If you're a gamer, the majority of your hard earned dollars are most likely going to be poured into GPUs. But for the all around system performance, the processor is still a critical component for everything outside of blowing up your buddies. The MGHz (and GHz) race is pretty much over, and now it's all about multiple cores, efficiency, and TDP.
The current generation of CPUs from both AMD and Intel are great and have plenty of spare power to last you at least one to two years out, even with new parts on the way. However, if you're prowling the market for something you must have now, we give you three great choices.
There's top of the line, and then there's everything else. In the land of desktop processing, Intel’s Core i7-5960X is top dog. No, it's not the highest-frequency CPU out there, but what it lacks in clock rate, it makes up for everywhere else. As in, this Haswell-E-based chip offers eight Hyper-Threaded cores capable of addressing 16 threads at a time, backed by 20MB of shared L3 cache and a 40-lane PCI Express 3.0 controller.
Let’s talk about the significance of those specs. Yes, AMD sells CPUs marketed as eight-core as well. But the two companies employ dramatically different architectures. As a result, the Core i7-5960X is in a league unto itself. If you’re into video editing, image manipulation, software development, or any other number of professional-grade workloads, there is no better single-socket processor.
Of course, the 40-lane PCI Express 3.0 controller accommodates all of your add-ins. Think two, three, or even four graphics cards; PCIe-based SSDs; and high-end network adapters. Intel’s desktop processors are limited to 16 lanes, so the step up to 40 gives you a lot more flexibility.
Be advised you'll need an LGA 2011-v3 motherboard. The Core i7-5960X sports a quad-channel DDR4 memory controller, so it won’t drop into the same interface as Intel’s previous flagships. The transition to DDR4 does pave the way for higher data rates and greater densities though, so there is a silver lining as you dig deep for a complete platform overhaul.
We’re obligated to give the Core i7-5960X a call-out for its uncontested place at top of Intel’s desktop portfolio. And for many power users, all of that compute muscle is absolutely necessary. But you can save a bunch of money on the Core i7-5820K and still get most of Haswell-E’s goodness.
The -5820K boasts six Haswell-based cores operating at up to 3.6GHz and 15MB of L3 cache. Its 28 lanes of PCIe 3.0 connectivity limit what you can plug in somewhat. However, some motherboard manufacturers work around this with PCIe switches. You get the same quad-channel DDR4 controller supporting up to 64GB of 2133 MT/s memory, and the -5820K is specified for 140W, just like Intel’s Core i7-5960X.
Now, it might seem like the -5820K’s dialed-back specs force you to compromise for a lower price. But if you’re a gamer, this CPU is arguably a better buy. Not only can you purchase a GeForce GTX 980 with what you’ll save compared to a -5960X, but the higher clock rate is more useful to games than another couple of cores. It’d obviously be nice if the -5820K had enough PCIe lanes for two graphics cards on x16 links. Really, though, PCIe throughput isn’t a bottleneck, so feel free to drop high-end cards onto x8 slots guilt-free.
Like Intel’s flagship, the -5820K has an unlocked multiplier. Beyond its enviable stock specifications, you can usually push these processors beyond 4GHz without much effort. Check out our motherboard and cooling recommendations for the hardware to help you on your quest.
AMD’s fastest FX processors do battle with Intel’s mid-range Core i5s in a majority of productivity-oriented benchmarks. But they’re so affordable. The FX-8320 sports four Piledriver modules, each with two integer cores, running at up to 4GHz. The modules have 2MB of shared L2 cache, totaling 8MB across the die, and an 8MB L3 cache accessible by all four modules.
As you might imagine, that means the chip fares best in software optimized for threading, which is good, since those applications are the ones most commonly bogged down by slow CPUs.
The highly parallelized architecture is fed by an integrated dual-channel DDR3 memory controller. It’s not as fast as the competition, but that’s alright in this case; the FX isn’t typically bound by memory throughput. At least you’ll save some money on RAM, right?
Like Intel, AMD is pursuing integration wherever it can. And although the company’s APUs sport on-die PCI Express controllers, its FX CPUs do not. You’re left leaning on 990FX-based motherboards and last-gen PCIe 2.0 support. Again, it’s a good thing that modern graphics cards aren’t really affected by a bit less bandwidth.
Enthusiasts like the fact that AMD hands out unlocked multipliers to more of its products than Intel. The FX-8320 is easy to tune as a result. Given a capable cooler, the processor should operate at frequencies several hundred megahertz faster. There simply aren’t as many overclockable options in Intel’s portfolio. In fact, you’d have to spend $100 more for that privilege from a Core i5. No wonder the FX line-up is popular amongst power users on budgets.
Both Intel and AMD are set to unveil new CPUs in the coming few months. By that time, we would have them in house for full reviews. The current generation though, are still top performers in their respective categories, and will perform well for a long while yet. Some of us have CPUs in our gaming rigs that are actually 2 generations behind, and still do a great job with today's applications and games.