CPU Buyer's Guide

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

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High-end processors

While the performance category is overindulgence for all but the most demanding (or narcissistic) PC users, the high-end category of computer processors is not only highly appealing for a wide range of tasks, but it is also affordable.

This category of CPU is ideally suited for people who frequently use processor-intensive applications such as Photoshop or video-editing software in a multitasking environment.

In 2005 and early 2006, a case could still be made for using single-core processors in the high-end market; the high clock speeds of these chips made them valuable workhorses for CPU-intensive applications. From here on out, however, we live in a multicore world. The data sharing, high clock speeds, and performance levels of AMD and Intel CPUs in this category make it irrational to purchase a single-core product.

Intel's high-end dual-cores

Core 2 Duo E6700 and E6600

Intel's recently released Core 2 CPU architecture has had a profound impact upon the high-end category. Two key advantages the Core 2 series hold over AMD are performance and energy consumption. The Core 2 Duo E6700 and E6600 processors live up to this reputation, with excellent relative performance, particularly in the multitasking environments common to office work. The Core 2 architecture found in both processors integrates the two CPU cores in a manner that allows each to share data in an efficient and intuitive manner.

Both the E6700 and the E6600 feature 4MB of L2 cache (2MB on each core), and both have integrated 64-bit extensions and virtualization capability. The key difference between the two is clock speed: The E6700 runs at 2.66 GHz, while the E6600 runs at 2.4 GHz.

The E6700 costs approximately $550, which is fairly affordable for such a high-end processor. The biggest bargain of all, however, in this and perhaps all categories, is the E6600, which costs a little over $300. For veteran PC buyers and system builders, the notion of a $300 CPU with two cores and 4MB of L2 cache is nothing short of astounding. (A large L2 cache allows for faster retrieval of frequently accessed data, thereby speeding up overall system performance.)

AMD's high-end dual-cores

Athlon 64 X2 5200+, 5000+, 4800+

One of the chief advantages AMD wields over Intel is price. This is a good thing, because numerous application-based benchmark results have made it clear that Intel's Core 2 processors outperform AMD chips in real-world multitasking environments.

Still, while Core 2 processors occupy the top slot, AMD's Athlon 64 X2 line of CPUs is no performance slouch. The company's X2 5200+, X2 5000+ and X2 4800+ run at 2.6 GHz, 2.6 GHz and 2.5 GHz, respectively. Each processor features support for 64-bit extensions as well as virtualization.

The 5200+ features only 2MB of combined L2 cache -- half that of Intel's E6700 and E6600 -- while the 5000+ and 4800+ only have 1MB of combined L2 cache. This explains the delta in performance that numerous reviewers have reported. On the positive side, the 5200+ is only $400, while the 5000+ and 4800+ are $300 and $270, respectively.

One final note on AMD's X2 line of processors: The 4800+ comes in two different sockets: AMD's older Socket 939 and the company's new Socket AM2. If possible, avoid Socket 939. It will complicate and probably occlude potential future processor upgrades. More importantly, Socket AM2 incorporates AMD's virtualization technology, known as AMD Virtualization, while Socket 939 does not.

See specs and pricing for high-end CPUs.

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