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How to choose a CPU Chip Processor for a PC

Updated November 6, 2016

Upgrade Path

Intel Pentium Processor

The place to start in choosing a CPU is to think about the CPU upgrade path. You should easily in the future be able to upgrade the CPU you choose now, by simply dropping into your motherboard a faster higher end CPU when its price has fallen, thereby extending the life of your PC. To do this make sure the motherboard you choose today has a CPU socket that will fit these latest high end CPUs or even yet to be released CPUs.

For mainstream and gaming PCs that would be motherboards with socket LGA 1151 for Intel's 6th generation Skylake CPU architecture and also the upcoming 7th generation Intel Kaby Lake architecture.

For AMD CPUs and APUs, waiting for their new Zen CPU architecture that will potentially be released in late 2016, which will apparently use a new socket AM4 for both their CPUs and APUs, will be the best way to have an upgrade path. The current situation for AMD, if you can't wait and want an AMD CPU or APU today for a better price, is as follows. Get a motherboard with socket AM3+ for AMD FX CPUs or a motherboard with socket FM2+ for AMD Athlon X4 CPUs and AMD A-Series APUs. An APU is a CPU with a more powerful integrated GPU.

Intel's solution for mini PCs includes embedded CPUs, which are CPUs permanently fixed to motherboards as in their Braswell Refresh architecture CPUs. An embedded CPU means you're buying a CPU and motherboard as one single part compared to a socketed CPU where you buy the two parts separately. There's no upgrading embedded CPUs, both the CPU and motherboard have to be replaced. Some of these CPU motherboard combos are cheap enough it's not that much of an issue, but it does take more work upgrading compared to just dropping in a new socketed CPU into your current motherboard.

For ultra gaming builds with dual video cards consider motherboards with socket LGA 2011-3 for Intel's Broadwell-E Core i7 CPUs.

For workstations and servers for moderate work loads, consider motherboards with socket LGA 1151 with the Intel C236 chipset for Intel's Xeon E3-1200 v5 Skylake architecture CPUs. These motherboards also support 6th generation desktop Skylake Core i3/i5/i7, Pentium and Celeron CPUs.

For workstations and servers with heavy work loads consider motherboards with socket LGA 2011-3 with the Intel X99 Express chipset for 5th generation Broadwell-E Intel Core i7 CPUs and certain Broadwell-EP Xeon E5 v4 CPUs.

That's where one could start. This also nicely limits your CPU choices.

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Next is price

Given how fast CPUs are today you really don't need to spend more than around $50 to $65 dollars for a mainstream PC CPU. As an example a current Intel Celeron CPU that costs around $50 can perform all the mainstream tasks you want without a meaningful performance difference compared to a $200 or $300 or even a $1700 CPU!

For a gaming PC CPU around $70 to $120 will get you an affordable but very capable gaming CPU. For a high end gaming PC you might have to spend around $240 to $270.

For an ultra gaming or workstation or server it's $300 and higher for the CPU.

The specific CPUs are listed below.

Different features to consider

Clock speed, number of cores, hyper threading and CPU architecture are main features to consider. Power consumption and overclocking potential are other factors. You're getting the best of these features automatically by getting CPUs for the motherboard sockets mentioned above.

Number of cores

One focus today on improving CPU processing performance is by placing more CPU cores on a chip. This includes dual, quad, six and now eight core CPUs for desktop CPUs, server CPUs can have upto 24 cores.

Intel's 6th generation Skylake dual core Celeron and Pentium CPUs even without hyper threading currently still offer a great blend of performance and price. Hyper threading is a feature that simulates more CPU cores without adding more physical cores, keeping the cost down. It saves money and does the job well. The Intel Core i3, Core i7 and most Xeon CPUs include hyper threading to great effect.

Clock speed is still important

With regard to clock speed or frequency, which is still a very important factor, we believe gamers should get a clock speed of 2.8 GHz or higher. For others even 2.0 GHz is fine. Computer enthusiasts can overclock these CPUs to get a higher clock speed than just the CPU's rated speed. Overclock, but carefully. Low wattage CPUs need a lower clock speed to keep cool in fanless configurations.

CPU for a mini PC

For small form factor and low wattage PCs, often a mini PC, Intel has released in 2016 the Braswell Refresh CPU line. Power efficient, low cost while extremely capable, this CPU has dropped PC prices to new lows! You can now get a great mini PC for around $279! The Intel Celeron Processor J3060 Braswell Refresh dual core CPU is a fine CPU in this category.

CPU for a mainstream performance PC

For a mainstream performance PC Intel's 6th generation Skylake CPU architecture is better than AMD's Kaveri APUs, but again Kaveri's great graphics brings them back into the mix.

The 6th generation Skylake architecture Intel Celeron G3900 for around $50 is a great CPU here.

An AMD Kaveri architecture APU that could be considered in this segment would be the AMD A6-7400K. Its integrated graphics are its selling point.

CPU for a high end graphics PC but maybe not for 3D gaming

For a gaming PC we typically are not interested in the integrated graphics capability of the CPU since we'll be pairing the CPU with a separate more powerful video card. A CPU with high end integrated graphics is typically more expensive than a comparable CPU with none or lower end integrated graphics. If you do get a CPUs with high end integrated graphics for a gaming PC you'll be paying for something you're not going to use since you'll be using a separate video card for graphics.

However, for someone who wants high end graphics but doesn't play 3D games, and also for someone who wants a smaller or mini PC, they're a great solution and you do save by not getting a separate video card.

AMD APUs that fall in this category that one should consider are the AMD Godavari architecture A10-7890K, A10-7870K and the A10-7860K. The K units have unlocked multipliers for potential overclocking and these three models now have a better and quieter stock cooling heatsink and fan.

Intel's 5th generation Broadwell architecture have two CPUs in this category of interest, the Core i5-5675C and the Core i7-5775C. These CPUs have Intel's Iris Pro Graphics 6200 integrated graphics which are similar in performance to a mid range separate video card, very impressive. These are expensive high end CPUs be warned, but fit well in this distinct CPU category.

CPU for a 3D gaming PC

Again, for a 3D gaming PC we're not interested in the integrated graphics capability of the CPU since we'll be pairing the CPU with a separate more powerful video card. In fact if the CPU doesn't even have an integrated GPU that's fine we'll save some money that way.

The 6th generation Skylake architecture Intel Core i3-6100 Processor dual cores four threads for around $120 is a great CPU here.

If you want to go higher and can't wait to overclock then an unlocked Intel 6th generation Skylake Core i5-6600K 3.5 to 3.9 GHz processor for around $250 is the one for you.

Unless you have very specific demanding processing needs or want an extreme gaming rig there really is no reason to pay up for the Core i7 CPUs. However if you do the unlocked Intel 6th generation Skylake Core i7-6700K 4.0 to 4.2 GHz is the stand out.

More extreme gaming or ultra powerful CPUs

Intel has a 5th generation Broadwell-E Intel Core i7 6800K CPU, it runs at 3.4 GHz max turbo 3.6 GHz, with an unlocked multiplier for overclocking! This beast has 6 cores, 12 threads, 15 MB cache! It's around $440. This CPU runs on a motherboard with socket LGA 2011-v3.

CPU for a moderate work load workstation or server

A Skylake architecture 4 core 8 thread Intel Xeon Processor E3-1245 v5 gives you a powerful workstation you will enjoy working on.

CPU for a heavy work load workstation or server

Intel's enterprise Broadwell-EP architecture Intel Xeon CPUs have several advantages to consider over their consumer Core i7 CPUs. Chief among them is their ability to support up to massive amounts of memory. Of course your motherboard may limit your memory capacity but if you get a socket LGA 2011-v3 motherboard with 8 memory slots supporting up to 128 GB memory capacity that's a lot. Add to this, ECC (error correcting) memory support which is important for data integrity and you're set.

In this category a Broadwell-EP architecture 6 core 12 thread Intel Xeon Processor E5-1650 v4 gives you a powerful workstation and you can build up a server on it as well.


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