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The world of CPUs has been taken by storm since the arrival of AMD Ryzen processors, with each new generation bringing important performance enhancements, while Intel was somewhat stuck and trying to react from a sitting position. That situation finally changed with the release of Intel's 12th-gen Core CPUs based on the Alder Lake architecture, some of which have grabbed our top picks.
Update: See our latest CPU Buying Guide here.
With readers constantly inquiring about which CPU they should buy, and after all the extensive testing you're familiar with, the TechSpot CPU buying guide narrows things down to a handful of recommendations you can trust.
Due to pricing and availability, Intel is largely dominating the picks in this buying guide update, and the release of Alder Lake has helped them secure a foothold at the high-end. Meanwhile, there's been very little happening over at AMD's side, with the exception of some Zen 3-based APUs, though those have failed to impress in terms of value.
Intel hands down claims 3 out of 5 picks, with a fourth spot being contested as you could happily go either way. Just as we've picked the best processors before, it really is all about pricing and value, and that's what kept AMD so competitive with the first few iterations of Ryzen since they couldn't always compete in terms of raw performance.
This is a situation that AMD will want to remedy soon after fighting tooth and nail to claw back market share for the past half a decade. It's true the company is heavily supply constrained at the moment, but even so, this could have been an excellent opportunity to pump out cheap Zen+ parts and drive more people to invest in their AM4 platform, which supports all their recent CPU generations.
Best Value CPU
Intel Core i5-12400
After dominating the best value all-rounder desktop CPU for years with the Ryzen 5 2600 and 3600, Intel is able to beat AMD handily in this product category. Stepping in with multiple options, right now you can choose from previous-gen CPUs like the Core i5-10400 for just $155, while the newer i5-11400 is $185.
Add to that the truly excellent Alder Lake-based Core i5-12400 (or the graphics-less variant the 12400F), which are already on sale for $220 and $180, respectively. Although B660 motherboard options are limited for now, we're expecting some pretty great boards to become available at around $160. If you've got a sub-$200 CPU budget, these are nearly impossible to beat.
There's also plenty of great value LGA1200 motherboards. The Gigabyte Z590 UD AC can be had for $180, but if you care about value the B560 series is the way to go and the MSI B560M Pro-VDH WiFi for $120 is a great value board. Throw the 10400 or 11400 on that and you have a killer combo for the price of a 5600X. Then if you want to play around with overclocking, the Core i5-10600KF can be had for $210 and the 11600KF is $230. Beyond that, we're getting up towards $300 and at this point you're entering high-end gaming CPU territory.
All in all, the i5-12400F is our latest go-to budget CPU and we hope to see some nice budget B660 boards available soon!
Best High-End Gaming CPU
Intel Core i7-12700KF
For the best high-end gaming CPU, we're less concerned about price to focus on what offers the best performance without going beyond the point of diminishing returns. In such a case, the Ryzen 9 5950X and Core i9-12900K are out, for example. But there are loads of CPUs to choose from here and most of them are from Intel.
If you're value oriented, the Core i7-10700F is hard to go past at $285, or the 11700F at $310, both are cracking good deals and will provide you with plenty of headroom in games for years to come. We don't feel the 10900KF is worth the $440 asking price, as that makes it around 55% more expensive than the Core i7 equivalent for 25% more cores, which you're not going to need for gaming, though the extra L3 cache can be beneficial right now.
From AMD you have the Ryzen 5 5600X, Ryzen 7 5800X, and if you want to go completely overkill, the Ryzen 9 5900X. The problem for AMD is that the Intel alternatives are either more affordable or just as powerful.
For example, the Ryzen 7 5800X is a great CPU for $400. The only issue is that for the same price the Core i7-12700KF is a much better CPU overall in our opinion, often offering vastly superior productivity performance, marginally better gaming performance, and in terms of cooling it's no more difficult to deal with.
Simply put, the Core i7 reigns supreme high-end gaming right now, whether that be the 10700, 11700 or the 12700, they all seem to have their place.
Best Extreme Desktop CPU
AMD Ryzen Threadripper 3990X
If 16-cores won't cut it for you, then your next option is to dig deep and cough up some first car money for a 3rd-gen Threadripper CPU. With AMD yet to announce the Threadripper 5000 series, you're limited to the Zen 2 processors which include the 64-core 3990X, 32-core 3970X and 24-core 3960X, all of which are beasts in their own right.
The least expensive of the three, the Threadripper 3960X will set you back an eye watering $1,650 and it'll buy you 24 Zen 2 cores in a single package. The 3970X can be had for $2,400 for 32 cores, and if that sounds like about half the cores you'll actually need, then may I introduce you to the 3990X for $4,970, it sports 64 cores and 128 threads.
In short, if you're after the most extreme desktop CPU money will buy, it's clearly going to be a Threadripper, at least until the next generation arrives.
Best Value for Productivity
AMD Ryzen 9 5950X
When it comes to productivity and core-heavy workloads, the best mainstream desktop processors are either Core i9 or Ryzen 9 tiers. From AMD, the $500 5900X and $700 5950X are best, and from Intel, the Core i9-12900K for $620.
If you're erring more on the side of value, then the Ryzen 9 5900X is very appealing. It's a tad cheaper than the 12900K, though it is $90 more than the 12700K and does trade blows with the i7 for productivity workloads. However, Z690 motherboards start at ~$200 for a decent board whereas a decent B550 like the MSI B550M Pro-VDH WiFi costs just $120.
In other words, the 5900X and 12700K cost roughly the same once you factor in a decent motherboard, so it's a tough choice and frankly there's no wrong option here. If I was forced to choose, I'd probably go with Intel as the Z690 board offers better features than the budget B550 and is overall a better product.
The choice between the Ryzen 9 5950X for $700 or the Core i9 12900K for $620 is just as difficult and assuming you want a solid motherboard when spending well over $500 on your CPU, the associated costs are about the same. For the Core i9-12900K to win the majority of our productivity tests, it does require DDR5 memory and right now that's not a viable option.
In that scenario, we think the 5950X is the better choice. The Ryzen 9 is also significantly easier to cool and consumes considerably less power, so overall it's the better choice.
Best Entry-Level CPU
Intel Core i3-10100
Entry-level CPUs have been AMD's bread and butter for many years, but that was until Zen 3 arrived in November 2020. Since then, the cheapest CPU they're offering using the Zen 3 architecture is the Ryzen 5 5600G at $290, or the 5600X at $300, both of which are underwhelming at their respective price points. It's still possible to find the odd 1st, 2nd and 3rd generation Ryzen processor at discounted prices, but for the most part they're simply not worth it.
That's because Intel is offering the Core i3-10100F for just $90 and the standard i3-10100 for $125. This is much better than anything on offer from AMD. Conversely, for the price of a 5600G, you can snap up a Core i7-10700F, an 8-core / 16-thread desktop CPU.
Essentially, if you only want to spend ~$100 on your CPU, you have the choice of the 10100F or the Athlon 3000G, a dual-core CPU with a 4MB L3 cache, it's an embarrassing comparison for AMD.
Masthead credit: Aleksandr Grechanyuk