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The best processors for 2021

Although many components go into building a PC, few are as important as the processor. As the heart of your system, the CPU handles most of the actual computing that your computer does. With multiple options from AMD and Intel, however, finding the best processors is more difficult than it may seem.

We’ve rounded up the best desktop CPUs for your next build, most of which come from AMD (we managed to sneak in an Intel recommendation, too). There are a few options depending on your budget, with the Ryzen 5 3600 taking the cake for budget builds, and the Ryzen 9 5900X taking the crown for high-end ones.

The best processors in 2020 at a glance

The best bang for buck processor: AMD Ryzen 5 3600

AMD Ryzen 9 3900x
Dan Baker/Digital Trends

AMD’s Ryzen 5000-series processors are all the rage right now, and for good reason. Ryzen 5000 is impressive, but the range is still young, with the cheapest processor clocking in at $300 (if you can find one in stock). For around $200, you can pick up the last-gen 3600, which still features six cores and 12 threads with a base speed of 3.6GHz. Plus, you can find the 3600 readily available at most major retailers.

The only other option around $200 is Intel’s i5-10400. Not only does the Ryzen 5 3600 handily beat the 10400 in productivity benchmarks, but it also puts up a reasonable fight in gaming. You can also overclock the 3600 to close the gaming gap, and you’ll save on a motherboard. Unlike Intel, AMD supports overclocking on its midrange, B-series chipset.

The best budget processor: Intel Core i3-10100

Intel Core i3-10100 package

For between $100 and $150, our go-to recommendation is the Ryzen 3 3300X. It’s a quad-core chip that can boost up to 4.3GHz, and it even comes with a decent bundled cooler. However, the 3300X, like many Ryzen processors, is out of stock at most retailers. In its place, we’re recommending the Core i3-10100.

Like the 3300X, the 10100 is a quad-core processor that can boost up to 4.3GHz. Unlike previous i3 CPUs, the 10100 actually supports hyperthreading, giving you access to four physical cores and eight simultaneous threads for just over $100. It doesn’t include a cooler like the 3300X, but there are cheap CPU coolers out there (our best CPU coolers guide can point you in the right direction).

As for performance, the 10100 trails the 3300X in most productivity benchmarks. That’s true of all third-gen Ryzen chips, however. Compared to Intel’s range, the 10100 is surprisingly effective, reaching similar performance levels as the i7-7700K and occasionally surpassing the i5-9600K. The 10100 is still far from equipped to handle any serious rendering or 3D modeling, but it can at least put up a fight.

The good news comes in gaming, where the 10100 shows a negligible performance difference between similarly priced chips. There is a difference, with Intel’s 9th- and 10th-gen chips following behind Ryzen 5000. However, the difference isn’t nearly as stark in gaming as it is in productivity benchmarks, especially at higher resolutions.

The best midrange processor: Intel Core i5-10600K

Intel Core i5-10600K package

AMD has always been the better option on a budget, but in a strange twist, we’re actually recommending an Intel processor in this spot. From gaming to light productivity, the i5-10600K is a more than capable chip. It boasts six cores and 12 threads with a base frequency of 4.1GHz. 10th-gen Intel processors are known for how well they overclock, however. This “K” model processor is unlocked, meaning you can overclock it with a compatible motherboard. With a little tweaking, the 10600K can hit 5GHz just like its bigger, badder sibling: The i9-10900K.

The 10600K will likely be a last-gen part soon, too, so the price is down. You can find the 10600K readily available at most online retailers for around $260. AMD’s competing chip, the Ryzen 5 5600X, is slightly more expensive at around $300. It features the same core count as the 10600K, but AMD’s chip wins in gaming benchmarks, especially at lower resolutions. You shouldn’t discount how well the 10600K overclocks, though, which can easily close the gap with the 5600X when gaming, nearing Ryzen 7 5800X performance.

It’s more of a timing issue. AMD’s 5000-series processors are out of stock at most retailers, and Intel is expected to reveal its 11th-gen desktop platform soon. If you need a processor for around $250 now, the 10600K is the best option. If you can wait, the 5600X is the better performing chip overall, and we’re still waiting to see what Intel has in store for next-gen.

The best processor for enthusiasts: AMD Ryzen 7 5800X

The Ryzen 7 5800X sits in a strange spot. If all you’re worried about is gaming, the cheaper 5600X is the better option. It’s $150 less than the 5800X, and it’s just as capable in gaming. When it comes to productivity tasks, the 5800X is certainly an upgrade from the 5600X. However, the 5800X is only $100 less than the flagship 5900X, and that processor wins the day in productivity.

That doesn’t make the 5800X an unnecessary processor, however. If you’re mainly interested in gaming and need some productivity power on the side — say, encoding gameplay footage or video editing in Premiere — the 5800X is the perfect balance. The 5900X is great for productivity, with gaming on the side. The 5800X is perfect for the opposite.

As for the processor itself, the 5800X comes with eight cores and 16 threads with a base clock of 3.8GHz. It can boost as high as 4.7GHz, falling just short of the 5GHz mark (AMD will get there one day). Although it’s too much for gaming and not enough for serious productivity, few processors manage both at a reasonable price, making it an ideal choice in some situations.

That’s just compared to Ryzen 5000, too. The 5800X is still a massive leap ahead in performance compared to Intel’s current offerings and AMD’s last-gen offerings, especially when it comes to gaming.

The best high-end processor: AMD Ryzen 9 5900X

Two chips are topping AMD’s current lineup: The 5900X and the 5950X. The 5950X is undoubtedly the more powerful processor, sporting 16 cores and 32 threads to the 5900X’s 12 cores and 24 threads. The 5950X is also $250 more expensive, and in the vast majority of applications, that’s wasted money.

The 5900X far exceeds the last-gen 3900X, as well as Intel’s current frontrunner, the 10900K. The underlying Zen 3 architecture is the reason why, with excellent single- and multi-core performance. In rendering and encoding, the 5900X matches or exceeds the last-gen 3950X in most benchmarks. In some cases, the 5900X even exceeds the 5950X.

If you’re only interested in gaming, we’d normally point to Intel’s offerings, but AMD still leads the pack with the 5900X. Even in games that heavily favor Intel CPUs — such as Red Dead Redemption 2 — the 5900X tops Intel’s best.

Like all 5000-series processors, the 5900X is out of stock at most retailers as of January 2021. It really is the best mainstream processor currently available, so we’d recommend hunting one down if you can. If you need a processor now, however, the 10900K gets close in gaming and most productivity tasks, and even closer with a little overclocking.

Best processor for productivity work: AMD Threadripper 3990X

AMD Threadripper 3990X

If AMD changed the conversation with its mainstream Ryzen 3000-series processors, it flipped the script with Threadripper 3000. Even among that ridiculously powerful generation of high-end CPUs, the Threadripper 3990X stands alone. It is a genuinely ludicrous and unnecessary CPU. But if you can take advantage of its 64 cores and 128 threads, there’s no other CPU out there quite like it, outside of the server space.

The 3990X, like most Threadripper chips, favors quantity over quality. The cores themselves are impressive, built on the same Zen 2 architecture as third-gen Ryzen chips. However, the newer Zen 3 architecture in Ryzen 5000 processors has faster single-core performance, making those CPUs better for things like gaming, which usually stress a dominant core or only use a limited number of cores.

The 3990X shines in tasks that demand a lot of cores, such as visual effects rendering or dense video editing. Sitting between the consumer and professional space, the 3990X is the perfect processor for professionals that need the best performance but don’t have the money to invest in server-grade hardware.

This model’s price is an obvious downside—it’s just under $4,000. However, that’s still far less expensive than Intel’s 50+ core models. If having a ton of cores isn’t essential, you can get the 32-core AMD Threadripper 3970X for half the price while still spending less than you would with other models. Keep in mind, though, that the 3990X is a productivity workhorse. If you make a living from your computer—say, in CPU-heavy tasks such as CAD and video encoding—the higher priced option might pay for itself.

AMD still leads the pack

AMD Ryzen 9 3900x
Dan Baker/Digital Trends

It’s possible to find a great processor that checks all your boxes without unnecessary features. AMD’s processors put them first in this competition, but Intel’s upcoming 11th generation desktop chips might change the game.

Whether your primary concern is power or price tag, your ideal processor is undoubtedly in this list of recommendations. Check back to review your build and adjust accordingly as your needs evolve. A combination of price, compatibility, and individual user needs makes a wide range of processors necessary. It takes a little research to choose the right model for you, and this guide is an excellent stepping-off point.

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