We're fairly certain you've been reading the news about impending releases from both the Intel and AMD camp. Let's talk a little about those first.
If you're shopping for an Intel CPU, we strongly recommend you wait until after CES. Preliminary leaks of information regarding Intel's desktop Kaby Lake CPUs suggest they'll offer decent clock-speed bumps over their predecessors, and every Hertz helps for Intel's locked-down parts. The rumor mill also suggests new chipsets are on the way to go with Kaby, as well. Given the potential platform advantages and speed boosts that Kaby Lake might offer on the desktop, we think there's little harm in waiting to see what's in store.
There's also AMD's upcoming Ryzen CPUs to consider. AMD has pointed to a "first quarter of 2017" release for its next-gen CPUs, but that could mean late March as much as it might mean January. Recently, the company has demoed an eight-core, 16-thread Ryzen CPU roughly matching a Core i7-6900K monster. Even assuming Ryzen will deliver that kind of real-world performance, there's still scarce information on what AMD's actual CPU lineup will be. If you're a member of the AMD faithful and can wait for a while, Ryzen parts might be worth sitting tight for, as well.
With all that said, if you want to build a system immediately, here are our recommendations. Intel's 14-nm Skylake chips are the best performers on the market by almost any measure, and it's been that way for quite some time now. We won't rehash the reasons for why this is here—go read our Core i7-6700K review for all the details. Skylake chips offer small-but-welcome increases in performance over Haswell parts pretty much across the board, and the high-end Z170 chipset offers enough PCI Express lanes for next-generation storage and high-speed I/O ports.
While all that talk above mostly pertains to standard desktop and gaming systems, workstation and high-end enthusiasts, may be interested in Intel's Broadwell-E CPUs. This range of chips piles cores and PCIe lanes, and tops out with the seriously-impressive 10-core, 20-thread Core i7-6950X.
The Broadwell architecture alone is only an evolutionary improvement over Haswell before it, but Intel has compensated for the single-threaded performance gap between Broadwell and Skylake CPUs somewhat with a new technology called Turbo Boost Max 3.0, or TBM3 for short. To make this technology work, Intel finds the core with the highest performance potential on each Broadwell-E CPU die during production, and a companion Windows driver prioritizes work to run on that core. On the Core i7-6950X in our labs, that means the best-performing core on the chip can boost up to 4GHz. At those speeds, a single-threaded Broadwell-E workload (namely, Cinebench) trails a Haswell Core i7-4790K by only 6%. The Core i7-6700K is only about 3% faster than the Core i7-4790K, so if you need all of Broadwell-E's cores, you can mostly have your cake and eat it, too.
Broadwell-E's problem—if it can be called that—is its pricing. The Core i7-6950X sells for $1650 right now, a considerable jump over the eight-core, 16-thread Core i7-6900K and its $1099 price tag. For perspective, consider the fact that you can build a quite-impressive Core i7-6700K PC for just a little more than the Core i7-6950X alone costs. We've never recommended the top-end Intel Extreme CPUs to begin with, and the Core i7-6900K and Core i7-6950X don't do anything to change that. Unless you're certain your workload can take advantage of all the resources the top-end Broadwell-E parts have to offer, we think most can safely forget about them.
|Intel Core i3-6100||$119.99||Intel LGA1151 motherboard|
In this price range, we think Intel's Core i3-6100 is a great buy. Its healthy 3.7GHz clock speed should be brisk enough for most, and its Hyper-Threading support can boost performance in multithreaded tasks. It'll also appear as a quad-core CPU to games that require one. This Core i3 is a good choice for non-gamers, too, since it has basic integrated graphics. For $120, it's hard to find anything to complain about with this chip.
We used to recommend some of AMD's budget CPU options here, but honestly, the performance gap between the Core i3-6100 and AMD's entry-level chips is too great for us to stomach any longer. Socket FM2+ and its associated platforms are also looking quite long in the tooth, and Ryzen CPUs and their associated AM4 motherboards are landing in the first quarter of 2017 anyway. Once Ryzen arrives and we've had a look at the lower-end versions of that chip, we may have reason to reconsider this stance. For now, the Core i3-6100 is the unquestioned budget CPU champion.
|Intel Core i5-6500||$204.99||Intel LGA1151 motherboard|
|Intel Core i5-6600K||$239.99||Intel LGA1151 motherboard, Z170 chipset for overclocking,
aftermarket CPU cooler
|Intel Core i7-6700K||$339.99|
Moving up to our sweet-spot picks gets builders into Intel's quad-core CPUs. If you don't want to get into overclocking, the Core i5-6500 looks like the Goldilocks chip in this price range. For little over $200, the i5-6500 gives us 3.2GHz base and 3.6GHz turbo clocks in a trim 65W thermal envelope. The Core i5-6500 is also a great CPU for a VR-ready machine. As a warning, we aren't as enamored of the Core i5-6400. Though it sells for $15 less than the i5-6500, the i5-6400 pays for it with a big drop in clock speeds. We don't think the step down to 2.7GHz base and 3.3GHz Turbo speeds is worth the savings.
If the Core i5-6500 isn't enough power, Intel's unlocked Skylake parts seem like logical steps up to us. The Core i5-6600K offers four unlocked Skylake cores running at 3.5GHz base and 3.9GHz Turbo speeds. At the top end of the lineup, the beastly Core i7-6700K adds Hyper-Threading and turns the clocks all the way up to 4GHz base and 4.2GHz Turbo speeds. Overclockers are free to explore these chips' upper limits with a Z170 motherboard, too.
Since Intel doesn't include a stock cooler with its K-series CPUs any longer, be sure to grab an aftermarket cooler from our selections later in this guide if you're building with a Core i5-6600K or a Core i7-6700K—and make sure it's a beefy one if you're choosing the i7-6700K. Our experience with that chip has shown that it's quite the challenge to cool, even for large tower heatsinks. A 240-mm or 280-mm liquid cooler is not an unreasonable choice if you're building with Intel's top-end Skylake CPU.
If the Z170 platform doesn't offer enough cores, PCIe lanes, memory bandwidth, or memory capacity for your needs, Intel's "Extreme" CPUs and X99 motherboards are the next step up for desktop PCs.
|Intel Core i7-6800K||$439.99||LGA2011-v3 motherboard,
quad-channel DDR4 memory kit,
discrete graphics, aftermarket CPU cooler
|Intel Core i7-6850K||$609.99|
With the advent of Broadwell-E, we think the best CPU choice in the lineup is the $609, six-core, 12-thread Core i7-6850K. Like all Broadwell-E chips, the Core i7-6850K is unlocked for easy overclocking—just grab a beefy cooler to go with it.
If you want extra cores and threads and you don't need all 40 of the PCIe 3.0 lanes from fancier Broadwell-E chips, the Core i7-6800K and its 28 lanes of PCIe 3.0 connectivity fill the same role the hobbled Core i7-5820K did in the Haswell-E lineup. Even considering Nvidia's move to officially support two-way SLI only with its Pascal graphics cards, the Core i7-6800K comes up a little short for folks planning multi-GPU setups. Considering that limitation, we'll continue to conditionally recommend this chip for folks who are absolutely sure they won't miss the extra lanes.