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CPUs
We'll be blunt here: the name of the game in CPUs right now is Intel. Dollar for dollar, and by almost any measure, the blue team's processors are simply better than the AMD competition. Whatever your budget, we strongly recommend that you build your PC around an Intel chip. That said, we have made exceptions for two of AMD's processors: the A8-7600 and Athlon X4 860K. These sub-$100 CPUs might make sense for some systems.

You may be tempted by AMD's FX-series CPUs, like the FX-8350. These chips pack a lot of cores at high clock speeds, often at cheaper prices than Intel's. We don't recommend them, though. In lightly threaded workloads, which are the most common for desktop systems, the stronger per-thread performance of Intel CPUs gives them an undeniable performance advantage. They also consume less power and throw off less heat than comparable AMD silicon.

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 $77.99 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 overclocked ours from 3.2GHz to 4.8GHz. At that frequency, the Pentium can keep up with more expensive quad-core chips in all but the most heavily multithreaded apps. It's quite capable in games, too. At only $70, this chip is an outstanding value if you're willing to turn up the clocks yourself.

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 Intel's Core i3-4160.

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. It'll also appear as a quad-core CPU to games that require one. 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.

Among AMD's current APUs, the A8-7600 is probably the best bargain. It's almost as fast as the more expensive A10-7800, and it has the same ability to lower its TDP to 45W when paired with the right motherboard. That thermal envelope is even lower than the Core i3-4160's 54W rating. The A8-7600 also boasts faster integrated graphics than the Intel competition. If you're building a system that needs a lot of graphics power, and you don't have room for a discrete graphics card, the A8-7600 might make sense.

The Athlon X4 860K is essentially a range-topping A10-7850K "Kaveri" APU with its integrated graphics disabled. Those looking for a budget overclocking build can take advantage of the 860K's unlocked multiplier, and its four native cores will play well with games that care. The downside is that Kaveri chips are still handily outperformed by Intel CPUs, and I can personally attest that overclocking the A10-7850K doesn't close the gap much. If overclocking on a budget is something you want to try, we strongly recommend the Pentium Anniversary Edition instead.

Sweet spot

Product Price Notable needs
Intel Core i5-4590 $199.99 LGA1150 motherboard
Intel Core i5-4690K $214.99 LGA1150 motherboard,
Z97 chipset for overclocking
Intel Core i7-4790K $309.99

The processors in this segment of the market all have four fast cores. 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 i5-4590 belongs to the Haswell Refresh CPU lineup. If you're not planning to overclock, its 3.3GHz base and 3.7GHz Turbo clocks are plenty fast for most people. The only things it lacks are Hyper-Threading and an unlocked multiplier for overclocking.

If you want the freedom to tweak, you'll need to step up to the Core i5-4690K or the Core i7-4790K, which are Devil's Canyon parts. The Core i5-4690K has a 3.5GHz base clock with a 3.9GHz Turbo peak, while the top-of-the-line i7-4790K adds Hyper-Threading and turns up the clocks to 4.0GHz base and 4.4GHz Turbo.

Devil's Canyon chips are 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 we overclocked our sample, but Intel thinks the new TIM allows truly exceptional examples of these CPUs to hit even higher speeds.

Compared to the first K-series Haswell processors, Devil's Canyon chips have higher stock clocks, 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.

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 Intel's lesser quad-core parts. 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.