How to build a custom desktop computer, Part 2: The Processor

This article is part of a series on building your own custom desktop PC.

Building your own desktop PC is viewed by many as a difficult task. There are many things you need to consider before you set out to build your own machine, so in order to help you and simplify the task, I will try to cover each major component. Today we start with choosing the best processor for a desktop PC.

The two big companies that are fighting in this market are AMD and Intel. Both companies have certain advantages to their respective products and this is where your first choice already starts out. In order to eliminate or reduce any arguments between Intel and AMD processor enthusiasts, I will simply talk about your decision to buy any of the above mentioned processor brands.

Now the first thing you should do is think about the budget you have available for your system. If you are running on a small budget, chances are than an AMD processor will go better with your system. The company’s Piledriver microarchitecture processors have come out just recently and we can see some rather impressive specifications for those models. Not only that, but the top of the line model is also quite cheap at around $195.

The AMD FX8350 processor is an 8-core monster
The AMD FX8350 processor is an 8-core monster

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This new series from AMD provides you with four new processors to choose from, the AMD FX-4300, FX-6300, FX-8320 and the FX-8350. The first number will let you know how many cores you are working with and you can get them for $122, $132, $169 or $195 respectively. Note that all of these processors do come with unlocked multipliers, which will allow you to overclock them, but we will cover that further on in another article covering the best cooling for desktop computers.

By choosing any of those processors or any processors from the previous series, the one’s based on the Bulldozer microarchitecture, you are going to already set yourself up for an AM3+ based motherboard. These have rather low price tags as well, so building a powerful PC can be quite cheap and you can get quite a lot of power out of it. The big downside is that Windows 7 still has problems with using the 8-core processors from AMD, which brings major downsides in terms of performance, making these somewhat lacking compared to similarly priced Intel models.

In case your budget allows you to go a bit higher, then Intel’s new Ivy Bridge lineup is the one to opt for. The differences in performance when compared to their Sandy Bridge series are small, the biggest one being the TDP of the processor. The TDP refers to the Thermal Design Power and measures the maximum amount of heat a cooling system needs to dissipate. The new Ivy Bridge has a TDP of 77 Watts, making it more energy-efficient and cooler than its AMD FX or Intel Sandy Bridge counterparts.

The company has a wide array of processors in this lineup released this year and you can safely mount any of these processors even on motherboards that used Sandy Bridge processors. The processor socket for these models is Intel’s LGA 1155. Prices are respectable here as well, but we will discuss choosing the best motherboard for your desktop PC later.

Choosing the right CPU

[pullquote]In order to choose the right CPU for you, you should first think about what you will be using it for.[/pullquote]

In order to choose the right CPU for you, you should first think about what you will be using it for. If you plan to do a bit of work, some multimedia and maybe the occasional casual game, then a dual-core processor from Intel or an entry-level quad-core from AMD should easily handle the job. These can generally be purchased for around $100, sometimes more, sometimes less, but this depends on retailer just as much as it does on the product itself.

If you want to throw some more work at your machine or if you want to get some gaming on as well, going for a quad-core or six-core processor is preferred. Again, if you have the money, I do recommend Intel’s i5 processor series, which packs quite a lot of punch. Alternatively, with a lower budget, a six-core from AMD should do the trick just as well.

Now the top of the line should be reserved for those systems that will have to work for their owners. We are talking about users that might want to go for some video editing, graphical editing, hardcore gaming, overclocking, video streaming or recording. All these tasks require powerful CPUs, so investing into a high-end model is required if not mandatory. As an example, using Xsplit to record Starcraft 2 at 20 frames per second, quality set to 8 with *.mp4 file output, sound and a resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels, will chew about 35-45 percent of an Intel Core i5 2400 quad-core processor.

Of course these are very rough measurements and many things factor in, but if a simple recording in full HD at 20 fps requires that much power, then add running the game in the background, maybe an open website, an open IM application and things start piling up quickly.

Intel Core i7 Extreme Series
Intel’s Extreme Series processors is a force to be reckoned

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Choosing the best desktop processor for the job is simply knowing what its main functions will be. If you want a simple office/multimedia system, a good old dual-core or quad-core processor will easily tackle those. Those processors also use up less power, emit less heat and thus require smaller coolers. When the needs go up, so should the processor speed.

One thing that you should keep in mind is that core count is not everything. A good example is AMD’s eight-core processor lineup which has a hard time putting down all that power because of the way Windows 7 allocates tasks to it. Intel on the other hand uses Hyper Threading, which in a sense doubles the processor core count, by creating “virtual” cores. A processor with HT (the Intel i7 2600K or the Intel i7 3770K for example) will run on 4 physical cores and 8 threads. This will allow it to outperform quad-core processors without HT by quite a large margin.


As a quick round-up:

  • Think of what your budget is; based on how much money you will spend, limit your range and choose either processors from AMD or Intel
  • The FX-Series from AMD and the K-Series from Intel (i5-2500K, i7-2600K, i5-3570K, etc) have unlocked multipliers, allowing the user to overclock them; if you do not want to do that, do not pay the extra money
  • Sheer core number is not everything; find out if the applications you will use most of the time (games are included here as well) can take advantage of the added cores
  • Keep cooling in mind as well since more powerful processors need more powerful coolers!

I hope that this little article helped you in at least narrowing your search for the best desktop PC processor down. Always buy with your needs in mind and you will not be disappointed. You might even end up saving some money and if you need detailed specs for any processors or comparisons, go to CPU World and search for your processor there. Next up, choosing a motherboard for your desktop PC!






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