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CPUs
All of the CPUs we're recommending in this edition of the guide are recent arrivals. That's thanks to Intel, which has updated its desktop processor lineup with the Haswell-E, Haswell Refresh, and Devil's Canyon series—not to mention the Pentium Anniversary Edition, a bargain-bin dual-core chip with a fully unlocked upper multiplier. We're still a ways off from a next-gen refresh, but these new models are all clearly better than their predecessors.

AMD recently refreshed its FX processor series, too, but the new models are still based on circa-2012 silicon—and they're objectively uncompetitive, with excessive power consumption and often lackluster performance. The associated Socket AM3+ platform is also pretty unappealing, since it relies on circa-2011 chipsets without built-in support for things like PCI Express 3.0, SATA Express, M.2, or USB 3.0. Unless you have a soft spot for AMD, building an FX-powered PC today doesn't make a lot of sense.

What about those A-series APUs based on Kaveri silicon? Well, they are more power-efficient than the FX line, and they're also tied to a newer platform. However, they still have poorer CPU performance and higher overall power draw than the competition from Intel. Kaveri's only real strength is its integrated graphics performance, but that still isn't up to par with a $100 discrete graphics card. Translation: Kaveri really only makes sense for extremely low-budget builds or for very tiny PCs that can't accommodate a proper GPU. Builds like those aren't really within the scope of the TR System Guide.

In the end, then, we're pretty much stuck with Intel, which continues to offer the best overall CPU performance, the lowest power consumption, the best platforms, and the best upgrade path. (Motherboards based on the company's new 9-series chipsets should support next-gen Broadwell CPUs.) We'd love to see more competition here, but AMD is unfortunately not delivering.

Budget

Product Price Notable needs
Intel Pentium G3258 Anniversary Edition $69.99 LGA1150 motherboard,
Z97 chipset for overclocking
Intel Core i3-4150 $129.99 LGA1150 motherboard

The Pentium G3258, also known as the Anniversary Edition, is the first sub-$100, overclocking-friendly processor we've seen from Intel in years. It has only two cores, and it lacks both Hyper-Threading and Turbo Boost, but we managed to overclock ours from its 3.2GHz base speed to a blistering 4.8GHz. At that frequency, the Pentium G3258 can keep up with much faster, higher-priced chips in all but the most heavily multithreaded apps. The Pentium is surprisingly capable in games, too.

If you're not interested in overclocking, the Core i3-4150 may be a better budget buy. Its base clock speed is a little higher, at 3.5GHz, and it adds Hyper-Threading to the mix, which helps performance in multithreaded tasks. (The Core i3 also has AES acceleration, which the Pentium lacks.) Both of these chips are good choices for non-gamers, since they have basic integrated graphics built in.

Sweet spot

Product Price Notable needs
Intel Core i5-4460 $189.99 LGA1150 motherboard
Intel Core i5-4690K $234.99 LGA1150 motherboard,
Z97 chipset for overclocking
Intel Core i7-4790K $339.99

The processors in this price range all have four fast cores. They offer speed and responsiveness in both single-threaded tasks and heavily multithreaded ones. The "K" models also have fully unlocked upper multipliers, which open the door to easy overclocking.

The Core i5-4460 belongs to the Haswell Refresh lineup, and it also happens to be Intel's most inexpensive quad-core desktop processor. This is a good, no-frills option if you plan to run at stock settings. Those users seeking to overclock their CPUs will want to grab either the Core i5-4690K or the Core i7-4790K, which make up the Devil's Canyon series.

Devil's Canyon is meant to have more overclocking headroom than the original Haswell series, thanks to a new thermal interface material (TIM) that sits between the die and heat spreader. We didn't see much of a difference when overclocking our sample, but Intel seems to have high hopes those rare chips that, through miracles of fabrication, are imbued with unusually high headroom. Those chips might have been held back by the original TIM in the first-gen Haswell series.

Even assuming identical headroom, Devil's Canyon is worth it. These chips cost the same as their predecessors, but they're faster out of the box. In the case of the Core i7-4790K, you're getting a 500MHz higher base speed essentially for free. Not only that, but Intel has added a feature that was missing from the original Haswell K series: Virtualization Technology for Directed I/O, otherwise known as VT-d. (VT-d is also absent from the Pentium and the Core i3 in our budget selections.)

The first K-series Haswell chips lacked support for transactional memory, or TSX, but that was also added with Devil's Canyon. Unfortunately, Intel discovered an errata with the feature, which will be disabled on all Haswell processors via microcode update. Folks who stick with older motherboard firmware may be able to avoid that update, but they'll risk data corruption and system stability if they tap the CPU's TSX capability.

High end

Product Price Notable needs
Intel Core i7-5930K $589.99 LGA2011-v3 motherboard, quad-channel DDR4 memory kit, discrete graphics, aftermarket cooler

Late last month, Intel unleashed the Core i7-5960X, which is its fastest desktop processor to date. The chip is based on new 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 fastest server processor yet, and it performs accordingly—with an unlocked upper multiplier to boot.

Too bad it costs just over a thousand bucks.

That's kind of an insane markup when, for almost half the price, the Core i7-5930K offers 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 the Devil's Canyon series. The i7-5930K also has the benefit of higher stock clock speeds than the i7-5960X, which might translate into even better performance than the thousand-dollar beast in lightly threaded workloads. And because the i7-5930K is fully unlocked, you may be able to push it even higher by overclocking.