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The best processors for gaming

Although it’s easy to focus on the graphics card when it comes to PC gaming, your processor plays an equally important role. Especially in games with a lot of artificial intelligence or simulations — think Hitman 2 and Civilization VI — a good gaming CPU is essential. In this guide to the best processors for gaming, we’re going to run down three options each from AMD and Intel so you can find the right gaming processor at the right price.

Best processor for mid-level gaming

AMD Ryzen 9 3900x
Dan Baker/Digital Trends

Thanks to AMD’s Ryzen CPUs lighting a fire under Intel, the current crop of mainstream CPUs are some of the best gaming chips we’ve seen in years. Better yet, they’re affordable. You can have some of the best chips from both companies for just a few hundred dollars, so if you’re looking for top gaming performance without breaking the bank, these are your best bets.

AMD’s new Ryzen 5 5600X features all the improvements of the Zen 3 architecture without the high price. Clocking in at only $300, the 5600X is an impressive processor with its six cores and 12 threads. It’s not an octa-core like the 9700K is, but thanks to hyperthreading, the 5600X can match or outperform the 9700K in productivity tasks.

The Intel chip doesn’t support multithreading. For that, you’ll need to upgrade to the more recent i7-10700K. We’re still recommending the i7-9700K because, frankly, it performs just as well as the i7-10700K when it comes to gaming, and the 9700K is $100 cheaper as of late 2020. However, if you want to do photo/video editing, 3D modeling, or similar tasks on the side, the i7-10700K is a better choice — though not better than the 5600X.

Core i7-9700K
Ryzen 5 5600X
Architecture: Coffee Lake-R Zen 3
Cores: 8 6
Threads: 8 12
Base clock: 3.7GHz 3.7GHz
Boost clock: 4.9GHz 4.6GHz
L3 cache: 12MB 32MB
Integrated graphics: UHD Graphics 630 No
TDP: 95 watts 65 watts
Required socket: LGA 1151 AM4
Suggested chipset: Z390 X570

Despite being a Ryzen 5 processor, the 5600X can go toe-to-toe with Intel’s best when it comes to gaming too. In most titles, the 5600X matches the much more expensive i9-10900K, and with a little overclocking, surpasses it. At stock frequencies, the 9700K isn’t as good of a performer by comparison, but it can be heavily overclocked to help close the gap.

Zen 3 brought many improvements to AMD’s Ryzen platform, not the least of which is a huge uptick in IPC performance. In single-threaded tasks, the 5600X destroys the 9700K, and even in multi-threaded workloads, the 5600X can hold its own against Intel’s i9 line. As of late 2020, stock issues are the biggest problem facing the 5600X. If you’re struggling to find one, give the Ryzen 7 3700X a shot. It won’t perform as well in single-threaded applications and games, but it’s not far off, and its additional cores and threads could make it more of a future-proofed CPU with AAA games designed with new-generation consoles in mind.

Best bang for the buck: Ryzen 5 5600X

Best processor for gaming on a budget

AMD Ryzen 9 3900x
Dan Baker/Digital Trends

For budget gaming right now, Intel is the odd leader. Third-gen Ryzen 5 chips are still excellent alternatives if you can find them in stock, but that’s the issue. The Ryzen 5 3600, for example, normally runs $200, which would put it right at the top end of this price bracket. Due to limited supply, however, many 3600 chips run for closer to $300.

That leaves us with the Ryzen 5 3400G, which is still a very capable gaming chip (though not as powerful as the 3600). The 3400G runs behind Intel’s i5-10400. However, unlike Intel’s offering, you can overclock the 3400G. The bundled Wraith Spire cooler, even, is enough to push the processor past its base clocks. Keep in mind the limited core and thread counts for certain applications, though.

Additionally, the 3400G comes with integrated graphics, but we wouldn’t recommend using them. For very lightweight gaming at low resolutions, the bundled Vega 11 graphics do the trick. However, a dedicated GPU is still necessary to hit playable frame rates at 1080p.

The i5-10400 is still a more impressive processor at this price. You’re missing overclocking, and the integrated graphics are worse. However, by giving up those, you’re gaining two cores, four threads, and 6MB of cache over the 3400G. At 1080p, the 10400F easily beats the 3400G and even maintains a lead over the 3600. Ryzen processors, even dating back to first-gen, still beat Intel’s offerings when it comes to non-gaming workloads, however.

Core i5-10400
AMD Ryzen 5 3400G
Architecture: Comet Lake Zen 2
Cores: 6 4
Threads: 12 8
Base clock: 2.9GHz 3.7Hz
Boost clock: 4.3GHz 4.2GHz
Cache: 12MB 6MB
Integrated graphics: UHD Graphics 630 RX Vega 11
TDP: 65 watts 65 watts
Required socket: LGA 1200 AM4
Suggested chipset: Z490 X570 / X470 / B450

If you can stretch your budget a little further, the Intel Core i5-10600K is fantastic for gaming and can easily beat our other recommendations (especially when overclocked). AMD has a chip at that same price in the form of the 3600X. The more recent 5600X is slightly more expensive but much more powerful. If you have the extra $50 and can find one in stock, AMD’s latest Ryzen 5 should be the processor you reach for.

At this price, it’s not worth looking last-generation, especially when it comes to gaming.

Best bang for the buck: Intel Core i5-10400

Best processor for streaming and 4K gaming

Intel Announces The Xeon 5100 Microprocessor For Servers
Court Mast/Intel via Getty Images

If you’re a gamer who wants ultimate power or someone who works and plays hard on the same machine, these are the chips for you. For everyone else, buying a cheaper chip and investing more in a better graphics card would likely be a smarter move.

Both Intel and AMD offer some amazing chips in this category, from the $1,000 Intel 10980XE to AMD’s third-generation Threadripper 3990X with its ludicrous 64 cores, 128 threads, and $3,900 price. Those would be complete overkill for even this category, as no consumer applications can benefit from such multithreaded performance. More mainstream parts tend to be better suited to gaming.

There is a middle ground to be found, though. Both Intel and AMD have super powerful (and expensive) high-end desktop chips that are great at gaming and productivity, making them fantastic chips for streaming while you game.

Intel Core i9-10900KF AMD Ryzen 9 5900X
Architecture: Comet Lake Zen 3
Cores: 10 12
Threads: 20 24
Base clock: 3.7GHz 3.7GHz
Boost clock: 5.3GHz 4.8GHz
Cache: 20MB 64MB
Integrated graphics: No No
TDP: 125 watts 105 watts
Required socket: LGA 1200 AM4
Required chipset: Z490 / B460 X570

The best Intel CPU for gaming performance, and even when facing stiff competition from AMD’s Ryzen 9 5900X and 5950X, Intel’s 10th-gen processor holds its own. For Intel fans who want top performance, we’re recommending the 10900KF, which is the exact same as the 10900K but without integrated graphics (and usually $10 to $20 cheaper). The 10900K is a significant upgrade over its last-gen counterpart, with two more cores, four more threads, and a higher boost clock. When gaming, the 10900K shows a measurable uptick compared to the 9900K, but it’s in tasks like 3D rendering and video editing — which can take advantage of the extra cores — where the 10900K really shines.

AMD’s best new-generation CPU is the 5950X, but at a few hundred dollars more than the Intel alternative, it’s a little on the costly side. With 16 cores, it’s also overkill for all but the most extreme of gaming and streaming setups. A more comparable top-tier CPU is the 12-core Ryzen  5900X. The architecture improvements of Zen 3 — including a significant uptick in IPC performance — stand out, with the 5900X offering amazing single-threaded and multi-threaded performance, beating the 10900KF in just about every setting.

There are significant improvements in gaming, too, with AMD finally outpacing Intel’s 10th-gen offerings — a momentous achievement after many years of playing second fiddle to Intel’s best.

With stock problems as they are, if you need a processor right now, the Ryzen 9 3950X is an option, though note that it won’t perform as well as the 5950X or 5900X when gaming.

Similarly, you shouldn’t step back to the last generation if you’re going with an Intel processor. There are enough improvements across gaming and non-gaming workloads to justify Intel’s 10th-gen processor. There isn’t much of a reason to jump to Intel’s HEDT platform, either. The $1,000 i9-10980XE — a processor that should be competing directly with the 5950X — doesn’t beat the 10900K when it comes to gaming.

Best bang for the buck: Ryzen 9 5900X

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