The beating heart of any PC is its central processing unit, or CPU.
No wonder a fast CPU is a point of pride for many enthusiasts. It's also a must-have for anyone looking to get intensive work done. In recent years, upgrading to a bleeding-edge CPUs has become less important in light of ever-faster graphics cards and the experience-altering goodness of SSDs, mixed with slowing CPU performance gains generation-to-generation. But don’t let that fool you: The CPU remains one of the most important parts of your PC.
With so much on the line, you want to get it right. Here’s a quick overview to picking the right CPU for you, and instructions on how to actually install a processor in your PC.
Choosing a new CPU
Choosing the right CPU for your PC can be complex process, but if you start with a solid idea of what your budget is and what your goals are then you can make a decision pretty quickly. Let’s start at the high-end and work our way down.
Intel’s Core i7-5820K is a $390 six-core “Haswell-E” chip that’s based off of Intel’s Xeon server chips and uses the high-end LGA 2011-v3 socket. Spending more money will get you a CPU that’s only marginally faster; thus this chip represents our most expensive recommendation for people without very specific needs that require additional computing firepower.
Moving to the next step down, there’s Intel’s Core i7-4790K at $340. This chip has only four cores but it also has an extra 500MHz of clock speed over the i7-5820K and will occasionally outperform the more expensive chip in games and apps because of it. At $240, we have Intel’s Core i5-4690K which loses a bit of clock speed and hyper threading compared to the i7-4790K. The Core i5-4690K is the best compromise between price and performance on the market, and the chip gamers should pick up if they can afford it.
But if you can’t quite fit that chip into your budget you can step down to AMD’s FX-8320 which is a very capable chip at $140. Stepping all the way down to the bottom of the bin we have AMD’s $75 Athlon X4 860K, which is essentially one of AMD’s APUs, minus the graphics bits.
We recommend going with AMD’s chips if you have less than $200 to spend on a CPU because of the plethora of inexpensive but well-featured motherboards on designed for those chips. Additionally, AMD’s chips retain many of the features—like cryptographic acceleration and virtualization—that Intel disables on its cheaper Core i3 and Pentium chips.
There are many more processors available that what we’ve covered here; this was just an overview of some best picks at various price points. In general, Intel’s Core i7 chips are their most powerful, and best for multimedia editing; Core i5 chips lack hyperthreading and are thus less powerful than Core i7 chips, but should be plenty potent for gamers and most other users; and Core i3 chips are the weakest Core chips, but just fine for people who don’t push their systems too hard.
Other buying considerations
Don’t forget to buy a motherboard that’s compatible with your new CPU, as selecting mismatched parts is a common PC building mistake you’ll want to avoid.
While you’re considering the information above it’s important to remember that you probably want to spend more on some other components in modern PCs. If you’re presented with a choice between spending an extra $100 on your CPU or repurposing that money for a better graphics card or SSD, you should usually choose invest in a better GPU or SSD over a faster CPU if you’re buying anything beyond a bargain-basement chip. For builders on an even tighter budget remember to always prioritize purchasing an SSD over all else. (Yes, mechanical hard drives are that bad for your primary drive.)
Another wrinkle to consider is cooling. All of the CPUs on this list come with basic heatsinks that will provide absolutely adequate cooling for the life of your CPU; but many enthusiasts chose to spend money on bigger tower coolers or on water cooling. If you want a really quiet system, plan to overclock your processor, or you care about aesthetics, then investing in an aftermarket CPU cooler is probably the right decision for you. On the other hand, if a light humming noise and a boring looking heatsink don’t bother you than you can skip out on this purchase.
How to install an Intel CPU
With all of those purchasing considerations out of the way it time to install your new CPU. First we’ll look at installing Intel’s CPUs, and then AMD’s chips.
Start with your motherboard outside of your PC’s case, on a flat surface. Release the small metal lever holding the CPU retention bracket to Intel’s LGA socket in the motherboard.
Now you can insert your chip. Make sure that you line up the two guiding notches on the socket with the notches along the edge of your chip. These notches are designed to prevent you from seating the CPU in the socket in an improper manner. With the chip seated in the socket, you can lower the retention bracket back into place. Make sure that you slip the notch at the end of the bracket around the single screw at the base of the socket before you use the metal lever to lock the CPU into place.
When the CPU’s installed, it’s time to attach the cooler. If you’re using the stock Intel cooler there will already be thermal grease on the underside of the heatsink. If you’re using an aftermarket cooler, then you’ll need to apply a small rice-grain-sized dot of thermal grease—your cooler likely came with a small syringe of it—to the center of the CPU before you set the heatsink on top of it.
One of the nice things about Intel’s stock heatsink is that it uses push pins to attach itself to the motherboard. Simply place the cooler on top of your CPU and then press the push pins into the holes at each corner of the socket. Once the pins have been pushed through to the other side of the motherboard, press the black locking tab down into the mounting pin and twist it toward the center of the CPU, following the arrow engraved into the push pin, to lock the heatsink into place.
The final step is to connect the fan header wire leading from your CPU to the CPU fan header on your motherboard.
For aftermarket coolers this process can be more complex and potentially involve custom heatsink retention brackets and mounting solutions. It’s best to follow the manufacturer’s instructions and refer to the relevant YouTube videos for guidance with those products.
How to install an AMD CPU
AMD’s chips have both a different kind of socket and a different method of mounting heatsinks compared to Intel’s system.
Looking at a fresh socket FM2+ motherboard, you’ll see that there are no metal pins on AMD’s socket. Rather, the pins that connect the CPU to the motherboard are on the underside of the CPU with AMD’s chips.
Start by flipping the CPU locking lever up from the socket. Then you can place your AMD CPU in the socket in such a way that the gold triangle on the corner of your chip matches up with the engraved triangle on the corner of the CPU socket. A light press should then seat your CPU firmly in the socket. Lower the retention lever on the side of the socket to lock your chip into place.
As with Intel’s stock cooler, AMD’s cooler will also come with thermal material on its underside from the factory. The big difference between Intel’s and AMD’s stock cooling solutions is that while Intel’s mounts with push-pins, AMD’s mounts with a more traditional notch-and-lever combination.
Start by hooking the mounting bracket on the cooler on to the plastic notch at the top end of the CPU socket. Then hook the bracket onto the notch at the opposite end of the socket. From here you can toggle the locking lever to press the heatsink up against the CPU and hold the heatsink firmly to the motherboard. Hooking both of the plastic notches with the heatsink mounting bracket is the most difficult part of this installation process.
Now you’ve successfully picked out the right CPU for your PC build and you’ve correctly installed it into your motherboard. Your computer’s not done yet, but you’ve taken a big step on the road to computing nirvana.