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CPUs
We'll be blunt here: the name of the game in CPUs right now remains 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 recommend that you build your PC around an Intel chip. That said, we continue to make exceptions for two of AMD's processors: the A8-7600 and Athlon X4 860K. These sub-$100 CPUs might make sense for some systems.

Some builders 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 lower 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 advantage. Intel's current processors also consume less power and throw off less heat than comparable AMD silicon.

Intel's latest CPU architecture is called Skylake. Chips based on this 14-nm silicon offer small-but-welcome increases in performance pretty much across the board, and from what we've seen, there aren't substantial premiums for choosing Skylake-compatible motherboards or memory, even now. Skylake's platform improvements are also welcome: the highest-end Z170 chipset offers more PCI Express lanes for next-generation storage or high-speed I/O ports. Given these advantages, we'd generally recommend building around a Skylake processor if possible.

As we've mentioned, one non-Skylake chip worth considering for a certain kind of system builder is the Broadwell-derived Core i7-5775C. In our tests, we found this chip can deliver better gaming performance than even the top-of-the-line Skylake Core i7-6700K. If you're looking for the absolute best gaming chip on the market and don't mind giving up a small amount of performance in other tasks, the Core i7-5775C is an intriguing option. Just be ready to pay for the privilege. At least one retailer expects i7-5775Cs as soon as September 20, so we may finally see these chips on store shelves soon.

Budget

Product Price Notable needs
Intel Pentium G3258 Anniversary Edition $69.99 LGA1150 motherboard,
Z97 chipset for overclocking
Intel Core i3-6100 $117.00 LGA1151 motherboard
AMD Athlon X4 860K $74.99 Socket FM2+ motherboard
AMD A8-7600 $84.99 Socket FM2+ motherboard

The Pentium G3258, also known as the Anniversary Edition, is the first overclocking-friendly sub-$100 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.

As far as we can tell, Intel won't be offering a Skylake equivalent for this chip. If you want to get your budget overclocking game on, the G3258 is still the way to go.

Unfortunately, some games, 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 i3-6100 or AMD's Athlon X4 860K.

The Core i3-6100 is a great budget buy, provided you don't intend to overclock. Its base clock speed is higher than the Pentium's, at 3.7GHz, 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. This chip isn't yet widely available in North America as of mid-September, though, so builders who fancy the i3-6100 will need to wait a little longer.

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 i3-6100's 47W rating. The A8-7600 also boasts faster integrated graphics than the Intel competition, too. 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. This chip's four integer cores should make it compatible with any recent game. 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.

Sweet spot

Product Price Notable needs
Intel Core i5-6600K $249.99 LGA1151 motherboard, Z170 chipset for overclocking,
aftermarket CPU cooler
Intel Core i7-6700K $369.99
Intel Core i7-5775C $377.00 LGA1150 motherboard,
Z97 chipset for overclocking

The Core i5-6600K and Core i7-6700K each have four fast Skylake cores, and the Hyper-Threaded i7-6700K can handle eight threads at once. These chips will provide brisk performance in both single-threaded tasks and multithreaded workloads without a hitch. They also have unlocked multipliers, so builders who want to squeeze out as much clock speed as their particular chip can provide will be able to probe those limits by overclocking.

Since these are "enthusiast CPUs," however, Intel has seen fit to sell them as chips only—they don't include a stock cooler. That means you'll need to pick an air or liquid cooler from our selection later on in the guide in order to use these chips. Plan accordingly.

We've already sung enough praise about the quad-core, eight-thread Core i7-5775C, but it's worth noting that this chip needs an H97 or Z97 motherboard with an LGA1150 socket. Those motherboards may also need a firmware update to be fully compatible with the i7-5775C, so be sure to check the support website for your mobo manufacturer of choice to see whether they've released an appropriate BIOS.

High end

Product Price Notable needs
Intel Core i7-5820K $389.99 LGA2011-v3 motherboard,
quad-channel DDR4 memory kit,
discrete graphics, aftermarket cooler
Intel Core i7-5930K $579.99

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 dual-socket Xeon server processor, 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.

If you can't swallow the Core i7-5930K's cost but still want six Haswell cores in your system, we conditionally recommend the Core i7-5820K. This chip has 12 of its PCIe lanes lopped off, for a total of 28. We think Intel's decision to cripple this processor in this fashion is unfortunate, because it removes one of the key advantages of "extreme" processors based on the X99 platform. Many folks who build systems based on these CPUs will want 16 lanes going to two different PCIe x16 slots for multi-GPU configs. With a 5820K installed, though, an X99 system can't deliver. It effectively has no more PCIe bandwidth for SLI and CrossFire than a quad-core Skylake chip based on the much more affordable Z170 platform.

If you're not using a lot of PCIe expansion cards, this limitation may not matter, but it's something to note. The i7-5820K is still unlocked for easy overclocking, and its $390 price tag is pretty affordable for what it offers.