How to Choose Your Parts, Part 1: The Processor
Edited 5/22/2020 to add information for tenth generation Intel CPUs and Ryzen 3 3100/3300X
How to Choose Your Parts: The Processor
Greetings! Welcome to the Micro Center Community. For those of you reading this post, you’re probably here for one primary reason: you want to build a PC, but you’re not sure where to start. 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 when you don’t keep up with this stuff daily.
This will be the first in a series of posts to help you become more informed about the current market of parts available.
First things first, 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, spending half that on your CPU alone leaves no room for other parts that will match it.
- 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.
With those questions in mind, we’ll go over one of the most important parts for you to choose: your Processor. And of course, we have to start with The Big Question:
Intel or AMD?
Since the dawn of time, this debate has raged harder than any other. If you’d asked that question 5 or 10 years ago, there was only one answer: Intel was the king for years. However, AMD has made huge strides with their Ryzen series of processors recently and has been going toe-to-toe with Intel, and in some cases, they’re beating them. This is where question #2 is most important: What are you using this computer for?
Intel CPUs still generally hold the edge in raw gaming performance and pushing higher FPS. Games are generally more reliant on single threaded performance because they’re not good at taking advantage of high numbers of cores and threads, and Intel still has an advantage in their single-threaded performance with their ability to push higher clock speeds compared to their AMD counterparts. There are some professional applications such as Adobe Photoshop which do rely more on single-threaded performance as well, where Intel will still be in front.
Where AMD really takes the cake is once you get into multi-threaded applications such as rendering and live streaming. For anything like that AMD is pretty much a no brainer. They pack in more cores and more threads while maintaining good single-threaded performance so you can still game well. Not only are they packing in more cores and more threads, they’re generally doing it for less than Intel is. AMD is the king of performance-per-dollar right now.
Edit: With the tenth-generation Intel CPUs now available, Intel has brought Hyper-Threading back to the i5 and i7 parts, which means they're more closely matching AMD in core/thread count. You still see a pretty hefty price premium over AMD for it, so keep that in mind. AMD will probably still have the better performance per-dollar, unless we see significant price changes. For now, it appears Intel's pricing on the 9th generation chips is still the same, and the 10th generation parts have seen a price increase.
Also, as times goes on, games are getting better and better at utilizing more cores and threads. Something to consider for the longevity of your system.
Lastly, for gaming, resolution is the great equalizer. As resolution goes up games become more GPU bound, and the differences between comparable CPUs across both brands and tiers are minimized. Any differences you'd see at 1080p will shrink at 1440p. At 4k, mid-range CPUs like the 3600 and top-tier CPUs like the 9900k will perform almost identically, because so much of the workload is dependent on your GPU instead of the CPU.
And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for, what CPUs should you be looking at?
They AMD Ryzen 5 2400G and Ryzen 5 3400G occupy a unique space where they include a pretty solid integrated graphics chip. In terms of CPU performance they’re not as good as their other Ryzen 5 counterparts and cost a little more, but if you absolutely cannot afford even a low-budget video card, the integrated Vega 11 graphics on these is good enough for some light gaming on its own. It’s comparable to something like a Geforce GTX 750 or GT 1030 video card. You may not get good framerates at high settings, but games with lighter graphics requirements would be playable.
CPUs on a budget:
Ryzen 3 3100, Ryzen 3 3300x: These CPUs aren't readily available yet, but reviews have popped up and it's pretty clear these are some awesome budget CPUs. Despite both being 4 cores/8 threads, they do have some pretty different internal designs that leads to the 3300X being quite a bit faster in many instances. The 3300X even has some overclocking headroom and is about the same performance as the i7-7700k from a few years ago, so is pretty much the new budget king.
Intel i3-10100: Also now a 4 core/8 thread part, and will have similar performance the the old locked i7-7700. It's going to be slightly behind the 3300X in performance at stock, and doesn't have overclocking support, so this isn't a strong recommendation, but if you really like Intel, it's an option.
AMD Ryzen 5 2600X: With 6 cores/12 threads, this thing is an absolute beast for such a low cost. It will be behind the 3300X in most gaming only applications due to the 3300X having better single-core performance, but otherwise is an excellent value and will outperform it in multi-threaded workloads.
Intel i5-9400F: This processor is only 6 cores/6 threads compared to the 2600X, but does have better single-thread performance so will usually be slightly better in gaming. Once you're in a scenario that can utilize more threads, the 2600X will over take it.
AMD Ryzen 3 3200G: You step down in price and cores to 4c/4t, but gain the benefit of integrated graphics over the 2600X. This is about the lowest I would personally go if you have gaming in mind. Also note this occupies a similar space to the 2400G and 3400g, if you absolutely cannot afford a video card, the integrated graphics are just good enough to be playable on lighter games.
Intel i3-9100f: Basically the same deal as the 3200g at 4 cores/4 threads. This is the lowest I’d go if you have any gaming in mind, but with the caveat that this one does not have integrated graphics.
AMD Ryzen 5 3600: Another 6 core/12 thread CPU, this is the newer, faster upgrade to the 2600X. AMD made big increases in their single-threaded performance from the 2000 to 3000 series which means big gains in the gaming department. Like the 2600X this is a beast for the price and it's hard to beat this value. The Ryzen 5 3600X is about $20 more and slightly faster but the difference is small. It does come with a slightly upgraded cooler as well.
Intel i5-10600k: At 6 cores/12 threads, this is a really interesting option in the mid-range. In gaming it is better than the Ryzen 5 3600 at stock settings, and has a good bit of overclocking headroom to widen the gap even further. In productivity and multi-threaded workloads, it typically matches or falls behind the 3600 at stock settings, but can slightly pull ahead if you overclock it. And let's be honest, the reason to get a K-series Intel CPU is for the ability to overclock. It comes with a price premium over the 3600/X and requires purchasing a separate cooler, but considering this CPU can at times come very close to or even match the more expensive i7 and i9 parts in gaming scenarios, it's a very strong option. For pure gaming machines this is probably the new go-to choice, like the old i5s from the Sandy Bridge or Haswell days.
Intel i5-9600K: This is the faster older brother of the 9400. It still is only 6 cores/6 threads but does boast even better clock speeds so it will usually win the gaming battle, of course with the same caveat that once you're in a scenario that requires more threads, the 3600 will overtake it. The 9600k also does not come with a cooler. Decent aftermarket coolers are going to be at least $20 (but you’ll probably want to spend more like $30-40 ish). Considering that added cost, unless you are absolutely set on Intel as a brand, this is not a strong recommendation for me.
Intel i5-10400: Another 6 core/12 thread part now, the 10400 is a bit of a weird case. If you pair it with DDR4-3200 RAM, it will perform about the same as a Ryzen 5 3600. If you don't pair it with 3200MHz memory, it will be slower. That means you have to use it with a more expensive Z490 motherboard if you want to match the 3600's performance. The cheaper chipsets won't be able to utilize DDR4-3200, which means the 10400 will generally be outperformed by the 3600 when paired with those. Considering that difference, unless you have a very specific need for integrated graphics, this is not a strong recommendation.
Intel i5-9400: The only difference between this and the 9400F is that the 9400 includes integrated graphics. Unless you really want integrated graphics for troubleshooting, I would go with the 3600 or step down to the 2600X or 9400F.
AMD Ryzen 7 3700X: With 8 cores/16 threads this CPU is an absolute workhorse. It also includes the very-solid Wraith Prism CPU cooler that will even let you do some light overclocking on the chip out of box. It will still be behind the 9700k in gaming, but it’s not that far behind and considering the price difference, this is my personal recommendation for overall package in this category. And of course, if you’re doing anything heavily multi-threaded, there’s no contest here. Like the 3600 and 3600X, the Ryzen 7 3800X is essentially the same as the 3700X, but with a slightly higher clock speed. The performance difference is incredibly small.
Intel i7-9700k: It is the better gaming CPU, so if that is the primary focus of your build, it will still handle anything you can throw at it without breaking a sweat. However, like the 9600k, a downside is that this processor does not come with a cooler: you have to buy one aftermarket which is added cost and reducing overall value. And with only 8 cores/8 threads you take as step back in workstation applications. Not that it would handle them poorly, but the 3700X will have the advantage.
Intel i7-10700k: Intel brought back hyperthreading, so this is now an 8 core/16 thread part. In terms of gaming performance, it's generally about the same as the 9700k, but sees an improvement in multi-threaded workloads. However, it's still about the same as the 3700X in those workloads at stock, and is priced basically the same as the Ryzen 9 3900X which will always outperform it in those applications. With current pricing, the 10700k is in this weird no man's land where there's equally good gaming options (9700K, 10600k) for cheaper and more compelling productivity options (3900X) for the same price.
AMD Ryzen 9 3900X: This monster of a CPU packs in 12 cores and 24 threads under the hood. Pretty much the same deal as the 3700X: for almost anything non-gaming, there’s no contest. Streaming? Smooth as silk. Rendering? You never finished a scene that fast. For the design and workstation oriented, the only thing that can really beat this CPU are other AMD CPUs (more on that below). While it does include the Wraith Prism cooler again, this is where you’ll probably want to look at something a little beefier to help keeps things nice and cool.
Intel i9-9900k: The King of Games. This CPU is designed for one purpose: smash every single game you can throw at it. It’s only 8 cores/16 threads compared to the 3900X, but there’s no question that if you need frames and need them now, this CPU will deliver them. There is no included stock cooler so you are forced to purchase one separately.
Intel i9-10900k: The 10900k, like the 10700k sees similar performance in gaming to its previous generation counterpart, the 9900k, with the occasional uplift. However, this is now a 10 core/20 thread part, so it sees a performance boost in most productivity applications vs the 8c/16t of the 9900k. It's still 2 cores behind the 3900X so it often still loses to it handily in those workloads.
The Pinnacle of Performance
Once you get past the 3900X and 9900K, you’re getting into territory where gaming will start to take a backseat. You may even start to see gaming downgrades vs the lower priced CPUs as multi-threaded performance becomes an even bigger focus over single-threaded. Not that you can’t game on many of these, but it would be a secondary benefit. Processors up here are generally known as "High End Desktop," or HEDT and are going to be targeted more towards professionals or enthusiasts who need to increase their productivity and speed up their workflow.
If the program or work you’re doing relies particularly on single threaded performance, such as Adobe Photoshop or 2D work in AutoCAD, Intel can still potentially take some wins here. Processors to look at:
- The 9900k/10900k are still solid entry options for this category
- The Intel X-series comes into play at this point once you’re past the 9900k
- i9-10900X 10-cores/20 threads (invalidated by the 10900k mostly, unless you need more PCIe lanes)
- i9-10920X 12 cores/24 threads
- i9-10940X 14 cores/28 threads
And on up the line. I would only consider those if there is a specific scenario that Intel chips would particularly excel at, because otherwise…
AMD is not far behind single-threaded anymore with the 3rd geneneration Ryzen CPUs, and in any multi-thread reliant workloads, AMD just dominates the field. You can’t find these crazy high core/thread counts from Intel unless you get into the high-end of their Xeon family of processors. The only question is “how many cores can I get for the dollar I spend.” Processors to look at:
- The 3900X is not technically an HEDT processor, but is still a great entry point for this category on a budget.
- AMD Ryzen 9 3950X 16 cores/32 threads. This one is also not technically an HEDT processor because it's the same AM4 form factor as AMDs lower priced consumer chips, but with that many cores/threads and a price to match, it might as well be.
- Second generation Threadripper CPUs are huge bargains with the crazy discounts they received when third generation chips launched
- Threadripper 2950X 16 cores/32 threads
- Threadripper 2990WX 32 cores/64 threads
- Third generation Threadrippers saw a big boost in single-threaded performance while packing in more cores and threads than their second generation counterparts.
- Threadripper 3960X 24 cores/48 threads.
- Threadripper 3970X 32 cores/64 threads.
- Threadripper 3990X with a staggering 64 cores/128 threads. We actually did an in-depth review of this CPU, if you're interested in reading it.