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. Having said that, it's been a challenging past year on many fronts and availability of new hardware, including the latest CPUs, has not been great. Naturally we’ve been holding off in the hope that AMD would release more Ryzen 5000 CPUs (non-X models) and that availability would improve, neither of which has happened.
With readers constantly asking us which CPU they should buy and after all the extensive testing you're familiar with, TechSpot's CPU buying guide narrows things down to a few recommendations you can trust and follow.
It’s worth noting that for this update we didn't have the luxury of recommending what we believe to be the absolute best, rather in some cases we’ll be recommending the best product you’re able to buy. So technically this is the "Top 5 best CPUs you can buy right now." There is some hope that things will improve soon, the 7nm shortages can’t go on forever and Intel 11th-gen Core series might help alleviate some of the demand in a few months.
In the meantime, we hope this is useful for those of you looking to buying a CPU right now, but of course, if you can hold off we suggest you do as Intel will have their Rocket Lake processors out in the wild some time in March and that could shake things up a bit.
Best All-Round Value CPU
We'd love to see a non-existent Ryzen 5 5600 for ~$200 as the best value all rounder, but no such luck. Paying $300 for the 5600X isn’t a good idea, even if it was in stock, and frankly if you want to pay that much for a 6-core/12-thread processor just get the Core i5-10600K, it’s about $30 less as well.
If you’re after the best value all rounder, you have to go with the Ryzen 5 3600, the same pick from our past updates going back as far as late 2019. Alternatively, the Core i5-10400F is also a solid choice that’s only let down by the need for a Z-series motherboard if you want to use memory clocked higher than DDR4-2666.
The 10400F and R5 3600 are pretty even in terms of value, so it will come down to pricing in your region for not just the CPUs but also motherboards, so make sure you run a full cost analysis before taking the plunge. For those in the US or Australia, the Ryzen 5 3600 generally comes out on top thanks to better quality affordable motherboards and a superior upgrade path offering 12 and 16-core processors.
As a side note, going back a few months, the Ryzen 5 3600 was the #1 best seller on Amazon with Intel’s 10th gen series relegated to 15th position with the Core i5-10400. Today, the Ryzen 5 3600 remains the best selling CPU, followed by a grossly overpriced 5800X, and then a grossly overpriced 5600X. The good news for Intel is that the 10400 has broken into the top 5 selling processors, just ahead of the much more expensive 3900X. The bad news for Intel however is that’s the only 10th-gen Core part to make it into Amazon's top 10 sellers list.
Best Gaming CPU
If you're after the best performance CPU for gaming, you can narrow down your choices to the Ryzen 7 5800X, Ryzen 9 5900X and 5950X, or the Core i7-10700K and Core i9-10900K. They’re all similar in terms of gaming performance and with games not requiring more than 8 cores -- especially cores as powerful as what we’re seeing in these processors -- your best value high-end options would be the Ryzen 7 5800X or Core i7-10700K.
The Ryzen 7 5800X is hard to recommend given the 5900X is technically much better value, but if you’re only gaming, we guess it’s wasted money anyway. Then again, you probably don’t need to worry about that as buying a Ryzen 5000 series processor is only slightly easier than buying a current generation GPU.
For gamers wanting to build a high-end gaming PC right now, the easy choice is either the Core i7-10700K or 10900K. The sensible choice is the 10700K for $380, but if money is no object then the 10900K for $520 will probably be more desirable.
Best Extreme Desktop CPU
The easiest choice we've had to make, when 16 cores won’t cut it or you need more lanes than Interstate 10, then AMD's Threadripper is what you’re after. With AMD yet to announce the Threadripper 5000 series, you’re still buying the Zen 2 series which includes the 64-core 3990, 32-core 3970X, and 24-core 3960X, all beasts in their own right.
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 $4,000 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 (MSRP). We’ve been using the Threadripper 3960X as our main gaming/video editing rig for nearly a year 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 any slowdowns whatsoever.
In terms of availability, the 3990X has been hard to get although we did find it on Amazon selling for the MSRP at time of publishing. Other times we've seen the 3990X selling as much as $1000 over MSRP, and you absolutely shouldn’t pay scalper prices.
Best Value for Productivity
For best value on productivity performance, you must pick from either the Ryzen 9 5900X or 5950X, at $550 and $800, respectively. Neither are in stock as of writing, and for months availability has been sketchy. But you should be on the lookout for either of these parts.
The alternatives are the previous-gen 3900X/3950X or the outgoing Core i9-10900K, though we're not sure how well the 8-core 11900K is going to replace the previous gen 10-core part for productivity tasks. We won’t have any more information on that until March when the new Intel flagship is released and we get to test it. It’s very unlikely an 8-core Rocket Lake CPU will challenge AMD for the productivity crown though.
Ultimately, your option here is to pay full price or in some cases a slight premium for an old Zen 2 processor, or hold out and try your luck at snapping up one of the newer Zen 3 models. That's not terribly helpful, but that’s the situation right now.
Best Budget CPU
On the budget front, we used to recommend the Ryzen 3 3300X or if you required integrated graphics, the Ryzen 5 3400G. However, the R3 3300X turned out to be a bad choice because it went out of stock at all major retailers in mid-2020 and never returned, at least not in significant quantities.
There’s only one good option available to budget buyers right now and that’s the Core i3-10100 at $115. In terms of gaming performance, it matches the more expensive Ryzen 5 1600 AF which costs ~40% more and while slower for productivity, the Ryzen part isn’t worth the premium. At around $160 for the old school Ryzen, you’re up around Core i5-10400F territory which is in another category. It’s been four years since we recommended an entry-level Intel CPU, the last being the Pentium G4560 in 2017.
Given the choice, the 3300X would win against Intel's i3-10100 but AMD was never in a position to sell many of those parts as they were essentially selling defective silicon that couldn’t be used to make a 3600 or 3700X, for example. Therefore once they burnt through the stockpile of defective dies, they weren’t willing to sacrifice perfectly good silicon that could be used in higher-end products just to put those cheaper Ryzen 3 models on shelves.
With that part MIA, the Core i3-10100 wins by default, so good job Intel.
The Ryzen 5 3400G remains the best option for those after an affordable CPU with a strong GPU, or at least as strong integrated graphics get on the desktop right now. So if you’re looking to game on integrated graphics -- our condolences by the way -- the 3400G is the way to go.
Masthead credit: Pawarun Chitchirachan