How to Choose PC Parts: The Processor

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TSTonyV ✭✭✭✭✭
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edited May 2021 in Reviews & Buying Guides

If you’re reading this post, you’re probably here for one reason: you want to build a new PC. Whether it’s your first time building or you’re an experienced builder and just need some extra clarification, this post is for you. With all the options available on the market, it can be overwhelming, but we’re here to help break it down.


If you’re looking for other parts as well, be sure to check out some of our other guides:

How to Choose PC Parts: The Video Card

How to Choose PC Parts: The Motherboard

How to Choose PC Parts: RAM

How to Choose PC Parts: The Power Supply

How to Choose PC Parts: SSDs and Hard Drives

How to Choose PC Parts: The Case


But before we dive into picking our processor, or CPU, we need to answer some basic questions:

What is your budget? The most basic and simple question that will determine everything about your build. For most of you out there, every single dollar counts, and squeezing as much value out of your build as you can will be the most important thing. If you only have a budget of $800, over-spending on one part can severely limit your other options or cause a mismatch in performance. 

What are you using this computer for? Are you a competitive gamer that needs to have a perfectly stable 144Hz refresh rate in all your favorite FPS titles? Maybe you’re a video editor and looking to speed up your production workflow. How you’re using the system will be the other largest factor in determining what parts you should look at. 

We’ve broken down our list by price and use case so it’ll be easy for you to jump right to the processor you need. But, there are a few other things you might want to know before picking a CPU.

Things to Know When Picking a CPU:

What are Threads and Cores? 

Modern CPUs are packing in more cores and threads than ever, but if you don’t know what that means, it’s not exactly useful information. Put simply, while you have one single CPU, it will physically have multiple “cores” which are essentially mini-CPUs that can each perform tasks on their own. Hyper-threading divides each physical core into two “logical” cores (also known as threads) and basically tricks your operating system into thinking each individual core is actually two, which allows them to do more things simultaneously. 

In other words, a CPU is kind of like an office. Each “core” is an individual worker performing tasks, and each “thread” would be like each person using one hand to do one thing, while the other hand does something else at the same time. How many workers you need and how many hands they should use depends on what you’re doing. 

Video games historically have been single-thread reliant. Modern games have been getting better at utilizing more cores, but the benefits of more cores usually stop when you hit 6-8 cores total and beyond that you’ll see diminishing returns, at least for now.  The same is true for some professional applications like Adobe Photoshop and After Effects. Depending on exactly what you’re doing, after a certain number of cores you get diminishing returns and what’s most important is your single-threaded speed. 

Other tasks care a LOT about having lots and lots of cores, like rendering with V-Ray or Cinema 4d. If you’re doing more than just gaming and other everyday tasks, it’s important to understand your workload and what it needs the most. That type of discussion could have it’s own dedicated article, but Puget Systems has a ton of great recommendations and explanations for all sorts of design, content creation and other professional workloads. If that’s the sort of detailed information you’re looking for, I’d definitely check them out. 

How to Read Intel CPU Names:

What does i7-10700k mean? To break it down, the first part designates the tier of the processor. These range from i3 at the entry level, i5 in the mid range, i7 on the high end and i9 at the top. The second part is the model number, which you can use to determine the generation, e.g. a 10### is a tenth-generation processor, a 9### is a ninth-generation. The last three digits, AKA the SKU, in the model number establish its spot in the product stack, higher being better (generally speaking), e.g the i5-10600k is higher than the i5-10400, though they are both mid-tier i5 processors from the 10th generation. 

If you see a K at the end of the processor name, it means it’s unlocked and can be overclocked. All Intel CPUs come with integrated graphics unless you see an F at the end, which means the processor does not include integrated graphics. 

An explanation of Intels processor naming convention showing which parts represent the Brand Intel Core Brand Modifier i7 Generation indicator 10 SKU Numeric Digits 65 and Product Line Suffix G7

How to Read AMD CPU Names:

AMD follows a similar naming scheme as intel. The 7 in a Ryzen 7 5800X indicates the tier the CPU represents, Ryzen 3 being entry-level up to Ryzen 9 at the top. The 5### shows the current generation of processor. #600 is the model number, increasing with the power of the CPU. The X simply designates it as an ever-so-slightly faster counterpart to a CPU without the X (e.g., Ryzen 5 3600 vs 3600X). 

Unlike Intel, all AMD Ryzen processors are unlocked by default. All AMD Ryzen processors come without integrated graphics unless you see a G at the end, which indicates ones that do include integrated graphics. 

What is Overclocking?

we have a full explainer of overclocking (link) if you want to get deep with it, but the gist is using your motherboard’s BIOS to push past the speed set by the CPU manufacturer to get more CPU power. However, it comes with risks and a lot of PC builders will never overclock, let alone need to overclock. 

The Big Question:

With those things in mind, let's dig into choosing your Processor. And of course, we have to start with The Big Question:

Intel or AMD?

If you’d asked that question 5 or 10 years ago, there was only one answer: Intel was the king and AMD was relegated to competing only in the super-budget areas. But a LOT has changed in the last four years.

In 2017, AMD came back into the fold with their new Ryzen 1000 series CPUs, offering good enough single-threaded performance while offering a high number of cores/threads at great prices. They were a great value proposition for gamers and became competitive in multi-threaded workloads. AMD made iterative improvements until, with the latest Ryzen 5000 series, they’ve actually surpassed Intel in single-threaded and multithreaded performance. You have to pay a premium for the processors, but they are pretty much the best on the market right now. 

So why choose Intel?

Well, unless you have unlimited money, you should always go with whatever gives you the best value. 

AMD’s 5000 series may be ahead of Intel, but the lead is not so significant that you should just ignore Intel entirely. Intel still offers good performance, even if it’s no longer chart-topping, and when you're on a budget, every dollar counts. Losing 5% performance to save 15% of the cost may be worth it.  Pay attention to prices and choose what gives you the most bang for your buck.


What CPUs should I buy?

Updated 4/2/2021 for Intel 11th generation CPUs

There’s a lot of CPUs to choose from, so we’ve tried to break it down into different price/performance tiers to make it easier for you to make a choice. Keep in mind that prices on these CPUs can change as sales come and go. These are rough recommendations for what to expect, and what kind of prices you should be targeting to make sure you get good value. 

Under ~$200: Entry Level Gaming

If you’re gaming on a budget, there’s a lot of solid options under $200 that will be plenty powerful. These days our general recommendation for gaming is that you should go for a CPU with at least 4 cores/8 threads. Modern games have been getting better at utilizing more cores/threads and this has become the baseline. Thankfully, most budget CPUs are now offering at least that many, with some in this category offering 6 cores/12 threads which has become the new sweetspot for modern titles. 

Intel i4-11400: Say hello to the new budget king. The 11400 is the 6 core/12 thread followup to the 10400, and in gaming this CPU consistently beats the Ryzen 5 3600 while coming in at the same price point of ~$180-200. It can be upwards of 20% faster, though it varies depending on the game you're playing. The 11400 is arguably the best overall value from Intel's 11th generation when you consider the performance and price. 

Ryzen 5 3600: Once the king of overall value, the Ryzen 5 3600 is still a good option but now sees hefty competition in the $180-200 price range. The 11400 is faster in gaming so for most people out there, it's the better buy. The 3600 does have one advantage in that if you're looking for multi-core performance and are on a very strict budget, it generally beats the 11400 in those types of workloads. 

Intel i3-10100F: The i3-10100F usually sits around $100 and if you’re on a really tight budget, is a great choice. It hits our 4 core/8 thread “minimum,” so gets the job done for gaming. If you aren’t gaming but just need a CPU for general use, and therefore don’t need a video card, the i3-10100 has integrated graphics and is a great daily driver.

Intel i5-10400F: The 10400F can be had for around $140 so this is still a good budget-gaming option, but with how close the 11400 is in price and the performance uplift you get, I would recommend spending the extra dollars on that instead if at all possible. 

~$200-350: The Sweetspot 

This is where you start getting into the high-end gaming options. If all you’re doing is gaming, you don’t need to spend any more than this unless you have a ton of budget and really care about that last couple percentage points of performance. If you’re doing work that relies a lot on single-threaded performance like Photoshop and isn’t really multi-thread intensive, this is a great spot to be in without breaking the bank. It’s also a great entry point if you’re looking for multi-thread performance and can’t quite afford the higher tier options. For most users out there, you’ll never need to spend any more than this on a CPU. 

Intel i5-11600k: The 11600k takes the fight back to AMD in the mid-range and is arguably the new "best all around gaming" CPU. It goes toe-to-toe with the 5600X in gaming, trading the lead depending on whether the title is AMD favored or Intel favored, and generally coming in at a lower price of $260-280. The one knock it has is that in multi-threaded/production type workloads, the 5600X will generally pull ahead, but if you don't care about that, this is a great choice. 

AMD Ryzen 5 5600X: The 5600X is a great CPU: in gaming it has nearly chart topping performance, matching or within a few percent of the higher end 5900X and 5950X, but at a much lower price and therefore offering strong value. Generally you’ll find this CPU for $300. It's also a strong option if you're looking for gaming with some production/multi-threaded performance on the side, it will usually pull ahead of the 11600k in those categories. 

Intel i5-10600k: The 10600k is the former best-all-around gaming CPU. While the 5600X and 11600k beat it, it’s still a strong choice and with the release of the 11600k can be found for close to $200, and at that price it's hard to beat. It also comes with integrated graphics if that’s something you want or need. 

Intel i7-10700k: The 10700k basically occupies the same spot as the 3700X at 8 cores/16 threads, but it’s better in gaming and other single-thread reliant work . If you’re only gaming, then a 5600X or 10600k would be the better choice, but if you need a good balance of both, this is a compelling choice. With recent price cuts and the launch of the 11th gen Intel parts, the 10700k can be found under $300 and is a strong value at that price. 

AMD Ryzen 7 3700X: The 3700X is not as strong in gaming as the 5600X or 10600k, but since this packs 8 cores/16 threads, it will beat them in multi-threaded scenarios. If you’re not super concerned with maximum FPS and think you need those extra cores, this chip offers some excellent overall value around ~$300. It also comes with a pretty solid stock cooler which adds to its value proposition, since a decent aftermarket cooler is going to run $30+ normally.

Intel i7-9700k: The 9700k used to be arguably the best gaming processor on the market right behind the i9-9900k, and is still a great choice, especially with how low the prices can be at times. Gaming performance will be about the same as 10600k, but the 9700k does not have hyper-threading so it’s only 8 cores/8 threads so it lags behind competitors like the 3700X in multi-threaded work. So if you’re only gaming, this is worth a look and can be found close to $200. 


$400-500: Hardcore gamer/editor

Now you’re playing with the real big boys. This is where you start to see some chart-toppers for gaming and single-thread performance, and where the CPUs really pack in the cores/threads for people that are doing a lot of multi-threaded work. 

AMD Ryzen 7 5800X: The 5800X is in a weird spot. It has great performance when you just look at the numbers: near chart-topping gaming performance, while handily beating the 10700k and 3700X in multi-threaded scenarios. But at nearly the same price, the 10900k packs in an extra two cores while matching it in gaming performance. If you’re really after multi-threaded performance, the 3900X is also nearly the same price but has four more cores. At ~$450, this is hard to recommend. 

Intel i9-10850k: This is exactly the same as the 10900k, but slightly slower because it can’t quite hit the same clock speeds consistently. However, unless you really care about that extra couple percent of performance, this is the better value. Typically it's around $400 but Micro Center has recently listed this even as low as $320 which is an absolute steal. 

Intel i9-10900k: Formerly the best gaming CPU, the 10900k packs in 10 cores/20 threads with great single-threaded performance. If you care a lot about gaming performance and multi-threaded capabilities, but can’t quite afford something like a 5900X, this is the next best thing and can be had for ~$470, Micro Center has listed this part as low as $400. 

AMD Ryzen 9 3900X: The 3900X packs in 12 cores/24 threads, two more than its closest competitors in the same tier, while still being pretty good in the single-threaded/gaming department. Under $500, this processor is the king of multi-thread performance, so if that’s what you want, this is where you should look. It used to be commonly available for $400 which was crazy value, but nowadays is usually around ~$450. 

Intel i7-11700k: If the 5800X is in a weird spot, the 11700k is in an ever more weird spot. Unlike the 11600k that saw meaningful improvement over it's previous gen counterpart, the 11700k sees virtually no tangible/consistent performance increase over the 10700k. On top of that, the 5800X beats it in most scenarios. Intel's 11th gen parts do support PCIe 4.0 and AVX512, so if you need those two things, then maybe this is worth consideration, but otherwise, at ~$400 you might as well save your money and buy a 10700k or 10850k instead. 

$500+: Elite gaming/workstation powerhouse

This is the top of the ladder. The cream of the crop.  Whether you’re a hardcore gamer who needs to squeeze out every last frame, or you’re a designer/professional needing to optimize your workflow, these are the best of the best for a consumer platform. 

AMD Ryzen 9 5900X: The 5900X is just a monster. It’s arguably the best gaming CPU on the market now with blistering single-core performance, and still packs in 12 cores/24 threads so it still maintains really impressive multi-core performance. It’s priced right at ~$550 and at that price point, nothing really matches it. 

AMD Ryzen 9 5950X: The 5950X packs a whopping 16 cores/32 threads under the hood. It also costs a whopping $800. With that in mind, this is a processor specifically for doing a lot of multi-core intensive work. It’s a chart-topper for single-threaded and gaming performance, so if you also do that, then you can’t go wrong. But if gaming/single thread is your main/only focus you should just get a 5900X instead of this. This a processor for enthusiasts or professionals who are doing lots of work that can fully utilize all 32 of those threads. 

AMD Ryzen 9 3950X: Also with 16 cores/32 threads, the Ryzen 9 3950X falls into the same category as the 5950X, but with slower single-threaded speed.  If you can’t quite afford the 5950X, but still need as much multi-core performance as possible, you can find this around ~$680.

Intel i9-11900k: The 11900k is... not good. It's basically the 11700k with a mild boost in clock speed that sees you gain a couple percent of performance in the best case scenario. It's down to 8 cores vs the 10 of the 10900k/10850k and loses to those in multi-thread reliant scenarios, let alone the 12 core 5900X. At $550, there's no reason to buy this compared to the current competition, or even compared to it's previous generation counterparts. 

If you have follow-up questions feel free to comment below, and if you’re still looking for part recommendations, we have guides for Video CardsMotherboardsRAMPower SuppliesHard Drives, and Cases.


  • JasonA
    JasonA ✭✭
    Name Dropper First Comment
    There doesn't seem to be a dedicated article in this series that gives advice regarding selection of cooling fans or liquid coolers. In particular I'm looking for something to go with an i7-9700K setup designed to run Adobe Lightroom Classic and Photoshop. Any suggestions ?
  • PowerSpec_MichaelB
    PowerSpec_MichaelB ✭✭✭✭✭
    First Answer 5 Insightfuls First Comment 5 Awesomes
    JasonA said:
    There doesn't seem to be a dedicated article in this series that gives advice regarding selection of cooling fans or liquid coolers. In particular I'm looking for something to go with an i7-9700K setup designed to run Adobe Lightroom Classic and Photoshop. Any suggestions ?
    Great question. In regards to fans, it will depend on the intended use of the fans. If they are simply going on a chassis for additional airflow, then look for fans specifically rated for high airflow or a high CFM volume. I am a fan of Noctua's black industrial fans such as the Noctua NF-F12, but I do not believe we carry those particular fans anymore. A strong contender for second place would be Corsair's AF120/AF140's as they offer great airflow and are not all that loud. 

    If you are looking for radiator fans, you'll need static pressure fans. While you can use high airflow fans and run them at an extremely high RPM to force air through the fin stacks, it's going to be obnoxiously loud as they are not purpose built to force air through something with a lot of resistance. My favorite radiator fans are Corsair's MagLev series. They offer a strong static pressure rating AND high airflow, so you get the best of both worlds here. They also use a magnetic bearing and run extremely quiet. I have 18 of these in a push/pull configuration on a 1260mm radiator and cannot hear them running despite my radiator being external and on top of my desk.

    As for liquid cooler recommendations, this will depend on your chassis size. I personally recommend 240/280mm radiators depending on chassis support. 120mm radiators are no better than high end air coolers, and 360mm radiators suffer from diminishing returns due to the AIO's pump being the bottleneck in most situations. A larger radiator will help you stave off higher temperatures for a little longer, but once the liquid in the loop reaches thermal equilibrium, it won't matter at that point. I personally prefer AIO's that use Asetek pumps. This would be Corsair's H series AIO's, NZXT's Kraken series, EVGA's CLC series, and Thermaltake's Floe series.

    If you are looking for recommendations on a custom loop watercooling setup, then that will require a full list of your components so we can determine what needs cooled, how much space you have for radiators, pump/reservoir and tubing.
  • JasonA
    JasonA ✭✭
    Name Dropper First Comment
    edited May 2020
    Thanks @TSMichaelB !
    What I'm really looking at are the fan + radiator combinations for the CPU. I really don't want to go down the liquid cooling path at this stage if I can get by without it.
    So I've been looking at the Noctua range, NH-U14S, NH-D15 or NH-D15S, which are in the $90-$115 range, but then I also see much cheaper options like the Cooler Master Hyper 212 series for $35 - $45.
    The last time I had a custom-built PC, it was a Pentium 4 3.0GHz with HyperThreading, and that worked perfectly well with a stock Intel fan and heatsink. Obviously a lot has changed since then in the last 15 years !!! So now I'm trying to play "catch up" on the technology !!!
    My current build parts list is as follows:
    I am also thinking of using the Corsair SPEC-02 case. I like the look and the magnetic mesh on the cooling vents.
  • PowerSpec_MichaelB
    PowerSpec_MichaelB ✭✭✭✭✭
    First Answer 5 Insightfuls First Comment 5 Awesomes
    JasonA said:
    Thanks @TSMichaelB !
    What I'm really looking at are the fan + radiator combinations for the CPU. I really don't want to go down the liquid cooling path at this stage if I can get by without it.
    So I've been looking at the Noctua range, NH-U14S, NH-D15 or NH-D15S, which are in the $90-$115 range, but then I also see much cheaper options like the Cooler Master Hyper 212 series for $35 - $45.
    The last time I had a custom-built PC, it was a Pentium 4 3.0GHz with HyperThreading, and that worked perfectly well with a stock Intel fan and heatsink. Obviously a lot has changed since then in the last 15 years !!! So now I'm trying to play "catch up" on the technology !!!
    My current build parts list is as follows:
    I am also thinking of using the Corsair SPEC-02 case. I like the look and the magnetic mesh on the cooling vents.
    Honestly for what you're describing, I think the Hyper 212 series would work fine. If you are overclocking, then I would recommend the Noctua D15's as they can compete with some of the higher end AIO liquid coolers and should be plenty for any overclocking you intend to do, but if you plan to run it at stock clock/turbo boost speeds and use it for content creation, the Hyper 212 Black Edition would be my recommendation.

    The stock fan that comes on it works perfectly fine, but if you wanted to replace it with anything, a Noctua NF-F12 would be great, or a Corsair ML120 would be my second recommendation. I'd start with the stock fan first and if you find its noise to be louder than your preferences. 

    If you do go with the larger NH D15, be very careful with your RAM heatspreaders. The fans will likely cover the first DIMM slot on your motherboard, and ram with tall heatspreaders will interfere with the fans.You can try to lift the fans up some more, but depending on your chassis, you may be limited on Z height depending on your side panel.

    As for the actual chassis, the Spec 02 is pretty solid. If you prefer a more minimalist design, I strongly recommend taking a look at this: The entire front panel is mesh and is designed for high airflow. I don't believe it has a magnetic dust filter, but the front panel is removable simply by pulling on it from the front and is extremely easy to clean. If you ever decided to go with liquid cooling in the future, it has support for several different radiator configurations. As for the rest of your build, your part selection looks very solid.
  • Rinati75
    How do I get to Part 2?
  • TSPhillipT
    Hello @Rinati75

    You can find the whole series of posts here.  

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