4.6 Our Picks
Although processor makers probably hate us for saying so, the processor actually plays a relatively minor role in overall system performance. The difference in absolute processor performance between a $50 processor and a $500 processor may be a factor of two or less. Nor does buying a $500 processor make your system run twice as fast, because processor speed is only one element of system performance. Before you plunk down $500 for a processor, consider instead spending that extra money on more memory, a faster video card, a SCSI hard drive, or all of those.
- Inexpensive systems (sub $1,000)
Intel Celeron 4. We recommend the Intel Celeron 4 processor largely because of the many top-notch integrated motherboards available for it. Yes, you can find cheap Pentium 4 and Athlon systems in this price range, but those systems are built to a price point using components of lower quality than we feel comfortable using. The AMD Duron is also an attractive processor. Many inexpensive systems are built around the Duron, which has higher performance clock-for-clock than the Celeron, but most inexpensive Duron systems use VIA-based motherboards, which we find unacceptable. For a stable system with reasonably good performance, it's hard to beat the Celeron. We'd choose the fastest retail-boxed Celeron you can find for about $85.
- Mainstream and performance systems ($1,000 to $2,500+)
Intel Pentium 4. For mainstream and performance systems, we recommend the Intel Pentium 4. Pentium 4 processors do not match the AMD Athlon in performance clock-for-clock, and cost more for equivalent performance, but once again the superiority of Intel chipsets and motherboards in terms of stability, reliability, and build quality is more than enough to offset the price and performance advantages of AMD Athlon processors. As with the Celerons, the fastest Pentium 4 models sell at a high premium compared to models that are only slightly slower. We'd choose the fastest Socket 478 Northwood-core Pentium 4 processor available for $175 or so.
- Dual-processor system
AMD Athlon MP. If you run Windows NT/2000/XP Pro, Linux, or another SMP-capable operating system, a dual-processor system is worth serious consideration. In our experience, responsiveness in a multitasking environment is better with two midrange processors than with one fast processor. No one task runs as fast on the dual-CPU system as it would on the faster single processor, but the dual-CPU machine simply doesn't bog down. If you choose components carefully, you can build a dual-processor Athlon system for only $250 or so more than the cost of a comparable mainstream system. If you're willing to use Duron processors which are not officially supported for SMP operation rather than Athlon XP processors, you can cut the price differential to nearly nothing. Your system won't run any one single-threaded task as fast as it would with a faster single processor, but it won't bog down when you're running many tasks, as the fast single-processor system would.
If our only choice in dual-processor Athlon systems required using a third-party chipset, we'd bite the bullet and choose Intel Xeon processors. Fortunately, that's not the case. The AMD 760MP and AMD 760MPX chipsets are superb, and motherboards built around them are fast and stable, assuming you use top-quality memory and a good power supply. As with Intel processors, faster versions of the Athlon XP cost much more but provide little performance benefit. For a dual-processor system, buy two identical copies of the fastest retail-boxed AMD Athlon XP processors you can find for less than $200 each.
We constantly test and review processors. For the latest information about which specific processors we currently recommend by brand and model, visit:
We also maintain a frequently updated set of system guides that detail our currently recommended system configurations for various purposes and in various price ranges. You can view the latest system guides at: