The Best CPUs for 2021

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.)

Intel Core i7 Retail BoxIntel Core i7-6700K off Craigslist in exchange for $50 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 really meaningful only 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 eight 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 9th Generation mainstream Core CPUs for desktops, pushed HT further up its stack than ever before. (Only the Core i9 chips supported HT.) That has changed with Intel’s newest 10th Generation Core desktop chips; HT has returned to Core i3, i5, and i7 chips. SMT goes up and down the mainstream chips in AMD’s Ryzen desktop line.

Intel Core X CPUIntel 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 peak chips in this generation, with eight cores and 16 threads.)  

Intel LGA 1151 CPU UndersideCore i9-10900K, this new Intel line has HT up and down the stack. It also uses a new socket, LGA 1200, which is incompatible with all else that came before. The chipsets relevant to this line use the same Z/B/H scheme: Z490 (high end), B460 (mainstream), and H410 (budget). These boards and chips hit the market in mid-2020. The 11th Generation has been partially disclosed but is not slated to hit the market until March 2021; dubbed “Rocket Lake-S,” these chips will bring PCI Express 4.0 support to Intel-based desktops for the first time. More on them soon.

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, Core i9 CPUs, the last 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 some of Intel’s 8th, 9th, and 10th 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.) 

(Examples: See our reviews of the Core i5-8400Core i5-8400, the Core i7-8700KCore i7-8700K, the Core i7-8086K Limited EditionCore i7-8086K Limited Edition, the Core i7-9700KCore i7-9700K, the Core i9-9900K, the Core i9-9900KSCore i9-9900KS, and the Core i9-10900K.)

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 HandCore i5-7640X and the 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 i7-7820XCore i7-7820X, the Core i9-7900XCore i9-7900X, the Core i9-7960XCore i9-7960X, the Core i9-7980XE Extreme EditionCore i9-7980XE Extreme Edition, the Core i9-9980XE Extreme EditionCore i9-9980XE Extreme Edition, and the 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 2021 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 CPUPCI Express 4.0 SSDs.

(Examples: See our reviews of the Ryzen 3 2200GRyzen 3 2200G, the Ryzen 5 2600XRyzen 5 2600X, the Ryzen 7 2700XRyzen 7 2700X, the Ryzen 3 3200GRyzen 3 3200G, the Ryzen 3 3300XRyzen 3 3300X, the Ryzen 5 3600XRyzen 5 3600X, the Ryzen 5 3400GRyzen 5 3400G, the Ryzen 7 3700XRyzen 7 3700X, the Ryzen 9 3900XRyzen 9 3900X, and the Ryzen 9 3950XRyzen 9 3950X from earlier generations. For the current generation, check out the Ryzen 5 5600XRyzen 5 5600X, the Ryzen 7 5800XRyzen 7 5800X, the Ryzen 9 5900XRyzen 9 5900X, and the Ryzen 9 5950XRyzen 9 5950X.)

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 HandWraith 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 CPURyzen 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.

In 2020, AMD also introduced a new Threadripper Pro line, which was initially introduced only in select workstation desktops from Lenovo. At CES 2021, however, AMD announced that the Threadripper Pro CPUs would be made available to end users, with pricing disclosed in late January. (The three available chip SKUs range from a 16-core Threadripper Pro 3955WX at $1,149 to a 64-core Threadripper Pro 3995WX.)

Threadripper Pro supplies up to 128 PCI Express 4.0 lanes. It also doubles the memory channels from four to eight and works exclusively with error correcting code (ECC) memory, important for fields such as scientific simulations, architecture, and high-end data analysis. It requires a different motherboard chipset, however, than ordinary Threadrippers, the WRX80. So far, WRX80 motherboards from Asus, Gigabyte, and Supermicro have been disclosed.

(Examples: See our reviews of the Ryzen Threadripper 1920XRyzen Threadripper 1920X, the Ryzen Threadripper 1950XRyzen Threadripper 1950X, the Ryzen Threadripper 2950XRyzen Threadripper 2950X, the Ryzen Threadripper 2970WX, the Ryzen Threadripper 3960XRyzen Threadripper 3960X, and the Ryzen Threadripper 3970XRyzen Threadripper 3970X, as well as our first tests with Threadripper Proour first tests with Threadripper Pro.)

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 or 1200, 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 Coolerseveral distinct air coolers in the AMD Wraith family: the Stealth, the Spire, or the Prism. The first, second, and fourth generation Ryzens are a mixed bag. Some of the chips come with no cooler; others come with one of the Wraiths. (The highest-end Ryzen chips tend to lack bundled coolers, again presuming you’ll want to supply your own.) 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 CoolerAMD Athlon 200GEIntel Pentium Gold G5600Intel Pentium Gold G5600AMD Ryzen 3 3200GAMD Ryzen 3 3200GAMD Ryzen 5 3400GAMD 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 CoolerIntel Core i5-8400, AMD Ryzen 3 3300XAMD Ryzen 3 3300XAMD Ryzen 5 2600XAMD Ryzen 5 2600XAMD Ryzen 5 3600XAMD 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 BoxIntel Core i7-9700KIntel Core i9-10900KIntel Core i9-10900KAMD Ryzen 7 3700XAMD Ryzen 7 3700X, AMD Ryzen 5 5600X, AMD Ryzen 7 5800XAMD Ryzen 5 5600X, AMD Ryzen 7 5800X

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 Core i9-10900K is 10C/20T, and the Ryzen 7 3700X and 5800X are 8C/16T), with the Core i9-9900K (8C/16T) also quite viable. 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 HandIntel Core i9-9900KAMD Ryzen 9 5900XAMD Ryzen 9 5900XAMD Ryzen 9 5950XAMD Ryzen 9 5950XAMD Ryzen Threadripper 3960XAMD Ryzen Threadripper 3960X

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 CPUIntel Core i9-10980X Extreme Edition, Intel Xeon W-2295Intel Xeon W-2295AMD Ryzen Threadripper 2970WXAMD Ryzen Threadripper 2970WXAMD Ryzen Threadripper 3960XAMD Ryzen Threadripper 3960XAMD Ryzen Threadripper 3970XAMD 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-, second-, and third-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.

January 28, 2021
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