The best CPU for gaming in 2021 The best CPU for gaming

With the best CPU for gaming in your system, that expensive new graphics card you’ve got your eye on might actually have a chance to work at its full performance potential. Especially now we’re entering a new era of affordable 4K gaming. The best CPU is also a worthy investment for creative work, game development, editing, or streaming you might fancy doing with your PC. And means you won’t need a separate machine to handle the streaming on its own. With more cores than ever available, you needn’t worry about multi-tasking pushing your gaming PC to the limits anymore.

In case you missed it, there’s been a major shift in the CPU space: AMD now rules the roost. It has been accumulating kudos for a couple of years now with its Ryzen processors but has always been kept off the top slot by Intel’s awesome gaming prowess. That’s no longer the case with the release of Zen 3—AMD now matches and at times beats Intel in games. Given the other capabilities AMD brings to the table, it means AMD is simply the better option right now, as long as the price is right. Strangely, Intel manages to hang on to its acclaim by being the better value option in some cases.

There is a slight problem in the CPU market right now though, and that is stock levels. Just as Nvidia’s graphics cards sold out in seconds, so did AMD’s Ryzen 5000 series processors. They’re amazing chips, but actually getting your hands on any of them right now is a quest unto itself. That doesn’t stop them from being the best chips around, but it does mean that if you are looking to upgrade, you may need more than a little patience. 

Once you’ve worked out which CPU you want to build a machine around, the next question is what sort of motherboard you should pick. The new Ryzen 5000 chips still use the AM4 socket and are compatible with X570, B550, and A520 motherboards (with B450 and X470 motherboard support coming later). Intel’s latest Comet Lake chips use the new LGA1200 socket, and we’d go with either a Z490 or cheaper B460 motherboard at this point in time. Thankfully, our picks for the best gaming motherboard are compatible with the CPUs on this list. 

The best CPU for gaming in 2020

AMD Ryzen 9 5900X

(Image credit: AMD)

1. AMD Ryzen 9 5900X

The best CPU for gaming right now.

Cores: 12 | Threads: 24 | Base Clock: 3.7GHz | Boost Clock: 4.8GHz | Overclocking: Yes | L3 Cache: 64MB | TDP: 105W | PCIe 4.0 lanes: 20

The best CPU for gaming

Awesome performance throughout

Fast and efficient architecture

AMD’s Zen architecture has improved with each generation, but the fact that AMD managed to knock out a 19 percent IPC improvement with Zen 3 is nothing short of staggering. The key takeaway for us as gamers is that this improvement means that AMD can now stand toe to toe with Intel when it comes to gaming. Honestly, there’s so little between these two now that anyone claiming otherwise is delusional. 

Whatever resolution your gaming at, this processor can handle it, and keep your graphics card of choice fed with lots of juicy frames. The fact that this is a 12-core, 24-thread monster means that it can cope with anything else you throw at it as well. So if you have dreams of 3D rendering, video editing, or any other serious tasks, you’ll know that you have the raw grunt to handle it. The fact that it won’t hold you back when gaming just makes it even sweeter. 

The only real downside is the pricing, and the dropping of the Wraith cooler—don’t forget to factor that in when you buy. You do get what you pay for though, and this is a phenomenal chip for gaming and anything else you might want to do. 

If you’re in the market for real power, you could step up to the Ryzen 9 5950X, which gives you 16 cores and 32 threads. It costs $250 more, however, and for gaming purposes, and even most content creation chores, the 5900X is more than sufficient.

Read the full AMD Ryzen 9 5900X review.

Ryzen 5 5600X

(Image credit: AMD)

2. AMD Ryzen 5 5600X

The best affordable gaming CPU right now.

Cores: 6 | Threads: 12 | Base Clock: 3.7GHz | Boost Clock: 4.6GHz | Overclocking: Yes | L3 Cache: 32MB | TDP: 65W | PCIe 4.0 lanes: 20

Awesome gaming performance

Great value for money

Decent overclocking potential

Wraith Stealth included

When it comes to gaming, everything that’s great about the 5900X rings true for this more affordable Zen 3 chip as well. In games, there’s nothing between any of the Ryzen 5000 chips, and that means you’ll hit the same frame rates with this chip as you will our number one pick. Which is incredible when you think about it—top tier performance from the most affordable Zen 3 CPU? We’ll say yes to that every single day.

This does have half the core count of that top chip, rolling in as it does with 6-cores and 12-threads. This is really only an issue with those more serious workloads though, and for more reasonable stuff this is more than sufficient. You could argue that gaming could go beyond the 12-threads we have here, but there’s no evidence that is the case so far, and that’s despite the fact that the next-gen consoles are rocking 8-cores and 16-threads. 

The Ryzen 5 5600X also bucks the trend of the Ryzen 5000 family by shipping with a Wraith Stealth cooler, so you don’t have to drop extra money on a third-party chiller. You don’t need to, but if you do, you’ll hit higher clocks for longer and also open up the wonderful world of overclocking, which could make it worthwhile. This is a decent little overclocker, and while it won’t affect gaming much, it’ll help in other areas nicely.

Read the full AMD Ryzen 5 5600X review.

Intel Core i7 10700K

(Image credit: Intel)

3. Intel Core i7 10700K

Intel’s best gaming CPU is a great value proposition.

Cores: 8 | Threads: 16 | Base clock: 3.8GHz | Turbo clock: 5.1GHz (single core) | Overclocking: Yes, 5.1GHz typical all-core | L3 cache: 16MB | TDP: 95W | PCIe 3.0 lanes: 16

Great stock performance

Full HyperThreading

Solid overclocking

The Core i7 10700K wasn’t the chip that found its way into the early Comet Lake testing as Intel wanted to focus on the 10-core 10900K and 6-core 10600K, but for our money, it’s the best gaming chip from Intel’s arsenal. You will get a touch more performance going for the far more expensive Core i9 CPU, but not as much as would have you notice it in-game.

It trades blows with AMD’s new Ryzen 7 5800X, which is another 8-core, 16-thread processor of the 7nm Zen 3 variety, but represents better value for money. It’s not as powerful in serious applications, but in terms of pure gaming, there’s really not a lot in it. This is basically $70 cheaper than AMD’s similarly capable chip, and that’s money that could be better spent elsewhere.

Where Intel does have more of an edge is in the overclocking stakes. AMD processors don’t have a lot of overhead in them, while you can easily push the 10700K over 5GHz on all cores, and without melting through the heat spreader either. 

Conversely, AMD brings PCIe 4.0 support to the party, though it’s worth noting that despite Nvidia building it into the Ampere RTX 30-series cards it doesn’t have a lot of impact in terms of gaming performance just yet. What it will do is allow you to use the highest performing PCIe 4.0 SSDs.

AMD Ryzen 7 5800X box

(Image credit: AMD)

4. AMD Ryzen 7 5800X

A great mid-range chip for serious work and gaming.

Cores: 8 | Threads: 16 | Base Clock: 3.8GHz | Boost Clock: 4.7GHz | Overclocking: Yes | L3 Cache: 32MB | TDP: 105W | PCIe 4.0 lanes: 20

The same great Zen 3 architecture

Awesome gaming performance

PCIe 4.0 support

In a world where Intel doesn’t exist this would be an incredible chip and would have made it into our top three recommendations no sweat. It’s great for gaming, producing the same figures that can be seen for the 5900X and 5600X, but it also appears to hit the sweet spot in configuration terms, with its eight cores and 16 threads surely seeing it right for the future, seeing as that is what the Xbox Series X and Playstation 5 are rocking. 

Unfortunately for AMD, Intel does exist, and the blue company’s Core i7 10700K matches this in plenty of the more important metrics but has this chip beat in one major way—value for money. This is faster in serious tasks, and if that’s what you’ve got an eye on, then buy this and don’t give it a second thought. But if you’re mainly looking at gaming, Intel does pretty much the same but costs less. And that’s hard for AMD to get away from. 

Competition aside, this is still Zen 3 strutting its stuff, and it does that impressively well. Throw in the support for PCIe 4.0 as well, and this is a forward-looking chip that will last you for years. 

Read the full AMD Ryzen 5 5800X review.

(Image credit: Intel)

5. Intel Core i9 10900K

The Comet Lake flagship is still a powerful option.

Cores: 10 | Threads: 20 | Base Clock: 3.7GHz | Turbo Clock: 5.3GHz | Overclocking: Yes, 5.0-5.3GHz typical | L3 Cache: 20MB | TDP: 95W | PCIe 3.0 lanes: 16

Fastest gaming performance

Overclocking potential

Intel’s top gaming chip, the Core i9 10900K, lost a lot of what made it special with the release of Zen 3. When the 10900K was unveiled it came with the reassurance that it was the ‘world’s fastest gaming processor,’ but that’s not a claim it can really hold on to anymore, with plenty of games handing wins to AMD’s Ryzen 5900X. It’s still a cracking game chip, don’t get us wrong, but it traded on being the very best, and once that went, it lost a lot of its shine.

It’s still overkill for the vast majority of cases, apart from possibly at the very, very high-end, and for serious workloads AMD chips just make more sense, but there’s still a bizarre charm to this CPU. You probably don’t need it, but if you do build a machine around it, you know it won’t be this chip that’s holding you back.

The Core i9 10900K is the first time Intel has managed to squeeze 10 processing cores into its mainstream line up, and given it’s capable of hitting 5.3GHz (however briefly), it definitely represents an impressive outing for the 14nm technology Intel has been tied to for so long. Gaming still benefits from high clockspeeds, and this still delivers, it just doesn’t make a lot of sense given the competition.

You’ll need to invest in a Z490 motherboard to go along with this chip, and some serious cooling, (a decent PSU wouldn’t go amiss either). Don’t be fooled by that reasonable 95W TDP, as it’ll push way beyond that, especially if you’re thinking of exploring its overclocking chops. 

Read the full Intel Core i9 10900K review.

Intel Core i5 10400F

(Image credit: Intel)

6. Intel Core i5 10400F

A great budget-friendly option for Intel builds.

Cores: 6 | Threads: 12 | Base Clock: 2.9GHz | Turbo Clock: 4.3GHz | Overclocking: No | L3 Cache: 12MB | TDP: 65W | PCIe 3.0 lanes: 16

Affordable mid-range performance

Cooler included in box

The Core i5 10400F is a surprisingly exciting option. It’s slightly faster than the previous-gen Core i5 9400 but that F-suffix means it ditches the Intel integrated graphics completely. That’s not a problem for gamers unless you want to use QuickSync, although Nvidia’s NVENC is arguably better anyway. Overall, it’s an excellent budget-friendly choice that doesn’t cost much more than a Core i3 part.

There are other compromises, like the locked multiplier—no overclocking here. But you can save money and grab an H470 motherboard. At least you get a cooler in the box, something we’d like to see as an option with every CPU. Most boards will happily run the 10400F at 3.9GHz as well, so don’t worry about the low base clock.

While the i5 10400F may not be as fast as other CPUs in multithreaded tests, in our gaming suite, it’s tied with AMD’s last-gen 3900X. Future games may start to push beyond its 6-core capabilities, but probably not before you’re ready for an upgrade. Right now, the i5 10400F is plenty fast and extremely affordable.

AMD Ryzen 5 3600X

(Image credit: AMD)

7. AMD Ryzen 5 3600

A reliable mid-range CPU.

Cores: 6 | Threads: 12 | Base Clock: 3.6GHz | Turbo Clock: 4.2GHz | Overclocking: Yes, 4.2GHz typical | L3 Cache: 32MB | TDP: 65W | PCIe 4.0 lanes: 20

Affordable mid-range performance

Cooler included in box

This may be last-gen hardware now, but there’s still a strong case to be made for AMD’s Zen 2 CPUs, with their solid performance and efficiency. The Ryzen 5 3600 is slightly behind the 3900X when it comes to gaming and other tasks, but the emphasis is on the word ‘slightly’ for a reason—it’s typically a 5 percent difference or less. Plus, for a midrange CPU, we seriously doubt anyone is planning on pairing it with an RTX 3080. A better choice would be a midrange GPU like the AMD RX 5700, or even the previous generation RX 590. Either way, the 3600 won’t hold you back.

You still get a 6-core, 12-thread processor, and outside of games, the 3600 is faster than Intel’s 10400F. But then, the Ryzen 5 3600 also costs more. It has the other benefits of AMD’s Zen 2 architecture, like PCIe Gen4, and AMD’s CPUs have also had far fewer issues with side-channel attacks like Meltdown, Spectre, Foreshadow, and MDS, giving you some peace of mind as far as security goes.

You can also look at the Ryzen 5 3600X as a small step up in performance for $40 more, but the vanilla 3600 can overclock a bit better thanks to a lower starting point, effectively matching its more expensive sibling. Again, fast memory with tight timings helps performance with Ryzen CPUs.

AMD Ryzen 5 3400G

(Image credit: AMD)

8. AMD Ryzen 5 3400G

A cheap CPU with integrated graphics, for ultra-budget builds.

Cores: 4 | Threads: 8 | Base Clock: 3.7GHz | Turbo Clock: 4.2GHz | Overclocking: Yes, 4.1–4.2GHz typical | L3 Cache: 4MB | TDP: 65W | PCIe 3.0 lanes: 8

Affordable mid-range performance

Cooler included in box

At the budget end of the CPU spectrum, there are numerous tasty options to be had. We did want to put the AMD Ryzen 3 3300X in here, but it’s been sold out since launch, so there doesn’t seem much point (it’s a great chip if you can find it). The Ryzen 5 3400G is the true budget gaming solution, however, in that it includes relatively potent integrated graphics. For $10 more than the 3300X, you get the equivalent of an $80 graphics card. If you’re planning on using a dedicated GPU, though, we’d recommend you stick with the 3300X, because this chip also limits the PCIe lanes to your discrete graphics card.

Compared to Intel’s UHD Graphics found in the 8th and 9th Gen CPUs, the 3400G’s Vega 11 Graphics is typically 2–3 times faster. Where Intel’s UHD 630 often struggles to break 30fps even at 720p and minimum quality, AMD’s Vega 11 can legitimately handle 1080p and low to medium quality at playable framerates. Or you can drop to 720p and usually break 60fps.

Just make sure the motherboard you buy includes the requisite HDMI and/or DisplayPort outputs. Many X470/X570 boards skip those ports, as the other Ryzen CPUs lack integrated graphics. Your best bet is an inexpensive B450 board, which should have everything you need.

Best gaming PC | Best gaming keyboard | Best gaming mouse
Best gaming chair | Best VR headset | Best graphics cards 

How we test: CPUs

(Image credit: AMD)

Recent CPU reviews

AMD has been gaining ground on Intel in the world of CPUs since Ryzen appeared in 2017, and today it’s easy to justify buying CPUs from both companies. We’ve tested dozens of new processors in the past year alone, plus multiple previous generations of processors. If you’re using a 4th generation Intel CPU or earlier, or an AMD FX-series CPU or earlier, it’s really worth upgrading.

For our testing, we use Nvidia’s GeForce RTX 2080 Ti as our graphics card. That’s overkill compared to many of the CPUs, but at 1080p, it shows the most significant difference in gaming performance you’re likely to see. Upgrading your graphics card is a piece of cake compared to swapping out your CPU and potentially motherboard and RAM.

We’ve also used high-end G.Skill Trident Z and Flare X DDR4-3200 CL14 memory on all modern platforms, in either 2x 8GB or 4x 8GB configurations. Again, this is to eliminate any potential bottlenecks and let the CPUs reach their maximum performance. Liquid cooling was used on all CPUs, though for stock performance, we saw zero difference between that and the box coolers on those parts that included cooling.

The motherboards used in testing include the MSI MEG Z390 Godlike for Intel LGA1151, MSI MEG X570 Godlike and Gigabyte X570 Aorus Master for third-gen Ryzen, and MSI X470 Gaming M7 for first and second-gen Ryzen CPUs. AMD’s APUs were tested on an MSI B350I Pro AC motherboard, as we needed something with video ports. For the HEDT platforms (not that we recommend those any longer for gaming purposes—or most other tasks as well), we used an Asus X299 Extreme Encore for Intel LGA2066, Asus ROG Zenith Extreme for TR4, and Zenith II Extreme for TRX40.

Jargon buster

Caching – A small segment of high-speed memory dedicated to storing and executing frequently used commands/instructions to speed up software execution. CPUs contain caches designated as Level 1, 2, and 3, with L1 being the fastest and smallest and L3 being the slowest and largest.

Core – Modern CPUs can contain anywhere from two to 70+ cores (in supercomputers), though CPUs housed in most consumer machines will generally carry between four and eight, with AMD’s latest CPUs sporting up to 16 cores.

Clock speed – The speed at which a CPU can execute instructions, measured in hertz. A processor with a 3.7 GHz clock speed can process 3.7 billion instructions a second. Clock speed is one of the most critical factors for determining performance in games and workload functions.

Heat sink – A cooling solution for PCs that either utilizes fans or liquid cooling (active) or aluminum radiators (passive) that rely on convection to regulate the temperature of a component.

Hyper-Threading (SMT) – Intel terminology for a tech that allows a processor to handle two sets of instructions ‘threads’ simultaneously. AMD and other CPU vendors call this SMT, Simultaneous Multi-Threading.

Socket type LGA (Land Grid Array), PGA (Pin Grid Array), or BGA (Ball Grid Array) – The way a CPU interfaces with the socket on a motherboard. LGA is used on Intel sockets with the pins as part of the socket. AMD’s AM4 solution, PGA, has the pins are on the processor, and these fit into holes on the socket. AMD’s Threadripper CPUs also use LGA sockets. A BGA socket is one in which the processor is permanently soldered to the motherboard, typically on a laptop.

TDP – Thermal design power, the maximum amount of heat a system or chip can produce that the attendant cooling system is designed to deal with under workload. This term can apply to PCs as a whole, GPUs, CPUs, or nearly any other performance component that generates heat, and is in large part, an indicator of how much power a part draws.

Thread – A thread refers to a series of CPU instructions for a specific program. Older CPUs and those with SMT disabled run one thread per core, but most modern AMD and Intel CPUs can run two threads per core simultaneously, sharing some resources (e.g., cache). 

Turbo Boost – Intel technology that allows processors to run at higher clock speeds under demanding loads. AMD also supports turbo or boost clocks, and we use the terms interchangeably regardless of CPU vendor.

PCGamer.com

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