The world of CPUs has been notoriously busy in recent years and we've been keeping this buying guide up to date with the latest releases to complement our day-one reviews and benchmark comparisons.

After all the extensive testing you're familiar with, TechSpot's CPU buying guide means to narrow things down in a few easy recommendations you can trust and follow. Of note, we've also put together lists for picking Intel and AMD motherboards, including AMD X570, B450 and Intel Z490 platforms.

Editor's note: Low availability. This has been a challenging year on many fronts. Gaming and our enthusiasm for technology has been one of those aspects of life that has given us a fulfilling distraction while we spend more time inside. Key industry players have not stopped innovating however. AMD in particular has been fierce at pursuing every single aspect where Ryzen was not beating Intel CPUs, and they've finally crossed that line with Ryzen 5000. Unfortunately, stock has been very limited and demand has overwhelmed manufacturing capacity at this point in time.

We'll update this guide when you can finally buy these new CPUs.
In the meantime, here are our reviews for the best CPU (you can't buy right now):

AMD Ryzen 5 5600X Review: 6-Core Gaming Beast

AMD Ryzen 9 5950X Review: Total Domination

AMD Ryzen 9 5900X Review: i9-10900K Versus

AMD Ryzen 7 5800X Review: 5800X vs. 10700K

Best All-Round Value CPU

AMD Ryzen 5 3600

For three years now our best value desktop CPU category has been dominated by 6-core, 12-thread Ryzen 5 processors. In 2017, it was the Ryzen 5 1600. In 2018 and early 2019 the 2600 and 2600X, which by the time they were getting replaced had received some massive price cuts. Finally, the Ryzen 5 3600 arrived in mid 2019 to take the spot.

Nearly a year after its release nothing has changed, the Ryzen 5 3600 is still by far the best value desktop CPU. In fact, recently the R5 3600 has become even better value with sale prices dropping as low as $167. Even if you are getting it at the original $200, it’s an amazing value option.

The competing Intel 10th-gen alternative is the Core i5-10400. While not a terrible option, the Ryzen processor is up to 20% faster for productivity tasks while delivering comparable gaming performance. A key platform advantage though is that the 3600 can be overclocked on affordable B450 motherboards which also support higher memory speeds.

The Core i5-10400 requires a Z490 motherboard for that and the most affordable model you should entertain costs around $170 -- substantially more than a quality B450 board. Now, if Intel were to open up memory overclocking on B460 and H410 boards, then we could certainly entertain the idea of recommending the Core i5 processor as an option for those strictly PC gaming. Short of that, the Intel part isn’t compelling enough to look past the Ryzen 5 3600 as the best value all rounder once again.

The X alternative

We've seen the Ryzen 5 3600X going for around $200 and sometimes even less. If the difference between the 3600 and 3600X is very small ($5-10), feel free to grab it for the better cooler. Granted, you could pocket that money and put it towards buying a $30 Cooler Master Hyper 212 Evo, but we think for the small investment the 3600X is probably worth it at that price. In other regions where the X is costs more, simply go for the vanilla 3600.

Best Gaming CPU

Intel Core i9-10900K or Core i5-10600K

We held high hopes for the affordable Core i3-10100 and Core i5-10400 to be compelling options for gamers than they ultimately turned out to be, but we were pleasantly surprised by the Core i5-10600K. Sure, in our review we still sided with the Ryzen 5 3600 as the best all rounder and few could argue the contrary, but if you’re primarily gaming the 10600K is an attractive option that won't break the bank.

This Core i5 part is priced to compete with the Ryzen 7 3700X, and again if you are mostly interested in productivity performance, then just get the AMD processor that is faster thanks to the 2 extra cores, but if gaming is the name of the… game, well, we think the Core i5-10600K is pretty great.

Throw it on a relatively affordable Z490 motherboard, MSI’s Tomahawk for $190 seems like a good example and put $50 towards a decent air-cooler and you have the making of a seriously high-end gaming system. Overclocked, in most games it can deliver Core i9-10900K-like performance for ~40% less, that’s kind of nice.

We're admittedly partial to the Core i5-10600K, but if we’re true to the category, the Core i9-10900K is the best performance gaming CPU. This unlocked 10th-gen Core processor will deliver maximum gaming performance, so our ultimate recommendation is that budget conscious gamers aim for the 10600K while those with deep pockets and an RTX 2080 Ti in sight opt for the 10900K.

Best Extreme Desktop CPU

AMD Ryzen Threadripper 3990X

The easiest choice we've had to make. The Threadripper 3990X is a beast, it’s completely unchallenged and has redefined the HEDT space. Sure, it's bloody expensive, but if you seek the maximum productivity performance, price isn’t going to be your number one concern. For the right kind of user that is actually going to utilize all the potential offered by the 3990X, this CPU brings a significant jump in performance. It’s not just a little bit faster than the next best thing, it’s a lot faster.

Now understandably, if $3,500 is too rich for your blood, then the Threadripper 3970X or 3960X might be better alternatives to the insane 64-core, 128-thread beast that is the 3990X. The 32-core 3970X can be had for $1,900, while the 3960X comes in at a slightly more affordable $1,400.

We’ve been using the Threadripper 3960X as our main gaming/video editing rig for over six months now and the experience has been flawless. We can warp stabilize over a dozen 4K clips in Premiere, while using the computer to create benchmark graphs in Excel or thumbnails in Photoshop without noticing slowdown whatsoever.

Prior to that, we used a Core i9-9900K which by all accounts is about 2.5x cheaper, but if we tried to simultaneously use more than half a dozen warp stabilization processes the system would crash and there was no chance we could be doing other tasks in the background without serious lag, or risking a freeze. An Intel Cascade Lake-X part would have been better suited to such productivity tasks, but those basically don’t exist and even if they did, the flagship 18-core 10980XE is ill equipped to go up against any of the 3rd-gen Threadripper processors.

Best Value for Productivity

AMD Ryzen 7 & Ryzen 9

When it comes to productivity performance, it doesn’t matter what price point you’re talking about. In 2020, AMD dominates across the board. Want to get work done on the cheap? Nothing beats the Ryzen 3 3300X. Have a little more to spend, then get the Ryzen 5 3600. Have even more money to spend? Get the 3950X, and if you have oodles of cash, there’s third-gen Threadripper.

The point we're trying to make is, there are a number of Ryzen processors we could pick for this category and really should. Our usual favorite, the Ryzen 7 3700X at $285 is amazing value for a powerful 8-core, 16-thread processor and we’d still recommend it over spending $50 more on the 3800X.

For around $400, there’s the Ryzen 9 3900X which is amazing value for a 12-core, 24-thread CPU -- something previously unheard of for a mainstream desktop CPU.

At the head of the Ryzen food chain is the 3950X. It's a pricey item at $700, and while it might cost 40% more than the Intel Core i9-10900K, it’s generally over 40% faster in core-heavy workloads. In our book this high-end processor remains an amazing deal for getting the power of 16 cores and 32-threads. That leaves you with a $300, $400 and $700 option to pick from.

Best Budget CPU

AMD Ryzen 3 3300X or Ryzen 5 3400G

There have been a lot of changes in the low-end segment in the past six months. More recently we’ve seen the arrival of AMD’s 3rd-gen Ryzen 3 series as well as Intel 10th-gen Core i3 range, so quite a few new CPUs to pick from, but before we get to that, here’s a brief history for this category.

In 2017 we were picking the Intel Pentium G4560 as our best budget CPU that for a while was available for as little as $80. Around mid 2018 the Ryzen 3 2200G took that honor and remained the best option throughout the year. We only dropped it in favor of the 2400G once pricing dropped for the SMT-enabled APU. Then later in 2019 we recommended the Ryzen 5 3400G.

In 2020, the Ryzen 3 3100 and 3300X have been added to the mix along with the Core i3-10100. By far the best option here is the Ryzen 3 3300X. At $120, the value this CPU offers is unprecedented, and while the 3100 is also a good deal for $100, it’s worth spending the extra $20 for the 3300X to get all the cores in a single CCX.

The Ryzen 3 3300X generally beats the Core i3-10100 when it comes to gaming performance and is typically around 20% faster in productivity applications. As an unlocked processor, the 3300X can also be overclocked for even greater performance while memory overclocking is supported on affordable B450 motherboards.

It’s great to see so many options available in 2020 and whether you’re talking AMD or Intel, we don’t think you can go truly wrong. The Ryzen 5 3600 might be our preference over the Core i5-10400, but if you were to end up with the Intel processor, you wouldn’t be disappointed with the experience. It’s a capable gaming chip and application performance is still strong.

Intel's 10th-gen lineup is much more competitive than their 9th generation was, offering SMT support across the board and better pricing. Ultimately though, AMD remains on top in almost all fronts. In the longer run, this kind of competition spells good news for the consumer as we're expecting to see even better value out of 11th-gen Core series and Ryzen 4000 series as the CPU wars continue to heat up, but that’s a story for another day.

Masthead credit: Pawarun Chitchirachan