Choosing a CPU for your PC isn’t an easy task. Here are our picks for budget, mid-range and high-end systems, based on this month's graph
.On a budget
Build an everyday PC for the minimum cost
If you own an AM2 or LGA 775 motherboard, the decision is easy: buy the cheapest CPU available. For Intel that means a Celeron D 336 and for AMD it means the Sempron 3000+. But if you don’t have a motherboard, you still have decisions to make.
As the graph shows, the Sempron offers greater value at the bottom of the range. The 3000+ managed an Overall 2D score of 0.64 for $40, against the Celeron D 336’s 0.60 for $60. The top-end Sempron 3600+ also offers good value, with 0.79 for $65 against the Celeron D 360’s 0.80 for $95.
But with prices so low that a few dollars here and there give CPUs the edge over each other, it’s important to factor in the cost of a motherboard as well. The likelihood is that the motherboard will cost more than the CPU, so it’s crucial to choose that carefully before you jump in and buy a CPU based on a saving of several dollars.
If you’re looking at the more expensive budget CPUs, you should go a step further and buy a Pentium D 915, which is a great performer, scoring 0.89 overall. At $95, it costs the same as the fastest Celeron (the 360), which scored 0.80 and doesn’t have two cores. The extra core will result in a PC that’s more responsive and faster in use.Recommended choices
Sempron 3000+ $40
Pentium D 915 $95Mid-range
Build a powerful PC that won’t break the bank
Most of us want a PC that’s fast enough to handle anything we throw at it, from basic everyday tasks to running multiple applications and games. But the small differences in CPU performance are less important than value for money.
There’s a clear mid-range price bracket in this group, which starts at around $100 and rises to just over $300. This may overlap slightly with the low-end group, but the $100 Athlon 64 X2 4000+ is a fine example of a great-value CPU. It performs well, scoring 1.09, and it single-handedly eliminates all of the Pentium 4s and Pentium Ds from the shortlist.
If your budget is a little less restricted, a few months ago the choice would have been easy: Core 2 processors were faster and cheaper than Athlon 64 X2s. But AMDs recent price slashing has turned things upside down. Virtually every X2 processor is $100 less than it’s similarly-performing Core 2 counterpart. The closest battle comes between the X2 5200+ which scored 1.33 and costs $185 and the Core 2 Duo E6420 which also scored 1.33 but costs $265.
But our higher-end, mid-range pick would be the 6000+ which scored a whopping 1.46 at a bargain price of $239. Even factoring in the cost of a motherboard, you’ll end up with a much better value system than an Intel-based equivalent.
However, don’t dismiss Intel completely. The Core 2 Duo E6600 may be 3% slower and cost $76 more, but the lower TDP gives it an edge if you want to build a quieter, more power-efficient PC. Overclockers will also tell you that it doesn’t take much to overclock even the cheapest Core 2 processor and make it faster than AMD’s best.Recommended choices
Athlon 64 X2 4000+ $100
Athlon 64 X2 6000+ $239
Core 2 Duo E6600 $315Power User
Build a PC for high-end apps and cutting-edge gaming
While the mid-range choices allow for a powerful and flexible PC, for some people that isn’t enough. The top-end CPUs push your PC to the next level of performance, but the price tags reflect this power.
If money really is no object, the choice is simple: the Core 2 Quad QX6700. It costs a whopping $1370, but gives you an unparalleled Overall 2D performance score of 1.89. This is just for starters, since that power can be pushed as far as you’re willing to take it, thanks to the unlocked multiplier. Plus, when we managed to make use of all four cores at once, in our 3D Studio Max encoding test and our Multitasking test, it actually scored over 2.00. The overall results (and indeed the 2D Graphics score, of which 3ds Max is just one part) were dragged down by the apps unable to use all the computing power.
Assuming value is still a factor, there are much more affordable choices to consider. All are still Intel-based. For the majority of power users, the dual-core E6700 and the quad-core Q6600 are the obvious choices. The E6700 is noticeably quicker than the E6600 and 6000+. It’s also quicker than AMD’s high quality-silicon, multiplier-unlocked, exorbitantly-priced FX-62, scoring 1.56 for $440 as opposed to 1.42 for $1095. It can’t match the speed of the X6800 (which is extortionately-priced for similar reasons to the FX-62). But the quad-core Q6600 does beat the X6800 with a score of 1.77 and, at $749, is half the price. No AMD CPU can come close to matching such power and value, and this makes these two Intel models ideal choices if you want maximum speed and value.Recommended choices
Core 2 Duo E6700 $440
Core 2 Quad Q6600 $749