few months ago. Most of that is thanks to Intel.
You see, the chipmaker is in the process of refreshing its desktop lineup with a spate of new processors. Intel's "Haswell refresh" series has already come out; it offers modest but welcome clock-speed bumps within the same price points as before. Next month, Intel will follow up with "Devil's Canyon" CPUs, which will succeed today's K-series Haswell offerings with unlocked upper multipliers. (More on them below.)
AMD still isn't in a terribly competitive position, though. Its 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 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.
In the end, we're still left with a limited selection of chips worth recommending—and an inevitable bias toward 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.
|Intel Pentium G3420||$74.99||LGA1150 motherboard|
|Intel Core i3-4150||$129.99||LGA1150 motherboard|
This is our first time recommending a Pentium chip in the System Guide in quite a while. The truth is, Intel's Pentium G3420 isn't half bad. It's based on the latest Haswell architecture, and it features two cores clocked at a brisk 3.2GHz. While it lacks Hyper-Threading, it's still reasonably speedy—certainly enough to power a budget gaming rig. More importantly, it's about 40% cheaper than the most affordable Haswell-based Core i3. If you're trying to build a gaming machine for less than $500, that's not a bad compromise.
That said, we think folks with a little more disposable income should definitely consider the Core i3-4150. This Haswell refresh offering has Hyper-Threading and a 3.4GHz clock speed, two traits that imbue it with markedly higher performance than the Pentium. The Core i3 still fits within the same power envelope, so it's easy to cool quietly.
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, pre-thread 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 i3-4150 is a fine choice for a budget gaming build. We'd certainly recommend it over similarly priced alternatives from AMD, such as the FX-6300. The FX-6300 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.
The Core i3-4150 and Pentium G3420 are also good choices for non-gamers. Like the rest of Intel's Haswell family, they have basic graphics built in, so there's no need to buy a discrete graphics card.
|Intel Core i5-4460||$189.99||LGA1150 motherboard|
|Intel Core i5-4670K||$239.99|
|Intel Core i7-4770K||$339.99|
The sweet spot for desktop processors lies in this price range, where quad-core Haswell processors dwell. The single- and dual-threaded performance of these CPUs is in the same ballpark as that of the Core i3-4150, but their extra cores make them equally fast in more heavily multithreaded workloads, including medium-to-heavy multitasking.
There are three main options we think you should consider: the Core i5-4460, which is the most affordable member of the quad-core Haswell refresh series; the Core i5-4670K, the cheapest Haswell chip with an unlocked upper multiplier; and the Core i7-4770K, the fastest unlocked Haswell CPU.
Unlocked multipliers allow for easy overclocking, provided the processor has some extra headroom. To overclock an unlocked chip, one simply raises the 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.
If you're prepared to wait—or you happen upon this guide a few weeks from now—you'll want to look into Intel's "Devil's Canyon" processors. These CPUs are expected to use a redesigned thermal interface between the chip and its external metal cap, improving the transfer of heat from the silicon to CPU cooler above it. Since Haswell chips tend to be thermally limited, we expect the improved cooling to open up more clock speed headroom. According to the rumor mill, there will be two Devil's Canyon models: the Core i5-4690K Core i7-4790K, which will be 100MHz and 500MHz faster than the i5-4670K and i7-4770K, respectively. They may well be priced at a premium, too, but we don't know that for sure just yet.
A couple more things before we move on.
Users who aren't in overclocking may want to look into the non-K alternatives to our recommended CPUs. The Haswell refresh has brought us the Core i5-4690 and Core i7-4790, which run 100MHz faster and cost a little less than the i5-4670K and i7-4770K. These processors also support a 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. The unlocked Haswell processors released to date lack both TSX and VT-d support, presumably as a result of Intel's bizarre product segmentation voodoo.
Finally, we should mention that AMD has a couple of processors in this price range: the $229.99 FX-9370 and $329.99 FX-9590. As refreshing as it is to see AMD competing upwards of $200, 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. On top of that, 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. That means it's based on a slightly older architecture. Ivy-E is built on the same 22-nm fab process, but it borrows a page from Intel's server and workstation processors—hence the E suffix. 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 rumored to be due out later this year, but it hasn't arrived yet.
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 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 LGA2011-compatible motherboards, quad-channel memory kits, graphics cards, and aftermarket coolers can be found in the upcoming pages.
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