When building a new computer or upgrading an existing system many start with the CPU as it's arguably the most critical component in a PC. Picking the right CPU can be a challenge with dozens of options not very well differentiated and priced too close to each other (we are talking $25 gaps in-between). Case in point, there are over three dozen $200+ options as of writing.

Narrowing down the potential options to a certain budget certainly helps. Then you have to decide whether you go AMD or Intel, and if you're definitely going for the latter, Intel has current offerings based on the LGA1150, LGA1151 and LGA2011-3 platforms.

After extensive testing you are familiar with, we've come up with this quick guide to bring you the best CPU choices available right now, divided into four categories: The Best Enthusiast/Value Gaming CPU, Best Extreme Desktop CPU, Best All-Round High-End CPU and Best Budget CPU. Finally, we'll digress on which is the best overall platform to invest in right now.

Best Enthusiast/Value Gaming CPU

Intel Core i5 6600K

The best value gaming CPU has to be reasonably priced and avoid reaching the point of severe diminishing returns. That rules out any Core i7 processor in our book, as Core i5s do just as well in 99% of the games out there.

We don’t recommend gamers to invest in AMD FX processors either, as we've found them to inhibit gaming performance of high-end GPUs in some of the latest titles. Most recently we found horrible FX performance in Fallout 4, where the FX-9590 was bested by a 4th-gen Core i3. Although we haven't published a full performance review on (the somewhat buggy) Just Cause 3, this amazing open world game also makes FX processors seriously suffer.

This leaves us tossing up between the Haswell and Skylake Core i5s. The Core i5-4690K costs $240 while the i5-6600K is selling for $270, not a significant difference but enough to make us question spending more on the 6600K given it won’t really benefit gamers in any meaningful way.

There are numerous valid points for choosing either though we are going to recommend gamers invest slightly more in the 6600K for the simple reason that it's supported by Intel's latest Z170 chipset. Support for the LGA1151 socket gives users a greater upgrade path, plus the added benefit of using high speed DDR4 memory.

If you don’t plan to overclock then you can save some on the Core i5-6500 which sells for $205. Avoid the slightly cheaper Core i5-6400 because it's clocked 15% slower at 2.7GHz opposed to 3.2GHz, which doesn't justify the small savings.

Best Budget CPU

AMD A8-7650K

For the best budget CPU we are looking for something that can do it all from productivity to gaming at a cost of $100 or less. The cheapest Core i3 processor is ~$120 leaving us to pick from Celeron and Pentium processors on the Intel side of the fence. AMD on the other hand as a few nice quad-core APUs on offer as well as their FX-6300 for just $90.

The Athlon X4 860K is a reasonable buy at $70, but with the FX-6300 priced just $20 higher we recommend gamers using a discrete graphics card go for the ‘6-core’ FX processor or the Intel Core i3-6100 if you plan to play games first and foremost.

Having that said, for those wanting to do a little bit of everything, it's hard to go past the AMD A8-7650K quad-core APU for $100. For the price this CPU lends itself well to a multitude of tasks and this is why it is the heart and soul of ‘The Budget Box’.

The A8-7650K is powerful enough that it can get the most out of $200 discrete graphics cards and if you want to game on a limited budget, the Radeon R7 (6 CUs) is one of the best integrated graphics engines found on any CPU.

Out of the box the A8-7650K runs at 3.3GHz with a 3.8GHz boost clock speed. As a fully unlocked part, you can overclock although based on our experience it'll be hard to push past 4GHz, which isn’t bad as you can lock all four cores at this frequency for a reasonable performance bump.

This FM2+ processor is backed by a huge range of motherboards supporting various chipsets. The flagship A88X can be had for as little as $60, though most motherboards sporting this chipset are closer to $100. For something more affordable perhaps try an A58 or A68H motherboard, which are available for a little less than $50.

Best Extreme Desktop CPU (Any Price)

Intel Core i7 5960X

The best desktop CPU is a category that writes itself when there is no concern whatsoever about pricing. There is just one option, the ludicrously expensive Intel Core i7-5960X which is the key component of our “Extreme Machine” build.

The year-old $1050 processor comes equipped with 8 dedicated cores and a massive 20MB L3 cache. The cores operate at a 3GHz base speed, but can boost as high as 3.5GHz depending on the workload. Designed to work with up to 64GBs of DDR4-2133, the 5960X supports quad-channel memory for a bandwidth of over 50GB/s, roughly twice that of a Core i5-4690K using DDR3-2400 memory.

The 5960X is backed by the Intel X99 chipset (LGA2011-3) which supports all the latest platform features.

There is a huge range of X99 motherboards on offer with online retailers such as Newegg showing as many as 100 different models. Prices start at $190, while most are closer to $300 and some go as high as $650 for the Asrock X99 WS-E/10G.

Best All-Round High-end CPU

Intel Core i7 5820K

Unlike the Extreme CPU choice, the best all round high-end CPU has to be good at everything while maintaining a solid price to performance ratio. Obvious candidates would be the Intel Core i7-6700K, 4790K, AMD FX-9590 and the one we are going with, the Core i7-5820K, another Haswell-E part.

Intel's Skylake Core i7-6700K is supposed to be $339 and yet finding one at that price (if at all) is impossible. Newegg and Amazon both list it for $420 and at the time of writing Newegg is out of stock, and so are most other online retailers.

At that price the i7-6700K makes little sense as the more equipped i7-5820K costs just $375. The Haswell-E processor boasts an additional two cores and four threads and is also unlocked, making the 3.3GHz operating frequency somewhat irrelevant. The i7-5820K also features almost twice as much L3 cache and still supports DDR4 memory.

This makes the i7-5820K a much better CPU for demanding tasks such as video editing. Meanwhile less demanding applications and games will run just as well on the i7-5820K as they do on the i7-6700K. There are tons of high-end X99 boards available and unless you're hunting for a particular feature, you'll probably be equally satisfied with anything you pick.

For our Luxury System build we went with the relatively affordable Asrock X99 Extreme4 since we didn’t require anything special on the audio front (we are using a dedicated sound card) and the board offers an Ultra M.2 slot to support the uber fast Samsung SSD 950 Pro SSD.

Best Platform

When picking the best value gaming CPU or the best budget CPU, we also take the platform into account, but it isn’t the primary factor. Price and performance play key roles in our decision. Removing the CPU from the equation for a moment, we asked ourselves which platform provides the most useful features at the best price?

In the past Intel's Extreme CPUs were supported by outdated chipsets that sucked, if we are honest. The X79 was a classic example of that. The situation is considerably better with the Intel X99 that powers our two most expensive processor picks, the Core i7-5820K and the Core i7-5960X, however that doesn't make it the best value platform. Among the reasons, its limited CPU support and the fact there is no upgrade path beyond the three existing Haswell-E processors, assuming Intel skips Broadwell-E and moves right to Skylake-E sometime next year.

The LGA1150 socket and the Z97 chipset face a similar situation and the final nail will be driven into the coffin once Skylake Core i5 and Core i7 pricing stabilizes.

Therefore we are going with the platform that powers our enthusiast/value gaming CPU choice. The LGA1151 socket is supported by a number of chipsets, but it's the Z170 that we are interested in. This chipset is the only in the 100-series to support CPU overclocking and multi-GPU configurations. There are also 20 PCIe 3.0 lanes and the potential for up to three PCIe storage devices.

Another key advantage the Z170 enjoys over its predecessor is the new DMI 3.0 interface which allows support for high-end graphics cards as well as high-speed storage devices such as the Samsung SSD 950 Pro without compromising on bandwidth.