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The best Ryzen CPU: Which Ryzen processor should you buy?

AMD is dominating the desktop market in 2021. The best Ryzen CPUs represent excellent value for their money, offering high core counts and blistering clock speeds at reasonable prices. The most recent Ryzen 5000 range includes processors that can go toe to toe with the best from rival Intel. The question is: Which CPU should you pick up?

The Ryzen family is broken down into four distinct branches, targeting the entry-level, mainstream, performance, and high-end enthusiast sectors of the market — otherwise known as Ryzen 3, Ryzen 5, Ryzen 7, and Ryzen 9. They’re all great chips in their own ways, but some certainly offer more value than others, and for many, the most powerful chips will be complete overkill.

For most people, we recommend the Ryzen 5 5600X thanks to the excellent value for money it presents.

The best Ryzen CPUs

AMD Ryzen 3 3200G

AMD has always offered great value for money at the lower end of the CPU spectrum, and that old adage is just as true with its Ryzen CPUs. AMD offered a wide range of budget-conscious chips with its first Ryzen CPUs, including great standouts like the Ryzen 3 1200 and Ryzen 3 1300X. When we paired them up with an MSI Gaming X RX 580 and the beefy Zotac GTX 1080 Ti AMP! Edition, we found them to be very capable.

The 3DMark synthetic results delivered what we would expect: Better CPUs provided higher scores. But in gaming tests, the 1200 and 1300X showed themselves able to deliver solid frame rates that were, in many cases, pretty close to much more expensive Ryzen CPUs.

While we wouldn’t recommend those CPUs today, these are important results because they are roughly comparable to the general compute performance of AMD’s more recent APUs, the 2200G, 2400G, and 3200G. Those chips are not only fantastically affordable at between $80 and $120, but they come with reasonably capable onboard graphics, too.

If you have a graphics card or plan to buy one, The Ryzen 3 3100 and Ryzen 5 3600 are both reasonable alternatives, if you can find them in stock. They’re better CPUs than their APU cousins, so opt for that if you have other GPU plans in mind. But if you want an all-in-one, affordable package for budget gaming, the Ryzen 3 3200G is our favorite at this price.

AMD Ryzen 5 5600X

AMD comes into its own in the midrange price bracket, where the Ryzen 5 5600X is situated. It’s more expensive than our previous recommendation — the Ryzen 5 3600 — though it comes with the “X” tag, translating to higher clock speeds. This six-core, 12-thread part is rated for 3.7GHz on its base clock and able to boost up to 4.6GHz, so it has plenty of juice for gaming, video and photo editing, and even light 3D modeling.

Price is the biggest limiting factor right now, with AMD releasing the 5600X at $50 higher than the 3600X. You can save $50 to $100 (depending on sales) by going with AMD’s last-gen part, and you’ll get most of the performance of the 5600X. The two processors are equal in core and thread counts, and the base clock is even a little higher on the 3600X. However, the 5600X uses AMD’s new Zen 3 architecture, which features memory and IPC improvements over the 3000-series CPUs.

We wouldn’t recommend going further back than the 3000-series, however. The third generation of Ryzen processors brought Zen 2, vastly improving the performance and stability of AMD’s platform. If price is a concern, you can save with a 3600X, or you can buy a higher-end CPU from the previous generation. The Ryzen 7 3700X — our previous pick for the next section — is in stock at most retailers for at or around $300.

Not that you need to shop too much. At $300, the Ryzen 5 5600X is an absolute powerhouse, able to handle gaming and productivity workloads without breaking a sweat. Note, however, that the 5600X is out of stock as of late 2020, as are all 5000-series processors. If you need a CPU now, we recommend the Ryzen 5 3600X or Ryzen 7 3700X for this price bracket.

AMD Ryzen 7 5800X

The Ryzen 5 5600X is great for gaming with some productivity on the side. If productivity is closer to your main course, you’ll want a Ryzen 7 5800X. The 7-series part comes with eight cores and 16 threads while featuring the same IPC and memory improvements as the more affordable CPU. It also requires a lot more power — 105 watts to 65 watts — and boosts higher, with a base clock of 3.8GHz and a max boost clock of 4.7GHz.

It’s easy to see why the 5800X requires so much power, too. In gaming, the 5800X handily beats Intel’s best while matching the more expensive Ryzen 9-series parts. If you’re using a last-gen GPU like the 5700XT or RTX 2080 — a likely case, given Nvidia’s persistent 30-series stock issues — you won’t notice much of a difference between a 5800X and, say, a 5900X in gaming. CPU-bound games like Civilization VI show a slight advantage to the 5900X, though most games are GPU-bound, and without Nvidia or AMD’s latest, you won’t see a notable difference between the two processors.

There are quite a few differences when it comes to other tasks, however. In certain multi-threaded workloads, last-gen’s Ryzen 9 3900X can outperform the 5800X (and you can find the 3900X for around the same price). However, the 5800X, along with all 5000-series chips, wipes the floor with Ryzen 3000 when it comes to single-core performance.

If you need a processor right now, the Ryzen 9 3900X is a great choice with its recent price drop to $400. If you don’t mind waiting a bit, however, the 5800X shows some significant improvements in single-core performance while matching or slightly trailing the 3900X in non-gaming workloads.

AMD Ryzen 9 5900X

AMD didn’t pull too many punches with its 5000-series processors, and the Ryzen 9 5900X showcases that. It matches last-gen’s 3900X in core and thread count, clocking in at 12 cores and 24 threads, though with a slightly reduced clock speed. The 5900X starts at 3.7GHz and can boost up to 4.8GHz. Although the two processors look identical on paper, the 5900X has AMD’s aforementioned Zen 3 improvements.

In gaming, the 5900X beats Intel’s i9-10900K — probably the best gaming CPU on the market — in most titles, and often surpasses the 3900X, if only by a hair. With a little overclocking, Intel’s current i9 offering still wins the day. Gaming benchmarks don’t say much about the 5900X, however. At most, they tell us that AMD is finally catching up to Intel. If you’re only concerned with gaming, the 5900X is overkill, and benchmarks showcase that. Where there is a difference between last-gen’s 3900X and 10900K to the 5900X, it’s minor.

When you switch up your workloads, that’s when you’ll really get a glimpse at the 5900X’s power capabilities. In everything from 3D rendering in Blender to Cinebench to file decompression, the 5900X maintains a sizable lead over the 3900X. Which, we know, is a bold statement to make, considering that the 3900X stacks up against every other device in Intel’s catalog. If you’re operating from a single-core workload, you’ll notice the differences even more starkly. AMD’s IPC improvements show in single-core benchmarks, with the 5900X taking down Intel’s top CPUs in almost every test.

For AMD’s latest Ryzen 9 processor, you should be prepared to drop an extra $50 at checkout. The price rose from $499 to $549. That said, even at that price, you’ll find the 5900X is an excellent tool. And if you have a bit more wiggle room in your budget, consider buying the 5950X. If you’re able to take advantage of the 24 threads with the 5900X fully, you’ll definitely appreciate the 5950X’s 32 threads. 

Finding these processors on stock shelves, though, is still an issue. If you want a processor now, you’ll find that the 3900X and 3900XT perform pretty close to the 5900X, and they clock in at about $400 (which is $150 less than the alternative option). The good news about the Ryzen 9 3950X processor is that it sells for under $700 more often these days. So, while it can cost you a bit more than the other processors in this particular series, its performance is at least on par with that of the 5900X.

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