CPU Buyer's Guide

A comprehensive guide to the current crop of desktop CPUs, specifications and prices

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Performance processors

Just like automobiles, consumer electronics and just about every other technology-based product category, super high-end CPUs offer some mesmerizing levels of performance. One of the most interesting developments in this performance category of processors is the late-year release of quad-core CPUs. Essentially four processors in one, these chips allow extreme levels of multitasking.

Performance CPUs make sense for these types of users:

  • Hard-core gamers looking for top-tier CPU performance
  • Professionals or prosumers who use their PCs for high-end video processing
  • Professionals or prosumers who multitask in extreme ways
  • Tech enthusiasts looking for superior performance, costs be damned

For everyone else -- including many hard-core gamers -- the high-end category is a better deal in terms of the all-important price/performance ratio.

Introducing the quad-cores

Intel Core 2 Extreme QX6700

AMD Athlon 64 FX-74, FX-72, FX-70

Both Intel and AMD have released quad-core CPUs that reside in the penthouse suite of the performance processor category. So which one is the best? The answer to this question depends on your technology needs.

Formerly known by the code-name Kentsfield, Intel's Core 2 Extreme QX6700 is a quad-core monster best suited for extreme multitasking environments, although it is also an excellent forward-thinking processor for gaming. The processor is essentially two Core 2 Duo processors running at 2.66 GHz connected together; it features a massive 8MB of L2 cache. (A large L2 cache allows for faster retrieval of frequently accessed data, thereby speeding up overall system performance.) The resulting increase in performance has generated rave reviews from CPU performance enthusiasts.

However, some experts have dinged Intel's first quad-core workstation processor because the two Core 2 halves are not capable of communicating directly with each other. Instead, they must communicate and share information through the front-side bus (FSB), which is also used by graphics cards and hard drives. While the large L2 caches help alleviate major bottlenecks, using the FSB for intracore communications is less than ideal. Intel has refuted this criticism with the claim that FSB saturation is extremely unlikely.

Regardless, this processor is extremely fast. At a price point of $1,000, this is one extremely expensive CPU. But for power users who insist on extreme high-end performance, it's worth it.

AMD's trio of quad-core processors -- the Athlon 64 FX-74, Athlon 64 FX-72 and Athlon 64 FX-70 -- is similar conceptually to Intel's QX6700. Based on the company's Opteron line of server-oriented processors, the FX-7x line consists of two dual-core processors in two separate CPU sockets. These CPUs come in bundles of two; they're literally two independent processors that utilize Opteron architecture to efficiently work together. Because of the Opteron-based nature of these CPUs, the FX-7x line uses AMD's Socket F, developed specifically for multiprocessor enterprise server solutions.

Benchmarks have shown that these new CPUs don't quite match the processing power of Intel's Core 2 architecture. In AMD's defense, however, the company's approach to quad-core processing allows each of the four cores to share data directly with each other instead of via the FSB. This makes the FX-70 line an excellent choice for power users, such as video and other multimedia producers, who consistently perform multiple CPU-intensive tasks at the same time. Like Intel's Extreme processors, AMD's high-performance line feature support for virtualization.

The key differentiating factor between the FX-74, FX-72 and FX-70 is clock speed. The FX-74 runs at 3 GHz per core, the FX-72 runs at 2.8 GHz and the FX-70 runs at 2.6 GHz. One of the nice things about AMD's performance family of quad-core CPUs is that a range of prices -- from $600 to $1,000 -- is available.

Performance dual-cores

Intel Core 2 Extreme X6800; Pentium Extreme Edition 965 and 955

AMD Athlon 64 FX-62

The Intel Core 2 Extreme X6800 is a dual-core CPU with faster clock speeds on the individual cores (2.93 GHz) than the clock speeds of the quad-core QX6700 (2.66 GHz). Because of this, the X6800 is a better choice for high-end gamers and power users whose application usage would benefit from its higher clock speeds. Both the X6800 and QX6700 support virtualization.

High-end system builders and buyers can still buy two of Intel's older dual-core Pentium Extreme Edition processors -- model numbers 965 and 955 -- from resellers today. Given the performance, thermal and energy-consumption advantages of the Core 2 architecture, however, buying or building systems based on these CPUs is a bad idea.

AMD's strategy has always been to rapidly phase out old FX processors when new ones are released, but you'll still be able to find performance dual-core Athlon 64 FX-62 processors and desktop systems. With two processor cores running at a clock speed of 2.8 GHz each and 1MB of L2 cache per core, these CPUs remain fairly speedy and are ideally suited for gaming and other high-performance uses. This said, however, Intel's E6800 has blown the FX-62 away in benchmarking tests.

See specs and pricing for performance CPUs.

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