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These 5 processors prove you can build an awesome PC on any budget

best processors any budget intel i  k review
Greg Mombert/Digital Trends

Ready to build a new PC or upgrade your current version into a more powerful machine? Then it’s time to pick out a new processor. Don’t waste your time – we’ve got the top new chips for upgrading in this handy list right here. Here are our best processor picks for a variety of price and expertise levels!

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Note: Wondering about the lack of AMD? As we explain a bit throughout our list, the latest series from Intel is seriously impressive, which is why AMD is edged out of the group.

Budget: Pentium G4520 ($99)

pentium

For under $100 you can get this dual-core, 3.6GHz chip ready to go with two 256KB L2 caches, a 3MB L3 cache, and an Intel HD Graphics 530 integrated GPU. This combines to provide you with solid specs and a surprisingly high speed that’s in reach of nearly every budget.

This is our only Pentium on this list. If you’ve always wondered if there’s any notable difference between Pentium and Core chips, here’s the rub: Intel’s Pentium brand is older, but most modern Pentium and Core devices use the same basic processor technology (there are exceptions, in mobile chips particularly, but the G4520 isn’t one of them). Core products will have extra features enabled, such as Turbo Boost or Hyper-Threading, but the underlying architecture is the same.

Available from: Amazon, Newegg

Entry-Level: Core i5-6400 ($190)

This quad core, 2.7GHz chip comes with support for both DDR4 and DDR3L, and includes specialized features for visual performance, such as support for display resolutions up to 4,096 x 2,304. The Intel Turbo Boost tech is also handy for squeezing out extra speed without doing all your own overclocking (definitely not advised for this locked-down model). The chip will hit 3.3GHz under optimal conditions.

While it does have Turbo Boost, this model does not have Hyper-Threading. That means each physical core can run only one processing thread (Hyper-Threading lets one core handle two). That will mean a slight performance downgrade in extremely demanding workloads, but in most scenarios, it won’t be noticeable.

If you’re looking for the best overall bang-for-your buck chip, the Core i5-6400 is probably it. It’s fast, it has enough cores for most tasks, and it’s under $200. This is a processor that could easily last five years, but won’t blow up your budget.

Available from: Amazon, Newegg

Enthusiast: Core i5-6600 ($230)

corei5

Let’s take a big jump up to this quad core 3.3GHz option, with a Turbo Boost maximum of 3.9GHz. While this processor does not have Hyper-Threading, it’s the quickest available in the current Core i5 line aside from the overclockable Core i5-6600K.

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As should be clear, this chip is a step above the 6400, with very few downsides. Everything the Core i5-6400 can do, the 6600 does better. While the former is a great value that will suit most users, the 6600 goes the extra mile, and may better satisfy enthusiasts as a result.

Keep in mind that at this level we are reaching the chips people use for gaming machines where they can really push the settings toward their limits – the average home computer, even if it sees a lot of action, doesn’t always need this much power.

Available from: Amazon, Newegg

High-end: Core i7-6700K ($420)

Intel Core i7-6700K

Intel Core i7-6700K

Greg Mombert/Digital Trends

And here we come to the first fully unlocked processor on our list. The 6700K is a quad core, 4.0GHz beast, with a Turbo Boost maximum of 4.2GHz. That’s a smaller boost over the base clock than found on the Core i5 models we recommended, but this chip is unlocked. That means the processor multiplier can easily be bumped up to increase the base clock.

Unlike AMD, Intel prefers to lock most of its chips so that people don’t overheat and destroy them through lazy overclocking, much like you can burn out a car engine by running the RPMs too high for too long. Recently, Intel has begun to produce more unlocked chips to meet enthusiast demand.

Also, because this is a Core i7 model, it has Hyper-Threading. That means it can handle eight processing threads, though it has four physical cores. Demanding applications will see a performance boost as a result.

Otherwise, the chip’s features are similar to the Core i5 processors already described. It is ideal if you want to spend some quality time building a machine and running plenty of tests to find the optimum settings.

Available from: AmazonNewegg

Extreme: Core i7-5960X ($1,000)

5960x

Finally, we’ve reached rarified air. Intel has not yet made SkyLake chips at this level – i.e., with octo-cores – so this larger chip remains in an expensive class of its own. The 5960X is a monster of a chip, focusing an incredible amount of power into an 8-core, 3GHz CPU with a hefty 20MB L3 cache and 8 256K L2 caches. It’s has Turbo Boost, Hyper-Threading, and it’s unlocked.

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If you’re wondering about potential speed boosts (of course you are) then know that builders have boosted the chip above 4.0GHz without experiencing too many problems, as long as they use top-line coolers and thermal pastes.

Even at stock clocks, though, the 5960X is a multi-core monster. A Core i7-6700K hits a multi-core score of about 16,000 in GeekBench, while the 5960X exceeds 23,000. The 5960X is slightly slower in single-core tasks, though, because of its lower clock speed.

Available from: Amazon, Newegg