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.
The last update to this guide was only four months ago, but since then Intel released the 11th-gen Core series and perhaps more importantly, slashed prices of the previous 10th generation. AMD has continued to struggle with supply, which has possibly delayed the introduction of more affordable non-X Zen 3 processors. It's not great for value Ryzen parts, though that doesn’t appear to be affecting sales as much as you might expect.
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.
Pricing and availability is largely helping Intel dominate the picks for this update, hands down claiming 3 out of the 5 picks with a possible fourth pick depending on availability.
Best All-Round Value CPU
The Ryzen 5 3600 had been our top pick for the best CPU value since it launched back in 2019. In that time, we've kept note of a good Intel alternative and close runner up in the Core i5-10400F. However the Intel chip was let down by motherboard prices and the need for a Z-series board if you want to run at memory speeds above DDR4-2666.
More recently, the 10400F plummeted in price and was available for $150, while the Ryzen 5 3600 was more expensive at $220, at least when you could find it. Sadly the Intel CPU has become a little harder to find and if you can't get it for $150 but closer to $180 to $200, at that point you might as well look to the new 11400 series.
The Core i5-11400F can be had for $175, while the standard version with integrated graphics is $10 more. That’s less than the $190 you’ll pay for the Ryzen 5 2600, $220 for the 3600, or $300 for the 5600X, if you can find it. The 11400F benefits from better memory support, DDR4-3200 is the stock configuration now though it doesn’t really matter given the cheaper B560 boards support memory overclocking. You also get 20 PCIe lanes from the CPU, whereas 10th-gen Core parts got just 16, and that means the CPU can connect directly to your primary M.2 storage device for even greater performance.
Intel motherboards might be around $20 - $30 more right now, but that’s offset by the cheaper CPU pricing. Not to mention the 11400F is faster than the Ryzen 5 3600 across the board, making it the obvious choice.
Best Gaming CPU
The best high-end gaming CPU pick has been largely dominated by Intel over the years. Though the potential for that to change with Zen 3 was certainly real, that's yet to occur due to the TSMC 7nm supply constraints. As a result, AMD’s 8-core/16-thread Zen 3 part, the 5800X is coming in at $450 which is not entirely competitive for a gaming part.
That’s because Intel are flogging off their previous generation 8-core/16-thread CPUs for under $300. The Core i7-10700, for example, can be had for just $280, while the F-SKU model is more affordable at $265. Instead of having to pay $56 per core with AMD, Intel’s giving you 8 cores for just $33 per core, for a massive 40% saving.
The 11th-gen Rocket Lake Core i7 range is pretty weak in terms of value, though arguably are still a better proposition than AMD’s Ryzen 7 5800X. The 11700 can be had for $340 and the 11700K for $390, which is still $60 less than the 5800X. That said, the 5800X is far more power efficient and is supported by the superior AM4 platform, but again, neither are good value right now. There’s no other alternative from AMD but previous-gen Zen 2 processors, but the Ryzen 7 3700X at $310 and the Ryzen 9 3900X at $550, should be avoided at those prices.
If you’ve got a little more money to spend, the next best option is the Core i9-10900 for $375 or the F-SKU for $350. Again, both options are considerably better value than anything you’ll get from AMD right now and worlds better than Intel’s newer 11th-gen Core i9 series. So in short, the best gaming CPUs right now are the Core i7-10700 or Core i9-10900 with their respective F-SKU variants.
Best Extreme Desktop CPU
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 remains a beast over a year after its introduction. It’s still unchallenged in the HEDT space, and sure, it's bloody expensive. But if you seek max 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.
As of writing, all three Threadripper models are available. Now understandably, if $4,000 is too rich for your blood, then the Threadripper 3970X or 3960X might be better alternatives. The least expensive Threadripper 3960X still costs an eye watering $1,430, which will buy you 24 Zen 2 cores in a single package. If that’s not enough, the 3970X can be had for $2,000.
Best Value for Productivity
So you’re interested in getting some serious work done, and gaming may be an option on the side, but the priority here is productivity, so what should you get? The obvious answer is a Zen 3-based Ryzen 9 processor, either the 5900X or 5950X. Intel has nothing that can hold a candle to these CPUs, not even in their HEDT lineup.
The Ryzen 9 5900X is incredibly good value for productivity tasks at $550, and even the 5950X is great value at $800. Sadly, neither of them are in stock and both have been difficult to find ever since release. That’s not to say there’s zero availability, but as soon as a new shipment comes in, buyers mashing away at their F5 key are snapping them up seconds after going on sale.
With spotty availability, an alternative is in order. While there’s nothing nearly as good south of $1,000 as the 5900X or 5950X for productivity workloads, at least in terms of value the Core i9-10900 or 10900F ($350) are good buys. With 10 cores and 20 threads, it’s a capable CPU and certainly the best value option for those looking at getting some work done.
Best Budget CPU
Historically, the best budget CPUs will set you back around $100 and that remains mostly true today, with pricing a bit all over the place these days. The Intel Core i3-10100 remains our top choice here for $125. There's also an F-SKU available which should be cheaper but it's currently hard to find at a proper discount.
Depending on the retailer, we've seen the i3-10100 selling for considerably more. Anything over $150 and you're basically knocking on the door of the Core i5 parts, and at that point the 10100 makes no sense. If you can land the 10100 for under $130, it’s a good value option, otherwise you should start considering something like the 10400.
The AMD alternative at this price point is the Ryzen 3 3200G, though this is only a 4-core/4-thread part. For about the same price, it’s not as compelling and certainly not as good as the i3-10100. The 4-core/8-thread Ryzen 5 3400G is currently out of stock everywhere we checked, but at around $170, you’d be best off with a 10th-gen Core i5 instead. The same could be said about the Ryzen 5 1600 at $175 and the Ryzen 5 3500X at $190.
The only advantage the Ryzen 3 3200G enjoys over the Core i3-10100 is the AM4 upgrade path, assuming you have a decent quality board that can handle the higher core count parts.
Masthead credit: Aleksandr Grechanyuk