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We're still leaning pretty heavily on Intel in the recommendations below. That's because the company continues to offer the best overall CPU performance, the lowest power consumption, the best platforms, and the best upgrade path on the desktop. (Motherboards based on Intel's 9-series chipsets should support next-gen Broadwell CPUs.)

That said, we have made an exception for AMD's A8-7600 processor, which recent price cuts have turned into a reasonably good deal. While it doesn't quite match the power efficiency of comparably-priced Intel CPUs, this chip is in the same ballpark, and it offers better integrated graphics performance. That's worth something.

AMD also refreshed its FX lineup recently, but the new additions are still based on circa-2012 silicon that's both power-hungry and uncompetitive overall. Worse, FX-series CPUs are tied to a three-year-old platform that lacks built-in support for PCI Express 3.0, SATA Express, and USB 3.0. Unless you're a dyed-in-the-wool AMD fan, you're best off steering clear.


Product Price Notable needs
Intel Pentium G3258 Anniversary Edition $69.99 LGA1150 motherboard,
Z97 chipset for overclocking
Intel Core i3-4160 $119.99 LGA1150 motherboard
AMD A8-7600 $109.99 Socket FM2+ 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 3.2GHz to 4.8GHz. At that frequency, the new Pentium can keep up with much faster, higher-priced chips in all but the most heavily multithreaded apps. It's surprisingly capable in most games, too.

Unfortunately, some newer titles like Far Cry 4 and Dragon Age: Inquisition have trouble starting on systems with dual-core, dual-thread CPUs like the Pentium. The limitation seems to be an artificial one, since unofficial workarounds exist for both games. Nonetheless, gamers looking for a no-hassle experience may prefer to spring for the Core i3, which has two cores and four threads, or the A8-7600, which has four cores.

If you're not interested in overclocking, the Core i3-4160 is a great budget buy. Its base clock speed is a little higher, at 3.6GHz, 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, too, since they have basic integrated graphics built in.

Over in the AMD aisle, we have the A8-7600, which is probably the best value in the A series at the moment. It's almost as fast as the A10-7800 despite being priced $30-40 lower, and it has the same ability to squeeze into a 45W TDP when paired with the right motherboard. That's below the Core i3-4160's 54W.

Sweet spot

Product Price Notable needs
Intel Core i5-4460 $189.99 LGA1150 motherboard
Intel Core i5-4690K $239.99 LGA1150 motherboard,
Z97 chipset for overclocking
Intel Core i7-4790K $331.99

The processors in this price range all have four fast cores—and much faster ones than the A8-7600's. These babies deliver both speed and responsiveness in both single-threaded tasks and heavily multithreaded ones. The "K" models also have fully unlocked upper multipliers that open the door to easy overclocking.

The Core i5-4460 belongs to the Haswell Refresh lineup, and it happens to be one of Intel's most affordable quad-core desktop processors. This is a good, no-frills option if you plan to run at stock settings. Users hoping 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 standard Haswell CPUs, 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 in 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.

On top of that, Devil's Canyon processors are clocked higher out of the box than their predecessors, and they support Virtualization Technology for Directed I/O, otherwise known as VT-d. Intel mysteriously left that feature out of the original Haswell K-series lineup. VT-d is also absent from the Pentium and the Core i3 in our budget selections.

High end

Product Price Notable needs
Intel Core i7-5930K $579.99 LGA2011-v3 motherboard, quad-channel DDR4 memory kit, discrete graphics, aftermarket cooler

This summer, Intel unleashed the Core i7-5960X, its fastest desktop processor to date. That monster is based on 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.

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 higher stock clock speeds than the i7-5960X, which might translate into even better performance than the thousand-dollar beast in many workloads. Because the i7-5930K is fully unlocked, you may be able to push it even higher by overclocking.