What CPU is the best for games? What is the best processor for productivity? What is just the hands-down best CPU?
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This year could have been one of the greatest ever for PC processing. After an awfully long wait for new high-end chips from AMD or Intel, verily they both delivered. The result could have been, and should have been, a titanic tussle for desktop supremacy.
Even for those who can't afford premium-priced chips – and let's be honest, that's most of us – the knock on effects would have been huge.
Competition not only improves the breed; it also tends to push down prices. Faster chips and cheaper prices for all, in other words.
As it turned out, neither AMD nor Intel's uber-processors were quite what we were expecting.
AMD's new Bulldozer-based FX processors, for instance, haven't exactly torn up the record books for raw computational grunt. Rumours of upcoming respins could translate into improved performance, of course.
For now, the FX is AMD's new top chip and at least offers an intriguing alternative at certain price points.
Intel's latest range topper, the chip known as Sandy Bridge E, has indeed emerged as the hands-down fastest PC processor you can buy, but it's still not the massive leap forward we had hoped for.
Worse than that, it very much looks like it's a case of Sandy by name, sand bagging by nature.
Put another way, we're convinced Sandy Bridge E could easily be much, much faster, if only Intel was facing stiffer competition. With AMD's Bulldozer not delivering, Sandy E's performance has been capped at a level that's merely good enough. Intel has plenty in reserve should AMD's form take an uptick.
The Contenders are:

1)Intel Core i3-2100 - £95

2)AMD FX 4100 Black Edition - £100
3)AMD FX 6100 - £140
4)AMD Phenom II X6 1100T - £150
5)Intel Core i5-2500K - £170
6)AMD FX 8150 - £225
7)Intel Core i7-2700K - £250
8)Intel Core i7-3930K - £499

1)Intel Core i3-2100 - £95

Intel core i3 2100
Take a cheap chip. And clock the living bejesus out of it. This, friends, has long been the path to great PC performance for the pathologically penniless.
Enter, therefore, the Intel Core i3-2100. Like it or lump it, Intel has by far the best CPU architectures today and the feisty little 2100 is part of its latest generation of chips, known as Sandy Bridge.
With an unlocked multiplier, this thing could seriously rock. Without one, it's merely OK.
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2)AMD FX 4100 Black Edition - £100

AMD fx 4100

Consider the AMD FX 4100. We can't be absolutely sure about this without official confirmation, but we reckon it's based on the very same two-billion transistor processor die as the range-topping FX 8150.
The difference is that two of the 8150's four Bulldozer modules have been nuked from orbit.
The best that can be said about this dual-module Bulldozer is that it's not far behind its triple and quad-module brethren in games.
If only they weren't all off the pace.
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3)AMD FX 6100 - £140

AMD fx 6100 black edition
When is a six-core PC processor not a six-core PC processor? When it's AMD's new FX 6100.
Long before AMD released its fancy new FX chips, we had a feeling a fisticuffs was brewing over the definition of what constitutes a processor core. Now the FX has arrived and the gloves are off.
At stock clocks and with the final module hidden, it's not terribly exciting. However, if it turns out that most of all 6100s will happily run with the final module enabled, it might just be worth a roll of the dice.
If that happens, we'll be more than happy to upgrade the 6100's status to buy.
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4)AMD Phenom II X6 1100T - £150

AMD phenom ii x6 1100t
Little did we, or frankly AMD, know how good we had it with the Phenom II X6 1100T.
Only now, with the release of AMD's all-new Bulldozer architecture and the FX processors it powers, can we truly put what was once known as Hammer into full context.
It's not that far off when it comes to threading. But it also ponies up that little bit more per-core performance that could make the difference between smooth frames rates and the occasional chugging that really spoils the experience.
It's a bizarre thing to be asking, But please, AMD, have another go with the Hammer.
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5)Intel Core i5-2500K - £170

Intel core i5 2500k
Odd as it is for a CPU that's a year old to still offer the most advanced computing technology available, the Core i5-2500K feels like an old friend.
Of all Intel's CPUs it seems like the most honest, the most straight forward. If you're a keen gamer, it's probably still the fittest for purpose.
Only the higher clocked 2700K has it beaten. That's beyond impressive for a relatively elderly and affordable chip.
Chuck in the ability to go well beyond 4GHz on air cooling and you have an unbeatable package.
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6)AMD FX 8150 - £225

AMD fx 8150 black edition
Eight cores. Over 1 billion transistors. A radical modular architecture. 16MB of cache memory. And Turbo clockspeeds north of 4GHz. How could something that sounds so awesome end up so wrong?
One day, the full story of AMD's troubled new PC processor architecture will emerge. It should make for a fascinating tale. After all, the Bulldozer architecture that underpins the FX 8150 must have seemed like a great idea. It's all about balancing threads with cores with a view to delivering the most efficient and effective processor architecture possible.
However, that two billion transistor count makes it very expensive to manufacture, while its disappointing performance puts a limit on the price tag AMD can attach.
And more than anything else, it's just not a great chip for PC gaming.
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7)Intel Core i7-2700K - £250

Intel core i7 2700k
The 2700K is the new de facto king of Intel's line of LGA1,155 models. For us, it's the LGA1,155 socket that's really relevant to PC enthusiasts and gamers, not the highfalutin', server-derived LGA2,011 platform and its quad-channel silliness.
The 2700K, then, is the fastest chip any mere mortal is likely to run in his PC any time soon.
Unfortunately, what it ain't is a big step forward over the existing Core i7-2600K.
What'll she do, mister? The answer during our testing and in the context of air cooling and a modicum of extra voltage is an overclocking speed of 4.8GHz.
A very good result, we think you'll agree. But not materially better than you can expect from most 2600K processors. Again, the game doesn't move on.
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8)Intel Core i7-3930K - £499

Intel core i7 3930k
The Intel Core i7-3960X is a positively preposterous processor. This is the Intel Core i7-3930K and it's not the same chip. Not precisely, anyway.
We've reviewed the 3960X elsewhere and deemed it disappointing, moderately sinister (it's prima facie evidence of Intel carpet bagging in response to AMD's failure to bring out a really quick chip) and largely irrelevant to human existence.
So, here's the best bit. The 3930K costs over £300 less.
OK, £500 is still a big ask. But the difference in price alone is enough to buy a half decent desktop PC or a cheap laptop.
The point, then, is that this cheaper Sandy Bridge E gives you everything the top chip delivers for a lot less money. There's absolutely no reason to spend any more.
We're not completely convinced even this truly means the 3930K is good value for money. But it's still a very fast processor and the chip we'd buy if we had a big budget.
Buy now   India

And the best CPU is...Intel Core i5-2500K

We'll be honest. This isn't quite the CPU super we'd been hoping to bring you.
That's not because we couldn't get hold of the right chips. Au contraire. We've all the latest and greatest from both Intel and AMD. That includes examples of epic new high-end architectures alongside much more modest chips and some old favourites in between.
No, the reason why it's not quite the test we were planning is simply because AMD and Intel's latest salvoes in silicon didn't turn out how we were expecting. Both disappoint but for very different reasons.
Ultimately, the biggest bummer is AMD's failure with the new Bulldozer FX chips.
They aren't entirely without merit. The two cheaper chips, the six-thread FX 6100 and quad-thread 4100, will be particularly interesting if it turns out that most buyers are having success re-enabling the hidden cores.
Instead, it's the FX's failure to put Intel under any meaningful pressure that's most damaging and in turn explains why Intel has been able to be so very conservative with its own processors.
The new six-core Core i7-3930K is undoubtedly a very fast CPU. But it would be even faster with the final two cores enabled. And we can't see any reason why Intel wouldn't do so.
Apart from the simple fact that the 3930K has no direct competition, that is.
We smell something similarly fishy wafting forth from the new Core i7-2700K. A clockspeed bump of 100MHz is barely worth the bother. But it's enough to give Intel a new product to sell and there's nothing AMD can do about that. It simply doesn't have a product capable of forcing Intel's hand.
All of which means the two most interesting processors here turn out to be the oldest, too.
More than anything, AMD's six-core Phenom II X6 1100T proves the folly that is Bulldozer. It's much quicker per core and it's not that far behind in multi-threading.
In the context of a transistor count that's half as big as Bulldozer, that's ridiculous. The 1100T is a chip that could always make an argument for itself, but we didn't expect Bulldozer's arrival to make it look even better.
Thus by process of elimination, you know what's coming next.
That's right, our winner once again is our old favourite, the Core i5-2500K. Like the Phenom II X6 1100T, the arrival of disappointing new products has only served to enhance the appeal of the 2500K.
It's not absolutely perfect. It would take Intel to flick the switch on Hyper-Threading for that to be true. We all know that's not going to happen.
It's therefore not the ideal chip for heavy multi-threaders including video encoding enthusiasts (with the possible exception of those who are happy with Quick Sync's restrictions).
For everyone else, and especially for gamers, the 2500K remains the champion chip it always was.
Buy one and we guarantee you won't regret it.  

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