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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 (A.I.) or simulations — think Hitman 3 and Civilization VI. A good gaming CPU is essential.

You don’t have to buy the best of the best though. It doesn’t matter if you have a budget of $200 or $600; all the processors below excel when it comes to gaming. However, some of them are better for certain non-gaming applications, too.

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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 early 2021. 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 instruction per clock (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 early 2021, 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

AMD’s Ryzen 5000 processors are on the market, but the current range bottoms out at the 5600X (a $300 CPU). For around $200, you have to step back a generation if you want an AMD processor. The Ryzen 5 3600 is the best option for gamers on a budget, sporting six cores and 12 threads and a boost clock of 4.2GHz, all with a low TDP.

In most games, the 3600 surpasses Intel’s last-gen i5-9600K, reaching performance levels similar to the Ryzen 7 3700X (a $330 CPU). When paired with a powerful graphics card, the 3600 is really all you need for gaming. However, it’s still based on AMD’s last-gen Zen 2 architecture. The new Zen 3 architecture features substantial IPC improvements over Zen 2, making a Ryzen 5000 processor a much better choice for gaming and non-gaming applications.

The i5-10400 is a good choice around $200, too, and maybe even a better choice depending on your configuration. Spec-wise, the 3600 and 10400 are almost identical, with the exception of cache size (Intel processors usually have a much smaller cache). When it comes to gaming, the two are nearly identical, too. The 3600 has a slight edge in CPU intensive games like Civilization VI, but overall, the two are very close.

However, benchmarks show a pretty significant performance improvement when the 10400 is paired with fast DDR4 memory (above DDR4-2666). That puts the 10400 slightly ahead of the 3600.

But then there’s overclocking, a feature the 3600 has but the 10400 lacks. Even though Ryzen 3000 processors aren’t especially known for their overclocking capabilities, some manual tweaking should push the 3600 beyond the 10400. Plus, you can overclock on AMD’s lower-end motherboard chipsets, saving you some money there.

Core i5-10400
AMD Ryzen 5 3600
Architecture: Comet Lake Zen 2
Cores: 6 6
Threads: 12 12
Base clock: 2.9GHz 3.6GHz
Boost clock: 4.3GHz 4.2GHz
Cache: 12MB 35MB
Integrated graphics: UHD Graphics 630 N/A
TDP: 65 watts 65 watts
Required socket: LGA 1200 AM4
Suggested chipset: Z490 X570 / B550 / 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.

Best bang for the buck: Ryzen 5 3600

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.

AMD made history by finally stripping Intel’s 10th-gen features of their number one spot as the best processor in a race that spans years. This just goes to show how much the gaming industry has grown and expanded its technical innovations, research, and competition.

It’s likely that you might not find any of these processors left on the market right now due to manufacturing lag times. So, if you’re in dire need of one at this very moment, we suggest the Ryzen 9 3950X. It’s a viable option, but we do want to point out that it will not exceed your gaming expectations and certainly won’t beat out the 5950X or 5900X. 

Correspondingly, we recommend not pursuing an older generation if you want to purchase an Intel processor. We’ve seen enough improvements in the gaming and non-gaming world to advocate for Intel’s 10th-gen product. We’ll even go so far as to say we like it better than the more advanced HEDT platform from Intel. The i9-10980XE is a $1,000 processor that we feel should be battling the 5950X, but it simply doesn’t beat the 10900K when you analyze it from a gaming perspective.

Best bang for the buck: Ryzen 9 5900X

Editors' Recommendations