Best of the Best - Part 1 - Intel CPUs

In this first post I'll be looking at the best of the best Intel CPUs in three price brackets - Budget, mainstream and high-end. To give you even more value I'll also suggest a motherboard to match the CPU in each price bracket.

With great choice, comes great responsibility when it comes to picking the right part for the right job. One type of question that I field a lot is "What's the best XYZ for $XXX?"

To try to lift some of the fog surrounding what the best bang for the buck when it comes to CPUs and GPUs I've put together a series of posts that I will update on a regular basis looking at just that.

In this first post I'll be looking at the best of the best Intel CPUs in three price brackets - Budget, mainstream and high-end. To give you even more value I'll also suggest a motherboard to match the CPU in each price bracket.

Note: If you are interested in purchasing any of these components do a search using the terms I've highlighted in bold either via a search engine or at your favorite supplier.

Also note that all prices are approximate.

Quick-jump: Budget | Mainstream | High-end

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It's sometimes harder to choose the right part at the budget end than it is at the high-end.

The cheapest Intel processor (the Intel Celeron 430) sells for a shade over $40, but this is a 1.8GHz single-core part. Ideal if you don't have anything particularly challenging to throw at it, but the single-core is a pretty big weakness, especially to power a modern operating system like Windows 7.

If you throw a little more money at the CPU, say another $10 you can grab an Intel Celeron E3300 2.5GHz dual-core part. At around $52 this part offers not only an extra core but a lot more power.

Throw another $10 at the CPU and for around $62 you can get the Intel Celeron E3500 which is also dual-core but bumps the speed up to 2.7GHz.

Since we're spending the minimum possible on silicon here, we need to keep the motherboard modest too. That said, it still needs to be a decent board in terms of stability.

These CPUs all need a Socket LGA 775 motherboard.

The board I'm going with here is the BIOSTAR G31D-M7 featuring the G31 chipset. It's a very basic board but does offer limited on-board graphics in the form of an Intel GMA 3100 GPU - nothing special but if you're not planning on gaming or HD video, it's fine. Price is a very reasonable $39.

Budget Intel CPU summary

  • Intel Celeron 430 - Single core - 1.8GHz - 32KB + 32KB L1 cache - 512KB L2 cache - $40
  • Intel Celeron E3300 - Dual core - 2.5GHz - 1MB L2 cache - $52
  • Intel Celeron E3500 - Dual core - 2.7GHz - 1MB L2 cache - $62

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OK, going mainstream gives us some more money to play with. A lot more considering Intel's top-end CPUs go for $1,000! Fortunately though, you don't have to spend as much as you think you might.

Looking through Intel's current line-up of CPUs and one stands out head and shoulders above the rest in the mainstream category - and it's only a shade over $200.

The CPU I have in mind is the quad-core, 2.8GHz Intel Core i5 760. This is a fantastic CPU retailing for $210. The four cores give you flexibility to carry out complex multitasking operations and do heavy lifting associated with multimedia rendering.

However, if you think that two cores is enough and you'd rather have more horsepower, then for pretty much the same price you can pick up a dual-core 3.33GHz Intel Core i5 661.

Both the CPUs I've listed need the newer Socket LGA 1156 motherboard.

The board I'm going for to match these CPUs is the Elitegroup ECS H55H-I. For $80 you get a good solid board.

Mainstream Intel CPU summary

  • Core i5 760 Quad core - 2.8GHz - 8MB L3 cache - $210
  • Core i5 661 - Dual core - 3.33GHz - 4MB L3 cache - $210

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High-end is where things become fun - well, as long as you think spending money is fun.

At the high-end is the king of desktop CPUs - the Intel Core i7 980X Extreme Edition. This is a monster six-core, 3.33GHz part that represents the absolute best of the best - it should, for $999! When it comes to CPUs, this one is the best of the best of the best ... with honors!

The i7 980X needs a Socket LGA 1366 motherboard, and one of the best boards featuring this socket is the EVGA E758-A1. This is a super board featuring 2-way and 3-way SLI and Crossfire support, meaning you can choose to go with NVIDIA or AMD for your GPU.

High-end Intel CPU summary

  • Core i7 980X Extreme Edition - Hexa core - 3.33GHz - 6 x 256KB L2 cache - 12MB L3 cache - $999

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