At The Core: Processors
Intel Core 2 Extreme QX9650 - $1200
At the high end there is the brand-spanking-new Intel Penryn QX9650. What's not to like about this CPU, except for its price perhaps? It supports SSE4, has a total of 12MB of shared L2 cache, and four lightening fast cores that make this CPU the current king of the hill.
The bottom line is that this thing is the fastest consumer CPU on the market right now and there's nothing out there that can touch it. The Core 2 Extreme QX9770 is waiting in the wings, but that puppy won't hit store shelves until well after the holiday. If you want the fastest CPU possible this holiday season, the Intel Core 2 Extreme QX9650 is it.
AMD Phenom 9600 - $325
We have been waiting for the AMD Phenom line of processors for quite some time and it's finally here and available for purchase. Currently, there are only two models available and we've chosen the 2.3 GHz 9600 as our high-end AMD pick mostly because it's 100 MHz faster than the 9500. Regardless of its seemingly low 2.3GHz clock speed, this native quad-core CPU is plenty powerful for today's applications and is AMD's current king of the hill. When running multi-threaded applications, the Phenom 9600 handily outpaces even the fastest Athlon 64 X2 processors; unfortunately it won't quite keep up with a quad-core Intel processor at similar clock speeds, like the Q6600 we've listed below for $270.
AMD Athlon 64 X2 6400+ Black Edition - $180
If you're an AMD fan and don't do a lot of heavy multi-tasking, then we suggest the 6400+ Black Edition. It's reasonably priced, offers great performance in everything but the most heavily multi-threaded applications and perhaps best of all, you won't have to refinance your home just to buy one. The 6400+ is an unlocked 3.2 GHz dual core CPU with two 1 MB L2 caches.
Being unlocked means that this CPU is extremely easy to overclock if you have the right board and cooling. You could potentially squeeze a lot more performance out of this CPU, if you know what you're doing. If you need any help overclocking, always feel free to visit our overclocking forum section and ask for a hand.
The 6400+ is fast, easy to overclock, and runs relatively cool given its performance characteristics. In fact, the only downside we see to this CPU is that the future of AMD is all about the Phenom.
AMD Phenom 9500 - $260
If you like to multi-task and are hot for an AMD quad-core processor, then let's look at the "other" Phenom, the 9500. It runs at 2.2 GHz, but don't let that fool you, it's still much faster than all but the very fastest of the Athlon 64 X2s at most tasks, and is second only to its faster brother, the 9600, for multi-tasking in the AMD camp.
The new Phenoms have 512 KB level 2 cache per core, and a 2 MB L3 cache shared between the cores. The extra cache along with other improvements help the Phenom outpace their Athlon 64 X2 counterparts on a clock for clock basis.
Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600 - $270
If you're a multi-tasker craving an Intel quad-core, but can't afford the high-end Core 2 Extreme, then the Q6600 is a great choice. With 4 cores running at 2.4 GHz it offers a great balance of multi-thread and single-thread performance. It's a great option for anyone looking to have great performance in just about any application without having to spend your retirement money.
We wish that Intel had released new Yorkfield-based CPUs at slower speed grades in time for the holidays, but this CPU is still a stellar performer for the money.
Core 2 Duo E6550 - $165
Sticking with Intel for moment, let's talk about the affordable E6550.
The E6550 is a dual-core CPU that rides along on a 1333 MHz FSB. Despite the fact that it runs at "only" 2.33 GHz, it performs like a $1000 CPU from just over a year ago in many benchmarks. It still runs the latest and greatest programs out there with aplomb, even though it's not the fastest CPU on the market. Still, it's unlikely that any programs will be released in the near term that will require a faster CPU than this.
At the end of the day, this is a solid performer from Intel at a bargain basement price.
AMD Athlon X2 5000+ Black Edition - $129
On the AMD side of the budget CPU arena is the Athlon X2 5000+ Black Edition. It's extremely cost-effective, reasonably fast and it's even a power-efficient model that can save you a few dollars a month on the electric bill. Perhaps best of all is that this CPU is "unlocked" which allows those inclined to easily overclock it. We've played with a 5000+ Black Edition and were able to take it all the way up to 3.2GHz with a slight bump in voltage and a stock AMD cooler.