A Central Processing Unit (CPU), often referred to as the processor, is the most important component of any working computer. The CPU is responsible for all major calculations and decisions. These capabilities can be contributed to the Arithmetic Logic Unit (ALU) and the Floating Point Unit (FPU) of a CPU. The major functions of a CPU in gaming vary. Just a few examples in a shooter game: CPU is required for calculating all about the projectile leaving the gun, to determine the next move of an AI inside the game, and tally the various kinds of scores. With that in mind, what are the best processors for gaming?
Choosing the best CPU to tailor your gaming needs can be a bit quirky. You might just end up spending too much on your graphics card and getting a processor that ends up bottlenecking your shiny new GPU (Graphics Processing Unit). The opposite is true, too — you might end up spending too much on your CPU and regret your choice later. To help you get out of this situation, we listed the top processors you can buy today to build your custom gaming rig.
The CPU Manufacturer Scenario in 2021
In 2021, six companies rule the CPU manufacturing scenario. Those are Intel, AMD, Apple, Qualcomm, Mediatek, and Samsung. Qualcomm, Mediatek, and Samsung haven’t made a desktop chip yet, thus we won’t include them in this series. Also, Windows machines overpower their Mac counterparts when it comes to gaming. This rules Apple out of this list, although they make some great desktop processors like the M1 Pro and M1 Max they launched in 2020 and 2021.
Intel and AMD still rule the desktop processor market, even after 40 years of being established as the sole competitors in the market. Both Intel and AMD fight head to head for the performance and value crown. Currently, AMD is in a favorable position in the market. However, Intel is fighting back with its new Alder Lake processors. This constant race for being the best propels the processing industry forward.
The Best Enthusiast CPUs for Gaming
We’ll start a few top-of-the-line processors for gaming enthusiasts:
1. Intel Core i9 12900K
Intel was off the top spot for quite a while. The Rocket Lake launch from early 2021 was disastrous, and many people thought it was the final nail in Intel’s coffin. However, with a completely revamped design, architecture, and smaller lithography, Intel is back in the game. Their Core i9-12900K is based on their all-new 10nm manufacturing node and packs 16 cores. Eight of those cores are Performance cores, and the remaining are Efficiency cores. The Efficiency cores are full-blown cores that carry out every workload as a Performance core, but a bit slower. This helps the Alder Lake processors in the power efficiency department.
The Performance cores come with hyper-threading, which means the system counts each physical core as two logical cores. In contrast, the Efficiency cores don’t support hyper-threading. Thus, the Core i9 12900K comes with a total of 24 threads. The Performance cores can turbo up to a maximum of 5.20 GHz and have a base frequency of 3.90 GHz. The Efficient cores turbo up to a maximum of 3.90 GHz and have a starting frequency of 2.40 GHz.
The processor is rated for a base 125W power draw, and can consume up to 241W of power. It supports 128 GB of the latest DDR5 memory standard at up to 4800 MT/s and 128 GB of DDR4 memory up to 3200 MT/s. It packs the Intel UHD 770 onboard graphics, which is a very capable iGPU. The UHD 770 beats its last-gen iteration, the UHD 750, and AMD’s Vega 7 and 8. In contrast, it fights head to head with the Vega 11.
The Core i9 12900K costs $599.00 on street, which is a lot cheaper than what AMD offers. This sets the Core i9 12900K at the top of the list. Intel also sells a Core i9 12900KF, which is the same processor without the added bulk of the iGPU. Thus, it performs slightly better and costs less, at around $574.00.
2. AMD Ryzen 9 5900X
AMD Ryzen 9 5900X is AMD’s high-end Ryzen 9 offer for 2021. It is based on their latest Zen 3 architecture and comes with a significant performance gain over the last-gen Ryzen 9 3900X. The 5900X shook the grounds as it outperformed the Intel Core i9 10900K with a breeze. Considering the feeble improvements the Core i9 11900K brought along, AMD became the absolute king when it came to both single-core and multi-core performance.
Ryzen 9 5900X has 12 cores. All of them support hyper-threading, which pushes the logical core count to 24. Moreover, they’re all performance cores and rated at a base frequency of 3.7 GHz that can turbo up to 4.8 GHz.
This CPU is rated for a base 105W power draw. The 5000 series is probably the last entry for the AM4 socket, and the 5900X is based on it. It is also based on TSMC’s 7 nm FinFET manufacturing node and is unlocked for overclocking. Ryzen 9 5900X is officially available for $569.99 which makes it a direct competitor to the Intel Core i9 12900KF. However, Core i9 12900KF significantly surpasses the 5900X in almost all scenarios. Thus, we won’t recommend the 5900X. Only go for this processor if you have a good X570 motherboard, or are getting a crazy good deal on it.
Ryzen 9 5950X is more powerful than the 5900X. However, most of that extra power is not noticeable in games, and in some titles, the 5950X loses to the 5900X. Add the insane pricing of the 5950X at $745.00 to that, and the purchase makes no sense. Therefore, the 5900X is the best offer Team Red can extend for gaming.
3. AMD Ryzen 9 5950X
Ryzen 9 5950X is AMD’s latest and greatest processor. It comes packed with 16 cores, all of which have hyper-threading enabled. This totals to 32 logical cores, and they all have a base frequency of 3.40 GHz and can turbo up to 4.90 GHz. The processor is rated the same as its weaker sibling, the 5900X, at 105W. It is the best representative of the Ryzen 5000 series and is based on the same TSMC 7nm FinFET manufacturing node as others. The CPU will be the strongest processor to have ever launched on the AM4 platform, as AMD is introducing the new AM5 socket with Zen4.
However, the extreme power of the Ryzen 9 5950X does not translate to gaming performance. It defeats the 5900X in productivity performance due to having 4 more cores. The multi-core performance is up there, but, most modern games don’t use more than 2 cores at a time. Thus, although it’s beefier than the Ryzen 9 5900X, the 5950X loses to it in a few scenarios. It still manages to beat 5900X in several situations, but the difference is insignificant, and humans would hardly notice it in practice.
Thus, at a hefty premium of $745.00, the Ryzen 9 5950X makes no sense. The Intel Core i9 12900K beats AMD’s flagship offering by a respectable margin. Simultaneously, it costs almost $200 less, making the 5950X the worst flagship processor to choose at this time.
The Best Performance Processors for Gaming
Pick the following CPUs if you require top performance at reasonable prices:
1. Intel Core i7 12700K
Core i7 12700K is another entry in Intel’s latest and greatest 12th generation Alder Lake line of processors. It’s a solid choice for the price and sufficient for gaming. You don’t need a Core i9 or a Ryzen 9 to play modern AAA titles at the highest visual fidelity at 4K resolutions. Even the Ryzen 5 5600X is enough.
The Core i7 12700K is based on Intel’s new 10nm lithography, which Intel calls “Intel 7”. It follows the same design language as its more powerful sibling, the Core i9 12900K. The 12700K packs 12 cores, 8 of which are Performance while the remaining 4 are Efficient cores. The Performance cores have a base clock of 3.60 GHz and can turbo up to 5.00 GHz. The slightly slower Efficient cores go from 2.70 GHz up to 3.80 GHz. Just like the 12900K, the Performance cores have hyper-threading, while the Efficient cores don’t. This totals to a thread count of 20.
The processor officially has a power draw of 125W that can go up to 190W. That is a bit on the higher-end. It comes with support for up to 128 GB of both DDR5 and DDR4 memory. It supports a maximum frequency of 4800 MT/s in DDR5 memories and up to 3200 MT/s in DDR4. The 12700K comes with the UHD 770 iGPU, an extremely capable built-in GPU also found on the 12900K. Intel also sells a 12700KF SKU, which is the same processor but without the iGPU.
The Core i7 12700K is a solid offering from Intel. This processor even beats the Ryzen 9 5900X in several scenarios. This, coupled with a solid price tag of $419.00 makes the 12700K a go-to if you are chasing performance and value. The 12700KF is priced at $394.00 which is an absolute bang for the buck. However, the crazy high power draws are a bit concerning and might not be kind to your electricity bills.
2. AMD Ryzen 7 5800X
The Ryzen 7 5800X is a performance-focused CPU from AMD. It is based on AMD’s latest Zen3 architecture. The CPU is AMD’s octa-core intended for gamers and budding creators. The 5800X ruled Intel out of the competition back in November 2020 when it was launched due to its high performance per dollar ratio. The CPU is still an absolute performer and fights closely with the Core i7 12700K while outperforming Intel’s older processors in the performance line-up.
All 8 cores of the 5800X support hyper-threading. This takes the total logical core count of this SKU up to 16. These cores have a base frequency of 3.80 GHz and can go up to 4.70 GHz on turbo speeds. The processor is based on TSMC’s 7nm FinFET manufacturing node. It is an unlocked CPU, like any other AMD Ryzen CPU, and rated for a TDP of 105W. It supports DDR4 memory only up to a speed of 3200 MHz.
The Ryzen 7 5800X is priced at a sweet $360, which makes it an absolute banger for the price. While Intel takes a solid lead with its latest offering, the pricing is a bit off there as well. Pricing of the 5800X also dropped below $300 in leading retailers like Microcenter after the Alder Lake launch. This probably is AMD’s try at keeping the Ryzen 5000 series a reasonable choice until Zen4 processors hit the market.
3. Intel Core i7 11700K
Rocket Lake was a messed-up launch from Intel. Intel’s approach towards its 11th generation processors was so ignorant that everyone took it for granted that these processors will be mere gap fillers until the Alder Lake processors launch. The 11th generation processor is based on yet another 14nm refinement. It features a slight improvement over the 10th generation offerings. However, this does not mean the 11700K is a bad choice. It is a great processor and manages to beat some current-gen entries from AMD, like the Ryzen 7 5700G. Furthermore, it beats the last-gen Ryzen 7 3800X.
The 11700K is an octa-core offering with hyper-threading enabled across all its cores. This makes up for a total of 16 logical cores. They have a starting frequency of 3.60 GHz and can go up to 5.00 GHz under Turbo Boost. The processor has a hefty power draw of 125W. It also features a “Configurable TDP-Down” mode, which makes the processor consume 95W of power and run at 3.10 GHz. The processor supports a maximum of 128 GB DDR4 memory at 3200 MHz clock speeds. It also comes with an iGPU, the UHD 750. This one is quite decent for an iGPU and can play some modern AAA titles at lower resolutions.
The 12700K is available for $409.00, which is a bit pricier than what AMD offers. Also, picking up the Core i7 11700K might not make any sense after Intel launched the 12700K priced at $419.00. Even the 12700KF, which significantly outperforms the 11700K, is available at $394.00. Intel also sells a 11700KF, which is the same processor without the iGPU. The 12700K and the 12700KF make buying these processors pointless unless you are already on a Z590 board. Or, perhaps, if you don’t want to become an early adopter of DDR5, which is going to suck initially.
The Best Mainstream CPUs for Gaming
These are our top picks among mainstream processors for video games:
1. Intel Core i5 12600K
The Core i5 12600K is another entry in Intel’s just-launched Alder Lake series. It is the budget hexa-core CPU, something many gamers look for in their new CPUs. The 12600K is crazy powerful for the price range. It significantly defeats the competition and is a perfect choice for gamers who want longevity and a good value for their money.
The Core i5 12600K is armed with 10 physical cores. Six of these are Performance cores, while the remaining four are Efficient cores. The Performance cores have a base frequency of 3.70 GHz and can go up to 4.90 GHz. The Efficient cores have a base frequency of 2.80 GHz and can shoot up to 3.60 GHz. The power draw rating of the processor is a substantial 125 W that can go up to 150W. This is too much for a processor focused on a more budget section of the market.
The crazy high power draws of the 12600K might hurt this processor’s sales, and if AMD can pull something more reasonable with their Zen4, it is game over for Intel. However, at a price tag of $300, the processor is an excellent value for money. Although the pricing could have been a bit tighter, these are completely acceptable. The 12600K performs like a maniac and even beats the Ryzen 7 5800X and gets close to the 5900X, even at times beating it. All this performance for just $300 is incredible!
2. AMD Ryzen 5 5600X
The Ryzen 5 5600X is a great member of the AMD line-up in the budget segment. It’s a hexa-core processor in the Ryzen 5000 series, and its performance is on point. The 5600X significantly outperforms its predecessor, the Ryzen 5 3600X. It also manages almost similar performance as the Core i5 11600K, at significantly lower power draws. Although the Ryzen 5 5600X and the Core i5 11600K trade blows, it is hard to suggest any one processor bluntly.
All six cores it comes with are capable of hyper-threading. Thus, the total logical core count of the processors is 12. These cores have a base clock of 3.70 GHz and can stock PBO up to 4.60 GHz. The processor is unlocked and has crazy overclocking potential. It is based on TSMC’s 7nm FinFET manufacturing node, like every other entry in the Ryzen 5000 series. The processor supports PCIe Gen 4 and DDR4 memory up to 3200 MHz.
At $299, the Ryzen 5 5600X is an awesome deal. However, retailers have been scalping these processors lately, and the price has been way higher than what AMD launched them at. On paper, the 12600K and the 5600X are priced the same way, but the 12600K beats the 5600X by a huge margin. If this pricing reflects in retail stores too, it could mean trouble for AMD.
3. Intel Core i5 11600K
The Core i5 11600K is a member of Intel’s Rocket Lake from early 2021. The 11600K is a hexa-core member of the 11th generation of Intel Core processors and was pitched to fight against AMD’s Ryzen 5 5600X. The Core i5 11600K fights closely with its AMD counterpart and performance is almost identical.
We see the same story here. Core i5 11600K is a hexa-core processor, and all cores have hyper-threading enabled, increasing the total logical core count to 12. These cores have a base frequency of 3.90 GHz and can turbo boost up to 4.90 GHz. However, the 11600K is rated for a massive 125W TDP, which is a lot for processors with six cores. The 11600K also comes with a “Configurable TDP-down” mode, which pulls the rated TDP down to 95W and brings the clock speeds down to 3.60 GHz.
The processor supports up to 128 GB of DDR4 memory up to 3200 MHz and comes with a UHD 750 iGPU. Intel also sells a 11600KF, which is the same processor but without the iGPU. The 11600K is smartly priced at $272. At almost $30 less than the 5600X, this processor delivers almost the same performance. However, the power draw will cause issues over time, and you might end up paying more down the line.
Best Entry-Level Processor for Gaming
Low spec gamers, we haven’t forgotten you. This is our top choice for an entry-level gaming CPU:
AMD Ryzen 3 3300X
When it comes to gaming CPUs, the Ryzen 3 3300X, a quad-core solution from AMD, demands a special mention. A crazy good IPC (instructions per cycle/clock) makes this processor an awesome choice for gamers on a tight budget. The processor matches the performance of a heavily overclocked Core i7 7700K, which is pretty sweet. Also, the feeble 65W TDP ensures that users won’t have to pay a premium to their electricity providers after buying this processor.
The 3300X also has awesome overclocking potential. If you are looking for value, there is no other option than this $120 processor. It outperforms any entry-level processor, and those starting shouldn’t hesitate a moment more.