Original Link: http://www.anandtech.com/show/2122
Holiday 2006 Shopping Guide: CPUsby Jarred Walton on November 27, 2006 12:05 AM EST
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It's that time of year again where everyone is thinking about the various gifts they might want - both to give and to receive. Figuring out which computer parts make the most sense to buy can be difficult, even more so for the less technical people out there. What's the difference between dual core and single core processors? What about the new quad core offering? Is it really worth spending two to four times as much money to get a high-end processor instead of one of the cheaper models? And what about the potential for upgrades? These are all important questions, and similar questions arise for practically every single computer component.
In order to help provide answers to these questions, we're going to step away from the regular AnandTech Buyer's Guides for a moment and provide a series of Holiday Buyer's Guides. The goal is to cover all of the important components in the next couple of weeks, with advice on which parts are the best buys for the holidays. Similar to our regular Buyer's Guides, we will be looking at component choices for various price segments. As we are focusing on individual components, we're going to break things down further in some cases, so we will have an Ultra Budget section, Entry Level, Midrange, High-End, and Extreme Performance recommendations. We won't just be focusing on a single choice for each category either, but we will be comparing and contrasting what is available in each price segment and why one option might make more sense for some people, while a slightly different choice might be better for others. We will also have a look at the upgrade potential for various platforms and provide suggestions on where a new CPU is a good idea and where you are best off to simply ditch your old system and start fresh. We'll start today with the core (no pun or Intel bias intended) of any system: the CPU.
As usual, not only do we have the various price segments to cover, but we also have to worry about AMD versus Intel. Some people are fierce devotees of one particular brand, but such loyalty will often force you to make subpar component choices. For users looking to upgrade, you may not have as many options available when considering which processor to get - unless you want to also upgrade your motherboard and perhaps memory as well. We have said as much several times in the past, but these days Intel now has a firm grasp on the high-end computing segment when it comes to processors. Our recommendations are going to reflect this, but keep in mind that this is the exact opposite of what we had last year, where the recommendations were all strongly in favor of AMD. That doesn't mean that AMD is no longer worth buying when it comes to CPUs, but for the most part our AMD recommendations are going to be in the budget segments and once you get over a couple hundred dollars it becomes hard to justify purchasing an AMD CPU for a new system. Perhaps we will see such trends reverse themselves over the coming year, and if so we will be sure to change our recommendations as well.
So what are the hottest CPUs on the planet right now - and thankfully we're no longer worried as much about temperatures when we say "hottest", now that the NetBurst era has come to an end - and which ones should you be thinking about getting? We'll start at the bottom of the price spectrum, and then move up from there. As a final comment before we get to the actual processors, there are going to be a lot of sales that come and go over the holiday season, as well as things like mail-in rebates. The text reflects prices at a particular snapshot in time, but prices are in a constant state of flux, so we encourage you to follow the linked prices to get up-to-date information. And of course, you can also go straight to our Real-Time Pricing Engine to do some research on your own.
Ultra Budget CPUs
When keeping costs down is the primary consideration, options become far more limited. The good news is that you can still get quite a bit of performance, even when looking at CPUs priced around $75 or less. Getting a dual core processor is not yet possible in this price range, even with the lowest end Pentium D models. Those chips pack a lot of power into a cheap package, but they will also consume quite a bit more power. Any initial savings that you might get by purchasing such a CPU are going to be wiped out over the next year or two in electricity costs, so you might be better off saving money for a little longer if you are after more performance.
For those who aren't primarily concerned with performance, single core processors are still perfectly viable. We often talk about the advantages of getting a dual core processor, but the simple fact of the matter is that many people do not use their computers in ways that truly benefit from having multiple CPU cores. There are many people who will never do any video encoding, 3D rendering, or heavy multitasking. If the primary use of a computer is going to be typical office tasks, surfing the Internet, and reading and writing e-mail, just about any current CPU is going to be more than fast enough. The cheapest single core processors may be inadequate for gaming, and they might also be significantly slower when it comes to certain applications. Longevity is also going to be a concern, and running Windows Vista on an Ultra Budget computer is going to be difficult (particularly if you don't have enough RAM). If all you want is a decent computer that can run most current applications without difficulty, and you don't plan on upgrading software and applications much (if at all) over the next few years, these economical CPUs are definitely worth considering.
We're primarily going to focus on newer platforms here, but we will have some words later for potential upgrades of older platforms. Most likely, you really won't be able to "upgrade" an older platform to a faster CPU without spending more than $75 anyway, and often a new motherboard will be required. The primary contenders are going to be AMD's socket AM2 and Intel's socket 775, with the Sempron and Athlon 64 single core chips going up against Celeron D and Pentium 4. Pentium D doesn't quite make it into this category, with prices that bottom out at around $95. As we've already mentioned, however, the power requirements of the Intel NetBurst processors are significantly higher than the competition, and Intel doesn't offer any of their Core product line in this price range. Unless you're looking for some extra heating for your house, or perhaps if you don't have to pay the power bill, we would recommend staying away from the low-end Intel processors. The Pentium 4 lineup only has two chips that would qualify for this Ultra Budget price segment, the Pentium 4 511 (2.80GHz 1MB 533FSB) - $72 and the Pentium 4 524 (3.06GHz 1MB 533FSB) - $73. Obviously, the latter would be the better choice.
One area that we won't address with specific recommendations in our Holiday 2006 Buyer's Guides is the option to get component bundles. In some cases, you can find bundles like a CPU + motherboard combo were you essentially get the motherboard for free, or at least a drastically reduced price. These are typically budget motherboards, but if you are already looking at building a budget computer, the extra features that come with a higher grade motherboard might not be necessary. You might even be able to move up from a single core processor to a dual core configuration for only a few dollars more if you find the right deal. Such specials come and go on a regular basis, which is why we don't generally list them in articles, but you can check out the Hot Deals section of our forums to see if there's anything exciting going on.
Entry Level CPUs
We already mentioned a few of the pricier "Ultra Budget" processors on the previous page, so we won't bother repeating many of those items. The cut off for the Ultra Budget category is around $75, and for the Entry Level processors we're going to draw the line at $125. What does that mean in terms of performance and features relative to the Ultra Budget category? First, a few of the Pentium D processors become truly viable options in terms of cost, although as we mentioned before the power requirements will likely more than account for the price difference between a Pentium D and something like a Core 2 Duo during the lifetime of the computer. Running 24/7, a CPU that uses 50W more power will cost about $40 per year extra. If you don't leave your computer running very often, you might only be looking at more like $10 per year in added electricity costs, at which point the extra performance could be useful. However, if you're only using your computer infrequently, then you have to ask yourself whether or not you really need a higher performance computer in the first place. Beyond those considerations, what sort of processor can you get for under $125?
Starting once again with the Intel side, there's really not much point in getting any of the single core NetBurst processors in this price range. There are a couple slightly faster Pentium 4 models available, like the Pentium 531 (3.00GHz 1MB 800FSB) for $79 shipped or the Pentium 541 (3.20GHz 1MB 800FSB) for $92. The AMD model numbers for the Athlon 64 line compare pretty favorably with Pentium 4 clock speeds, so those two chips equate to the Athlon 64 3000+ and 3200+, respectively, with the performance and pricing advantage both going to AMD, especially once you add in the 3500+. Given the lack of L2 cache, you should forget about the higher priced Celeron D offerings. If you are interested in a Celeron D chip, the best option is the previously mentioned Celeron D 356 (3.33GHz 512K 533FSB) for $65. That is the fastest Celeron D chip available, and it remains reasonably priced.
If we had to choose one CPU as the overall best Entry Level CPU, right now our recommendation would be the Athlon 64 3500+. The fact that it only costs $92 certainly helps (sometimes less in some package deals), which is almost half of what you will spend to get into the bottom of the dual core CPU offerings. Running at 2.2GHz, the Athlon 64 3500+ is also plenty fast for most people, and only serious gamers or those who do video editing/encoding or other professional work are likely to truly need a faster CPU right now. The 3500+ is also a favorite among overclockers, generally reaching clock speeds of 2.6GHz without too much trouble, while some people have been able to push the CPUs as far as 3.0GHz (though we wouldn't count on that). In fact, this isn't just our favorite Budget CPU, but we would highly recommend users looking at Ultra Budget CPUs spend a few dollars extra to get an Athlon 64 3500+ over one of the cheaper offerings. It definitely strikes the best combination of price/performance right now. If you can still find the Athlon 3000+ or 3200+ at a better price, those might be a bit more attractive for overclockers, but they are becoming scarce these days.
Moving on to the midrange processors, we can finally recommend dual core chips without going over budget or using a lot of excess electricity. For the Midrange CPUs, we're looking to keep the price under $225. The law of diminishing returns definitely begins to come into play, as a CPU that costs twice as much in most cases will not double performance. On the other hand, dual core CPUs can potentially be almost twice as fast as an equivalently clocked single core CPU. As we start to move up the pricing ladder, however, increasingly smaller performance differences will come with progressively larger price differences. In that sense, the Midrange CPUs can basically be looked at as the "Budget Dual Core" offerings.
We mentioned earlier the type of users that really don't need dual core processors, so let's revisit that topic only this time we will look at who stands to benefit by upgrading to a dual core CPU. Anyone running CPU intensive tasks stands to benefit from a multi-core processor. If you do a lot of work in Photoshop, for example, many of the filters and other operations will run significantly faster. Video editing also requires a lot of CPU power, and the second CPU core can often improve performance by 70% or more. Anyone who has done any 3D rendering work probably already knows how much a second CPU core can help out, often improving performance by as much as 90%. There's also the generic category of multitasking that will benefit. Multitasking doesn't just mean you're running a lot of applications at the same time, however. These days, anyone running Windows XP is already going to be running a lot of concurrent processes. A lot of the OS processes don't use much CPU time, but there's definitely an overall improvement in system responsiveness by switching to a dual core CPU.
If your work involves computers and you find yourself sitting in front of a display of more than five hours per day, there's a good chance that you will notice a difference between a single core CPU and a dual core CPU. It might not be a huge difference, but especially for users that like to keep up with the latest software we would recommend going with a dual core processor. Just don't forget to purchase a reasonable amount of memory, and in fact we really wouldn't bother running a dual core system with less than 2GB of RAM, though some people still feel 1GB is sufficient. If you don't find 1GB to be a limit in your computer use, there's a good chance that a dual core CPU really isn't necessary.
If you're looking for something a bit different from AMD, you can also look at their Opteron AM2 processors. AMD has officially discontinued nearly all of the 1MB cache Athlon 64 processors (both single core and dual core), but you can still get Opteron chips that come with 1MB of L2 cache per core. The Athlon FX line will also continue to have 1MB cache chips. Beyond 512K of cache, AMD's processors don't seem to benefit all that much, as the integrated memory controller helps to keep latencies down. The doubling of L2 cache generally improves performance by around 3%-5%, although in a few instances it could be more (or less) than that. The Opteron chips are also required to meet higher standards, which has two effects on the CPU line. First, the Opteron chips tend to cost more for the performance offered relative to Athlon 64/X2 processors. Second, the higher quality manufacturing standards will usually mean that Opteron chips overclock a bit better than Athlon 64/X2 chips. Unlike socket 939, socket AM2 does not have anything but dual core Opteron chips, and in the midrange price bracket there are two more chips to look at. Currently selling for around $172, the Opteron 1210 (1.8GHz 2x1MB) is the least expensive model, and you might even manage to pull off a 50% or more overclock with such a chip. The other option is the Opteron 1212 (2.0GHz 2x1MB) which sells for around $210. These two chips are basically the socket AM2 equivalent of the Opteron 165 and 170 for socket 939, which were the top CPU picks this time last year (with prices closer to $330-$375!).
If you don't care about overclocking, then deciding between the Athlon X2 and the Core 2 Duo "budget" offerings will typically come down to overall system price. Motherboards for the AMD platform tend to be slightly cheaper, so the bottom line is that you'll usually save about $50 overall (if that) by going with an AMD system. All of us at AnandTech are enthusiasts at heart, though, so if we were to give you our personal recommendation then it would have to be the Core 2 Duo E6400 as the best overall Midrange CPU. Of course, if you already have a decent system and are just looking to improve a few areas, a simple CPU swap probably isn't in the cards.
As we enter the High-End CPU segment, price definitely begins to take a backseat to overall performance potential. A 50% increase in price that brings a 10% increase in performance is par for the course. For people that earn their living using computers - software developers, content creation people, engineers, etc. - spending a few hundred extra dollars on a faster system, or even a few thousand dollars more, might be the best thing to do in terms of overall productivity. Some people also just like to have the best system that money can buy, and that's okay as well. Depending on how you want to use your computer, however, keep in mind that adding additional CPU power may not be the most effective way of increasing the overall performance. Gamers for example will be far better off adding a faster graphics card, at least once you have a certain minimum level of CPU performance. The price gaps between CPU models begin to become a lot larger in the High-End CPU segment, so our price range will accordingly be larger, ranging from $275-$500.
AMD has a few more offerings in the Opteron line available, once again for those that might want the additional L2 cache or somewhat improved overclocking performance. Purchasing one of these processors with the intent of overclocking is still rather meaningless, as overclocked Core 2 Duo chips still clearly remain out of reach, pretty much regardless of how much you spend on an AMD processor and cooling components. For the sake of completeness, though, we have the Opteron 1214 (2.2GHz 2x1MB) going for $270, the 1216 (2.4GHz 2x1MB) for around $338, and the 1218 (2.6GHz 2x1MB) selling for $450. Note that the Opteron 1218 is basically the same as the 5200+, although perhaps with some additional testing and validation that will help it to run cooler and/or overclock better. For the price, we really can't recommend any of the Opteron AM2 processors for anyone but the most diehard of AMD enthusiasts.
Extreme Performance CPUs
The final category is the Extreme Performance CPUs, where price isn't just taking a backseat - it's way in the back! Without looking at server/workstation processors like the Xeon and dual socket Opteron offerings, there are only three CPUs currently shipping that qualify for this category. Of those three, we really feel that only one of them is worth serious consideration right now, and we will explain why in a moment. Honestly, though, we really don't recommend these ultra expensive CPUs for the vast majority of people. If you need a CPU that costs this much, chances are you have already invested the money. But let's get to those three processors before we say anything more.
So we said earlier that we only felt one of these three processors was really worth recommending. Unfortunately, that recommendation comes with some major caveats. The Core 2 Extreme QX6700 is definitely the way to go if you're looking to spend $1000 or more on a processor, because it offers the most raw performance potential. There aren't many instances where having four processor cores is really necessary right now, so we would generally only recommend this type of CPU to professionals that need every ounce of CPU speed they can buy - the same type of professionals that are likely already looking at purchasing the $1000 CPU. So what's the catch? First, you need to be able to find one in stock. Second, assuming you can find one in stock, you either need to be willing to pay a price premium of well over the MSRP, or else you'll probably need to wait a while for prices to drop down to more reasonable levels.
Why not recommend the X6800 instead? As we already suggested, overclocking even an E6600 to a similar level of performance shouldn't be difficult at all, and while the X6800 might reach a higher top clock speed it's not likely to be a large enough difference that we would recommend spending over three times as much money on just the CPU. So the E6600 already takes care of the computer enthusiast market, which leaves computing professionals. Assuming both processors are available at close to MSRP, you basically have a choice of getting a faster dual core processor or a slower quad core processor. The difference in clock speed between the two processors is only 10% at stock, which really isn't that large. Meanwhile, the QX6700 theoretically offers twice as much computing performance as an E6700 and the X6800 is still only up to 10% faster. With both AMD and Intel moving towards multi-core processors, we can reasonably expect more applications to be able to leverage the performance potential of dual and quad core processors in the future, so as long as you're spending $1000 or more on a CPU you might as well get the best option out there. Sadly, you might just find yourself waiting until the New Year before you can actually get one of these processors.
If you really want to get a hold of a quad core QX6700, your best bet is to try some of the system vendors. ABS Computers, Alienware, Falcon Northwest, iBUYPOWER, PC Club, Puget Systems, VoodooPC, many others, and even the big OEMs like Dell and HP should have such systems available for ordering. Be prepared to pay a (potentially large) price premium, and make sure the parts are all in stock and get a confirmation in writing before you place an order. Otherwise, you might still find that you won't get such a computer before January.
So far, we have been focusing on recommendations for new CPUs at the various price points. Not everyone is really interested in getting a completely new system, however, so for those of you that don't have a socket 775 or AM2 that are still looking for some upgrade advice, we thought we would close this Holiday CPU Guide with some thoughts for upgraders. How much you're willing to spend and what your best option is going to be depends in a large part on what you already have. If you're running an older platform like socket A, 754, or 478, we would suggest that you are far better off doing a more significant overhaul rather than just looking at getting a new CPU. There really aren't any CPU upgrades available for those platforms that would truly increase performance a lot. In general, we would say that you should probably be looking to spend at least $150 if not $200 or more on upgrades before it becomes worthwhile. The chance of finding a new $100 CPU that will work with your current system and yet also improve performance is very small.
Even if you have one of those older platforms, many people still have questions about what they need to purchase. Do you really need a new hard drive, memory, and/or graphics card? That depends on what you want to do with your computer. If you don't play games, the graphics card isn't going to be all that important. We would strongly recommend making sure any new motherboard you might purchase has at least a PCI-E graphics slot, but in the short term you should be able to get by using integrated graphics. If/when you decide to upgrade to Windows Vista, you might want to buy a new graphics card, but you certainly don't need to get a new motherboard and graphics card along with a processor all at once. If you currently have a reasonably fast AGP graphics card, you might be tempted to hold onto it and upgrade to a platform that still offers AGP support. That will probably cause you more trouble than it's worth in the long run, because all of the motherboards that offer both AGP and PCI-E support tend to cripple performance in one or the other (or both!) of the GPU slots. Overall performance and features are often questionable as well.
If you already have a socket 775 motherboard, there's a good chance that you can keep a lot of your current components while upgrading your CPU, but most likely you will still need a new motherboard if you want to upgrade to a Core 2 Duo processor. In that case, you need to add around $100 to the cost of upgrading, which should give you a reasonable P965 or nForce 650i Ultra chipset motherboard. How far you want to take things beyond that is up to the individual, but don't be afraid to simply sell off your old computer and buy a new system if you find yourself looking at replacing more than three of the core components. Really, if you reach the point where you are looking at getting bare minimum a new motherboard and processor, we feel most people should move on to PCI-E graphics and DDR2 memory as well. If you can't afford to make that sort of upgrade all at once, then hold off upgrading until you can save up the required funds. Obviously, that's only one opinion on the matter, so feel free to respectfully disagree. We will cover some of the various motherboard options that you might think of using as a cheap upgrade in our Holiday 2006 Motherboard Guide.
AMD upgrades are a bit more feasible for older platforms. We mentioned above that we wouldn't generally recommend upgrading a socket 754 system to a newer processor, but if you have 2GB of DDR memory you might want to stick with a platform that supports DDR at the very least. There are a few Core 2 Duo motherboards that might work, although you might have better luck looking at the socket 939 market. In terms of performance, socket 939 is nearly equal to socket AM2. Unfortunately, prices on a lot of the faster socket 939 processors are beginning to rise, so you could find that there really isn't a good upgrade path short of switching to DDR2 memory.
Basically, when you get right down to it, about the only simple CPU upgrade available is if you are already running socket 939 and you have a single core processor. In that case, purchasing one of the Athlon X2 chips should keep you running for another year at least. Just about every other CPU upgrade is going to require a new motherboard at the very least, and very likely new memory if you don't want to upgrade into a dead-end platform. "Upgrading" to any of the budget chips doesn't really make much sense, as the performance offered by most of these chips has been available for around two years. An original socket 939 motherboard with an Athlon 64 3000+ is still going to have just about as much CPU performance as a budget socket AM2 motherboard with a newer Athlon 64 3000+. Even the old Athlon 64 2800+ for socket 754 is going to be within 10% of the performance offered by the budget single core CPUs.
The real question is whether or not AMD's socket AM2 is going to get faster CPUs in the near future, or if their next CPU architecture will require a new motherboard/socket/chipset. We certainly wouldn't recommend purchasing a platform with the hope that better options will become available in the future. As you have hopefully gathered with our discussion of CPU upgrades here, it is often difficult to justify doing a simple CPU upgrade in the future. By the time such upgrades become affordable, next-generation hardware that requires a different chipset/motherboard has often outdated the older platforms. Our best advice for people looking to upgrade is to just sell your current system for as much as you can get, and then you can look at building a completely new system without worrying about compromises. A decent computer that's two or three years old can often be sold for $300-$500, perhaps more if you find the right buyer and depending on what sort of components are installed. If you can cut ties with your old hardware, you have a lot more freedom in determining your future computer configuration,
For those that like a clear summary, here is a list of the five CPUs we would choose as the best overall options in each category. The text on the previous pages will list many alternatives, and in many cases the choice is very close. For example, even though we list the Sempron 2800+ as the best Ultra Budget CPU, we would recommend the Athlon 64 3500+ as the better Budget choice. The extra $30 will go a long way towards improving overall performance. Another example is that some people might be interested in picking up a Core 2 compatible motherboard and running it with a cheap Celeron D CPU short term. We would recommend saving money and purchasing the faster CPU and motherboard at the same time, but some people don't like to wait. If you disagree with the choices here, please read the preceding pages for other options.
|Recommended CPUs by Market Segment|
|Market||Processor and Platform||Price|
|Ultra Budget||Sempron 2800+ AM2 (1.60GHz 128K)||$50|
|Entry Level||Athlon 3500+ AM2 (2.2GHz 512K)||$84|
|Midrange||Core 2 Duo E6300 (1.86GHz 2MB 1066FSB)||$180|
|High-End||Core 2 Duo E6600 (2.40GHz 4MB 1066FSB)||$310|
|Extreme Performance||Core 2 Extreme QX6700 (Quad 2.66GHz 2x4MB 1066FSB)||$1250+|
All of the CPUs we've listed are readily available at the listed prices, with the exception of the QX6700. As we stated already, if you really want a quad core system this year, you will have better luck purchasing a prebuilt computer. As one example, Newegg.com currently shows an iBUYPOWER unit for $3450 that comes with the QX6700, 2GB of RAM, and CrossFire X1950 XTX cards. We would prefer a different motherboard and graphics cards these days, but if money truly isn't a concern, you could have that system before the end of the week. (Until it goes out of stock, naturally.)
We've talked a lot about various CPU choices you might want to make if you are getting a new system. These recommendations are not just for people building their own PCs, however. Even if you want to go with a mainstream OEM system from Dell, it would be a good idea to keep what we've talked about here in mind. When you see advertisements for a "dual core Intel system" starting at $400, you might think you've stumbled on a great deal. Once you dig down into the details, you'll likely find that the system is using an older Pentium D processor, comes with limited memory, integrated graphics, and basically you end up getting what you pay for. That doesn't mean such systems are a bad choice if you're trying to save money, but you're not going to match the overall performance of a $1000 custom-built PC with any $500 cookie-cutter system. Very likely, you'll find that systems targeting the various market segments use processors similar to what we have listed here.
Enjoy the shopping season, and the great part about purchasing computers is that you can do all of the work from home without ever braving the crowds - or the weather! Stay tuned during the coming weeks as we cover the remaining components that you might want to find stuffed into your stocking this holiday season. And from all of us here at AnandTech, we would like to send you Seasons Greetings and wish you a very Happy Holidays!