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CPUs
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 paths on the desktop. (Motherboards based on Intel's 9-series chipsets should support next-gen Broadwell CPUs.)

That said, we have made exceptions for two of AMD's processors: the A8-7600, which recent price cuts have turned into a solid deal, and the Athlon X4 860K, which is essentially the CPU component of the A10-7850K sold separately at a heavy discount. Depending on your priorities, these may be preferable to dual-core Intel CPUs selling around the same price.

AMD also refreshed its FX lineup not too long ago, 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 five-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.

Budget

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 Athlon X4 860K $79.99 Socket FM2+ motherboard
AMD A8-7600 $97.99 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 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 a quad-core AMD processor—or the Core i3-4160, which has a couple more threads than the Pentium.

The Core i3-4160 is a great budget buy, provided you don't intend to overclock. Its base clock speed is higher than the Pentium's, at 3.6GHz, and it adds Hyper-Threading to the mix, which boosts performance in multithreaded tasks. The Core i3 also features AES acceleration. Like the Pentium, the Core i3 is a good choice for non-gamers, too, since it has basic integrated graphics built in.

Over in the AMD aisle, we have two options.

The A8-7600 is probably the best bargain among AMD's APUs 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. The A8-7600 also boasts faster integrated graphics than the Intel competition.

Then we have the Athlon X4 860K, which lacks integrated graphics altogether—but makes up for it by featuring the same CPU component as AMD's fastest Socket FM2+ processor, the A10-7850K. Judging by how other Kaveri chips perform, the resulting level of performance doesn't exactly give Intel a run for its money, particularly in the instructions-per-clock and power-efficiency departments. (The Athlon X4 has a 95W TDP.) Still, this thing is faster than the A8-7600, and the "K" suffix means unfettered multiplier overclocking. Below $100, the Athlon may be your best bet if you're worried about the Pentium G3258's game compatibility.

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 $329.99

The processors in this segment of the market all have four fast cores—much faster ones than the Athlon X4 860K's. They deliver 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 CPUs. This is a good, no-frills option if you plan to run at stock settings. Users hoping to overclock 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.

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

Last 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 serves up 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. Finally, because the i7-5930K is fully unlocked, you may be able to push it even higher by overclocking.