These days, you’re not suffering for choice if you’re shopping for a new desktop CPU. Far from it! And that’s true whether you’re buying a new processor you’ll use for PC gaming, one packed with cores for speedy content creation or media crunching, or a slice of silicon that aces all of those tasks. In mid-2019, thanks to AMD, the desktop CPU market got a hard reboot with the launch of the company’s 7-nanometer-based Ryzen desktop CPUs (more about them in a bit), and now, you’ll get more cores (and more threads) for your CPU dollar than ever. Bigger rival Intel, meanwhile, the traditional leader in the space, relaunched its mainstream desktop-CPU line to a new platform with extra pep in 2020.
But how does that extra power—Intel or AMD—translate to results in PC gaming? It’s complicated, and it varies from game to game, as well as by combination of CPU and graphics card. Still, once you know the players in the chip market, their chip families, and some general characteristics, you can weigh your budget against what you actually need. (For most shoppers who aren’t esports pros, it’s actually easy to overbuy.) Let’s take a wide look at the CPU landscape in early 2021, and then get down and dirty with each of the major chip families.
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The State of Gaming CPUs in 2021
It’s been a wild last few years in the CPU space, and nowhere has this ride been bumpier than in Intel’s car. The company has been public about its struggles to move its desktop CPU line from the 14nm lithography process down to 10nm, and in that time AMD has leapfrogged Intel and jumped its latest stack of mainstream Ryzen chips (the ones without integrated graphics) to 7nm technology. This brought about a major leap forward in power and efficiency.
Meanwhile, in mid-2020, Intel introduced its new top-end mainstream processors in the form of the 10th Generation Core i9-10900K, the Core i7-10700K, and the Core i5-10600K (along with lesser versions in each family, and some lower-end Core i3 and Pentium/Celeron chips, too). These higher-end CPUs represent some performance upticks for mainstream computing, especially thanks to added processing threads supported in the middle of the stack. But as far as gaming goes, benchmarks prove that, in most games, you’ll get better, but not drastically better, game frame rates out of these 10th Generation chips versus what you would get with an equivalent Intel 9th Generation chip.
This story was much the same with AMD’s third-generation Ryzen 3000-series chips, just supplanted by fourth-gen Ryzen 5000 chips in late 2020. While the 3000 series’ then-new “Zen 2” architecture, based on the 7nm lithography mentioned earlier, offers big improvements in performance per watt and pricing, few of those processors released in the Ryzen 3000 line are objectively faster for gaming than their cost-comparative counterparts from Intel. (That said, AMD continues to top Intel in most other factors aside from flat-out gaming results.) Those Ryzen chips do tend to have more cores and addressable threads for the same money. However, most games don’t know how to take advantage of more than four cores at a time.
From a gaming perspective, however, where things have gotten interesting for the Ryzen family is at the lower end of its Ryzen 3000 stack, as well as with the debut of the latest fourth-generation of processors in the Ryzen 5000 series of Ryzen chips.
Let’s start with discussing the low-end 3000-series chips: The Ryzen 3 3100 and the Ryzen 3 3300X are both 2020 releases, and they make use of a new type of CCD design (in short: how the transistors are organized on the die), which reduces the latency from the Ryzens of 2019. In a nutshell, latency between different dies on a chip extends the amount of time it takes for different parts of the processor to talk to each other. This increased time can result in lower frame rates, though it’s very much dependent on the game and how well optimized it is. AMD says this is all down to improved Zen 2 manufacturing yields and a better understanding of the 7nm process technology.
The result of all that fine-tuning? Despite costing just $120, the four-core, eight-thread Ryzen 3 3300X matches up very well against the much costlier six-core, 12-thread Ryzen 5 3600X in almost every game we tested it in. And yes, that means it also beats just about anything Intel can throw its way at the same price point. (We haven’t tested the very latest Intel 10th Generation Core i3s, but some early results from around the web show that the like-priced Core i3-10100 doesn’t show any surprises.) With the launch of both the Ryzen 3 3100 and the Ryzen 3 3300X, AMD has reduced the entry price for most gamers to get in on the action, and in doing so has also freed up budget that can be shifted to your graphics card, giving budget-strapped gamers more power for the same spend.
But the company has never been content to rest on its laurels, and as such, AMD has upped the bar yet again with the launch of the Ryzen 5000 series. We’ve tested every chip in the stack so far and sent it through our gaming benchmarks, and the results are very good for AMD.
Though AMD had issues with spreading its dies across multiple CCDs in Zen 2-based chip options like the Ryzen 3 3600X, the “Zen 3” architecture rectifies that. In chips like the Ryzen 5 5600X, AMD has streamlined the design, centralizing eight cores into each individual CCD, more than any game could reasonably use at one time (even for pure AI-based tasks like calculating enemy turns in the Civilization series). This has made for some serious performance upgrades in the gaming department, and it has also translated into lifts in productivity tasks as well as content creation in tandem.
Integrated vs. Dedicated Graphics
While more cores, higher clock speeds, and the latest chip architectures are all nice to have, picking the best processor specifically for gaming is about more than basic specs and speeds. Let’s jump into some of the considerations to keep in mind when shopping for a gaming chip, before diving into the families and our favorite recent picks.
Most people searching for a CPU for PC gaming are going to be using a dedicated graphics card with it. A specific graphics card’s average frame rates will vary in a given game when paired with different CPUs, and from platform to platform. Generally, though, the amount of sway that is attributable to the CPU depends a lot on the resolution at which you are running the game.
If you’re gaming at the (by far) most common mainstream resolution, 1080p (that’s 1,920 by 1,080 pixels), or less than that, the variance can be substantial. That is because, with many games, resolutions of 1080p or lower are much more dependent on the single-core frequency of your CPU than they are on the outright power of your GPU.
For gamers playing at today’s realistic resolution peak (4K, or 3,840 by 2,160 pixels), the inverse is true. The higher you go up in resolution, the more the limiter is your video card, not your CPU. As a rule of thumb: Gamers playing at resolutions above 1080p should invest more in their GPU, while gamers playing exclusively at 1080p or below should pay attention to getting a CPU that has a higher single-core boost frequency, within reason for the system budget.
Again, though: There are no absolutes here. A lot of this varies by game and game genre. You also should think about the type of games you plan to play. For example, performance in a game like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, with the latest additions of ray tracing and DLSS, is going to be highly dependent on the type of graphics card you buy. Games like Civilization VI, on the other hand, need to render a lot of troops, AI, and math equations to run properly. Games like these are far more dependent on the processor than the GPU, and this isn’t just restricted to RTS or strategy games, either.
To illustrate the variance at play, here’s a quick roundup of some recent, representative mainstream and high-end desktop (HEDT) CPUs and some selected gaming benchmarks to illustrate what we mean. We tested them all with a GeForce RTX 2080 Ti card, the main graphics card for our testbed, to level the field and take the video card out of the equation up to the point of 4K resolution, where almost all of the lift is handled by the GPU rather than the CPU. Here are the results we saw with mainstream CPUs…
Games like CS:GO, as you can see, are more sensitive to the CPU than others. The faster the single-core frequency of your CPU for CS:GO, the better your frame rates will be at the resolutions where that kind of thing matters (for example, on a 240Hz monitor running at 1080p). Likewise, the more robust the CPU, the faster your turns in Civilization VI will process. But, the more beefy your graphics card, the better your textures will look in Apex Legends, and the more light rays you’ll see rendered in games like Shadow of the Tomb Raider or Metro: Exodus. The characteristics of the game, at times, can matter as much as the hardware.
Now, the above illustrations assume a reasonable-or-better video card paired with your CPU. You certainly can play games with the integrated graphics processor (IGP) that comes baked into Intel’s mainstream processors and AMD’s APUs (the company’s handful of lower-end chips that combine a CPU and graphics on the die). But you’ll be relegated to low settings and resolutions, and modern demanding titles will often not be playable at acceptable frame rates (generally 30 frames per second or above), even in well-optimized games like Fortnite.
It’s also important to mention that most of AMD’s Ryzen processors, from the lower-end AMD Ryzen 3 and 5 chips (though notably not the Ryzen 3 3200G and the Ryzen 5 3400G APUs) to the hyper-powerful, enthusiast-class AMD Ryzen Threadrippers, lack integrated graphics. So with those options, you’ll definitely need a dedicated graphics card.
The same is true of Intel’s enthusiast Core X-Series platform: These chips must have a video card paired with them. So be sure to pick either a “G”-series CPU from AMD, or a mainstream Core i3, Core i5, or Core i7 chip from Intel, if you don’t want to buy a graphics card. Late-model CPUs on the Intel side will use a form of what Intel calls “HD Graphics” or “UHD Graphics” as the integrated graphics silicon. (Intel UHD Graphics 630 is the norm in late-model Intel chips, and don’t expect much from it for anything beyond web-based gaming.) An important note: Intel has introduced a sub-class of CPUs in its mainstream lines that have the integrated graphics disabled. Their model numbers end in “F” (for example, Core i9-9900KF) and can save you a few bucks if you know you’ll only, ever, use a dedicated video card with them.
If gaming on a very tight budget, without the chance of buying a video card, you’ll want to consider AMD’s latest (“Picasso”) APUs like the Ryzen 3 3200G or Ryzen 5 3400G, based off the Zen+ microarchitecture. They combine the company’s Ryzen CPU cores with its current-generation Vega 8 or 11 graphics silicon. Don’t expect graphics-card-level performance, but the Vega graphics on these chips are as good as CPU-integrated graphics come at the moment. The lightweight graphics on these “G” chips may be enough for some gamers, but anyone who’s serious about building or upgrading a PC that can play all types of games will want to budget for a separate, dedicated card.
In Games, Do More Cores Equal More Power?
Technically, yes, but there’s a catch. AMD has been running laps around Intel for the last few years in terms of cost-per-core value, and for anyone who uses a lot of multi-threaded applications, this is a godsend. It wasn’t that long ago that eight-core processors were out of reach for most buyers, but now, thanks to the Ryzen revolution of the last few years, the ceiling for what eight-core, 12-core, and even 16-core mainstream processors cost has dropped considerably.
This means that for users who use their desktops for both gaming and content creation, AMD is often the stronger choice. For example, let’s compare two of the top chips on offer from AMD and Intel, the Ryzen 9 5900X and the Core i9-10900K, both around $500:
In most situations, the Ryzen 9 5900X will be the better value here given the extra cores and addressable threads. (Even if you don’t do any content-creation tasks now, that doesn’t mean you won’t at some point in the future.) Having more power for the same amount of money is seldom a bad thing.
Plus, there’s single-threaded performance to consider. The general trend, all else being equal, is that the more cores a CPU has packed onto its die, the lower the peak single-core frequency will be. This is why (again in general, not always: see the AMD Zen 3 launch), Intel has the upper hand in absolute frame rates for gaming within each rough price range. With its current architectures, Intel isn’t all about maxing out the sheer number of cores and threads on a processor, and focuses on the actual performance it can squeeze out of its boosted frequencies from the cores already there.
Currently, few games out there know how to take advantage of more than four cores at once. Although games like Grand Theft Auto V have been seen using six cores on occasion, and uber-specific titles like Civilization VI use all available cores while calculating AI turns, extra cores often lie dormant during your gaming sessions, unless you’re, say, streaming your game to Twitch at the same time.
Consider Monitor Resolution, Refresh Rate
Unless you have a fancy, late-model LCD monitor that is gaming-specific (it’ll advertise extra-high refresh rates on its bezel or box), it’s safe to assume that your LCD screen tops out at 60Hz. That’s fine for most gaming purposes: it means you’ll be able to see frame rates up to 60 frames per second (fps).
Keep in mind, though, that if your graphics card and processor pushes above that frame rate, your monitor won’t actually display those extra frames. So it’s futile to overspend on your CPU and graphics card to achieve performance that your monitor can’t even display. With an ordinary LCD monitor, a frame rate consistently above, but not too much above, 60fps average in your favorite games is the sweet spot.
Competitive, fast-paced gamers, though, swear by their high-refresh-rate screens. And hardware makers have increasingly been upping their game with gaming-focused monitors, to the point where Asus has released a model that hits a staggering 360Hz360Hz refresh rate. So, if you have (or are considering buying) a gaming monitor with a 120Hz-or-higher refresh rate, to truly leverage it you’ll need to spend more on a graphics card to push those extra frames.
And in some instances, you’ll also need a beefier processor to keep up. That’s because most high-refresh-rate monitors have a 1080p native resolution. Some high-refresh 1440p monitors that push above 165Hz have begun making the rounds (the 240Hz HP Omen 27 comes to mind), as well as 4K 144Hz displays like the Acer Predator XB3 for the ultra-elite gamers out there. But 1080p is by far the heart of the market, and at 1080p, gaming performance is more limited by the CPU than the graphics card, if you’ve bought a good enough card for 1080p play.
Right now, the refresh-rate waypoints of high-refresh monitors above 60Hz that you can buy are 100Hz, 120Hz, 144Hz, 165Hz, 240Hz, and 360Hz. That last one really only matters to gamers who play titles like CS:GO, Rainbow Six: Siege, League of Legends, or DOTA 2. But it never hurts to have more refresh-rate overhead in your pocket when the only thing standing between you and a clean kill is the number of times a screen is updating per second.
The key thing, though, is the question: “How much to too much?” If you have an ordinary 1080p, 60Hz monitor and a graphics card good enough to regularly push above 60fps, there’s no point in hand-wringing much over the small frame-rate differences that like-priced CPUs will deliver. You won’t see the benefit in frame rates beyond 60fps. Only folks with high-refresh-rate monitors should reasonably obsess over the difference between, say, 140fps and 160fps, and even then only if involved in competitive esports.
In short, which CPU you choose matters more as you step down the resolution ladder. All else being equal, at higher resolutions, the graphics card sets the limits. At lower ones, the CPU may come more and more into the picture, and which is most important to you should always include the consideration of the monitor you’ll be playing on, too.
Do You Need PCI Express 4.0 to Game at Your Best?
If you saw the shiny new spec for “PCIe 4.0-ready” on the box of your new X570 or B550 motherboard purchase for an AMD gaming CPU, you won’t be faulted for thinking this is a new technology that you need to have now in order to stay competitive with the rest of the PC gaming world (and that sentiment doesn’t just relate to desktops, either). When the spec sheet for Sony’s PS5 console was unveiled, many gamers went straight to the specs of the CPU and GPU to see what the next generation of gaming might have in store. But one area that was initially glossed over could end up being one of the most important: storage speeds.
For over a decade, the major consoles have stored games on slow, platter-based hard drives that could only stream the data of a game into the rest of the system at an average of around 100MBps. While this might not sound like anything to worry about, that bottleneck has proven to be a big issue for game developers, and it’s why in many AAA titles today, you’ll find your characters going into elevators, waiting behind doors, or slowly inching their way through a squeeze in a path before you get to the next part of a level. The rest of the game simply hasn’t loaded off the disk yet, and that carefully timed animation is a time-killer that’s the only thing standing between the player and a jumble of partially loaded textures.
This is all changing with the advent of the new consoles and the introduction of the PCI Express (PCIe) 4.0 bus into the mainstream, though. Some developers have hailed it as a new era for gaming when applied to storage, one that will make it far easier for massive worlds to be built, loaded, and streamed into the player’s world at speeds that the hard drives of yesteryear could never dream of.
Today, in early 2021, PCIe 4.0 storage is indeed a thing on desktop PCs, albeit specifically on AMD-based systems built on some very leading edge chipsets (the Ryzen-relevant X570 and B550, and Threadripper’s TRX40). Now, does this mean that you need to future-proof your next gaming PC with a PCIe 4.0-capable motherboard and compatible CPU? A market that AMD currently enjoys all to itself? Not exactly.
First, these load-time bottlenecks apply only to single-player titles. To maintain an even playing field in a single online match, multiplayer games will load the entire map that players will be playing on, as well as all the included assets, ahead of any given match starting. And while PCIe 4.0 drives will certainly load this data faster than hard drives, ultimately it becomes a bit of a “slowest camper” situation, in which the bear will attack only once everyone has loaded their assets on their local machines.
Second, PCIe 4.0 as a staple of game development is still quite a ways off. It will be a fun selling point for systems like the PS5, but their real-world implementation across both consoles and PCs at a universal level is still, at the very earliest predictions, a year away, at the least. Don’t expect to see “PCIe 4.0-ready SSD” as a listing in games’ minimum PC requirements anytime soon.
How does this relate to gaming CPUs? As 2021 began, AMD processors, paired with the mentioned chipsets, are the only mainstream CPUs that support PCIe 4.0. Although some Intel Z490 platform motherboards for Intel’s 10th Generation chips are rumored to have PCIe 4.0-compatible parts installed (which could mean the next generation of Intel CPUs could support PCIe 4.0), the current generation of chips don’t support the protocol. PCIe 4.0 on mainstream Intel desktop platforms won’t come in until the Intel 11th Generation “Rocket Lake-S” CPUs expected in March 2021, which will work on the new Z590 chipset motherboards (and lesser chipsets).
So while it’s never a bad idea to future-proof your system if you have the cash, don’t go looking to AMD’s PCIe 4.0-ready boards like the X570 and B550 platforms to give you any extreme gains in practical load times over what you’d get on a current-gen PCIe 3.0-based board for Intel or AMD. It’s the future, but it’s not a primary concern today, even for gamers.
Overclocking: Does It Save Money?
One way that some gamers on a budget try to bridge the gap between their wallet and their dream build is to overclock a cheaper CPU to approach the performance of a costlier chip one or two tiers up.
Intel makes it easy to figure out which of its processors are overclockable and which aren’t: Just look for the “K” at the end of the model number, which indicates the CPU is unlocked and ready for overclocking out of the box. As for AMD, essentially all of its desktop processors released in the past several years are overclockable to your heart’s content (within reason, of course).
But before you rush off to get the cheapest CPU possible with the expectation of pumping up the gigahertz, consider a few things, price-wise. First, there’s the added cooling you’ll need. You won’t want to overclock a CPU while using the standard fan/heatsink combo that came with it. These coolers are rated to handle the CPU at its regular clocks; anything above that and you risk giving your PC heatstroke. (Rather, making it throttle back performance for its own safety, which is counterproductive.)
Aftermarket air coolers are relatively effective at keeping your overclocked processor cool, but they have limits (especially during the summer months, if you live somewhere toasty, where it’s hot air in, hot air out). In general, expect to spend roughly $30 to $60 on an able-enough air cooler, depending on how high you plan to clock your processor.
For anyone who’s serious about pushing their CPU to its absolute limit, however, liquid cooling is the way to go; Intel’s and AMD’s highest-end chips demand it. But, with great cooling power comes great cooling responsi…wait, that’s not the line. Great amounts of money, that’s the one.
The most basic liquid-cooling setups can be relatively cheap, but most cheap ones aren’t much more effective than their similarly priced air counterparts, which means you’re opting for a more complicated installation for minimal gain. Be ready to spend $60 to $150 for a closed-loop aftermarket liquid-cooling system powerful enough to keep an overclocked CPU cool.
Second, be aware of the fact that, at least in Intel’s case, the cost difference between an overclockable CPU and a non-overclockable processor can be noticeable. For example, the Core i7-10700K retails for $349 MSRP, while the standard Core i7-10700 is only $323 MSRP.
In short: To safely overclock a high-end Intel CPU, while it may seem like the cheaper way to get a better CPU for your money, will cost you at minimum an extra $70 if you don’t already own a compatible cooler. AMD overclocking may be slightly cheaper, depending on the chip in question, but you’ll still need to shell out for the added hardware (and maybe a larger case, to fit a liquid cooler’s radiator). So make sure to incorporate those costs into your build budget before pulling the trigger.
Most of the time? The extra money you’d spend on the cooling gear is better spent, simply, on the next-step-up CPU. That’s safer, and much less hassle.
2021’s CPU Families, Explained
To start, we’re going to help gamers get a more rounded picture of the benefits and drawbacks of each of today’s key processor families. Below we’ve assembled a breakdown that lists exactly what each one brings to the proverbial table. If you’d like to learn more about these different families of CPUs, head on over to our overall Best CPUs deep dive, which covers this topic in even greater detail.
Intel 9th and 10th Generation Core
The 9th Gen Core line (“Coffee Lake-S”) works with the LGA 1151 socket on motherboards with 300-series chipsets (don’t confuse these with motherboards with the same 1151 socket but 100- and 200-series chipsets), while the 10th Gen Core line (“Comet Lake-S”) works with the new Z490 chipset (with others to follow) and the LGA 1200 socket.
- Good choice for gamers who need the absolute fastest frame rates, above all else
- Solid price-to-performance in the Core i7 family
- Integrated graphics provided in all CPUs (barring “F” versions)
- Confusing socketing protocol for 9th Generation chips can make motherboard purchases tricky
- Only “K”-branded, more expensive chips can be overclocked (and even then, not by a lot without good cooling gear and expertise/patience)
- Intel Z490 platform (for 10th Gen chips) doesn’t offer revolutionary features in line with the cost of adoption
- High-end 9th and 10th Generation chips require separate, heavy-duty cooling (no stock cooler) and a beefy power supply
- Most midrange 9th Generation chips don’t support Hyper-Threading (in other words, only one processing thread per core)
(Examples: See our reviews of the Core i7-9700KCore i7-9700K, the Core i9-9900KCore i9-9900K, the Core i9-9900KSCore i9-9900KS, the Core i5-10600KCore i5-10600K, and the Core i9-10900KCore i9-10900K.)
Intel Core X-Series
The Core X-Series’ latest chips, the Core i9 10000X-series, are also known under the code-name “Cascade Lake-X” and make use of the LGA 2066 socket. The same socket supports the previous-gen “Skylake-X Refresh” or “Basin Falls” 9000X-series CPUs.
- The most powerful consumer chips that Intel makes: good for gaming, and everything else
- Good for gamers who stream simultaneously on Twitch, or gamers who also use their PCs as creative workstations
- Designed for multiple-video-card SLI or CrossFireX setups, and lots of PCIe storage, with support for an increased number of CPU-bound PCI Express lanes
- Overkill for most gamers, both in performance and price
- Motherboards on the required X299 chipset are expensive
- No integrated graphics
- No bundled stock coolers
(Examples: See our reviews of the Core i9-9980XE Extreme EditionCore i9-9980XE Extreme Edition and the Core i9-10980XE Extreme EditionCore i9-10980XE Extreme Edition.)
All Ryzen CPUs from the first and second generation (“Summit Ridge” and “Pinnacle Ridge”), as well as the current third generation (“Matisse”) and fourth generation (“Vermeer”), work on the AMD AM4 socket. Some older boards don’t work with newer chips, and vice versa, so check the details before buying. But the continuity of the AM4 socket is far greater than on Intel’s late platforms.
- Strong value pick for most gamers who want to build their own system
- Zen 2 chips are top values for gamers without a ton to spend
- All chips are unlocked for overclocking
- Zen 3 chips are record-setting speed machines
- Non-“G” Ryzen chips lack integrated graphics
(Examples: See our reviews of the Ryzen 7 2700XRyzen 7 2700X, the Ryzen 3 3300XRyzen 3 3300X, the Ryzen 5 5600XRyzen 5 5600X, the Ryzen 7 5800XRyzen 7 5800X, the Ryzen 9 5900XRyzen 9 5900X, and the Ryzen 9 5950XRyzen 9 5950X.)
AMD Ryzen G Series
All Ryzen G CPUs (the “Raven Ridge” 2000G series and “Picasso” 3000G series) work on the AMD AM4 socket, like the ordinary Ryzens do, but they require a motherboard with an appropriate video-out port if you want to use the integrated graphics. Not all AM4 motherboards (notably, high-end ones) necessarily have onboard video-outs, so be sure to check before committing to one of these chips.
- Made for gamers on a budget
- Has an integrated graphics processor (IGP)
- The mainstream’s best integrated graphics, if you can’t buy a video card
- IGP not powerful enough for most serious gamers
- CPU performance is lesser than equivalent Ryzen 3 and 5 CPUS without IGP
- Requires a motherboard with video out for IGP use, and not all AM4 boards have one
(Examples: See our reviews of the Ryzen 3 2200GRyzen 3 2200G, the Ryzen 3 3200GRyzen 3 3200G, and the Ryzen 5 3400GRyzen 5 3400G.)
AMD Ryzen Threadripper
The first- and second-generation Threadrippers (“Whitehaven” and “Colfax”) work on motherboards with the X399 chipset and a socket called TR4. The newest (third-gen “Castle Peak”) Threadrippers use a new TRX40 chipset and a socket dubbed sTRX4.
- Good for gamers who stream simultaneously on Twitch, or gamers who also use their PCs as heavy-duty creative workstations
- Lots of headroom to run extra applications at the same time as games
- Demands a high-end, aftermarket cooling solution, due to large die sizes; no stock cooler included
- Motherboards on the AMD X399 and TRX40 chipsets are pricey
- Like the Intel Core X-Series, way overkill for most single-card gamers
(Examples: See our reviews of the Ryzen Threadripper 2950XRyzen Threadripper 2950X, the Ryzen Threadripper 2970WXRyzen Threadripper 2970WX, the Ryzen Threadripper 3960XRyzen Threadripper 3960X, and the Ryzen Threadripper 3970XRyzen Threadripper 3970X.)
So, Which CPU Should I Buy for Gaming?
Now, that’s a lot to digest, we know. Let’s run through a few common scenarios based on our earlier discussions.
BUDGET SHOPPERS. If you intend to add a dedicated graphics card (and you absolutely should, if you can), gaming performance (as opposed to pure content creation muscle) is what matters most to you, and you have around $100 to $150 spend on the CPU, we recommend the AMD Ryzen 3300X, assuming you’re looking to build a new PC or have an AM4 motherboard. If you can’t afford a separate video card, the AMD Ryzen 5 3400G is the way to go, with the best integrated graphics of the moment.
THOSE INVESTED IN INTEL PLATFORMS. If you’re an Intel diehard and already have an existing 300-series, LGA 1151 motherboard, any compatible Intel Core i5 or i7 CPU from the 8000 or 9000 series (say, the Core i7-9700K) should suit you just fine, for at least a few years. (The Core i9s are excellent chips, too, but require liquid cooling.) Rather than upgrading to a new platform like 10th Generation Core and an Intel Z490 motherboard (which means the added cost of a new motherboard), we recommend investing that cash in a more powerful graphics card instead.
HIGH-REFRESH GAMING BEFORE ALL ELSE. If cost isn’t your main concern, and you want to be sure you’re squeezing the most performance possible out of your card at 1080p with a high-refresh-rate monitor, the Intel Core i9-10900K with a new Z490 motherboard delivers the the best performance Intel has to offer with a GeForce RTX 2080 Ti graphics card that we’ve seen (outside of the limited-run Core i9-9900KS, which is hard to find these days).
Meanwhile, our testing shows that the $449 AMD Ryzen 7 5800X offers up even better performance than the $549 (street) Core i9-10900K in 1080p. However unlike the Core i9-10900K, which requires a whole new platform upgrade, the 5800X remains compatible with AMD’s venerable AM4 Socket. Those who own older motherboards will want to check to be sure they have a BIOS that supports chips in the 5000 Series before buying, but on platform compatibility (and the price savings that come with it), AMD simply can’t be beat.
GAMING ALONGSIDE CONTENT CREATION. And if you’re a gamer who regularly does processor-intensive content creation on the side, the AMD Ryzen 5 5600X and Ryzen 9 5900X are appealing options, as well. These are six- and 12-core CPUs, respectively, great for tasks that use all the cores and threads they can get.
If you’re spending a few hundred dollars each on your CPU and graphics card, now might be a good time to upgrade your monitor, too—say, going from a 60Hz 1080p panel to a 165Hz 1440p screen, or something in the 4K range. With a higher native resolution on your panel, the frame-rate difference between an AMD Ryzen chip and a late-model Intel Core is almost certain to narrow. (See our favorite current gaming monitors.)
Below you’ll find more details on the top AMD and Intel processors for gaming PCs, along with links to full reviews. If you’re building a new system from scratch, you’ll also want to take a look at our recommendations for the best M.2 SSDs and PC tower cases. Or, if you’d rather buy a balanced off-the-shelf model, you can check out our favorite gaming desktops, too.