If you’re new to PC building and are only now putting together your first PC, then the amount of information involved when it comes to picking even a single component will no doubt seem intimidating at first.
However, it’s simpler than you might think!
In this article, we’ll focus specifically on the CPU and go over all the important things that you should keep in mind if you’re trying to find the best gaming CPU that would offer good value for your money and satisfactory in-game performance.
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The Most Important CPU Specs
First, let’s address what is probably the most confusing part for any inexperienced PC builder – the specification sheet.
If you look up the specifications of any CPU, you’ll find a slew of numbers and abbreviations. These are all important in one way or another, but when it comes to gaming, the key specifications to keep in mind are the following:
- Core Count – The number of physical cores that the CPU has. More cores equals better multitasking and more processing power in certain programs, provided that the software is optimized to take advantage of it.
- Thread Count – The number of logical cores that the CPU has. AMD’s Simultaneous Multithreading and Intel’s Hyper-Threading technologies both allow for a single physical core to handle two tasks simultaneously, thus further smoothing out overall system performance and improving performance in games or programs that are optimized to take advantage of multiple threads.
- Clock Speed – This is the default clock speed (expressed in GHz) at which a single CPU core operates. Higher clock speeds mean better single-core performance, allowing the CPU to process more data in a shorter period of time.
- Boost Clock/Turbo Frequency – The maximum clock speed achievable by the CPU with AMD’s Precision Boost and Intel’s Turbo Boost technologies.
- Overclocking – Indicates whether the CPU is unlocked and supports overclocking i.e. whether the stock clock speed can be pushed beyond the default factory settings via tweaking.
- Socket – The type of motherboard socket that the CPU is compatible with.
- Cache – Each CPU comes with a small onboard memory cache that it can use to store important data. As such, a larger cache can help both with speed and stability, resulting in smoother performance and fewer crashes.
- System Memory – The type of system RAM supported by the CPU, along with the maximum supported RAM capacity, maximum supported number of memory channels, and the native RAM speed that the CPU officially supports.
- TDP – Short for Thermal Design Power and expressed in watts, this spec indicates the CPU’s power draw and its heat output when it is operating at stock clock speeds.
Usually, the specs that gamers focus on the most are the core/thread count and the clock speed. As mentioned above, having more cores and threads allows for better multitasking and can also lead to better performance when it comes to tasks such as video editing, but games mostly favor single-core performance, so many gamers prioritize a high clock speed over a high thread count.
However, the truth is, on-paper specifications are usually a terrible way to estimate as to how the CPU will fare in practice, as the exact performance will inevitably vary from game to game and from program to program.
That said, there is an easier way for the average person to find the right CPU for their needs, and we’ll go over that below.
CPU Price and Performance Brackets
The best way to find the CPU that will fit your needs best is to simply stick to the “bracket” that your budget allows.
Mainstream desktop CPUs are generally divided as follows:
- Budget – These are the most affordable Ryzen 3 and Core i3 models that tend to stick to the $100-$200 price range.
- Mid–range – CPUs that fit in this bracket (Ryzen 5 and Core i5) are usually the best choice for most gaming PCs, and you’ll find that they mostly stick to the $200-$250 range.
- High–end – Here, you’ll find the more powerful Ryzen 7 and Core i7 models that would be right at home in the more powerful gaming PCs and some workstations, and they usually cost anywhere from $300 to $400.
- Enthusiast – These are the most powerful mainstream desktop CPUs that you’ll find on the market today (Ryzen 9 and Core i9). They don’t exactly offer good value for gaming and one of these would set you back by about $500 or more.
Now, keep in mind that it’s the GPU that does all the heavy lifting when it comes to gaming and that other components are important, too, so you should try and balance your build out.
The most important bit when it comes to the aforementioned “balancing” part is ensuring that the CPU won’t be bottlenecking your GPU.
Namely, if the CPU is too slow for the GPU that you intend to get, then it won’t be able to issue instructions fast enough, a portion of the GPU’s processing power will remain unused, and you won’t be getting all the performance out of it that you would otherwise be able to get with a faster CPU.
If we were to make some generalizations, the Ryzen 3 and the Core i3 are quite enough if you’re getting a budget GPU such as the GTX 1650 Super or the Radeon RX 5500 XT, but if you’re going with some of the more powerful mid-range GPUs e.g. the RTX 2060 Super or the RX 5600 XT, then a Ryzen 5 or a Core i5 model would be a must.
Meanwhile, the Ryzen 7 and the Core i7 solutions are more than powerful enough even when it comes to the most powerful gaming GPUs such as the RTX 2080 Ti, so the enthusiast-grade Ryzen 9 and i9 processors are generally overkill unless you also need to use some CPU-heavy software.
Now, if you’re wondering about some of the other CPU brands offered by AMD and Intel, we should note that those rarely make a good fit for gaming, as they are either too weak or too powerful and expensive to make for good gaming CPUs.
If we’re talking about Intel’s Pentium and Celeron CPUs or about AMD’s Athlon and A-series APUs, those are simply too weak to work with modern GPUs, and seeing as we’ve already discussed bottlenecks above, it should be obvious as to why they’d make poor picks.
Meanwhile, there are also brands such as AMD Ryzen Threadripper, AMD EPYC, Intel Core X, and Intel Xeon. With these CPUs, the opposite holds true – they offer more power than what is required by a gaming PC, as they are designed for high-end workstations and servers. As such, there’s no point in spending extra on those if all you intend to use the PC for is gaming.
So, that would be the crux of the matter, but there are still a few things to keep in mind when looking for the right CPU that don’t have to do with just the raw performance and pricing, and we’ll go over those below.
Is Overclocking Worth It?
Overclocking is something that’s often brought up whenever gaming CPUs and GPUs are being discussed. It is the act of pushing the processor’s clock speed beyond the factory setting in order to squeeze additional performance out of it.
As we’ve previously mentioned, games tend to benefit more from high clock speeds than from high thread counts, so just how much stock should the average gamer put into overclocking?
Well, truth be told, overclocking is mainly the enthusiast’s game, as you’d need a high-end CPU and a relatively pricey cooler (potentially a liquid cooling setup) to truly get a palpable boost in gaming performance out of a CPU via overclocking.
That said, overclocking shouldn’t be too high on the priority list of most gamers, as the performance benefits will amount to a handful of frames in most cases.cc
The Motherboard Socket And Chipset
In addition to the CPU itself, there are also some important motherboard specs to keep in mind when selecting a CPU, those being the socket and the chipset.
First, there’s the socket, and as we have previously mentioned, this is the slot on the motherboard via which the processor interfaces with the motherboard and communicates with the other components.
Currently, AMD uses the AM4 socket for all of its mainstream Ryzen CPUs, and it is to be succeeded by the AM5 socket in 2021. Meanwhile, Intel has just replaced its LGA 1151 socket with the new LGA 1200 one.
That said, if you’re buying a new CPU now, the main reason to keep the socket in mind is forward compatibility, as picking a newer socket means that you might have some better upgrade options further down the line.
However, it’s not quite that simple, as the chipset is also important. It is the chipset that will determine whether you have access to certain features and whether the CPU will even be compatible with the motherboard, regardless of whether it is compatible with the socket.
The aforementioned features include things such as overclocking support, multi-GPU configuration support, and technologies such as AMD StoreMI and Intel Optane. In addition to that, the chipset also determines the number and type of USB connectors, the number of SATA connectors, the number of PCIe lanes, and more.
With all that out of the way, which is the best socket to go with in 2021?
Well, since AMD’s AM4 socket will be succeeded by AM5 next year and since Ryzen CPU compatibility is now limited based on the chipsets, we’d say that it might be a good idea to wait for the fifth generation of Ryzen CPUs and the AM5 socket if you want something more future-proof.
On the other hand, Intel’s LGA 1200 socket is brand-new, so going with a 10th generation Comet Lake Intel CPU might be a good idea if you want to be able to upgrade the CPU a few years down the line without having to replace your motherboard.
We should note, though, that forward/backward compatibility has been spotty over the past few years.
While AMD has kept things more or less consistent over the past few years, the upcoming Zen 3-based Ryzen 4000 CPUs won’t be supported on some of the older chipsets from 2017 and 2018, as mentioned above. Obviously, this makes them less appealing, especially since the Zen 4-based Ryzen 5000 models that are slated to come out in 2021 will be using an entirely different socket.
Meanwhile, Intel’s support has been far from stellar, as the revised version of the LGA 1151 socket made it impossible to use Coffee Lake CPUs with the 100-series and 200-series Skylake and Kaby Lake chipsets. That said, it’s impossible to predict with any degree of certainty as to how long you’d be able to go with the LGA 1200 socket before a revised version of the socket or a new chipset forces you to upgrade your motherboard if you want to get a new CPU.
If you’re wondering about chipset support and feature set, you can take a look at the list of AM4 chipsets here and the list of LGA 1151 chipsets here. Moreover, the list of LGA 1200 chipsets can be found here.
At the end of the day, if you want to get a Ryzen but you don’t need to upgrade urgently, waiting for next year’s chips might be a good idea. On the other hand, if you’re on Team Blue, now might be a good time to upgrade.
Should You Buy Older CPU Models?
If you’re on a tight budget and are trying to get the most out of the money that you can spend on your new PC, then you will inevitably ask yourself whether you should save a few bucks by getting an older CPU model.
Both AMD and Intel release new CPUs every year, featuring updated architectures and, potentially, some new features. However, the yearly updates mostly amount to incremental performance boosts that usually don’t really make that much of a difference when it comes to gaming, which can make older CPUs look quite appealing if you’re after a good deal.
However, the problem with older CPUs is that they are actually often more expensive than the new ones. Why? Simply because there is still demand for them and new ones aren’t being manufactured anymore, and so the prices of the older processors often increase instead of decreasing.
On the other hand, you could still save some money by going with an older CPU by getting a used one, though buying used components also carries certain risks. You never know what state the CPU is in and whether or not it had been worn down by overclocking, although CPUs are among the safer components to buy if you’re going with used parts.
The Letter Designations
When looking over all the different CPU models that are currently available, you’ve probably noticed that some of them have a letter designation at the end of their model number.
So, what do those letters mean and which should you keep in mind?
For Intel, the letter designations that you’ll encounter in the desktop CPUs in 2021 are:
- K – Indicates that the CPU is unlocked i.e. that it can be overclocked.
- F – Indicates that the CPU doesn’t have integrated graphics i.e. that it cannot function without a discrete graphics card.
As for AMD, the two most common designations when it comes to mainstream desktop CPUs in 2021 are:
- X – Indicates that the CPU has an extended frequency range and that it can hit slightly higher clock speeds at a slightly higher price point.
- G – Indicates that the processor is an APU with integrated graphics.
Of course, there are also a few other designations out there but those are nothing to worry about if you’re shopping for a desktop gaming CPUs.
AMD vs Intel
Finally, there’s one question that won’t be going out of fashion any time soon when it comes to CPUs: should you go with AMD or Intel? We’ve already touched on the subject multiple times throughout the article, so which is ultimately better in 2021?
If you had asked this question in 2016, the answer would have been very different than it is today, seeing as AMD had been the underdog throughout most of the 2010s, their FX series CPUs managing to complete solely thanks to high core counts and high clock speeds while Intel gained the lead with more advanced technology and dominated the high-end part of the market.
Now, AMD has been on a roll with Ryzen since they first launched it in 2017. It marked a big comeback for AMD as they could suddenly offer CPUs that were not only competing with Intel throughout the price spectrum but even outperformed them in certain respects.
That said, Ryzen CPUs offer excellent performance, with a high core count and multithreading implemented in nearly every consumer model. Their single-core performance might not be on the same level as that of Intel’s competing models, but they more than make up for it when you consider that they are usually cheaper, offer better overall value, and are easier to upgrade since they all used the same AM4 socket (though as mentioned above, the new chipsets do complicate the situation a bit in this respect).
In contrast, Intel CPUs have only just caught up with AMD with the latest Comet Lake offerings in terms of core and thread count. However, they are still lagging behind when the lithography is concerned, as the latest Intel Core CPUs are still being manufactured using a 14nm process whereas AMD had moved to a 7nm process back in 2019.
Even so, Intel is still holding its own – as we’ve mentioned before, single-core performance is more important for gaming, and Intel’s CPUs have the upper hand in that regard. Moreover, as we’ve mentioned in the overclocking segment, the unlocked Intel CPUs can hit impressive clock speeds, which makes them appealing for high-end gaming setups.
In any case, the differences between AMD and Intel CPUs in 2021 are fairly minor, so you can’t go wrong with either, as the gaps in pricing and performance are fairly small at the moment.
Currently, Intel does appear to have a slight advantage, as their 10th generation Core models have the upper hand and offer slightly better performance than AMD’s 3rd generation Ryzen models. However, the playing field will likely be evened out again by September when AMD launches its 4th Ryzen generation.
If you’re concerned about compatibility and future upgrades, then the situation is also looking a bit better with Intel, as they have just introduced the LGA 1200 socket and will hopefully try and make it easier for consumers to upgrade without having to buy a new motherboard every year or two.
On the other hand, AMD is in a bit of a tight corner when compatibility is concerned since, as mentioned previously, the 4th generation models won’t be compatible with some of the older chipsets despite using the AM4 socket, plus the 5th generation models that will come out next year will be using a new AM5 socket.
At the end of the day, it’s best to narrow down your selection to a few specific models that fit your budget and look up some benchmarks in order to determine which fits your needs better.
So, that should be about it when it comes to finding the ideal CPU for your needs. If you’re shopping for one right now, we suggest you check out our selection of the best gaming CPUs of 2021 – the article will be updated with the latest 10th generation Intel CPUs soon, if it hasn’t been already.
Moreover, if you’re building an entire PC from scratch, you might also want to take a look at some of our builds, as we have put together a number of configurations to suit almost every budget.