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A more current version of this guide can be found in the May 2009 edition.
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High Performance, High Value
There has been no better time to buy a processor than the present. While CPU technology continues to advance, resulting in processors many times more powerful than what could be had only five years ago, the processors of today are also much less expensive than what was available in the past. In fact, no processor on this list costs over $300 dollars online, yet every one of these processors can be considered extremely powerful, and quite capable of handling games, high-def movies, photo editing software, and other difficult tasks. Now, on to the processors!
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3. Intel Core i7 920
Price: 299.99 on Newegg as of 11/24/08
The Core i7 is Intel's newest processor line, and it is based on a new architecture entirely different from what was used in the older Core 2 processors. Of course, cutting edge technology doesn't come cheap - at three hundred dollars, the 920, the cheapest of the Core i7s, is the most expensive processor on our list by, over $100. In addition, the Core i7's new architecture requires a new kind of motherboard, one with 1366 pins instead of 775. Core i7 also requires the use of DDR3 RAM, which is much more expensive than older, more popular DDR2 modules. All told, a new Core i7 920 combined with a new motherboard and three gigabytes of RAM is likely to cost six hundred to nine hundred dollars. That is far more expensive than the other processors listed here.
Yet the Core i7 920 still represents a good value, particularly if the intended user is a computing professional who uses their PC for tasks such as image editing or 3D rendering. The Core i7 920 is sometimes 40% faster than old Core 2 Duo and Core 2 Quad chips, which means more time being productive. The appeal of the Core i7 is further increased by the outrageous prices of Core 2 Quad; the Core 2 Quad Q9650 costs almost twice as much, yet is slower than the Core i7 920 in most situations.
If you're looking to buy the best, you're starting off with an entirely new PC, or you're buying for a professional who needs the fastest computer possible, the Core i7 920 is an outstanding value. Cutting-edge processor technology has never before been so easy to purchase.
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2. AMD Phenom 9950
Price: 177.00 On Newegg as of 11/24/08
AMD has been having a hard time. Since the debut of the Core 2 architecture, AMD has been unable to build a processor that is faster than Intel's most powerful options. As a result, many enthusiasts have dismissed AMD's products, deciding that an Intel Processor is better in every case. In truth, AMD does have some very competitive products, one of which is the Phenom 9950.
The Phenom 9950 is AMD's most powerful Phenom processor, and while its performance isn't on par with the most powerful Core 2 Quads, the Phenom does have a party piece; it's price. It is easy to find a Phenom 9950 for well under the two hundred dollar mark, even at brick-and-mortar stores. This means it is roughly comparable in price to the now-ancient Intel Q6600 processor. The fact that a person can buy a Quad-Core processor for well under the two hundred mark is a testament to how much less expensive computing has become in the past two years. The ability to purchase the flagship of AMD's fleet for the price of Intel's oldest quad-core only sweetens the deal.
And there is more good news. The Phenom is based on the AM2+ socket, which AMD says will be compatible with future AM3 processors. What that means is that you can buy a Phenom now and rest assured that if your motherboard supports the Phenom, it will probably support the products that AMD is going to be putting out in the near future.
The only downside is that the Phenom is quite power hungry. This will put more stress on your power supply and motherboard. Not all motherboards that support AM2+ support the Phenom 9950, so I suggest visiting the website of your motherboard manufacturer before pulling the trigger.
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1. Intel Core 2 Duo E8400
Price: $164.99 on Newegg as of 11/24/08
The Intel E8400 has been drowning in critical appraise since it debuted several months ago. At the time of its arrival it was the fastest Core 2 Duo available, and came surprisingly close to overtaking Intel's Extreme Series processors (which typically cost over $1000 dollars) in many tests. The title of fastest Core 2 Duo was quickly given up to the Intel E8500 and Intel E8600, slightly faster versions of the same chip. But the Core 2 Duo E8400 remains one of the best processors that money can buy, both in terms of value and in terms of performance.
With a clock speed of 3Ghz and hoards of cache, the Core 2 Duo E8400 is capable of handling anything you might demand of it. Although it only has two cores, it's faster clock speed means it is often times better than or equal to the Q6600 or Q9300 at demanding tasks such as image editing or video encoding. The E8400 really shines, however, in gaming and day-to-day use, where its superior clock speed makes it a clear competitor across the board, even when placed up against Intel's newer Core i7 processors.
That would be enough to recommend it, but when combined with its price of approximately $165-$180 dollars, the Core 2 Duo E8400 becomes an unbeatable value. This is a processor which, at well under two hundred dollars, can compete with Core 2 Quads and Core i7 processors costing $300-$500 dollars. It rarely beats those more expensive options, but is spending twice the money worth a 5-10% gain in a computer game?
The only sour point is that the Core 2 Duo E8400 is based on a 775-pin design which is on its way out. If you're building a new system from the ground up, give the Core i7 or the Phenom a longer look. Otherwise, the E8400 is probably the way to go.