Micro Center's CPU Buying Guide - March 2023

This discussion has a more recent version.

Written by Jon Martindale

What CPU should you buy in 2023? It’s a tricky choice as there are not only multiple generations of processors from AMD and Intel to consider, but they’re more competitive than ever. There are great CPUs for gaming, others that are perfect for creative workloads, and some amazing budget options which would rival flagship CPUs from just a few years ago.

But no matter your CPU budget, never fear, as this guide will help break down what the best processors are for you, and how to buy the best CPU in 2023.

AMD and Intel

The two major processor manufacturers for desktop computers are AMD and Intel. Where in the past one may have had a significant advantage over the other, in 2023 it’s a relatively tight race whether you’re buying a top-tier CPU or one of the budget offerings. There are some distinct differences between the manufacturers and the CPUs they offer, though.

AMD’s processors are, at this stage, relatively traditional. They have a unified-core design within the CPUs, and simultaneous multi-threading guarantees double the thread support throughout almost the entire range. The quad cores support eight threads, the hexacores, 12 threads, and so on.

Intel’s latest CPUs, on the other hand, use two different core designs providing a mix of high-power Performance (P) cores and more efficient (E) cores. The performance cores are based on the latest architecture and process nodes, hitting the highest clock speeds, and are designed for the most demanding of tasks, like gaming, and video editing. The E cores are based on an older process node, and are less efficient, but physically smaller, letting Intel pack more of them into the same space.

That tends to give Intel the core-count advantage in any head to heads, but AMD’s more powerful cores close the performance gap in most applications.

The latest generations

If you’re buying a new processor or PC with a new processor in it, you'll want to stick to one of the latest generations of CPU. That ensures that you get the best performance for your money and the best support for new features and other components, like NVMe SSDs and DDR5 memory, but it also ensures that you have a viable upgrade path for the future.

Buying older CPUs ties you down to older motherboards and memory, which may result in you having to upgrade sooner in the future and in a more dramatic, full-system overhaul fashion rather than just dropping in a new CPU as it becomes available.

If you’re buying an Intel CPU in 2023, you want a 12th- or 13th-generation processor, like the Core i5-12600K, or the Core i9-13900K. That will let you upgrade to better 12th- or 13th-generation processors in the future.

For AMD, you ideally want something from the latest 7000-series of Ryzen processors, like the Ryzen 7 7700X, or 7900X3D. That will let you upgrade to a better 7000-series CPU in the future. It’s also possible you’ll be able to upgrade generations as well, as AMD often uses the same chipset for a few generations. You might want to consider the last-generation Ryzen 5000 series if you’re on a tighter budget but know that that limits you to only Ryzen 5000 CPUs moving forward.

AMD refreshed its line of Ryzen 7000 CPUs in early 2023 with new X3D models. These are targeted at gamers and sacrifice some productivity performance for higher frame rates. They are only worth considering if you will primarily use them for gaming. That said, if you’re only looking to play games, they are the best AMD CPUs to buy.

Core counts vs. clock speed vs. cache

The latest generations of processors are parcelled up into different tiers, for both pricing and performance. Those tiers are dictated by, for the most part, core counts, clock speeds, and cache.

There are some tasks that benefit more from higher core counts, some that are more interested in single core clock speed, and others still that benefit from greater per-core cache. Instead of breaking down the many niches that those are applicable, here are some general ideas to consider when buying your CPU:

  • For gaming, you will see notable gains in performance up to eight cores, but from there, the improvement is negligible. Some games can really benefit from more, but not many.
  • Two more important factors for gaming are clock speed and cache. The latest AMD X3D CPUs have enough additional cache to make them the best for gaming, but Intel’s higher clock speeds make them very competitive.
  • Productivity tasks like video editing, video transcoding, 3D CAD work, and other professional tasks can scale very well with cores counts, with even 64-core CPUs offering some advantages. Some applications, however, like Adobe Photoshop, benefit more from higher clock speeds and per-core performance.

Best CPUs for gaming

There are a number of exciting gaming CPUs in the latest generations of chips. That makes the choice a little more complicated, but it means that we have plenty of options for AMD and Intel fans on a wide range of budgets – whether you’re trying to build without breaking the bank or want the absolute best of the best.

If you want the absolute pinnacle of gaming performance then the AMD Ryzen 9 7950X3D is the current king of the hill. It offers gaming performance that is tangibly greater than even Intel’s fastest competition, and though AMD’s other top X3D CPUs give it a run for its money, the combination of 16 cores and sky-high clock speeds with that additional 3D V-Cache makes it an absolutely monstrous gaming CPU.

The cache does benefit some games more than others, though, so if you are considering this chip, make sure that the games you want to play stand to benefit enough for the choice to be worth it.

But a giant cache isn’t everything, and there are plenty of other amazing options, too. In Intel’s camp, the absolute best of the best is the Core i9-13900K. It has 24 cores and supports just as many threads as the 7950X3D whilst hitting higher clock speeds. It’s either competitive or outright beats AMD’s top options in most games, and its clock speed and higher core count mean it’s a monster for productivity workloads, too.

However, it’s also very power-hungry, demanding a high-power PSU and high-end cooling to keep it running at peak performance.

You needn’t make those sacrifices for high-end gaming performance, though. Those flagship CPUs are not the only great options available. Further down Intel’s product stack, the Core i5-13600K is an amazing gaming processor too, with plenty of cores and high enough clocks that in gaming, it’s often just a few percentage points behind the much-more-expensive 13900K.

AMD’s 7800X3D is fantastic if all you want to do is play games, though supporting motherboards and DDR5 memory will take up a chunk of your budget. The last-generation Ryzen 5800X3D is still a viable, very affordable alternative, too, but it lacks any kind of upgrade path, so bear that in mind if buying a whole new system.

For those looking to maximize performance within a tight budget, the Core i5-13400 is a killer gaming CPU for the money. Alternatively, the Core i3-13100 is less than $200 and competes with top-tier CPUs from just a couple of years ago, making it an amazing gaming processor for Esports or casual gaming on a budget.

Best CPUs for productivity

If you want the best CPU for video editing, the best processor for CAD work, or just need a powerful processor for touching up your family photos, then a CPU aimed at productivity is what you need. Just as with the best gaming processors, there are plenty of enticing options with the latest generations when it comes to productivity, and there’s even a little crossover if you want to do some gaming in your downtime.

For professional applications, high-core-count CPUs are often the best option, so it’s no surprise that arguably the best Intel CPU for the job is the 13900K once again. Its 24 cores are simply unmatched by any other mainstream CPUs, and though the 7950X and 7900X offer credible competition, they typically can’t quite measure up.

If you are focusing on productivity, I would recommend against the new X3D models from AMD as well. While there are some specific applications that benefit from the additional cache, the cache-enhanced cores all run at lower clock speeds, which lowers overall productivity performance on those CPUs, compared to their non-X3D counterparts. These are gaming processors through and through.

What you can consider with professional applications, though, are prosumer CPUs. AMD’s Threadripper Pro 5000-series CPUs have more cores than anything in the mainstream – up to 64 cores at the top end – and while it might be based on an older architecture and process node, those additional cores brute force right past anything the latest generations of consumer chips have to offer.

The 5995WX is the flagship, but you’ll still see amazing performance in live UHD video playback, and particularly in video transcoding from the likes of the 32-core 5975WX, and even the 24-core 5965WX. The extra PCI-Express lanes of those HEDT CPUs are also useful, and with ECC memory support, you can enjoy additional stability, too.

You needn’t spend multiple thousands – or even many hundreds – of dollars to get a great productivity CPU, though. Intel’s more modest processors from the latest generation still come with lots of Efficient, E-Cores, so they have excellent multi-threaded performance, even at more affordable prices. The Core i7-13700K has as many cores as the flagship from the previous generation, 16 in total, and you have the option of DDR4 or DDR5, so you can lower costs further if you like.

The Core i5-13600K is also worth considering, as it has a much higher core count than the AMD equivalents at that sort of price, with its six performance cores, and eight additional E-Cores. Its Raptor Cove architecture gives it very high clock speeds, and it’s overclockable if you need even more performance.

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