The 10 Best Desktop Chips Of 2010 (So Far)

Gentlemen, Start Your Engines

Tethered to the relentless march of Moore’s Law, computer manufacturers keep churning out new PC hardware -- and the first half of 2010 provided gearheads with a smorgasbord of CPUs, GPUs and other components to drool over. In the following pages, we’ll review the best of the bunch, starting with desktop processors and graphics.

How did we pick the winners? Through a combination of culling through best-selling products on e-tail sites like and, poring over our own CRN Test Center’s first-half reviews, and surveying the custom system builders whose business is identifying the very best computer parts for the best prices.

Workstation CPU

We’re not sure how many people are slapping Intel’s uber-powerful Nehalem EX chips into workstations, so we’ll go with another new 32-nanometer processor released as part of this year’s Xeon 5600 series update to the original Nehalem launch in 2009.

The Xeon X5680 is a six-core, 130-watt workhorse that chugs along at 3.33GHz -- and Intel Turbo Boost will crank the clock up even further. Not to mention, Intel Hyper-Threading means you’re getting 12 compute threads, or two per processor core.

Release date: March 16, 2010

Price: $1,663

Enthusiast Desktop CPU

Intel’s Core i7 980X Extreme Edition chip is a 3.33GHz benchmark-busting beast with six processor cores and 12 compute threads, packing 12MB of L3 cache and drawing 130 watts of power. Intel Turbo Boost, which throttles individual cores beyond the listed clock speed, completes the picture for this new King of Desktop CPUs.

Release date: March 16, 2010

Price: $999

Mainstream Desktop CPU

If dropping a grand on a processor sounds crazy, never fear -- you can still enjoy six-core CPU power for a fraction of that price, courtesy of the Phenom II X6 1090T Black Edition from Advanced Micro Devices. This 3.2GHz, 125W processor is eminently over-clockable and boasts 6MB of L3 cache.

This is an enthusiast-class CPU from AMD at the upper end of mainstream prices -- and for about $100 less, you can get the moderately less powerful (but also less power-hungry) six-core Phenom II X6 1055T.

Release date: April 27, 2010

Price: $295

Value Desktop CPU

How about a sub-$100 quad-core desktop processor? Look no further than the Athlon II X4 635 from AMD, a 2.9GHz, 95W chip that drops into the AM3 socket and is an attractive update to the Athlon II X4 630 for value-minded consumers.

Intel’s most competitive product in this low, low end of the price band is the Core i3 530, a dual-core, 32nm chip which is about $15 more expensive than the quad-core, 45nm Athlon II X4 635. Though at 4MB, the Core i3 530 does have double the L2 cache.

Release date: Jan. 25, 2010

Price: $99

Nettop CPU

Intel began shipping the dual-core Atom D525 in the second quarter as part of its Pineview generation of ultra-low voltage System-on-Chip (SoC) products. Since OEMs and system builders have the 1.83GHz, 13W Atom D525 in their shops in preparation for its official launch, we’re happy to include it in our list of first-half component all-stars.

And for good reason -- this chip integrates the memory controller and graphics onto the processor die for a true SoC design, pops into the same micro-FCBGA8 559 socket as its predecessor, the dual-core Atom D510, and will soon be the most powerful nettop CPU (an undetermined amount of) money can buy.

Release date: June 23, 2010

Price: Unknown

Workstation Discrete Graphics

New professional graphics cards don’t appear with the frequency of more consumer-oriented products. So while we strongly suspect Nvidia will soon update the Quadro family of products with its new Fermi-class architecture, AMD faces little competition for first-half honors with its ATI FirePro V8800 3D professional graphics card.

Essentially a pro version of the acclaimed ATI Radeon HD 5870 discrete graphics card, the FirePro V8800 has 2GB of GDDR5 memory, 1,600 stream processors, and supports DirectX 11, OpenCL, OpenGL 3.2 and AMD’s own Eyefinity multi-screen technology.

Launch date: April 7, 2010

Price: $1,250

Enthusiast Desktop Discrete Graphics

This could well be the toughest category for picking a winner. Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 480 introduced the world to the company’s next-generation Fermi architecture, plus it weaves in CUDA capabilities and Nvidia’s slick 3D engine. AMD has also been hitting it out of the ballpark with enthusiast-class video cards of late and the ATI Radeon HD 5870 Eyefinity 6 Edition is no exception.

Both cards run for just under $500 and for that chunk of change you’re getting 1.5GB of 384-bit GDDR5 memory and 480 processor cores from Nvidia and 2GB of 256-bit GDDR5 memory, 1,600 stream processer cores and Eyefinity multi-monitor support from the AMD card. We’re giving Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 480 the slight edge on this one for PhysX, CUDA and 3D Vision. Game on.

Launch date: March 26, 2010

Price: $499

Mainstream Desktop Discrete Graphics

AMD dropped the ATI Radeon HD 5670 on the market very early in the year as part of the continued rollout of the chip maker’s successful 40-nanometer Evergreen series of graphics processors. Formerly code named Redwood, the Radeon HD 5670 was initially priced at under $100, making it very much a mainstream discrete graphics product, though AMD’s board maker partners are generally charging somewhat more than that for the actual video cards.

The Radeon HD 5670 has 400 stream cores and a core clock of 775 MHz with 1GB of 1,000MHz (4.0 Gbit/s) GDDR5 memory. DirectX 11 and CrossFireX support are more reasons to like this product.

Launch date: Jan. 14, 2010

Price: $115

Value Desktop Discrete Graphics

The Evergreen series of graphics cards from AMD really was the gift that kept on giving in the first half. We were hard pressed to pick from two entry level candidates -- the ATI Radeon HD 5450, a $49 card, or the ATI Radeon HD 5570, a $79 card with four times the compute performance of its less expensive cousin. Both have DirectX 11 support and the new ATI Eyefinity multi-display technology.

Ultimately, we picked the Radeon HD 5570 because it has 400 stream processors and cranks through workloads with a 520 GFLOP performance rating. Of course, it’s also limited to GDDR3 memory, making the Radeon HD 5570 a better fit for single-card systems rather than dual-card configurations, because CrossFireX setups reportedly don’t scale out as much performance as you might hope for due to memory constraints.

Launch date: Feb. 9, 2010

Price: $79

New Desktop Technology

In our excitement over all the new PC parts to judge, we wanted to make sure we didn’t leave out cool new technologies that are harder to classify -- stuff that’s baked into hardware like AMD’s Eyefinity tech or is optimized for existing platforms like Nvidia’s 3D Vision kit. But leave it to Intel to take the prize in this category with the fourth-generation of its vPro commercial desktop platform.

Intel’s latest vPro hardware adds new system management, security and client virtualization capabilities to platforms designed specifically for commercial desktops (and notebooks, too) -- a gift to the IT administrators and managed service providers who maintain and manage them.

Launch date: Feb. 4, 2010

Price: Varies

To view a related slide show, check out The Best Mobile Chips Of 2010 (So Far)