The Best CPUs Ever Made
We’ve already covered the worst CPUs ever built, so it seemed time to flip around and talk about the best ones. The question, of course, is how do we define “best?”
In order to qualify for this article, a CPU needed to do more than just introduce significant new features or support a new instruction set. The Pentium Pro, for example, was a very important chip. It pioneered features still in use today and demonstrated that out-of-order execution and micro-op translation were viable techniques for high-end, next-generation processors. At the same time, however, the Pentium Pro had issues. It was slow when running 16-bit code and its FPU performance was only about half of comparable RISC cores at the time. The Pentium Pro was a very important CPU core, in other words — but it doesn’t meet our criteria when making a list of the best CPU cores ever invented.
To see which cores do measure up, check the slideshow below. We’ve taken a broad look at the industry over the past 40+ years, with mobile, server, and desktop CPUs all represented. Our selections were based on a variety of factors, including feature set, market impact, total strength of the product, and long-term performance.
Writing a “Best CPUs” list means that inevitably, a lot of really good CPUs are going to get left off the list. CPUs like the Intel 8086 or Motorola 68000 are often regular staples of articles like this, because of how they transformed the computing industry (launching the IBM PC in one case, and launching the Macintosh as well as the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga in the other). We address many of Intel’s chips in more detail in our history of Intel products, parts one and two.
Honorable mentions for great chips that didn’t quite make our list would include the original Intel 4004, Pentium Pro, Pentium III, Intel’s Pentium 4 Northwood, AMD’s original K7, and CPUs like the Core i7-8700K.
Last, but not least, there’s AMD’s recent Ryzen launch. I didn’t want to try to pick a single CPU model to put in this list — third-generation Ryzen CPUs have only been on the market for a matter of weeks. But one of our criteria for CPUs is that the CPU needs to have transformed the market — and while we may not have a specific Ryzen model listed above, the family’s competitive standing has forced Intel to dramatically overhaul its product positioning. Prior to the launch of the Ryzen 7 1800X, an eight-core CPU from Intel would have cost over $1,000. Today, an eight-core Core i7-9700K is $365, while the 8-core / 16-thread Core i9-9900K runs ~$485 – $500.
Given that market impact is one of our major criteria, we wanted to acknowledge Ryzen’s collective impact.
- Is Moore’s Law Alive, Dead, or Pining for the Fjords? Even Experts Disagree
- Intel Acknowledges It Was ‘Too Aggressive’ With Its 10nm Plans
- AMD Will Provide a Free Temporary UEFI Upgrade Kit for Ryzen 3000 Motherboard Updates