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How to Choose the Right Processor

Trying to figure out the best CPU for your next PC upgrade or DIY build? With apologies to Robert Frost, it’s the classic two roads that parted in the wood—if the wood were a shopping-results page at Newegg or Amazon, and the road kept dividing endlessly. Two roads, splitting to four roads. Then eight. (Better leave breadcrumbs.)

Indeed, buying a CPU is akin to a whole forest of decision trees. Which of the two big chip makers should you go with: AMD, or Intel? Are you trying to maximize speed, or value? Does the maximum number of cores matter more, or does clock speed? Are you upgrading, or building a whole new PC? Are you gaming? Not gaming? Still awake?

All of these questions are crucial in landing the right chip, and what that means: No single CPU is the absolute best across the board for all users, assuming money matters. It’s possible to objectively measure CPU performance across a range of applications and usage cases, and if you’re not bound by mere-mortal concerns such as a budget, it’s easy enough to get a pretty good idea of what “best” means. (Spoiler: Intel Core i9-10980XE Extreme Edition or AMD Ryzen Threadripper 3990X, one or four grand, respectively.)

But just because these, the CPU equivalents of maximum-horsepower V12 or V16 engines, exist doesn’t make them the right pick for every shopper, or even most shoppers. Other concerns—cost, energy consumption, the kinds of roads (read: tasks) you drive every day—matter just as much as out-and-out muscle.

The best way to look at a CPU buy is to take the considerations in a logical order, which will narrow the field as you make your choices. So, the first big one: Are you upgrading a PC, or building a new one from scratch?

Consideration No. 1: Upgrade, or New Build?

Answering this question will set you on a narrow path or a broad one. If you’re upgrading an existing desktop PC, your CPU upgrade options, by definition, will be limited: by the architecture, socket, and compatibility of the motherboard installed in the PC. If you are willing to swap out the motherboard to step up to a newer or more powerful class of CPU, that project becomes, in effect, building your own PC. That’s because a motherboard upgrade requires at least partial system disassembly, and sometimes replacing further parts to make the upgrade work.

Often, “In-Place” Upgrades Are a Waste of Time

In most cases, upgrading to another chip that works in the same socket as the one in your PC will have limited upside. In recent years, chip sockets or chipsets are only compatible for a generation or two of CPU, and once the year or two passes, the next platform is no longer compatible with the ones that came before. (Late-model mainstream AMD CPUs, on AMD’s “AM4” socket, have broken that cycle for the moment. More on that later.) What that means: Unless you’re upgrading from a low-end chip early in a platform’s lifecycle to a high-end CPU at the very end, you’re not likely to gain too much from an in-place CPU upgrade on a dead-end platform.

AMD AM4 Socket

In speaking of CPU lifecycles, the key consideration when you’re looking to upgrade on an existing motherboard is socket compatibility (that is, the receptacle into which you seat your new CPU). We can’t account for every aged or ancient socket that your PC upgrade might involve—there are just too many—but we can say this: It’s seldom worth upgrading a CPU on a dead-end socket unless you’ve gotten a stellar deal on the new chip, and you’re making a clear jump forward in core/thread count, or raw clock speed at the same core/thread count, from the old chip to the new.

So, Wait…How Do I Know What’s a Dead End?

As a quick guide, here are our rough recommendations for upgrades if you’re on a given platform. Googling the name of the CPU in your system and selecting the spec page on AMD’s or Intel’s site will divulge what “socket” the CPU is on…

Platform Chart

Again, we reiterate: This is a rough guide! There are edge cases on every line. If, say, you’re getting an Intel Core i7-3700K off Craigslist in exchange for $25 and a six-pack of Samuel Adams, meaning to replace a Core i3 on that platform, by all means, go for it.

But in most cases, if you have a midrange or better CPU on a given dead-end platform, unless you’re getting a new chip cheaply, you’ll get more bang for your buck buying a new motherboard and CPU on a current platform. After all, a new board on Intel’s or AMD’s mainstream platforms can set you back as little as $50. (Of course, if your older system is still on DDR2 or DDR3 memory, you’ll need new RAM, too; both Intel and AMD have moved to DDR4 on all of their current consumer platforms.)

Buying Basics: Four Key Concepts to Know About CPUs

Let’s take a quick look at some basic specs you need to understand before digging into Intel’s and AMD’s lines.

Core Count. It’s a gross oversimplification, but think of core count like engine cylinders; more cores generally indicate more power, all else being equal. (Properly written software can use more than one core to process parts of a task at a time.)

Of course, all else is seldom equal, and comparing core count is only really meaningful within a given CPU line and in the same generation of that line. That said, more cores are generally better, within reason. If the software you use is multithreaded (this especially applies to modern content-creation and -editing packages for graphics and video), more cores will help. And some demanding PC games require a certain core or thread count, usually a minimum of four. In descriptions of CPUs, you may see the core/thread count in a sort of shorthand (we’ll do so below), for example, 8C/16T, meaning 8 cores and 16 threads.

Multithreading. Intel and AMD CPUs support multithreading in certain of their chips. In a nutshell, multithreading allows your PC to run two discrete processing assignments, or threads, on each core. This doubles the simultaneous processing potential, assuming that the software and operating system can leverage it.

Intel calls this trait Hyper-Threading (HT), while in the AMD world, it’s referred to by the generic term SMT, for symmetric multithreading. Practically speaking, it is the same thing. For CPU-intensive tasks such as video rendering, support for HT/SMT is a very good thing. Note that Intel, with its latest 9th Generation mainstream Core CPUs for desktops, has pushed HT further up its stack than ever before. Now, only the Core i9 chips support HT. SMT goes much further down into mainstream chips in AMD’s Ryzen desktop line.

Intel Core X CPU

Base Clock, Boost Clock. Measured in gigahertz (GHz), these are two of the primary specs for any given CPU, but they require a bit of context. The base clock is a multiple of the system’s low-level clock and the CPU multiplier (which may be manually tweakable; more about that in a moment) and is the default speed at which the chip cores run. The boost clock is a higher ceiling at which one or more of the cores can run when the task demands it, and when the system’s thermal conditions allow. Depending on the software involved, the CPU cooling hardware, and the traits of the CPU itself and its motherboard, an accelerated clock rate up to the boost rate might kick in on some or all of the system’s cores, sometimes varying at any given time from core to core. Boost clock is not always evenly spread across all cores.

Like with core count, these numbers are telling only within a given processor family; a 3.5GHz Intel Core X-Series chip and a 4GHz AMD Ryzen mainstream chip are not directly comparable on the basis of clocks alone. This is where formal benchmarking and labs-based reviews like ours come to the fore.

Locked Versus Unlocked. A chip that’s “unlocked” for overclocking has its clock multiplier open for tweaking within the BIOS or in-OS overclocking software. The multiplier is locked down on other chips. We’ve detailed the overclockability of each line below, but in sum: Intel Core X-Series, AMD Ryzen, and AMD Ryzen Threadripper chips are unlocked, while Intel’s mainstream Cores are a mix, but mostly locked. More about overclocking, again, near the end of this guide.

So, Which Intel or AMD Processor Line to Choose?

Assuming you are staying on a given motherboard, your CPU choices will by definition be limited. But if you’re open to all of the current CPU platforms, you need weigh the various AMD and Intel chip families. With that in mind, let’s take a look, in turn, at each of the lines that are relevant today for PC builders and upgraders.

8th or 9th Generation Core: Intel’s Mainstream Choice

At this early 2020 writing, Intel has several generations of its mainstream Celeron, Pentium, and Core i3/i5/i7/i9 CPUs on the market at the same time. All make use of a motherboard CPU socket called Socket 1151. Socket 1151 is physically compatible with chips from the Celeron to the Core i9 across the 7th Generation (“Kaby Lake”), 8th Generation (“Coffee Lake”), and 9th Generation (“Coffee Lake Refresh”) platforms. The now end-of-life 6th Generation (“Skylake”) processors also live on this socket.

Intel LGA 1151 CPU

Note we emphasized “physically.” Chips from any of these generations will fit in any Socket 1151-equipped motherboard. But, that said, not every 1151-class chip will work with every Socket 1151 motherboard. You’ll also need to factor in the onboard chipset, the motherboard’s governing silicon. For example, late-model CPUs like the 9th Generation Intel Core i9-9900K won’t work with most older Socket 1151 boards; you’ll need a board that supports the Z390 chipset. (The i9-9900K and its limited-edition variant the i9-9900KS are the current peak chips in this line, with eight cores and 16 threads.)  

Intel LGA 1151 CPU Underside

Untangling chip, board, and chipset compatibility can be tricky with these chips, and you will often see four or five chipsets that work with a given chip generation, targeting different price strata and use cases. So you want to check the specs carefully to make sure that the motherboard you have or are considering supports the exact chip you’re looking at. Motherboard makers often provide CPU compatibility lists for a given board. Heed them.

For example, the Z390, Z370, B365, B360, H370, and H310 chipsets all are relevant for the latest generations of Intel CPUs, but you’ll want to check the compatibility lists. The Z chipsets are meant for overclockers and tweakers (paired with an unlocked CPU), the H370 is for mainstream users not intending to overclock, the B360 and B365 are more budget-level chipsets (generally found on boards with fewer features and ports), and the H310 is the most stripped-down of all. This Z/B/H letter scheme has held for several generations now.

Intel LGA 1151 CPU in LGA 1151 Socket

As we alluded to earlier, one thing to note with the 9th Generation Intel mainstream CPUs is that only the highest-end now support the doubling of processing threads via Hyper-Threading. This matters if you tend to use applications for content creation, rendering, and other intensive operations that make use of all the threads you can get. If you’ve owned earlier Core i7 chips with HT, don’t assume it’s supported on recent chips. Check.

In terms of nomenclature, the performance pecking order within each Intel chip generation is Celeron (generally slowest), followed by Pentium, Core i3, Core i5, and Core i7, and finally, the first Core i9 CPUs, introduced to Intel’s mainstream Socket 1151 platform with its 9th Generation family. (The very first Core i9 chips debuted in 2017 on Intel’s Core X-Series; more about them below.) Within each of these chip classes are CPUs with modest differences in clocking, as well as CPUs with overclockable versus locked-down multipliers. (The overclockable chips end in “K” or “KF”; they are mainly Core i5, i7, and i9.)

One note that even those familiar with Intel’s CPU lines over the years ought to know has to do with integrated graphics. Traditionally, Intel’s mainstream CPUs have incorporated on-chip video acceleration, under the name Intel HD Graphics, UHD Graphics, or Iris Graphics. (These kinds of on-die graphics solutions are also referred to as “integrated graphics processors,” or IGPs.) That means, assuming the motherboard has the appropriate video outputs, that you can use the IGP as your display solution, without needing a separate video card. With a few of Intel’s 8th and 9th Generation Core CPUs, the chip maker has begun issuing alternate versions without an IGP, set apart by the suffix “F.” These F-chips are otherwise the same as their non-F equivalents. (For example, the Core i9-9900KF is a CPU only, with no graphics features. It’s the same chip as the Core i9-9900K, just without the IGP silicon.)

New 10th Generation Intel CPUs are coming in May 2020. We haven’t tested any of these yet, but these will be on an all-new CPU socket called LGA 1200, and will require all-new motherboards using chipsets such as the Z490 (at the high end) and the lower-end H470, B460, and H410. 

(Examples: See our reviews of the Core i5-8400Core i7-8700KCore i7-8086K Limited Edition, Core i7-9700K, Core i9-9900K, and Core i9-9900KS.)

The Core X-Series: Intel’s Power-Lifters

Unlike the long-running mainstream Intel line, the Core X-Series is only a few years old, at least in name. It evolved from Intel’s traditionally distinct high-end CPU platform for content creators and extreme performance/gaming hounds, nowadays dubbed the “HEDT” (for “high end desktop”) market. Chips like the Core i7-6950X Extreme Edition are the forebears of the Core X-Series.

Intel Core X Series CPU in Hand

The Core X-Series CPUs currently run on a socket dubbed LGA 2066, for the 2,066 pins inside. The actual die size is larger than the mainstream Cores, and the slightly higher wattages here demand more robust cooling solutions. You’ll need to provide your own cooler; Core X chips don’t come with cooling fans in the box.

One of the key distinctions between these chips and Intel’s mainstream Core CPUs, apart from their largely higher core and thread count, is their support for a greater number of CPU-bound PCI Express lanes. These “lanes” are the internal electrical data pathways employed by video cards, PCI Express SSDs, and other PCI Express-bound internal cards. (Typical mainstream Intel chips top out at 16.) The issue of lane count matters in extreme PC builds that involve multiple video cards on PCI Express x16 slots sharing internal electrical lanes with several PCI Express SSDs, and other such devices on the bus; you need enough lanes to accommodate your hardware. This is a platform to consider if you’re looking at an SLI or CrossFire multiple-video-card gaming rig, or a PCI Express SSD array. Note, however, that the number of PCI Express lanes supported can vary depending on the Core X-Series CPU and motherboard combination you opt for. Examine the CPU’s spec sheet and our individual chip reviews for per-chip details.

Intel Core X Series CPU in Hand Underside

The Core X-Series chips have seen two major refreshes since Core X’s debut, going from the initial 7000 series under the names “Skylake-X” and “Kaby Lake-X” to the all-“Skylake-X” 9000 series in 2018 and then the “Cascade Lake-X” 1000 series in 2019. All of these chips work under a single Core X-Series chipset, the Intel X299, which is all about providing the extreme I/O and lane bandwidth that users of this platform seek. One thing to note: Two of the early Core X-Series CPUs, under the “Kaby Lake-X” banner, were stripped-down chips with limited PCI Express lane support and modest core/thread counts. (These were the Core i5-7640X and Core i7-7740X.) They have been discontinued, and you should avoid these. They were quixotic entry-level chips on this expensive-to-enter platform and made little sense for most users.

The family nomenclature here is otherwise all Core i7 or Core i9, with, at this writing, only Core i9 chips introduced in the Cascade Lake-X line. All of the Core X-Series chips end in “X” and are unlocked for overclocking. The top-end model of the moment is the 18-core/36-thread Core i9-10980XE Extreme Edition, which lists for $979. The suffix “Extreme Edition” usually denotes the top chip in that particular Core X-Series generation.

(Examples: See our reviews of the Core i7-7820X, Core i9-7900X, Core i9-7960XCore i9-7980XE Extreme EditionCore i9-9980XE Extreme Edition, and Core i9-10980XE Extreme Edition.)

AMD Ryzen A Series: Budget Dual-Purpose Chips

The A series is AMD’s low-cost CPU line that features decent IGPs, meant as inexpensive engines for productivity work and education use, and in some cases light gaming. Unlike Intel and the IGPs in its processors, AMD targets the best of its CPU/GPU combo chips (some of which fall under the Ryzen family; we’ll get into them in the next section) as budget-friendly solutions for casual gamers. These are affordable solutions for shoppers who want to avoid purchasing a dedicated graphics card.

From the point of view of system upgraders or builders, however, the AMD A series chips have only minimal appeal these days. These chips are more frequently found in prebuilt budget desktop systems, and even in those systems, the A-series CPUs are fading out here in 2020 in favor of low-end Ryzens. The last A series chips (dubbed “Bristol Ridge”) work on the same AMD Socket AM4 that the Ryzen chips below support. In most cases, you’re best off opting for one of the budget Ryzens discussed below (namely, the “Raven Ridge” or newer “Picasso” G chips, assuming you want to get by without a video card).

AMD Ryzen: The Mainstream Alternative

The mainstream Ryzen CPUs are, on the whole, excellent values for mainstream users and many power users. Most of them are CPUs only, requiring pairing with a dedicated video card (an added expense, if you don’t have one). The ones that are CPU-only end in a “0,” or with an “X.”

With the so-called “Raven Ridge” series of Ryzen chips (which also includes a few Athlon-branded CPUs), however, AMD added a form of its Vega graphics to the CPU die. Tagged with a “G” (for “graphics”) at the end of their chip names, these CPUs (the first of which debuted in 2018) are excellent values for budget systems emphasizing light gaming and productivity work. The on-chip graphics aren’t the equivalent of even a middling video card, but they outpace Intel’s HD and UHD Graphics solutions and can manage some decent gaming if you dial down the resolution and detail settings judiciously.

AMD Ryzen CPU

The real hearts of the Ryzen line, though (and what, in the main, brought AMD roaring back in the last few years in mainstream desktops), are the Ryzen 1000, 2000, and 3000 series CPUs, the first through third generations, respectively. (The second- and third-gen Ryzen desktop CPUs, along with some of the first gen, remain on the market at this writing.) These graphics-less chips deliver raw core-and-thread counts that have upended the economies of the mainstream market. They are broken into Ryzen 3, Ryzen 5, Ryzen 7, and (new with the third-generation Ryzens) Ryzen 9 classes, the same sort of breakdown as Intel’s Cores. We have particular favorites in each line, and have reviewed many of them singly, but on the whole, all are fine values for users who need lots of cores and threads on the cheap. All are unlocked for overclocking, if you are so inclined. And the included cooling solutions are attractive, adequate to running at stock speeds, and a good value.

AMD Ryzen CPU

The Ryzen 5 line is especially attractive as a mainstream value pick. All of the Ryzen 5 processors (excepting a handful of OEM-only chips meant for non-USA sale) support SMT (making them all 4C/8T or 6C/12T). With the latest generation, all come bundled with a nifty-looking stock air cooler from AMD’s Wraith line. The latest Ryzen 3 third-generation chips (4C/8T) are also excellent values for gamers.

Like with the mainstream Intel lines, you’ll want to match up your motherboard chipset with your usage case here. All of the Ryzen chips run on the AM4 socket; older boards may require a BIOS update for newer chips, but compatibility is more streamlined than with 6th to 9th Generation Intel Core CPUs on Socket 1151 and their chipset-dependent complexities.

AMD’s chipsets for the current Ryzen are the X570/X470/X370 (these are the high-end ones designed for overclockers, the equivalent of Intel’s Z-series chipsets), the B450/B350 (the mainstream models), and the A320 (resolutely budget-minded boards). X470 will give you access to slightly higher system-memory clocks than X370, as well as support for StoreMI, a flexible storage-management feature that lets you pair an SSD and a hard drive to facilitate keeping your most frequently accessed files and programs on the faster drive. X570, meanwhile, debuted with third-generation Ryzen in 2019 and brings support for PCI Express 4.0, which is for now mostly of interest to shoppers looking to install the fastest possible PCI Express 4.0 SSDs.

(Examples: See our reviews of the Ryzen 3 2200G, Ryzen 5 2600X, Ryzen 7 2700X, Ryzen 3 3200G, Ryzen 3 3300X, Ryzen 5 3600X, Ryzen 5 3400G, Ryzen 7 3700X, Ryzen 9 3900X, and Ryzen 9 3950X.)

AMD Ryzen Threadripper: Maximum Cores and Threads

Threadripper! As its aggro name suggests, the Ryzen Threadripper is all about maximum cores and threads for the money. It’s AMD’s equivalent to Intel’s Core X-Series, and, for many users, a better value.

Clocks on the Threadripper chips tend to be lower than their Intel equivalents, but Threadripper chips make up for that in raw core/thread count, as well as their support, across the whole line, for 64 PCI Express lanes. All Threadripper CPUs are overclockable, and their big die is derived from EPYC, AMD’s server chip line.

AMD Ryzen Threadripper CPU in Hand

Like the vanilla Ryzen, the Threadripper chips have passed through three generations to date. The first two are on the same platform and use the same socket (in Threadripper’s case, a gigantic one known as socket TR4, with more than 4,000 pins and a special loading mechanism). With the third-gen Threadrippers, the platform is new, with a new socket called sTRX4 and a new chipset, the TRX40. The first two generations of Threadripper employ a single high-end chipset, the AMD X399, which supports those mentioned 64 lanes of PCI Express bandwidth with all compatible Threadripper processors. The third-gen chips and boards support the same lanes, but third-gen chips work only with third-gen boards and vice versa.

AMD 3rd Generation Ryzen Threadripper CPU in Box

Note that Threadripper chips, due to their huge dies, require special coolers or brackets—many existing coolers won’t work with TR4 or sTRX4—and most Threadripper cooling solutions are liquid-cooled. You can find a few Threadripper air coolers, which are gigantic, such as the Wraith Ripper from AMD itself or the wonderfully named Fryzen from Deepcool, but you’ll have to factor in the cost of one of these heavy-duty solutions, air or water, if you go Threadripper. Threadripper chips, like Intel Core X, don’t include a cooler in the box.  

AMD 3rd Generation Ryzen Threadripper CPU

Also factor in a deluxe motherboard. Like with the Intel Core X-Series, the X399- and TRX40-based boards are geared to extreme power users and serious enthusiasts. At this writing, prices started at around $250 for the lowest-end X399 boards and $400 for the cheapest TRX40 ones.

In the second generation of Threadripper, the line is broken into two tiers: the “ordinary” X series and the higher-end WX series. The latter comprise the 24C/48T Ryzen Threadripper 2970WX and 32C/64T Threadripper 2990WX. These latter two chips, each under $2,000, were the ultimate in consumer-attainable core and thread count until the third-gen Threadripper 3990X ($3,990) came along with its 64C/128TH design. (With third-gen Threadripper, AMD abandoned the X-vs.-WX distinction.) You’ll want to read our 2970WX review, though, for some caveats around these specific extreme chips.

(Examples: See our reviews of the Ryzen Threadripper 1920XRyzen Threadripper 1950XRyzen Threadripper 2950X, Ryzen Threadripper 2970WX, Ryzen Threadripper 3960X, and Ryzen Threadripper 3970X.)

What Kind of CPU Cooler Do I Need?

When you’re shopping for a CPU, you may also need to shop for a new CPU cooler. It depends on the family of CPU you’re looking at, whether a cooler comes bundled in the box, whether your existing cooler will work with the new CPU (if it’s being installed along with a new motherboard that has a new kind of socket), and if you intend to overclock.

If you’re looking at Intel’s mainstream CPUs on Socket 1151, most come with Intel’s capable, recently upgraded stock air cooler in the box. The exceptions are the unlocked Core enthusiast CPUs, which come without any; the assumption there is that you will bring your own, enhanced cooler to the chip-tweaking party. The same applies to the Intel Core X-Series across the board, as well as the AMD Threadripper line: It’s a BYO cooler party in these cases.

Intel Stock Cooler

All retail third-gen AMD Ryzen processors (apart from the Ryzen 9 3950X and the Threadrippers) come with one of several distinct air coolers in the AMD Wraith family: the Stealth, the Spire, or the Prism. The first and second generation Ryzens are a mixed bag. Some of the chips come with no cooler; others come with one of the Wraiths. You’ll want to check at time of purchase what comes in the box. If you’re not looking to overclock, opting for one of the Ryzens that comes with a Wraith cooler in the box can save you $20 or $30.  

AMD Stock Cooler

If you’re looking for a new cooler to pair up with a new CPU, an important spec to be aware of is the chip’s rated thermal design power (TDP) rating. TDP is relevant as a yardstick for the heat output that the cooler will have to handle. Any cooler you are looking at should (1) be compatible with the socket type of the CPU you are installing in on, and (2) support at least the TDP rating of the chip. Note that some cooler manufacturers will express this support simply in terms of specific CPUs or lines, others as a maximum TDP rating.

Should you go with air cooling, or liquid cooling? In most cases, for running at stock speeds, air cooling is just fine, and you don’t need more than the stock cooler. It is designed to handle the CPU it is boxed with. Oftentimes, it will also be able to accommodate modest overclocks, too.

AMD Ryzen CPU and Wraith Stock Cooler

Liquid cooling has an exotic cachet for many users, but today’s all-in-one (AIO) liquid coolers from Cooler Master, Corsair, Deepcool, NZXT, and others have made water-cooling your PC as safe and easy as installing a case fan. Still, it’s fine to leave liquid cooling to the overlcoking set. The only exception that calls for liquid cooling by default, though, is AMD’s Ryzen Threadripper. Chances are, any cooler you owned before won’t work with Threadripper’s TR4 or sTRX4 sockets (the area atop the chip die that the heat sink needs to touch is much larger on than other mainstream CPUs), and the few air-cooling solutions available for Threadripper are, as mentioned earlier, enormous.

Should You Consider Overclocking?

Overclocking is easier than it has ever been, but it is still a process for the patient at heart. On the whole, we’d chalk up most gains from CPU overclocking as modest at best for productivity users, and recommend leaving the endeavor to hobbyists and enthusiasts.

Why? Overclocking can void your CPU’s warranty, and there’s no guarantee that you’ll gain much from it. (Overclocking suitability varies from chip sample to chip sample, what’s known in enthusiast circles as the “silicon lottery.”) You’ll need to be sure you have a robust cooling solution to handle the extra heat, as well a motherboard and CPU that are suited to the task, since not all chips are unlocked for overclocking, and not all motherboards support it. Once you’ve made those investments, you’re oftentimes better off just getting a faster CPU in the first place.

MSI BIOS Screen for Overclocking

That said, if you want to give it a go, know your overclockables! Among mainstream Intel Core Socket 1151 processors, look for models with a “K” (unlocked) or “KF” (unlocked, and lacking IGP) at the end of the model numbers. All AMD Ryzen, AMD Ryzen Threadripper, and Intel Core X-Series chips can be overclocked. In the case of the last two, all of their supporting X399 and X299 motherboards support overclocking. With Intel Socket 1151, you’ll want a Z390- or Z370-chipset-based motherboard; on Ryzen, look for an X470, X370, or B350 board.

You’ll also want to make sure the cooler is adequate, per our advice above. You don’t necessarily need a liquid cooler, but you’ll want to be sure that any cooler you get has some extra TDP-support overhead if you intend to try overclocking. (The heat output you’ll need to dissipate will be greater than the chip’s rating.)

The Bottom Line…

You’ll want to check out our individual reviews and compare scores on tests like Cinebench and Handbrake for a relative idea of how these chips relate to one another. However, our cheat sheet below will give you a good basic idea of the chips lines to look at, depending on what you do.

You’re looking to do…

Basic productivity work. Look at a Intel Core i3 or Core i5 CPU on Socket 1151, or an AMD Ryzen 3 or Ryzen 5 on Socket AM4. Note that a straight-up Ryzen chip will require a separate video card. Consider one of the Ryzen “G” chips if you mean to do some very light gaming or just don’t need a video card. (Just make sure the motherboard has video outputs!)

Intel Core LGA 1151 CPU

Expect to pay roughly $100 to $150 for one of these Ryzen “G” chips. For very basic use, an under-$100 Intel Pentium or AMD Athlon CPU can suffice; we found the latest Athlons slightly better values.

Picks: AMD Athlon 200GE, Intel Pentium Gold G5600, AMD Ryzen 3 3200G, AMD Ryzen 5 3400G

Discrete-card gaming on a budget. See above regarding the “G” Ryzens if money is extremely tight. If you mean to get a video card, though, consider a Core i5 or Ryzen 3 or 5 for maximum value. The 2020 Ryzen 3s are especially strong,. 

AMD Ryzen 5 CPU and Stock Cooler

Notably, if it will let you get a better video card in this scenario, you can even opt for a slightly older Core i5 or a Ryzen 5, from the Intel 8th Generation family or the second gen of Ryzen. Expect to pay roughly $150 to $200, possibly a bit less if you opt for a previous-gen chip. (We’ve seen great deals on second-gen Ryzens.)

Picks: Intel Core i5-8400, AMD Ryzen 3 3300X, AMD Ryzen 5 2600X, AMD Ryzen 5 3600X

Enthusiast/high-refresh-rate gaming. Here, you want to be sure that your CPU isn’t bottlenecking your GPU in some CPU-dependent games. Assuming you’re looking at a high-end video card, you’ll want a CPU to match.

Intel Core i7 CPU Box

The Core i7-9700K is a favorite of many high-end gamers, with the Core i9-9900K or 9900KS the real luxury pick. Expect to pay roughly $250 to $400, or more for the Core i9 chips.

Picks: Intel Core i7-8700K, Intel Core i7-9700K, AMD Ryzen 7 2700X, AMD Ryzen 7 3700X

Casual/enthusiast media-content creation. In this space, it’s all about how true the statement is “My time is money,” and how multithreaded your go-to applications are. Casual content creators can get by with the chips we recommended for the enthusiast gamers (the Core i7-8700K is 6C/12T, the Ryzen 7 2700X and 3700X are 8C/16T), with a possible step up to the Core i9-9900K (8C/16T). A significant exception: The Core i7-9700K is 8C/8TH, and less of a value for this crowd. Expect to pay roughly $250 to $700.

AMD Ryzen 3rd Generation CPU in Hand

We extended that range to $700 because even a few Ryzen Threadripper chips are in reach, if you opt for certain of the first- or second-gen chips; the X399/sTR4 platform is a dead end, but the value proposition on those chips at their 2020 lower prices is still stupendous.

Picks: Intel Core i9-9900K, AMD Ryzen 9 3900X, AMD Ryzen 9 3950X, AMD Ryzen Threadripper 2950X

Hardcore/professional content creation. Here, we’re assuming that “My time is money” is indeed your mantra, and your programs are well optimized for all the cores and threads they can get. Core X-Series and Threadripper were made for this market. Intel’s lower-end Xeons also come into play here if you are running programs with independent software vendor (ISV) certifications and a need for error-correcting-code (ECC) RAM, but if you need those things, you should follow the recommendations of the software maker carefully.

Intel Core X CPU

The sky is the limit (the latest 10th Generation, top-end Intel Core X-Series chips top out around $1,000, while the latest Threadrippers are in the $1,200 to $2,000 range, with the extra-double elite 64-core Threadripper 3990X at $3,990). The best values, to our eyes, are closer to the $1,000 mark, and like above, the last-generation Threadrippers remain great values despite the sunsetting of their platform.

Picks: Intel Core i9-10980X Extreme Edition, Intel Xeon W-2295AMD Ryzen Threadripper 2970WX, AMD Ryzen Threadripper 3960X, AMD Ryzen Threadripper 3970X

So, Which Desktop CPU Should I Buy?

Below are links to deep-dive reviews of most of the CPUs recommended above. Check them out for more specific benchmarking detail and more info on their supported platforms. Of particular note: Though we have recommended just a handful of the chips in the AMD Ryzen 3, 5, 7, and 9 lines, we have reviewed many other Ryzen chips from Ryzen’s various generations that we still highly recommend. If you’re budget-sensitive, these first- and second-gen chips remain available and deliver very fine value, especially given that they have seen some price drops since their launch. See the various Ryzen reviews for links to more.

  • AMD Ryzen 3 3300X

    AMD Ryzen 3 3300X

    Pros: Great value for the performance
    Solid comparative gaming results at 1080p
    Gives budget-strapped creators new options
    Works on AMD’s established AM4 socket
    Decent bundled cooler

    Cons: No on-die integrated graphics

    Bottom Line: The Ryzen 3 3300X should be a top CPU contender for anyone building a fast, but budget-conscious, AMD AM4-based gaming desktop (or a content-creation PC) equipped with a dedicated video card.

    Read Review

  • AMD Ryzen 9 3950X

    AMD Ryzen 9 3950X

    Pros: Fastest prosumer CPU on the market. Great price-to-performance ratio. Modest TDP for what it is.

    Cons: Overkill for PC gamers. Single-core performance is still a bit slower than cheaper Intel processors.

    Bottom Line: If you thought AMD was done upending the processor market in 2019, hold its drink: The Ryzen 9 3950X redefines what a CPU under $800 can do in multitasking, gaming, and content creation.

    Read Review

  • AMD Ryzen 5 3400G

    AMD Ryzen 5 3400G

    Pros: Inexpensive four-core engine for a budget PC. Supports multithreading. Strong CPU-integrated graphics. Decent bundled cooler. Works with inexpensive AM4 motherboards (that have a current BIOS).

    Cons: Lags on some single-threaded workflows. Cheap compatible AM4 motherboards may require a BIOS update.

    Bottom Line: AMD’s Ryzen 5 3400G is an inexpensive AM4-socket CPU with a potent integrated graphics processor, making it an excellent choice for a multipurpose entry-level PC build.

    Read Review

  • AMD Ryzen 5 3600X

    AMD Ryzen 5 3600X

    Pros: Multithreading support. Overclockable. Robust management software. Backwards-compatible with older AM4 motherboards. Included cooling fan.

    Cons: No integrated graphics. Hampers performance on some demanding games.

    Bottom Line: The six-core AMD Ryzen 5 3600X is an excellent mainstream CPU, offering proficient performance, multithreading, and overclockability.

    Read Review

  • AMD Ryzen 7 3700X

    AMD Ryzen 7 3700X

    Pros: Just 65-watt TDP.
    Attractive pricing.
    Support for PCI Express 4.0.
    Lots of L3 cache.
    Multithreaded, with eight cores and 16 threads.
    Easy overclocking tools.
    Good in-box cooler.

    Cons: Single-core performance occasionally behind competing chips.
    No integrated graphics processing.

    Bottom Line: An aggressively priced eight-core CPU, AMD’s Ryzen 7 3700X is a powerful general-purpose processor with low power consumption, straddling the border between prosumer flamethrowers like AMD’s Threadripper and mainstream chips like Intel’s Core i5.

    Read Review

  • AMD Ryzen Threadripper 2950X

    AMD Ryzen Threadripper 2950X

    Pros: Excellent multi-threaded performance.
    64 PCI Express lanes.
    Expanding ecosystem of components.
    Easy-to-use Ryzen Master software utility.

    Cons: Variable performance on 1080p gaming.
    Complex installation process.

    Bottom Line: With incremental improvements to multi-threaded performance, thermal management, and overclocking, the Ryzen Threadripper 2950X makes AMD’s flagship consumer CPU lineup even better than it was before.

  • AMD Ryzen Threadripper 3970X

    AMD Ryzen Threadripper 3970X

    Pros: Unmatched performance in multithread-aware tests, with 32 cores and 64 addressable threads. Top-notch gaming results. Support for ECC memory with certain mainboards. Up to 256GB of memory, in quad channel, supported on TRX40 mainboards.

    Cons: New TRX40 motherboard platform means high cost of entry. Low overclock ceiling. Single-core results are middling.

    Bottom Line: AMD’s 32-core Ryzen Threadripper 3970X performs so far ahead of the curve that it practically creates a new class of consumer-accessible CPU. If you’re a pro content creator with the ready cash, look no further: This is the V16 engine that makes your heart rate rev up.

    Read Review

  • Intel Core i5-8400

    Intel Core i5-8400

    Pros: Often bests previous-generation Core i7-7700K flagship CPU on multi-core tests.
    Best-in-class gaming performance, when paired with a dedicated graphics card.

    Cons: Not unlocked for overclocking.
    Requires a new motherboard, despite Z370 chipset offering no substantive new features.

    Bottom Line: Intel’s six-core “Coffee Lake” Core i5 trades blows away much pricier previous-generation Core i7 chips.
    But it’s most impressive when paired with a dedicated graphics card.

  • Intel Core i7-9700K

    Intel Core i7-9700K

    Pros: Very good single-core performance.
    Handles demanding 3D graphics well.
    Maintains high frame rates for high-refresh gamers.

    Cons: No Hyper-Threading support.
    Cooling fan and heatsink not included.
    No PCI Express 4.0 support.

    Bottom Line: Intel’s Core i7-9700K is a proficient mainstream CPU for gaming enthusiasts, but AMD’s Ryzen 7 3700X offers better value and better performance on many computing tasks.

    Read Review

  • Intel Core i9-9900K

    Intel Core i9-9900K

    Pros: Two more cores than previous top Coffee Lake CPU.
    A flamethrower for multi-threaded applications.
    5GHz peak one-core clock for single-threaded apps.
    Unlocked multiplier.

    Cons: Creates new, costlier price tier above former Core i7 flagship CPUs.
    Runs hot.
    No stock cooler.

    Bottom Line: Intel’s Core i9-9900K mainstream flagship CPU is a spirited performer, no matter what you task it with.
    If you don’t need the RAM bandwidth or PCI Express lanes of Intel’s Core X or AMD’s Threadripper platforms, this chip is peak silicon for a new build.


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