Best Desktop CPUs: Holiday 2013by Ian Cutress on November 25, 2013 3:05 PM EST
Next up in our series of Holiday Buyer’s Guides is a look at processors. Building systems in time for a holiday season means that picking the right components at the right time will ensure a system performs as it should on day one, and everyone is happy. When it comes to processors, there are a lot of users on both sides of the fence: some will stick to Intel, others will praise AMD, sometimes both for similar reasons. I would like to start on the side of no bias; I run systems on both, have suggested systems for both, and my box of processors for Gaming CPU testing is quite full - but I do love a nice dollop of performance.
So obviously there are many facets to a processor choice: price, performance, affinity to software, low power, gaming (single GPU and SLI/Crossfire) and single core performance all play a role. A lot of our recommendations here are based on behind the scenes testing as well as reviews we have done over the past 12-24 months, including:
- 10/3/2013: Choosing a Gaming CPU, October 2013
- 9/7: Analyzing the Price of Mobility: Desktops vs. Laptops
- 9/3: Intel Core i7 4960X (Ivy Bridge E) Review
- 6/6: AMD's Richland vs. Intel's Haswell GPU on the Desktop: Radeon HD 8670D vs. Intel HD 4600
- 6/1: The Haswell Review: Intel Core i7-4770K & i5-4670K Tested
- 5/23: The AMD Kabini Review: A4-5000 APU Tested
- 1/15: Dragging Core2Duo into 2013: Time for an Upgrade?
- 10/23/2012: The Vishera Review: AMD FX-8350, FX-8320, FX-6300 and FX-4300 Tested
- 10/2: AMD A10-5800K & A8-5600K Review: Trinity on the Desktop
Extreme Performance, Need Threads: Intel i7-4930K on X79 ($580, 6C/12T at 3.4 GHz)
Despite any zeitgeist against the extreme platforms, there are a lot of users that can justify the cost, purely because it improves their work flow, or they want to say they have an extreme system, whether or not it is always used. For users who need to stick to consumer level hardware (i.e. not Xeons, because of price) then the obvious choice for almost all workloads is the Intel i7-4930K processor. The other main contenders here are the i7-4960X ($1050, 3.5 GHz), i7-4820K (4C/8T, $330, 3.7 GHz) and the i7-4771 (4C/8T, $320, 3.5 GHz) on Z87. We plunge for the 4930K due to it being the cheaper of the twelve threaded processors, as well as offering some headroom for overclocking should users require that facility. Using an Ivy Bridge-E processor also opens up to a 64 GB of memory, although the downside is that the X79 platform is looking a little old against 990FX and Z87, and extra SATA 6 Gbps/USB 3.0/Thunderbolt connectivity is still under the guise of newer platforms. Nevertheless, building a system of this grunt today puts the 4930K in the firing line given Haswell-E is a good number of months (12+?) away.
For users that do not want to invest into the X79 platform at such a high price point, the obvious answer is to look at the i7-4771 on H87 (for non-overclocking) or i7-4770K on Z87 with a small bump in frequencies.
AMD Throughput: AMD FX-8320 on 990FX ($160, 4M/8T at 3.5 GHz)
The debate about pure performance of Intel vs. AMD is almost clear cut depending on what type of operations you want to perform. AMD’s architecture for Bulldozer and Piledriver mean that it acts somewhere between a quad and an octo-core, depending on if you are using floating point operations (fractions) or integer (whole number, pure hexadecimal) operations in code respectively. AMD went with this architecture because operating system logic is mostly the latter, which offers up more multithreading opportunities. Unfortunately due to the lack of IPC (somewhat negated by clock speed) and that the real world is not too kind, the quad module offerings from AMD only perform better than their Intel counterparts in specific scenarios or applications. Certain video editing and synthetic benchmarks (Cinebench) love the AMD architecture, which doubles up in benefit when considering the price. In this circumstance, the FX CPU we suggest is the FX-8320. The other CPUs worth considering are the FX-8350 ($200, 4.0 GHz), the FX-9370 ($290, 4.4 GHz) and the FX-8300 (3.3 GHz), and there is recourse to look at the FX-8350 for $40 more and +500 MHz off the bat, but the FX-8320 gets the nod if AMD is your weapon of choice in this arena.
Gaming multi-GPU / Overclocking: Intel i5-4670K on Z87 ($240, 4C/4T at 3.4 GHz)
Looking back at our Gaming CPU recommendations and results (where we test CPUs at stock), the CPU we suggest is the i5-4670K. Our testing shows that this CPU, with 2/3/4 graphics cards, offers top or near top performance compared to other CPUs – the multithreaded advantage of the 4770K or 4960X was only observable at the extremely high end, and even then the differences were not that great. Certain games take more of a hit than others, and for the vast majority of titles today the focus lies on good core performance for when these games start properly using as many threads as necessary (it is harder to program than you think).
For overclocking, as always your results will vary. For example, I have played with three i7-4770K CPUs. Two of them were not bad, getting 4.6 GHz and 4.7 GHz at 1.300 volts respectively. The third one is absolute trash, hitting its maximum at 4.2 GHz with 1.400 volts. The 4670K is almost a third less than the 4770K, meaning if you are wanting a high enough overclock, it is less of a hit you sell on the CPU to buy another. For extreme overclockers, the 4670K also provides an alternative for the older benchmarks while using sub-zero cooling.
Choosing a CPU for gaming on a single GPU is a little tougher than a multi-GPU test. At this end of the spectrum (where most gamers are), it all becomes rather title dependent. Some games are designed to use as many cores as you can throw at it (Battlefield), whereas others will perform the same no matter what is in the system (Sleeping Dogs). As a result, I have picked a few worth mentioning that might be on offer this season.
The first up is one of the new Intel Haswell dual cores with hyperthreading. Up until the dual core CPUs were released, my recommendation was a quad core i5-4340 ($190, 4C/4T, 3 GHz) which we tested in our Gaming CPU article. But given my comments above, and the since introduction of the dual core Haswells, the i3-4330 is a pretty exciting choice. It offers the potential for more performance (4 threads at 3.6 GHz), comes in slightly cheaper, and will have a better single thread throughput. The only downside will be that there are not four real cores, but game engine designers have been working with Hyperthreading as the main form of extra threading for a few generations now. I have recommended the H87 chipset here (or B85), due to the focus on no-overclocking and single GPU that might help save a few pennies in the overall build.
For something a little cheaper, the AMD Athlon II X4 760K might be worth a look. This is the CPU version of the equivalent Richland APU, meaning no integrated graphics: but if we are talking a single discrete GPU, then integrated graphics is not that relevant here. As the 760K is based on Richland, this means two modules with up to four threads of integer computation. Game development is slowly getting the idea that if possible, make calculations integers rather than floating point, but we are still a bit away in that department: the 3.8 GHz and $90 price tag help the 760K be a suitable choice up until that point. I have suggested going for an FM2+ motherboard here, because in January the new Kaveri APUs (and non-APU equivalents) should be released, meaning that an upgrade is only a processor away.
My final recommendation is actually a bit of an old one, and most likely not available new everywhere, but still possible to find on various websites. The AMD Athlon II X4 651K is a Llano CPU, which dates back to before AMD made the change to Bulldozer based modules. This means that the 651K is a full-bodied quad core, rather than a dual module/quad thread hybrid. At 3.0 GHz and lower IPC than Intel, it still has some room to grow with a little overclocking, but in games that do require a full and proper quad core to get going, then the 651K is an opportunity. One downside perhaps is using the FM1 socket and A75 chipset, although it is not too dissimilar to the newer A88X chipset on FM2+.
Gaming on Integrated or Hybrid graphics: AMD A10-6800K on FM2+ ($140, 2M/4T at 4.1 GHz)
There are market segments that rely on integrated graphics for gaming, and at this juncture there is only one real integrated GPU we can recommend: the A10-6800K with its 384 SPs at 844 MHz and recommended memory of 2133 MHz as well. While you get the best integrated graphics performance currently available on a desktop CPU, there are two things worth noting: the APU itself has a TDP of 100W, and Kaveri is just around the corner. The first point could be negated by using the A10-6700 APU, which has the same integrated graphics for only 65W but is slightly slower (3.7 GHz) and a bit more expensive ($149). The point about Kaveri coming dates back to AMD’s announcement for release on January 14th, where it was announced that the top end Kaveri APU will feature 512 SPs (similar to a HD 7750) at 720 MHz, with a CPU speed of 3.7 GHz and a rated 856 GFLOPS. If you need an integrated graphics solution for gaming today, we recommend picking up an FM2+ motherboard so Kaveri can drop straight in.
General Day-to-Day, Low Power:
- Intel Pentium G3430 on H81 ($100, 2C/2T at 3.3GHz Haswell)
- AMD did announce two 45W models (6500T and 6700T, neither of which are at retail yet)
Day to day performance is often very subjective. What feels lightning fast for some may feel sluggish to others, and it is not always the CPU that is the culprit – I recommend everyone upgrading to SSDs as boot drives for operating system builds, however I have met with system builders who have clients that insist that only one drive letter is present on their new office systems (insert SSD caching). When it comes down to a daily CPU, there are plenty that cover the bases for word processing, light photo editing, checking eBay and email: in fact most of these are covered by tablets, and the low end desktop market is shrinking as a result. Nevertheless, I built my family a small home system recently, and at the time having something that would feel quick was important. Low power is another factor, which swings us around to the low powered ‘T’ processors from both Intel and AMD.
But there are caveats: Newegg and Amazon seem to avoid the ‘T’ processors, at least when it comes to Haswell. The consumer markets (from what I can tell) focus more on the ‘S’ variants, which are not particularly low power. My recommendation falls at the Pentium G3320T for Intel, a 35W 2.6 GHz Haswell dual core part, which should be sufficient for most families when paired with an SSD, but this does not seem to exist outside OEMs. At this point, our other options include the G3430, which Newegg does stock, although it does pull 54W. For AMD, it was announced that two low powered models would be coming to market (the A8-6500T and A10-6700T) on September 18th, however I have yet to see either at retail, perhaps suggesting that these are only available in the US to OEMs for now.
Low Power, High Throughput:
- i7-4765T on H87 (£256, 4C/8T @ 2G) or
- i7-4770T on H87
One review sample that has come in recently is the ASRock M8 barebones – a mini-ITX chassis with PSU and a Z87 motherboard. The motherboard uses a 4+1 power delivery, albeit without a heatsink and requiring airflow over the VRMs – so while the motherboard supports overclocking, I cannot be 100% confident I want something very warm in a small space, but I still want it to be powerful.
After looking at processors for the best part of a couple of weeks, my best result was actually a Xeon, one of the models that is binned for high frequency and low voltage, thus making the power consumption low. This was the E3-1230L V3, a 25W quad core CPU with hyperthreading running at 1.8 GHz and turbo to 2.8 GHz. This theoretically would produce an i5-4670K like performance at full multithreaded load at less than 1/3 of the power usage. Alas, this CPU is truly for servers only, and not even eBay through up many results. Speaking with Intel UK, they suggested a similar CPU in the i7-4765T.
The i7-4765T is almost the Xeon equivalent, being a 35W quad core CPU with hyperthreading, but running at 2.0 GHz with turbo up to 3.0 GHz. For the power consumption, this CPU seems to fly, even in gaming. The only downside of the CPU is the lack of availability: I seem to find it for sale easily enough in the UK (for the same price as a 4770K), but not in the US in any immediate timeframe.
The fall back processor is the standard i7-4770T, which moves the TDP to 45W, still a quad core with hyperthreading, but running at 2.5 GHz and turbo up to 3.7 GHz. However our dilemma of finding locations where the ‘T’ processors are sold rears its head again, with any location offering them having a ‘1-3 week’ lead time.
Another position to take would be to look at a normal CPU and downclock it to reach the desired power envelope. Almost all CPUs will allow you to reduce the multiplier and the voltages down (-K or non-K SKU), but it requires a level of manual tinkering not unlike overclocking to reach the desired level. The benefit of the ‘T’ SKUs is obviously they will work out of the box like it says they should.
There never is a killer CPU that covers all avenues. Even if Intel or AMD (or Via) offer a CPU that performs better than anything with low power and a massive integrated GPU installed, it is not going to come cheap. Each of our suggested price brackets has their contenders nearby, especially when comparing Intel to AMD as to a preferred build or total price. One of AnandTech’s biggest suggestions over time is to invest in an SSD if you have not already (SSD buyer’s guide incoming), then if you are a gamer to focus on the GPU, and then analyze which CPU/motherboard you really need for your system. Picking the right one helps in the long term, and perhaps saves a few $ for an upgrade in another area. Hopefully the holiday sales are kind this year!