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Choosing a CPU platform is usually the first thing you do when building your own computer. If you've been following our reviews and always-fresh desktop PC buying guide you probably already have a good idea of the current landscape: Intel introduced their Sandy Bridge processors at the beginning of the year, bringing unparalleled performance and improved power consumption, while AMD has little to compete with above the $125 mark – though that might change soon.
Although we always try to keep you up to speed by reviewing the latest CPU releases as these take place, we've compiled a handy list of what we consider the best processor options right now at several price points between $80 and $225. Items are listed from least to most expensive and therefore, also by performance. For reference, we've also placed each product next to its closest competitor or best alternative if you are looking for a drop-in upgrade.
|Our Preferred CPU||Price||Second Pick / Upgrade Alternative||Price|
|AMD Athlon II X3 450 / X3 455||$80||Intel Pentium E6700||$85|
|AMD Phenom II X4 840||$110||Intel Pentium E6800||$100|
|Intel Core i3 2100||$125||AMD Phenom II X4 945 / 955 BE||$140|
|Intel Core i5-2400||$190||AMD Phenom II X6 1090T BE||$200|
|Intel Core i5-2500K||$225||--|
$80 - $90
At the bottom of the spectrum are a couple of affordable options from Intel and AMD. For $80 the triple-core 3.2GHz Athlon II X3 450 is our preferred choice as it delivers good all around performance and its extra core can come in handy with multitasking in Windows. The AMD Athlon II X3 455 3.3GHz is pretty much the same CPU but with an additional 100MHz. Although we haven't seen any changes at online retailers yet this chip was recently cut to $76 and may replace the X3 450 as it's phased out. Both will fit on AM3 boards, which can be had for as little as $60 or starting at $100 with features like SATA 6Gb/s and USB 3.0. Throw in a 2x2GB RAM kit and you're looking at a total price of ~$220.
For $85 the 3.2GHz Intel Pentium E6700 is a good upgrade option for those with older LGA 775-based systems who are not yet ready to put money into a new motherboard and CPU. However, if you're building a new system from scratch going for the Socket AM3 and LGA 1155 platforms are probably better choices.
$100 - $110
The 3.2GHz X4 840 serves as AMD's entry-level quad-core Phenom II processor, except it's based on the Propus core found in Athlon II products, and as such it features no L3 cache, 4x512KB L2 cache and a 95W TDP. It offers great value at its $110 price point and is very well suited for everyday tasks, gaming and multi-threaded applications. Alternatively for about $5 more you can get the 2.8GHz X4 925 2.8GHz, which is a true Phenom II CPU with 6MB of L3 cache.
As in the previous price bracket the 3.33GHz Intel Pentium E6800 is a good upgrade option at $100 for those with older LGA 775-based systems not looking to do a full upgrade. It's the fastest budget dual-core available for the LGA 775 platform and is a good overclocker as well. But again this is not a route we'd take if building a system from scratch.
$125 - $140
The dual-core Core i3 2100 is our top choice at this price point, offering comparable performance to the acclaimed quad-core Core i5 750 ($200 retail) in applications that don't utilize the two extra cores – which includes most games. With budget LGA 1155 motherboards readily available from around $70, this Sandy Bridge based chip faster than AMD's similarly priced quad-core offerings and you can still leave the door open to Core i5 or i7 upgrades in the future.
With a price of $130 and $140, respectively, the Phenom II X4 945 and X4 955 Black Edition are solid alternatives from AMD's camp. Although Intel's budget processor can outclass both Phenom II X4 parts, AMD offers a true quad-core architecture that's well suited for multitasking and the more expensive X4 955 Black Edition part can be easily overclocked to perform at Phenom II X4 975 levels thanks to its unlocked multiplier.
$190 - $200
Given the impressive performance of Intel's Sandy Bridge processor architecture it's hard to recommend investing in anything but the quad-core Core i5 2400 at this price point. It offers superior performance to the $200 Core i5 750 and makes for a respectable entry-level enthusiast processor, not to mention the LGA 1155 platform is a smarter buy at this point if building from scratch. Mid-range motherboards will set you back around $100 plus another $40 for 4GB of RAM.
From here on up AMD has a hard time keeping up with Intel's performance. In the same price range the former offers the 3.6GHz Phenom II X4 975 Black Edition for $190, and the 3.2GHz Phenom II X6 1090T for $200. Neither can really measure up to the Core i5 2400 but AMD's six-core part is competitive when it comes to video encoding tasks.
$210 - $225
The Core i5-2500K offers a modest performance boost of around 10% over the cheaper Core i5-2400. However, it has an unlocked multiplier so it's easier to overclock when paired with a LGA 1155 motherboard based on the P67 Cougar Point chipset. Such a board will set you back somewhere between $120 and $160, depending on features, while 4GB of RAM is $40. If you don't plan to take advantage of overclocking the standard i5 2500 is a little cheaper at $210 and a board based on the H67 chipset which supports the integrated GPU on Sandy Bridge chips costs around $80 to $120.
AMD won't have a direct answer to the Core i5-2500K until their FX and A-Series processors arrive. Processors over $225 offer only slight improvements when it comes to raw performance, which is why we thought the i5-2500K was the optimal choice for our Enthusiast build. If you really want the top of the line Sandy Bridge, the Core i7-2600 and i7-2600K are available for $300 and $315, respectively. Anything over than that is basically throwing your money away as not even the $1050 hexa-core Core i7-990X Extreme can keep up with Intel's latest chip.