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The Best Mainstream CPU is...

Before we are able to determine which processor offers the most value, we must work out roughly how much each platform costs to put together.

The most expensive is obviously going to be the Core i7 920 ($280) with its accompanying X58 motherboards retailing anywhere from $170 (Foxconn FlamingBlade GTI, ASRock X58 Extreme and MSI X58M) while most cost around $220 - $250. Add to that some memory - most will go for a 6GB DDR3 kit which costs about $140 for something decent - for a total platform cost of ~$640.

In the past we have built entire budget systems for that kind of money. On the other hand, until just recently this was the best or only the way to get yourself a powerful Core i7 system on a budget. Given the performance this combination of hardware delivers, we don't hear anyone complaining thus far.

The newly launched Core i7 860 will also be priced at $280, but supporting P55 motherboards should be priced below the $200 mark, or in some extreme cases nearing the $100 range, making them a more affordable choice. Rather that 6GB of memory you must opt between 4GB or 8GB on a dual-channel platform. A good quality DDR3 4GB kit will cost you $80, making for a total of ~$500.

Also from Intel the new Core i5 750 is priced at just $200, and from the benchmarks you just saw you know it makes for an incredibly good buy. The Core i5 750 is supported by the same P55 motherboards as the Core i7 860, so expect to pay anywhere from $100 to $180 for the motherboard and $80 for a decent DDR3 4GB dual-channel memory kit. This brings the total platform cost at under $450.

Lastly we have the AMD Phenom II X4 965 which costs $245. In all fairness however, AMD hasn't had the time yet to react to Intel's CPU launch this week and so we expect them to adjust their CPU pricing accordingly. AMD will not only be forced to decrease the price of the flagship Phenom II X4 965, but we expect them to drop many other Phenom models in the process as there's no longer enough room to offer so many different models in the $100-200 range.

There is a massive range of motherboards to choose from supporting Phenom II X4 CPUs, and we feel that most users will seek out a board with the AMD 790FX chipset and AM3 socket (~$180). Together with 4GB of DDR3 memory ($80), the total cost for a Phenom II X4 965 equipped system comes to $500, and $450 for the slightly slower Phenom II X4 955.

Processor Socket CPU Price Mobo Price Memory Platform Total
AMD Phenom II X4 965 AM3 $245 $180 $80 $500
Intel Core i5 750 LGA1156 $200 $100-$180 $80 $430
Intel Core i7 860 LGA1156 $280 $100-$180 $80 $510
Intel Core i7 920 LGA1366 $280 $170-$300 $140 (6GB) $650

Current pricing makes the Phenom II X4 a terrible choice. At $500 against the Core i7 860, it is a bad match up for AMD. And while it's hard to predict where exactly AMD will set their prices a few weeks from now, we know they have more value offerings coming very soon. The Phenom II X4 remains a pretty competent CPU but with such harsh competition from the new Intel CPUs, the X4 965 would have to drop at or below the $170 range to make it a worthwhile choice against the Core i5 750. And even at that price, it's hard not to pay a little extra for the Core i5.

The next question is whether you should spend the extra $80 on the Core i7 860 processor or save some of that money to get a better motherboard with the Core i5 750, or double your RAM. The Core i7 860 has a 140MHz frequency advantage and the ability to use Hyper-Threading. However, many of our benchmarks showed that this translated into very small performance gains. Ultimately those of you working with programs that use lots of threads will benefit more from the Core i7 860, as will users that heavily multi-task. For the rest of us that just do some light word processing, e-mailing and net surfing, when we are not gaming, then the Core i5 750 will keep you more than happy. Actually that is probably not fair, as the Core i5 750 will hang with the Core i7 860 in quite a few powerful applications. Then, when you are gaming, the Core i5 750 proved to be every bit as good as the Core i7 860.

The Core i7 920 and 860 comparison is an interesting one, as the Core i7 860 wasn't a great deal slower than the almighty Core i7 920. The only real difference between these two processors is the memory controller, and most applications don't seem need such huge amounts of bandwidth, and I guess the same goes for most users. Therefore, it does appear that the savings users can enjoy by going for the cheaper Core i7 860 setup are worth it.

Honestly, I never thought a few weeks ago I would be recommending two LGA1156 processors over anything the LGA1366 and AM3 platforms had to offer, but I am.

The Core i5 750 is the ultimate value quad-core processor. Then for those that require something a little more heavy duty, the Core i7 860 appears to be the perfect solution, with its ability to use Hyper-Threading technology.