The best processors for 2021

Although many components go into building a PC, few are as important as the processor. As the heart of your system, the CPU handles most of the actual computing that your computer does. With multiple options from AMD and Intel, however, finding the best processors is more difficult than it may seem.

We’ve rounded up the best desktop CPUs for your next build, most of which come from AMD (we managed to sneak in an Intel recommendation, too). There are a few options depending on your budget, with the Ryzen 3 3300X taking the cake for budget builds, and the Ryzen 9 5900X taking the crown for high-end ones.

The best processors in 2021 at a glance

AMD Ryzen 5 5600X

For a balance of price and performance, it’s hard to beat the AMD Ryzen 5 5600X. It clocks in at only $300 and comes with six cores, 12 threads, and a boost clock speed of up to 4.6GHz. Although it doesn’t boost as high as Intel’s competing Core i5-11600K, the Ryzen 5 5600X manages to stay cooler and consumes about half the power.

You’re not getting eight cores like you’d get on the Ryzen 7 5800X, but that doesn’t matter much in games. It features the same Zen 3 architecture as the rest of the Ryzen 5000 range, so you get about the same single-core performance as even the Ryzen 9 5900X. That makes the Ryzen 5 5600X a great choice for gaming.

Six cores might limit you in some tasks. However, that’s still more than enough for gaming and day-to-day tasks, as well as some light video or photo editing. The Ryzen 5 5600X is everything you need and nothing you don’t, making it an easy recommendation for the mainstream gaming crowd.

AMD Ryzen 3 3300X

It’s tough finding a budget CPU in 2021. The cheapest options are more expensive than they should be, and many of them are out of stock. That leaves us with the Ryzen 3 3300X, which is a decent deal at only $30 above its list price. Although more expensive than it should be, the Ryzen 3 3300X isn’t a bad buy.

It’s a low-end chip that does the trick for gaming, offering four cores, eight threads, and clock speeds up to 4.3GHz. It’s based on the older Zen 2 architecture, which isn’t as fast the Zen 3 architecture on recent Ryzen chips. However, Zen 2 still includes solid single-core performance, which is great for gaming.

Although the four cores might feel limiting for video or photo editing, the Ryzen 3 3300X can still handle light productivity tasks, as well as any day-to-day work you may have. Budget CPUs aren’t $100 like they used to be, but the Ryzen 3 3300X still manages to feel worth its asking price.

Intel Core i5-10600K

Intel

AMD has always been the better option on a budget, but in a strange twist, we’re actually recommending an Intel processor in this spot. From gaming to light productivity, the i5-10600K is a more than capable chip. It boasts six cores and 12 threads with a base frequency of 4.1GHz. 10th-gen Intel processors are known for how well they overclock, however. This “K” model processor is unlocked, meaning you can overclock it with a compatible motherboard. With a little tweaking, the 10600K can hit 5GHz just like its bigger, badder sibling: The i9-10900K.

The 10600K is a last-gen part now, too, so the price is down. You can find the 10600K readily available at most online retailers for around $215. AMD’s competing chip, the Ryzen 5 5600X, is slightly more expensive at around $300. It features the same core count as the 10600K, but AMD’s chip wins in gaming benchmarks, especially at lower resolutions. You shouldn’t discount how well the 10600K overclocks, though, which can easily close the gap with the 5600X when gaming, nearing Ryzen 7 5800X performance.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a big reason to upgrade to the newer Core i5-11600K. It’s a faster processor, technically, but you can make up that ground with overclocking. Plus, the Core i5-10600K is much cheaper than it used to be, shaving nearly $100 off the price of its newer sibling.

Intel Core i7-11700K

AMD’s Ryzen 5000 processors have pushed past Intel, but Team Blue still holds the overclocking crown. If you’re looking for an enthusiast CPU that you can push to the limits, the Intel Core i7-11700K is for you. It’s hot, and it needs a lot of power, but it can reach clock speeds far ahead of anything AMD has to offer.

For around $400, you’re getting eight cores and 16 threads, a base clock speed of 3.6GHz, and a boost of up to 5GHz. That’s out of the box on every unit. Using Intel’s Extreme Tuning Utility — or overclocking your CPU manually — you can push clock speeds even higher. It’s not out of the question to reach 5.2GHz on all cores (just make sure you have enough power and cooling).

The Core i7-11700K competes directly with the Ryzen 7 5800X. The AMD chip is $50 more expensive and features a slight performance advantage at stock speeds. After overclocking, however, the Core i7-11700K leads in gaming performance and at a lower price.

AMD Ryzen 9 5900X

Two chips are topping AMD’s current lineup: The 5900X and the 5950X. The 5950X is undoubtedly the more powerful processor, sporting 16 cores and 32 threads to the 5900X’s 12 cores and 24 threads. The 5950X is also $250 more expensive, and in the vast majority of applications, that’s wasted money.

The 5900X far exceeds the last-gen 3900X, as well as Intel’s current frontrunner, the 10900K. The underlying Zen 3 architecture is the reason why, with excellent single- and multi-core performance. In rendering and encoding, the 5900X matches or exceeds the last-gen 3950X in most benchmarks. In some cases, the 5900X even exceeds the 5950X.

If you’re only interested in gaming, we’d normally point to Intel’s offerings, but AMD still leads the pack with the 5900X. Even in games that heavily favor Intel CPUs — such as Red Dead Redemption 2 — the 5900X tops Intel’s best.

Like all 5000-series processors, the 5900X is out of stock at most retailers as of January 2021. It really is the best mainstream processor currently available, so we’d recommend hunting one down if you can. If you need a processor now, however, the 10900K gets close in gaming and most productivity tasks, and even closer with a little overclocking.

Best processor for productivity work: AMD Threadripper 3990X

If AMD changed the conversation with its mainstream Ryzen 3000-series processors, it flipped the script with Threadripper 3000. Even among that ridiculously powerful generation of high-end CPUs, the Threadripper 3990X stands alone. It is a genuinely ludicrous and unnecessary CPU. But if you can take advantage of its 64 cores and 128 threads, there’s no other CPU out there quite like it, outside of the server space.

The 3990X, like most Threadripper chips, favors quantity over quality. The cores themselves are impressive, built on the same Zen 2 architecture as third-gen Ryzen chips. However, the newer Zen 3 architecture in Ryzen 5000 processors has faster single-core performance, making those CPUs better for things like gaming, which usually stress a dominant core or only use a limited number of cores.

The 3990X shines in tasks that demand a lot of cores, such as visual effects rendering or dense video editing. Sitting between the consumer and professional space, the 3990X is the perfect processor for professionals that need the best performance but don’t have the money to invest in server-grade hardware.

This model’s price is an obvious downside—it’s just under $4,000. However, that’s still far less expensive than Intel’s 50+ core models. If having a ton of cores isn’t essential, you can get the 32-core AMD Threadripper 3970X for half the price while still spending less than you would with other models. Keep in mind, though, that the 3990X is a productivity workhorse. If you make a living from your computer—say, in CPU-heavy tasks such as CAD and video encoding—the higher priced option might pay for itself.

AMD still leads the pack

Dan Baker/Digital Trends

It’s possible to find a great processor that checks all your boxes without unnecessary features. AMD’s processors put them first in this competition, but Intel still has yet to show off the performance of the upcoming Alder Lake platform.

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