- Best Processor Overall
- Best Processor for Speed
- Best Overclocking CPU
- Best Intel Processor
- Best AMD Processor
- Best Budget Processor
Best Processors / CPUs
The processor, or Central Processing Unit, is effectively the heart of a computer. The clock speed, indicated by frequency, basically sets the rate for how fast all functions within a computer can be performed. If the heart beats faster, then programs and tasks run faster.
With the addition of multi-core processors and hyperthreading, a single CPU is able to run as though it consists of multiple chips all working together in unison. This means that computers can run faster than ever before, offering a wide range of options in terms of overall speed and performance.
You should think carefully before picking your CPU, since other decisions like your motherboard, RAM, and even the power supply in your computer are all directly tied into the processor you choose. The processor and CPU buyer’s guide below has great information and advice for picking the right chip for your computer.
Best Processor Overall:
Judging the overall performance and speed of a processor requires looking at a number of different elements and seeing how they all come together. Clock speed is, of course, important, but it's only one aspect of a chip's design and specifications. You also need to look at the number of cores these chips have, as well as threads for Intel CPUs that use hyperthreading. Cache memory also plays an important role in CPU performance, and you should find processors that combine great performance in all of these aspects into a solid, single package. Finally, the models of the cores can also impact your choice, as the cores determine the size of the CPU and what kind of power draw it has.
These are the best processors overall because they provide you with the fastest clock speeds, at least 3.0GHz though some are much faster, with opportunities to boost or overclock these CPUs. They also have a high number of cores and threads, with a minimum of six cores. You also get a great amount of cache memory with these models, which include at least 4MB of memory and some of them have up to 15MB of cache memory. These processors also have the best core architecture, with die sizes at least 32nm in size, though some of them are only 22nm and have very low power requirements.
If you have the budget to support this processor, then this is the pinnacle of performance for a commercially available CPU. It has eight cores, with hyperthreading, to run like a 16-core processor and has a speed of 3.0GHz. You get a ton of cache memory and all of that power is packed onto a 22nm chip with remarkably low power requirements. Read Full Review
There’s a lot to like about this processor, and you should consider it carefully before choosing the Intel i7-5960X. It has six cores with hyperthreading and runs at 3.6GHz for incredible overall performance, though that's fewer cores than the 5960X. This model uses Ivy Bridge-E architecture to work with LGA 2011 sockets, so keep that in mind when looking at your motherboard and the CPU you want. Read Full Review
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If you prefer AMD to Intel, then this is probably the top processor overall for you. It's fast, has eight cores, and a solid amount of cache memory for terrific overall performance. The price on this one is also very reasonable and even though its power draw is rather high, it includes a liquid-cooling kit. Read Full Review
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If you want a high-performance Intel processor but you don’t have $1,000 to spend on your CPU, then this is a great option to look at. It has six cores with hyperthreading and runs at 3.4GHz out of the box. You don’t get as much cache memory with this model as you do with the Intel i7-4960X, but this model has an unlocked multiplier and is ideal for overclocking. Read Full Review
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This processor is a bit different from a lot of other ones on the market because it is an APU that includes both graphical and general processing. It's a 12-core processor, which includes both CPU and GPU cores, and it runs at 3.7GHz right out of the box. You get a decent amount of memory on the processor and the Kaveri core has very low power requirements. Read Full Review
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Best Processor for Speed:
In considering the best processors for speed, obviously the clock speeds of various chips are important. However, the frequency itself often isn't enough to judge a CPU by, so you should also look at how many cores and threads various chips have. The more processing power a chip has, the faster it can generally run, so you want to find CPUs that are both as powerful and as fast as possible. Look for dedicated CPUs, which won't give you any graphical processing but that means they handle tasks quicker. While you can overclock or boost any of these CPUs for even better performance, they are all incredibly fast right out of the box.
These are the best processors for speed because they have the fastest clock frequencies, providing speeds of at least 3.4GHz, though some of them are quite a bit faster. They also have a high number of cores and threads, with at least eight cores or threads in each of these processors. You get a good amount of cache memory with these processors which keeps them running as fast as possible, with a couple of them having 15MB of memory to offer terrific performance. While a couple of these include cooling, most of them actually do not, so you’ll want to pick up a heatsink and fan or liquid-cooling system to handle the heat generated by such fast processing operations.
For raw speed the moment it's installed, this chip is pretty hard to beat. It's incredibly fast, with a solid clock speed, and more cores than just about any other commercial CPU out there. It's also quite expensive, but if your budget can handle it, then this is pretty much the fastest Intel chip around. Read Full Review
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Although this chip doesn't have as many cores and threads as something like the i7-4960X, it's still a tremendous option that provides incredible speeds. In terms of power, it's quite comparable to the FX-9590 from AMD, so keep that in mind if you prefer Intel but want that level of performance. This CPU uses the 22nm Devil’s Canyon chip and includes a heatsink and fan.
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If you prefer AMD over Intel, then take a good look at this chip for the best speeds available from an AMD CPU. While something like the Intel i7-4960X can likely outperform this one, this CPU is still a terrific processor that runs incredibly fast. You'll want to use liquid cooling with this processor and it does require a good amount of power, but that should be expected with such a fast CPU. Read Full Review
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If you want a 4900-series i7 processor, but you don’t want to spend nearly $1,000 on the i7-4960X, then take a good look at this model. It has six cores, with hyperthreading, and runs at 3.4GHz right out of the box. You don’t get any cooling with this one, so make sure you have your own heatsink and fan to use with it. Read Full Review
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Although this is a somewhat older CPU, you can still find it at many retailers and it's a terrific option that runs nice and fast. It uses the Haswell-E architecture which provides terrific performance and speed, even if it’s not the latest model on the market. With six cores, 12 threads, and a 3.5GHz clock speed, this is a very nice CPU, but the price on it is a bit high. Read Full Review
Best Overclocking CPU:
Although just about any CPU can be overclocked, there are certain models that are simply better suited for the task than others. You should look for solid processors that run nice and fast right out of the box, with the potential to be even better with the proper adjustments. When considering Intel CPUs in particular, look for the “K” designation on the model number, which indicates the multiplier is unlocked, making overclocking easy and efficient. You should also consider general performance, such as the number of cores on these chips and their cache memory. The price of each processor is also important, since one of the best aspects of overclocking is getting better performance for your money.
Ultimately, these are the overclocking CPUs that provide the best potential increases to clock speed, thanks to unlocked multipliers and a design with overclocking in mind. All of these models still run nice and fast right out of the box, with overclocking enhancing that base performance. They have the highest number of cores and most cache memory, which means you’ll get excellent performance even before overclocking. These models also represent the best overall value for your computer budget, thanks to reasonable prices that offer amazing performance once overclocked.
This is a fairly expensive option for an overclocking CPU, but it also has tremendous promise for great overall performance. It’s a six core processor with hyperthreading for incredible speed and processing, with good speed out of the box and potential for tremendous overclocking. The power demands with this processor are rather high and it doesn’t come with cooling, but it’s a great option if you have the budget for it. Read Full Review
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Here is an overclocking enthusiast's dream come true. To celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the Pentium processor, Intel released a fully unlocked Haswell CPU. While it only has two cores and 3MB of cache memory, the overclocking potential on this little beauty is fantastic. Read Full Review
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This is definitely the best option if you prefer AMD over Intel. It runs nice and fast out of the box and it's fully unlocked by AMD for overclocking. With aftermarket cooling, this chip can be brought up over 5.0GHz and delivers tremendous performance for gaming and other tasks. Read Full Review
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This release from Intel is a great option for a powerful overclocked CPU. It has four cores, with no hyperthreading, making it a great choice for gaming and using other programs which typically don't take advantage of high-core counts. It runs at 3.5GHz out of the box, but you can overclock it nicely up to much higher speeds. Read Full Review
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This is another great option from Intel which runs much faster than the i5-4690. If you can utilize hyperthreading with the programs that you run then this is a great choice. Since not all programs (including a lot of PC games) use multiple threads, you could spend more money on this chip without gaining much in the way of improved performance. Read Full Review
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Best Intel Processor:
When evaluating Intel processors you should strongly consider each model's overall performance and speed. Look at the number of cores these CPUs have, but also the number of threads, since Intel uses hyperthreading in their modern CPUs to boost performance and match or surpass AMD models with more cores. It is also important to look at the clock speeds on various chips, but consider them as part of the big picture, keeping in mind the numbers of cores and threads in relation to the clock frequency to gauge overall speed and performance. Intel processors can also be compared and evaluated based on their different core generations, such as Ivy Bridge-E and Haswell-E chipsets.
These are the Intel processors that offer the highest number of threads, which is ideal for running multiple programs as efficiently as possible. They also have the fastest clock speeds, plus there is some potential for overclocking some of these models, but they were not specifically chosen with overclocking in mind. These CPUs include the newest and most efficient chipsets available, which impacts how much power you need, and have a high amount of cache memory to run processes quickly. Please note that none of these processors include heatsinks or fans so you’ll need to provide your own cooling system.
There’s no doubt that this is an absolute beast of a processor, with incredible power and speed with surprisingly low power requirements. It has eight cores, with hyperthreading for an incredible level of performance, and tons of cache memory. While the base speed might be a little low, it still offers unprecedented performance. Read Full Review
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This is definitely an excellent CPU, and while it was previously the most powerful model from Intel, the i7-5960X has surpassed it. With that in mind, you still get incredible power and performance from this processor. This model has 12 threads, a 3.6GHz clock speed, and uses the Ivy Bridge-E chipset for terrific performance for gaming or other demanding computer tasks. Read Full Review
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This is one of the fastest, most powerful unlocked processors that Intel provides, and the price on it is pretty reasonable. You get six cores with hyperthreading and a ton of Cache memory, plus it uses Haswell-E architecture for great performance at reasonable power levels. Since you can pick this one up for about half the price of the Intel i7-4960X, it’s a great option to keep your computer budget down without sacrificing performance. Read Full Review
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Although very similar to the i7-4960X Extreme Edition in certain ways, this chip cannot match the performance of that other CPU, though it only costs about half the price and is a better option for overclocking. You get 12 threads and 3.4GHz clock speeds with this processor, making it a great choice for terrific speed and power. While this model has 12MB of smart cache memory, you get 15MB of memory in the more expensive chip from Intel and superior overall performance. Read Full Review
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If the incredible performance of something like the i7-5960X is a lot more than you need, then this one is a great option to consider. It offers terrific performance at only a fraction of the price of some other i7 processors. This CPU uses the Haswell-E architecture for terrific clock speeds while giving you all the power and processing you'll need for most tasks. Read Full Review
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Best AMD Processor:
While looking for the best AMD processor on the market, you should first and foremost look at performance and how well various chips run in a computer. Speed is important when it comes to CPUs, but don't just look at clock speeds, you should also considered the number of cores that each chip has. You can also look at the cache memory on AMD's chips, with an eye toward both L2 and L3 caches. AMD offers a wide range of excellent processors, including several eight-core processors, as well as some very good, though slower, options. The latest processors from AMD are "Kaveri" APUs that include both general and graphical processing on a single chip, so consider that option especially if you don’t want a dedicated graphics card.
These are the AMD processors that offer the fastest clock speeds, with minimum speeds of 3.7GHz and some chips running at 4.4GHz and 4.7GHz right out of the box. You also get the most processing cores with these models, at least eight cores, but keep in mind that AMD does not use hyperthreading like Intel does. These processors also have a great amount of cache memory with most of them including at least 8MB of memory for great overall performance. Power requirements on these models can be fairly high, however, with some only drawing 125W while others are designed to use 220W. Keep that in mind as you’re comparing your options and know what kind of power requirements your system can fulfill.
In terms of raw performance and speed, this is a terrific processor that certainly tops anything else that AMD offers. It's an eight-core CPU with plenty of cache memory and it has the highest standard clock speed you'll find. However, it's also the most expensive processor from AMD and not a great choice for overclocking, so keep that in mind. Read Full Review
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If the FX-9590 is a bit more processor than you need, then consider this option as an excellent AMD processor. It has eight cores and runs at 4.4GHz right out of the box, with decent potential for boosted or overclocked performance. It has 8MB of cache memory but uses similar architecture to the 9590, so you’ll need a pretty hefty power supply to run with this chip. Read Full Review
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If something like the FX-9590 is outside your budget, then consider this as a great option that is easy on your wallet. This is an eight-core processor with great clock speeds out of the box and plenty of cache memory. If you use this with a liquid-cooling setup and overclock it, you can get very close to equal performance to the 9590 for about $50 less. Read Full Review
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In terms of raw performance, this is a bit of a step down from something like the FX-8350, but it's still a great option. This one is only a six-core processor, but it still runs at solid speeds and has a good amount of cache memory. You can pick this one for quite a bit less than most eight-core processor, and it requires less power than the 9000 series CPUs. Read Full Review
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This is the current top-end model of APU from AMD, which means it's an Advanced or Accelerated Processing Unit. It includes four cores for general processing, plus another eight cores for graphical processing. With clock speeds of 3.7GHz right out of the box and 4MB of cache memory, this is a pretty good option that just can't quite match some of the high-performance options from AMD. Read Full Review
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Best Budget Processor:
The processor is the heart of a computer, so it's typically a good place to invest a little more money into your system. However, if you're on a budget you can still get a solid CPU without sacrificing quality or power. These won't really stack up against the best processors on the market, but they also come in at a fraction of the price of those CPUs. For a budget-friendly processor, it can help to set a budget at about $150 or less, so you should be able to find any of these at that price. You should then look at overall performance, in terms of the number of cores, speed, and cache memory that these chips have.
These are the budget processors offering the highest number of cores, most of these have at least six cores though one only has a dual-core, which gives you faster performance by acting like multiple processors on a single chip. You get pretty fast clock speeds, all of these CPUs run over 3.0GHz with good potential for overclocking if you need even faster performance. They also have a pretty good amount of cache memory and come with heatsinks and fans, so you don’t have to spend more money on cooling.
Although this model comes in right at the $150 price point, it offers absolutely amazing performance for such a great price. It has eight cores to give you pretty much the best performance you can get from a budget processor. It has a pretty fast clock speed at 3.5GHz and a ton of cache memory, making it a great option at just about any price. Read Full Review
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Budget options from Intel are pretty rare, but this processor which was released to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Pentium series is something special. It's not amazing to look at right out of the box, with only two cores, no hyperthreading, and a 3.2GHz clock. But the real value of this CPU is its incredibly low price and unlocked Haswell chipset, making it an overclocker's dream come true. Read Full Review
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If you're interested in an APU, with both CPU and graphics processing, then take a good look at this option. It's a solid chipset overall, and is especially good for systems that won't have a dedicated graphics card. However, if you do plan on having a video card in your system, your money would probably be better spent on a dedicated CPU. Read Full Review
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This is another solid option from AMD, and it could be a better choice if you need a more budget-friendly CPU without sacrificing too much power. It's a six-core model that runs at 3.5GHz, which is still quite good, and it has a good amount of cache memory. If you want an AMD CPU and $150 is just out of your price range, then give this one a good look. Read Full Review
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If you’ve got a bit more than $100 to spend on a budget processor, then consider this as a great option with some pretty solid performance. It has six cores and runs at 3.9GHz right out of the box, which is very fast for a model at this price point. You get a good amount of cache memory with this one, but the power requirements are a little high so make sure your system can handle it. Read Full Review
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Processors/CPUs Buyer’s Guide
Processors have evolved a great deal over the last few decades and there’s a lot to know and look for to make sure you get the right CPU for your needs. If you already have a motherboard, then make sure you choose a processor that can fit into the board you have. When building a system from scratch, you’ll want to consider all of your components together and pick a processor that will give you the speed and performance you want, and then choose a motherboard and other hardware to compliment it. While it may seem like there are a lot of numbers to understand about processors, once you know what to look for, it becomes easy to pick just the right CPU for your system.
For mainstream processors, there are really only two manufacturers to consider: AMD and Intel. There’s a great deal of debate regarding which manufacturer is superior, but ultimately it will come down to what level of performance you want, your budget, and personal preference.
Intel vs. AMD
In general, AMD processors can be more affordable and offer excellent speed and performance with many cores in a single CPU. Intel processors are often more expensive, while offering excellent speed due to hyperthreading. Whichever manufacturer you ultimately choose, make sure you pick the same type of motherboard, as Intel CPUs can’t work in AMD motherboards, nor can AMD processors work in Intel boards.
Socket Type and Series
The socket type of a processor indicates what sort of motherboard it can fit into. AMD and Intel each have their own socket types, and several different ones are currently popular. A processor can typically only fit into a single type of socket, so it’s important you pick one that is compatible with your motherboard.
Intel sockets include LGA 1150 and LGA 2011, while popular AMD sockets include FM2, AM3, and AM3+. The series depends on the manufacturer and typically indicates the generation of a processor. For example, Intel indicates series numerically with i5 released before i7, and each series has different features. AMD uses other notations, however, such as FX-series and A-series, which refer to different types of processors. For the best performance possible, consider an Intel i7 or AMD FX-8 or FX-9 series CPU.
Core names are often terms or internal codenames used to refer to different types of processor chips. Each new generation or significant improvement on a line of CPUs typically has a new name, and while you don’t always need to know these names when buying a processor, it can be helpful when reading reviews. Haswell is the most popular and current Intel chip name which you’re likely to see when looking at Intel i5 and i7 processors. Vishera is the most common, recent core name for AMD models. In general, you’re better off looking at CPU series, rather than codenames.
Number of Cores
Additional cores in a processor let a CPU basically act like multiple chips together on a single system. Increased performance is not purely multiplicative, so a dual-core CPU doesn’t exactly double the performance; however, it still provides better speeds than an older, single-core processor. Quad-core CPUs have become increasingly common and affordable, so consider a processor with at least four cores. If you really want incredible performance, you can find six-core and even eight-core processors offering amazing speeds when running multiple programs and demanding software.
When looking at Intel processors, you want to consider threads in addition to cores. Hyperthreading uses virtualization to effectively double the number of cores, but does so through non-physical means. Multiple cores are physical while multiple threads do not involve the presence of additional physical cores. A dual core CPU with hyperthreading basically acts like a four-core processor, while a quad-core processor with hyperthreading works like an eight-core CPU. If you pick an Intel processor, then you probably want to find one with multiple cores and hyperthreading, though AMD processors don’t use hyperthreading.
The frequency, measured in megahertz (MHz) or gigahertz (GHz), basically indicates the speed of a processor. The CPU in a computer acts as the beating heart of a system, the faster it beats, the faster all of the applications on that computer run. You’ll typically find processors listed with operating frequency and maximum frequency. The operating speed is how fast the CPU usually runs; while maximum frequency shows the top speed you can easily boost it up to, usually through boosting provided by the manufacturer.
You can overclock a processor to run even faster, which can take it far beyond the maximum speed listed by Intel or AMD, but make sure you know what you’re doing before overclocking a CPU. Try to get the fastest CPU you can afford, but don’t only focus on clock speed as multiple cores are just as important.
Cache memory is a small amount of very fast memory used by a processor to retrieve data quickly and run programs as fast as possible. You’ll typically see modern processors with L2 and L3 cache memory. You want a processor with as much of this memory as possible, usually measured in megabytes (MB); however, this isn’t something you’ll need to spend a lot of time worrying about. If you find a CPU with a good number of cores and a fast clock speed, it’s very likely it will have a good amount of cache memory too.
In the past, you would typically find integrated graphics on a motherboard and it was usually pretty unimpressive. More recently, manufacturers have added graphics processing onto CPUs. This is more common with AMD processors, but you can find it with Intel models as well. On AMD processors there are even models, usually A-series ones, which include multiple cores dedicated to graphics processing. If you’re not planning on spending extra on a dedicated graphics card, then a processor with cores for video processing can help improve your video performance. This is less important if you’re going to install one or more video cards, but keep it in mind as you’re looking at different models.
Cooling and Power Requirements
Although you can add your own heatsink and cooling to a processor after you install it, most CPUs come with a cooling option included. If you plan on running your processor at normal speeds and you don’t care about the most powerful performance possible, then a heatsink and fan should be sufficient for keeping your CPU cool.
Very powerful processors that are good for overclocking might include liquid cooling options that are much more efficient than air cooling. A lot of processors will run just fine with a baseline 350-400 Watt power supply, but some very powerful models might require better power supplies. For more information to help you pick the right PSU for your system, take a look at the power supply buyer’s guide.