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The best CPUs for gaming: Core i9-10850K and Ryzen 5 3600 price cuts shake things up

Game on with these picks for every budget.

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Buying a processor for a gaming rig isn’t as hard as it used to be. Now that Ryzen 3000-series and Intel’s 10th-gen Core CPUs come with more performance and cores than ever before, it’s hard to buy a stinker these days—especially because most games favor graphics firepower over CPU oomph. All that said, there are specific chips that stand out from the horde as the best gaming CPUs due to their price, performance, or nifty extras.

Whether you’re on a budget or willing to pay for sheer face-melting speed, these are the best CPUs for gaming PCs that you can buy.

Editor’s note: We constantly updated this article as necessary. The latest iteration added the Core i9-10850K to the best high-end gaming CPU section and replace the Ryzen 5 3600X with the Ryzen 5 3600 in the “best processor for most people” section after it received steep discounts.

Latest gaming CPU news

AMD revealed slightly faster versions of its popular Ryzen 3000 processors on June 16, adopting the “XT” moniker introduced by the Ryzen RX 5000-series graphics cards. The $249 Ryzen 5 3600XT, $399 Ryzen 7 3800XT, and $500 Ryzen 9 3900XT will launch on July 7 with moderate clock speed boosts and no cooler for the two top-end chips. Read all about Ryzen XT here.

The company kept the pedal to the metal with the announcement of Ryzen 4000 G chips on July 21, which pair 7nm “Zen 2” CPU cores with more potent 7nm versions of its Radeon Vega GPU cores. They’re basically desktop versions of the game-changing Ryzen 4000 laptop chips and culminate in a 8-core, 16-thread model. The bad news? These will only be available in prebuilt systems, though AMD promises that DIY APUs will be released in the future.  

Things are looking less rosy for Intel. While its 10th-gen Core chips earn recognition at several points in this roundup, the company announced during its second quarter financial earnings that its 7nm transition is running a year behind expectations, and Intel’s first 10nm desktop chips won’t be released until the second half of 2021.

The best gaming CPU for most people

AMD Ryzen 5 3600 ($160 on Amazon)

Intel’s ruled the gaming roost for seemingly time eternal, but in 2019, AMD seized the mainstream crown. Overall, the $160 Ryzen 5 3600 is the best gaming CPU for most people, though Intel’s rival 10th-gen Core processors compete much more fiercely than 9th-gen chips did. The $275 Core i5-10600K is a faster than the AMD chip at pure gaming frame rates, but costs significantly more overall and actually sells for closer to $300 on the street, so the Ryzen 5 3600 provides outstanding value. You can’t go wrong with either chip.

ryzen 9 3900x 3 Gordon Mah Ung/IDG

AMD bestows its Ryzen parts with simultaneous multi-threading, giving the six-core Ryzen 5 3600 a full twelve threads. That gives some serious productivity chops for a mainstream CPU. But for the first time in recent memory, AMD’s mainstream chip hangs tough with its Intel counterparts, too. AMD infused its third-gen Ryzen chips with massive instructions-per-clock (IPC) improvements and faster clock speeds, with the 3.6GHz Ryzen 5 3600 capable of boosting up to 4.2GHz.

amd wraith spire AMD

The Ryzen 5 3600 comes with AMD’s Wraith Spire cooler, while Intel’s rival K-series processors require you to bring your own.

Together, those gains help the chip trades blow with Intel’s Core i5-9600K in gaming benchmarks at TechSpot and GamersNexus. Both sites give the Ryzen 5 3600 a hearty recommendation. At this point it’s the clear recommendation over the faster Ryzen 5 3600X ($210 at Amazon), which hasn’t seen discounts nearly as steep at the non-X model. Most AMD motherboards support overclocking for the adventurous if you want to try your hands at even better performance.

The newer 6-core, 12-thread, $275 Core i5-10600K puts up a tougher fight against AMD’s chip than its predecessor, thanks to its high clock speeds and the reintroduction of Hyper-Threading. Intel’s chip is actually faster than AMD’s at 1080p gaming overall in reviews at TechSpot, Digital Foundry, Gamers Nexus, and Anandtech, though the Ryzen 5 3600 wins a handful of comparisons, and the performance gaps shrinks substantially as you go up in resolution. Intel’s chip especially rocks in esports titles. If you won’t accept anything but the fastest mainstream gaming performance, the Core i5-10600K is your chip. It’s on a par with last gen’s Core i9-9900K flagship, and Intel’s best 10th-gen offering.

core i9 10900k 2 Gordon Mah Ung

Intel’s Core i6-10600K isn’t that much slower than the flagship Core i9-10900K in gaming.

That said, the Ryzen 5 3600 mostly hangs with Intel’s Core i5 for practical gaming purposes—reviewers say the performance difference is close enough that you won’t see much change with your naked eye, outside of competitive gaming scenarios. We give the edge to AMD due to its lower overall cost: The Ryzen 5 3600 costs half the price of Intel’s chip the street, and it comes bundled with a Wraith CPU cooler. You’ll need to spring for your own cooler with the Core i5-10600K, and the Z490 motherboards you’ll need to plop it into tend to cost more than established AMD AM4 motherboards. Plus, if you want to spend up for a newer 500-series AM4 motherboard, the Ryzen chip supports blazing-fast PCIe 4.0 storage. Intel hasn’t jumped onto that bandwagon yet.

The best budget gaming CPU

AMD Ryzen 3 3300X ($120 at B&H) or Ryzen 3 3200G ($100 on Amazon)

If you want a gaming CPU that won’t break the bank, look no further than the $100 Ryzen 3 3200G if you want modest game-ready graphics included with your chip, or the $120 Ryzen 3 3300X if you plan to BYO graphics card.

amd ryzen AMD

The four-core, eight-thread Ryzen 3 3300X achieves performance equal to or better than Intel’s former Core i7-7700K flagship at a fraction of the cost, delivering “unprecedented value” per Digital Foundry. Gamers Nexus is just as glowing in its review, stating that “an R3 is enough for gaming.” It’s only a few paces behind the Ryzen 5 3600 in most games, so if you don’t need the more expensive chip’s extra cores for productivity tasks, this is a great value for the money.

There’s never been a low-budget gaming chip with performance this competitive. Better yet, AMD tosses a cooler into the box, the chip can be overclocked, and compatible B450 motherboards are both cheap and plentiful. Alternatively, if you want to future-proof your system with a pricier 500-series AM4 motherboard, the chip can support PCIe 4.0 storage, though you’ll probably want to wait for B550 motherboards to roll out in mid-June if you’re going that route.

The step-down Ryzen 3 3100 costs $100, but it’s less compelling. Due to a technical difference in how its CPU cores communicate, it tends to lag behind the Ryzen 3 3300X in both productivity and gaming. Save up the extra $20.

Another option would be to invest $100 in our other budget gaming pick, which can let you game even if you can’t spend extra on graphics. The continuation of AMD’s “APU” strategy, the $100 Ryzen 3 3200G blends four Ryzen CPU cores with eight of AMD’s powerful Radeon Vega compute units. The end result? A solid-performing chip that can play PC games without the need for a graphics card.

radeon apu AMD

It’s built using 12nm Zen+ cores rather than the 7nm Zen 2 cores in other third-gen Ryzen processors, but the Ryzen 3 3200G should still deliver enough punch for basic gaming. Its predecessor, the Ryzen 3 2200G, handled e-sports titles like Fortnite, Dota 2League of Legends, and Rocket League with ease and turned in surprisingly good frame rates even in AAA games like Destiny 2 and Rise of the Tomb Raider. You might need to alter some graphics settings and maybe dial the game resolution back to 720p for the best results, but you can get the vast majority of games running between 30 and 60 frames per second with some tinkering.

The Ryzen 3 3200G should perform slightly better thanks to faster clock speeds. Its CPU cores are about 300MHz faster than the 2200G’s, while the integrated Radeon Vega GPU cores are about 150MHz faster. That said, the Ryzen 3 3200G’s older manufacturing process and lack of multi-threading make the Ryzen 3 3300X a better pick if you’re planning on jamming a graphics card into your system as well. It’s just plain faster as a processor.

If you’re buying a Ryzen APU, though, make sure your chosen motherboard includes an HDMI port. Without a graphics card inside your system, you’ll be reliant on it for video output.

The best high-end gaming CPU

Intel Core i9-10900KS ($525 on Newegg)

core i9 10900k 1 Gordon Mah Ung

The Core i9-10900K is the fastest gaming CPU ever.

If you absolutely, positively need the fastest frame rates possible, price be damned, you’ll want Intel’s $525 Core i9-10900K. Well, theoretically $525. The high-end, ten-core chip just launched, and paired with Intel’s ongoing supply constraints, it’s hard to find on the street right now.

If you can find one, this 10-core, 20-thread processor comes clocked at 3.7GHz base and can fly all the way up to 5.3GHz under the right conditions. It came out ahead of the Ryzen 9 3900X across all but one gaming test we threw at it. The wins usually come in the form of a single-digit percentage performance lead, but it earns more substantial victories in Far Cry: New Dawn and Gears 5.

The Core i9-10900K is the world’s fastest CPU for gaming, full stop—and thanks to the increased core count, it can now hang near AMD’s high-end Ryzen chips in productivity tasks, too.

core i9 10900k gaming performance IDG

The Core i9-10900K beats the Ryzen 9 3900X across the board in games, although it has two fewer cores and costs $100 more. (The shorter bar is better in Civ VI Gathering Storm.)

It might not be the most practical option for most people, though—even gaming enthusiasts with deep pockets. The blazing-fast clock speeds start to matter less when you pair the 9900KS with a high-end graphics card at 1440p or 4K resolutions, which shifts the performance bottleneck over to the GPU in most games. You’ll get the most out of Intel’s ludicrously fast flagship at 1080p resolution. Because of that, and some other considerations, AMD and Intel both offer some very intriguing alternatives.

It might not be the most practical option for most people, though—even gaming enthusiasts with deep pockets. The blazing-fast clock speeds start to matter less when you pair the Core i9-10900K with a high-end graphics card at 1440p or 4K resolutions, which shifts the performance bottleneck over to the GPU in most games. You’ll get the most out of Intel’s ludicrously fast flagship at 1080p resolution. The chip also chugs down a lot of power and lacks support for cutting-edge PCIe 4.0 storage. Because of that, and the sky-high cost of the 10900K, AMD and Intel both offer some very intriguing alternatives.

intel Comet Lake Core i9 Intel

Let’s start with Intel’s options. If you’re willing to accept a mere 100MHz off every major spec, the 10-core Core i9-10850K will cost around $455 when it hits the streets soon, and it’s pretty much otherwise identical to the 10900K. Nobody’s reviewed the chip yet, but those mild nerfs and decent savings makes it a pretty good deal. Losing 100MHz across all specs adds up to about a 2 percent clock speed reduction over the Core i9-10900K at a price reduction of about 7.4 percent. 

If you’re on the hunt simply for an optimal gaming experience and don’t need a legion of cores and threads for productivity, the 8-core, 16-thread $425 Core i7-10700K might be worth considering. It’s just as fast as the pricier Core i9-10900K in gaming loads, per Gamers Nexus and TechSpot, but costs significantly less. But the Core i5-10600K discussed previously is essentially as fast for over another $100 less, however, and Intel’s Core i7 chip gets fiercely outmatched by comparable AMD processors in productivity tasks, especially when it comes to performance per dollar.

Gaming isn’t all most people do on their computers, of course. If you do a lot of work on your PC, especially resource-intensive tasks like streaming or media editing, one of AMD’s third-gen Ryzen chips is probably a better option. AMD’s been making aggressive price moves around Intel’s 10th-gen launch to be more competitive. Ryzen 3000-series chips also hold an edge in power efficiency and PCIe 4.0 support.

ryzen 9 3900x 12 Gordon Mah Ung

AMD’s 12-core Ryzen 9 3900X is the king of mainstream performance CPUs.

“In the end, AMD still makes it a better choice and a better deal for most, but for those who want higher clock speeds and more performance on lighter workloads, Intel’s 10th gen Core i9-10900K and its sibling at least are worth considering,” we said in our 10900K review. “That, frankly, is a victory from the situation it has been in.”

The $750 Ryzen 9 3950X is by far the most powerful consumer desktop processor ever, sporting a whopping 16 cores, 32 threads, and the highest clock speeds of any Ryzen chip. Even the $410 Ryzen 9 3900X comes loaded with 12 cores and 24 threads, outstripping Intel’s options despite costing over $100 less than the Core i9-10900K after a steep price cut.

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