CPU Buyer's Guide

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

1 2 3 4 5 Page 4
Page 4 of 5

Midrange processors

Midrange processors used to be the 'tweeners of the CPU world. In the past, these processors weren't particularly great at anything. They tended to fall short of the performance mark for rigorous application usage, but were overkill for basic uses such as word processing and Web browsing.

Not anymore. Both Intel and AMD have an excellent selection of dual-core processors at extremely affordable prices. CPUs in this category are well suited for moderate power users. The dual-core architecture of the processors in this category makes them ideal for multitaskers who switch between Microsoft Office, Web browsing and lightweight (meaning reading and light editing) use of media and illustration applications. As such, a large majority of CPUs are sold in this category, making it one of the key battlegrounds in the companies' struggle for increased market share.

Intel's midrange Core 2 Duos

Core 2 Duo E6400 and E6300

Not surprisingly, given the strength of Core 2, Intel also dominates this category. Two models of the chip-making giant's Core 2 Duo processors offer midrange performance at midrange prices: the E6400 ($224) and the E6300 ($182). They clock in at 2.13 GHz and 1.86 GHz, respectively. Each features 2MB of combined L2 cache -- 1MB per core -- and both support 64-bit extensions and Intel's virtualization technology.

It's important to note that both the E6400 and the E660 are based on Intel's next-gen Core 2 processor architecture; the Pentium D chips mentioned below use an older, less-efficient architecture. Critics and media outlets that have benchmarked the E6400 and E6600 have found real-world performance to be excellent for this price range.

AMD's midrange Athlon 64 X2s

Athlon 64 X2 4600+, 4400+, 4200+, 4000+, 3800+

AMD offers a batch of Athlon 64 dual-core X2 processors that can be considered midrange: the X2 4600+, X2 4400+, X2 4200+, X2 4000+ and X2 3800+. All these CPUs have 1MB of L2 cache and support for 64-bit extensions. The sole difference between model numbers is clock speed, with speeds stepping down from the X2 4600+ at 2.4 GHz to the X2 3800+ at 2.0 GHz.

Oddly, given the company's reputation of offering high-quality, lower-cost processors, AMD isn't very competitive price-wise in this extremely important category. Prices for these midtier X2 processors range from $240 for the X2 4600+ to $152 for the 3800+.

Intel's Pentium D processors

Pentium D 960, 950, 945, 940, 930, 920, 915, 840, 830

Intel offers another entire batch of processors in this category. Based on last year's dual-core technology, the Pentium D processors feature faster clock speeds than Core 2 CPUs, but suffer from one key flaw that the Pentium D lineup has been criticized for since its release. The two cores on these processors do not share data or memory in an efficient manner; they must communicate via the FSB. And it's a slow FSB at that, running at 800 MHz, compared to 1066 MHz for Core 2 Duo processors.

The Pentium D 960, D 950, D 945, D 940, D 930, D 920, D 915 range in clock speed from 3.6 GHz at the high end to 2.8 GHz at the low end, and prices range from $316 down to $113. All these CPUs have 4MB L2 caches -- the likely reason for the relatively high prices -- and support 64-bit extensions. With the exception of the Pentium D 915, this lineup also supports Intel's virtualization technology.

Intel's Pentium D 800 series processors offer similar clock speeds and feature sets -- the D 840 ($423) runs at 3.2 GHz and the D 830 ($316) runs at 3.0 GHz -- but have only 2MB of L2 cache.

A word to the wise: Because the Pentium D processors are not based on Core 2 technology and do not offer significant cost savings, we strongly recommend the Core 2 lineup over Pentium D CPUs.

Midrange single-core processors

Intel Pentium 4 661, 660, 651, 641, 631, 541, 531, 524

AMD Athlon 64 3800+, 3500+, 3200+

Along the same lines, wise CPU buyers will also avoid Intel's old-school, single-core Pentium 4 500 and 600 series processors. These CPUs are all based on Intel's last-gen microprocessor architecture, which is nowhere near as efficient -- both in terms of performance and thermal signature -- as the Core 2 processors.

Furthermore, the absence of dual cores makes these CPUs -- as well as AMD's single-core Athlon 64 line -- poorly suited for the frequent multitasking necessary in business environments. Finally, neither Intel's nor AMD's single-core product lines offer significant cost savings over newer dual-core options; both midrange single-core lines should be avoided.

See specs and pricing for midrange CPUs.

1 2 3 4 5 Page 4
Page 4 of 5
7 inconvenient truths about the hybrid work trend
Shop Tech Products at Amazon