If you’re after performance above else (and you’ve plenty of money) then Intel processors are the way to go. At least, in general - there are several different families available and you need to be careful which you choose.
Intel Core 2 CPUs are still available, for instance, but they’ve been around for a long time, no longer represent a good deal and unless you’re working with an old motherboard, are probably best avoided.
Instead you’ll be considering a Core i3, Core i5 or Core i7 processor, which will deliver budget, mid-range or high-end performance, respectively. Except, of course, it’s not quite as simple as that, because these CPUs now come in two main flavours.
The mainstream Core i3, i5 and i7 processors are available in a Socket LGA1156 package (this defines how the CPU connects to the rest of your system, and so means you’ll need a Socket LGA1156 motherboard as well). This doesn’t represent the very latest in Intel technology, but it’s relatively reasonably priced, and there are plenty of compatible motherboards around at all price levels.
The latest Core i3/ i5/ i7 processors, code-named Sandy Bridge and available in an LGA1155 package, are rather more interesting. Not only are they up to 40% faster than their predecessors, but they also come with an on-board graphics chip, so if you’re not looking for much in the way of video performance then you probably won’t have to buy a graphics card.
The CPUs and Socket LGA1175 boards you’ll need to run them are more expensive, but only marginally (they’re still available on sub-£1,000 PCs) so if you’re looking for a good mainstream Intel solution then these are the way to go.
There is a small complication, though. Intel recently identified a problem with the SATA controller in the Sandy Bridge chipset, and had to recall many motherboards. The issue is fixed now, but supplies of some boards may remain short until April, so you might have to shop around.
The other option available right now is to choose a Core i7 CPU in an LGA1366 package. This will allow you to run the very fastest 6-core Core i7 CPUs, which deliver great speeds and are very overclockable. They’re also hugely expensive, though, lack extras like on-board graphics chips, and aren’t actually that much faster than the high-end Sandy Bridge systems, so we’d recommend you avoid them in most situations.
AMD processors aren’t currently able to compete with Intel for raw speed, but that might be changing soon, and in the meantime they’re able to deliver capable performance at an excellent price. And AMD is also far better at backward compatibility than Intel, so there’s no confusion over socket types and multiple incompatible versions of the same CPU: buy an AM3 motherboard and it’ll run just about anything.
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