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Which of modern (desktop PC) CPUs would provide best performance in single-threaded applications?

There are some games that haven't been optimized for multi-core use, and the CPU speed is their bottleneck (for physics calculations primarily).

I know the end of the line in the gigahertz race were Intel's single-core CPUs of over 4GHz, but then the companies began scaling the speed back while adding more cores or features like hyperthreading. Support for these old extra-fast single core CPUs is scarce nowadays, plus older motherboards, slower RAM and AGP cards would create new bottlenecks, so a more modern alternative would be preferred. So, which of modern CPUs is best suited for this kind of operation?

  • Are you looking for AMD, Intel, or does it even matter yet? – Cfinley Sep 22 '15 at 14:43
  • Do you want a CPU for a gaming computer? – Marcelo Espinosa Sep 22 '15 at 14:49
  • Relevant is the site's first question about benchmarking processors. – ArtOfCode Sep 22 '15 at 15:05
  • I haven't any experience with this myself, which makes me wary of putting a recommendation on it, but a benchmark puts the Intel i7-4790K (4GHz) well above the rest. – ArtOfCode Sep 22 '15 at 16:32
  • @MarceloEspinosa: I'm considering it - although not as the primary machine. Specifically, the games wouldn't be very Gfx-heavy, so the GPU wouldn't need to be a monster. Two titles coming to mind: Kerbal Space Program, where massive ships require lots of CPU computation, and Dwarf Fortress, where the gfx is nonexistent (ASCII/tiles) but if you're into heavy waterworks - water channels, lakes etc, your framerate will be killed nevertheless. Both suffer seriously from single-thread nature. – SF. Sep 22 '15 at 20:49
9

Any overclockable Intel CPU, if you're willing, or the i7 4790K ($317.99@SuperBiiz) if you're not. Don't just look at clock speed. AMD's FX 9590 has a 5 GHz boost speed, but is slower than Intel's offerings because of a low IPC.

A good budget option for overclockers is the dual core Pentium G3258 ($64.99@NCIX), at a mere U$65. Intel released this unlocked CPU for celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Pentium brand. With decent cooling, it can easily match the frequency, and therefore single core performance (approximately), of the i7 that is U$250 more expensive.

Another option, featuring Intel's new Skylake architecture, is the i5 6600K ($248.95@Amazon), which gives an average overclock of 4.5 GHz on air. Because it uses a newer microarchitecture, it is, clock for clock, about 5% faster than the Haswell CPUs like the 4790K and the G3258.

It also allows you to purchase more, faster RAM, as the Skylake platform supports DDR4. Because of the newer, less mature technology, the total price of the system is likely to be around the same as one with the 4790K.

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  • the G3258 seems pretty great. Dual core is helpful for shuffling all but The One Thread to the other core - more cores are not helpful really, and the price is great. The savings can easily be spent on better cooling. – SF. Oct 4 '15 at 11:56
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    @SF. Software tips: If you didn't already know, you can do that by setting processes priority to Realtime. Be careful though, as if it's a dual core, continuous, process, this can lead to unresponsiveness. that can be fixed by using High instead, or setting affinity to one core only. Some times one core can give a marginally better overclock than the others. Never use the BIOS autotune for a 24/7 OC, they tend to push the voltage too high, reducing chip lifetime. – timuzhti Oct 5 '15 at 1:57
  • Even Skylake Pentium and Celeron CPUs don't support AVX, only SSE4.1. Depending on what single-threaded workload you're running, you can be losing out on performance if the program can't use its AVX / AVX2 code. – Peter Cordes Oct 10 '16 at 5:33
  • If you don't plan to overclock, Skylake i3-6100 at 3.7GHz (with 3MB of L3 cache) should be a solid chip for sustained single-threaded performance at nearly half the price of an i5-6600k. No turbo, but the base 3.7GHz is close to the max turbo on a stock i5-6600k. (See the desktop CPU table on en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skylake_(microarchitecture)) – Peter Cordes Oct 10 '16 at 5:34
  • Belated Update for Kaby and Coffee Lake: As of Q4'17, with the release of the second unlocked i3 processor, there is really no reason to look further. The i3 7350K currently retails at around U$ 147 at Amazon, while the 8350K is around $50 more expensive. Both have average overclocks of around 4.9 GHz (1)(2), though because the 8350K has 4 physical cores instead of hyperthreading, it may prove more suitable for any multithreaded workload. – timuzhti Oct 28 '17 at 3:24
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I have two i7-4790 (3.6GHz) Intel processors. One is in a machine I use only for gaming and the other is in my development machine. Using the link that ArtOfCode provided, this processor currently (September 2015) sits in 6th for Single Thread Performance (behind the 4GHz version of the same processor and some Xeon chips).

Newegg lists the price as $310.

This processor has had no problems in new games (Arkham Knight...I was one of the lucky ones that had no issues), older games (Skyrim/Team Fortress 2) or family friendly games (any Lego game). On my development machine it performs like a champ as well.

I highly recommend this one (or the 4GHz one for $40 more).

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Probably the i7 6700k. It is very similar to the 4790K as recommended in all of these answers, however has a slight IPC improvement compared to the 4790k and is 14nm.

You can compare these two here:

4790K

6700K

The 6700K is also based on Z170, not Z97, which seems to be practically a dead chipset.

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Another vote for the i7-4790K: I tried to make an i7-6700K machine to outperform it. Both CPUs were delidded — (CL Liquid Pro put between die & IHS) — and overclocked as far as I could reliably go with Noctua NH-D14 & Vcore=1.275).

I got to 4.5/4.4/4.4/4.4GHz (1/2/3/4 cores active) on the 6700, and used DDR4 3000 (CL15). With the 4790K, I was able to get 4.9/4.8/4.7/4.7GHz, and used DDR3 2400 (CL10).

In both single-thread and overall (Passmark) CPU benchmarks, the 4790 bested the 6700, not by a ton, but...

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