The 7 Best Processors of 2021

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The Rundown
"It returns highly competitive results in almost every category—gaming, productivity, and creation."
"The AMD Ryzen 7 5800X offers a good balance between price, performance, and capabilities."
Best Budget AMD:
AMD Ryzen 9 3900X at Amazon
"In testing, this chip performs extremely well when compared to other chips from the last generation."
"This Intel CPU is excellent in all of its testing, but it seems to shine brightest during game benchmarking."
Best Budget Intel:
Intel Core i9-9900K at Amazon
"There are a ton of optimization and advanced technologies included with the chip, such as virtualization and thermal monitoring."
"This beast has 16 CPU cores and handles 32 threads, ready to eat up any gaming or productivity you want to throw at it."
"The 3970X has a monster cache of 144MB, which easily outpaces other AMD chips."

Building your own rig? Upgrading your PC? One of the best processors can help take your PC from obsolete to amazing. But the best processor for you will depend on your specific situation.

Gamers want to look for a CPU with higher clock speeds that supports a lot of RAM, while content creators may want a multi-core processor with a lot of RAM and 4K video support, but they don’t necessarily need those blazing clock speeds. For those who want a PC for maximum productivity, a mid-tier processor should do the trick, as business professionals usually just need something powerful enough for multitasking.

Whatever you need your computer to do, we have you covered with the best processors in different categories and price ranges. Read on to see our top picks.

Best Overall: AMD Ryzen 9 5900X

What We Like
  • All around great performance

  • Unlocked for overclocking

  • 12 cores

What We Don't Like
  • Advanced cooling needed

AMD has been dominating the CPU market in recent years, and the AMD Ryzen 9 5900X is one of the brand’s best offerings. This chip is a top choice from the latest AMD generation, the 5000 series, and is definitely ready to boost your PC into the next generation.

The 5900X has 12 cores and 24 threads. It runs fast, with a base clock of 3.7GHz, but overclocking allows for a max of 4.8GHz. The max temperature is 90C, which is a bit lower than some of the competition, including its fellow 5000 series chips. Advanced cooling is recommended with this chip, but do note that there isn't any cooling already included.

The 5900X comes with the Zen 3 core architecture, is VR ready, and includes the Master Utility software which provides tools for tuning and overclocking. It returns highly competitive results in almost every category—gaming, productivity, and creation. On just about every test and comparison, the 5900X winds up near the top of the list.

However, while this is an amazing chip, if you’re building a gaming-only rig, you may be dumping unnecessary money into a chip that could do better in areas such as RAM, power supply, and peripherals. But, if you want a CPU that gives you the option to be able to do everything really well, this is the chip you’re looking for. 

Base Clock/Boost Clock: 3.7GHz/4.8GHz | Cores/Threads: 12/24 | Socket: AM4

What We Like
  • Overclockable

  • Excellent for gaming and productivity

  • High-end CPU

What We Don't Like
  • Advanced cooling needed

Our choice for best overall AMD chip is the AMD Ryzen 7 5800X, as it offers a good balance between price, performance, and capabilities. For many hobby gamers, this is a great fit without overdoing it. The 5800X has an MSRP of $449, which is $100 less than the 5900X. This puts more in your pocket for spending on RAM and GPU, or maybe the advanced cooling that you’ll need for this chip. 

The 5800X has eight cores and handles 16 threads. The base clock is actually a bit faster than the 5900X at 3.8GHz, and the max overclock is 4.7Ghz, but keep in mind that number is for a single core boost. Overclock performance for all cores depends on the whole computer's build. The max temperature is 90C, which is lower than many competitors, so cooling will be very important (and there is no cooling included). The chip needs 105W of power, and handles up to 32GB of DDR4 RAM.  

The 5800X includes the cutting-edge technologies we’ve come to expect from AMD, such as the Zen 3 architecture and the StoreMI technology (which helps to provide peak performance for all your storage), and the Master Utility to help with overclocking. The 5800X is also VR ready, so you can jump into next-level gaming and entertainment. 

This chip surpasses many of the Intel chips and previous AMD chips in all areas but a few, and those are mainly a few frames per second (FPS) tests in certain games. The 5800X is extremely powerful and capable in every area, and it provides enough versatility to work for both gamers and content creators.

Base Clock/Boost Clock: 3.8GHz/4.7GHz | Cores/Threads: 8/16 | Socket: AM4

Best Budget AMD: AMD Ryzen 9 3900X

AMD Ryzen
What We Like
  • Ideal for gaming

  • Relatively affordable

  • 12 cores

What We Don't Like
  • No longer on top of performance charts

If you’re looking to get the most out of your money while still building a rig you can be proud of, the AMD Ryzen 9 3900X is a solid pick. You don’t always have to shell out all your dough for the latest and greatest CPU, and taking advantage of last-generation technology close to the time of a new generation’s release can save you quite a bit of cash. 

You can find the 3900X for as low as $330 on sale. It has 12 cores and handles 24 threads. The base clock of 3.8GHz can be overclocked up to 4.6GHz on a single core. The max temperature is 95C, but with the included Wraith Prism and RGB LED fan, the CPU should stay pretty cool.

The chip can handle up to 32GB of DDR4 RAM, and it boasts the AMD technology suite, which includes the Zen 2 core architecture, SenseMI technology, Master Utility, and GameCache, which provides 72MB of cache to reduce latency in gaming. 

In testing, this chip performs extremely well when compared to other chips from the last generation, and will rarely have trouble handling what you throw its way. Sure, the latest generation definitely creates some distance in most performance and benchmarking tests, but this is expected, and you should still be able to play your favorite titles with the 3900X. Overall, if you want a solid chip at a great price, you can’t go wrong with the 3900X.

Base Clock/Boost Clock: 3.8GHz/4.6GHz | Cores/Threads: 12/24 | Socket: AM4

Best Intel: Intel Core i9-10900K

What We Like
  • Great price

  • High overclock abilities

  • Works well as a gaming CPU

What We Don't Like
  • Can run hot

  • Draws more power than most

The Intel i9 10900K is supposed to be the ultimate gaming and content creation CPU in the Intel line—a claim we’ve found to be true for the most part, although it performs strongest in the gaming department. This CPU certainly has a lot going for it, including its base MSRP of $488 to $499, which makes it an affordable choice for your next CPU.

The 10900K has 10 cores and 20 threads—not as high as some competitors, but each core is well-used. The base clock is 3.7GHz, with a max boost of 5.3GHz on a single core. This represents an impressive leap over many competing AMD CPUs. There’s also 20MB of Intel Smart Cache to help the CPU along, and a max memory size of 128GB of DDR4 RAM

The max temperature is 100C, so cooling is important but not difficult to manage, as you can probably use a simple fan. Do note that a fan is not included, however. The CPU draws an average 125W of power, which is higher than its AMD competition, so you may want to double-check that your power source can handle the increased wattage. 

Overall, this Intel CPU is excellent in all of its testing, but it seems to shine brightest during game benchmarking, often beating out AMD in most tests. In creative productivity, the 10900K is competitive, doing quite excellent when compared to other CPUs in its class. Considering how well it performs, its features, and its reasonable price, the Intel i9 10900K is easily our pick for best Intel CPU.

Base Clock/Boost Clock: 3.7GHz/5.3GHz | Cores/Threads: 10/20 | Socket: LGA 1200

Best Budget Intel: Intel Core i9-9900K

Intel Core i9-9900K
What We Like
  • Unlocked for overclocking

  • Excellent price

  • Solid performance

What We Don't Like
  • Not current-gen

  • No cooling included

This is a great time to grab the Intel i9-9900K CPU, which is an excellent ninth-generation chip. It originally had an MSRP of $488 to $499, but is now marked down by around $100. 

The 9900K has eight cores and 16 threads. The base clock runs at 3.6GHz and can be overclocked to a solid 5.0GHz on a single core. There’s a 16MB Smart Cache, and the chip can handle 128GB of DDR4 RAM, with a max of two channels. The 9900K has a pretty low power consumption of 95W—lower than much of its competition.

There are integrated graphics with 4K support, but only at 60Hz, so it would be best to rely on a dedicated graphics card. The max temperature is 100C, so it is not too difficult to keep the chip from overheating with a solid fan. Unfortunately, a fan does not come included. 

There are a ton of optimization and advanced technologies included with the Intel chip, such as virtualization, thermal monitoring, and Turbo Boost. In terms of performance, this chip handles well, but it won’t shock you with its speed or power. This is a last-generation chip, however, so it’s a good pick for someone looking for a deal rather than those looking to have everything cutting-edge. The 9900K will help you to enjoy modern gaming when paired with a good graphics card.

Base Clock/Boost Clock: 3.6GHz/5.0GHz | Cores/Threads: 8/16 | Socket: LGA 1151

Best Splurge: AMD Ryzen 9 5950X

What We Like
  • 16 cores

  • Huge performance

  • Top of class in almost everything

What We Don't Like
  • Huge price

  • Advanced cooling needed

AMD claims that its Ryzen 9 5950X is a chip with zero compromises, and the brand can certainly back that up, although with a $799 MSRP. While it may perform amazing in every category, this chip also very well may be overkill, and should be reserved for those who want the Ferrari of CPU chips. 

This beast has 16 CPU cores and handles 32 threads, ready to eat up any gaming or productivity you want to throw at it. The base clock is lower than other AMDs in the same series at 3.4GHz, but the max clock is higher with single core max boost coming in at 4.9GHz. Similar to other CPUs in this series, the max temperature is 90C, which is lower than some competition. It definitely requires advanced cooling, but this is not included with the chip, so you will want to purchase that in addition.

AMD's technology suite is included, which has the Zen 3 architecture, StoreMI technology, Master Utility for overclocking, and is VR-capable. The 5950X is almost always at the top of the charts when it comes to performance testing in pretty much any area, be that FPS, standard benchmarking tests, or productivity and creative tests.

If you are only a gamer, or a person focused solely on creative productivity, then this might not be the best option. You can find a chip that is more focused on what best suits your needs for a much cheaper price. If you are someone who does both gaming and creative tasks, and you want the best of the best, grab this chip and then bask in its speedy glory.

Base Clock/Boost Clock: 3.4GHz/4.9GHz | Cores/Threads: 16/32 | Socket: AM4

Best HEDT: AMD Ryzen Threadripper 3970X

What We Like
  • Extreme level of performance

  • Perfect for high-level creative professionals

  • Dominant in testing

What We Don't Like
  • Huge price tag

  • Power hungry

The high-end desktop computing (HEDT) market is one that caters to those who revel in building a PC that is extreme in all ways possible: performance, looks, and price. Like with any luxury product, there's a high price, but you get an equal level of performance and care in return. The AMD Ryzen Threadripper 3970X aims to destroy any creative tasks you send it, and with style.

This chip has an incredible 32 cores, and can handle a crazy 64 threads. There is a base clock of 3.7GHz and a single core max boost of up to 4.5GHz. The 3970X has a monster cache of 144MB, which easily outpaces other AMD chips. This CPU uses a huge 280W of power, so you will need a large power source. It will definitely require advanced cooling to prevent it from hitting its 95C max temperature.

The CPU makes use of the AMD Zen Core Architecture, and provides you with the AMD Ryzen Master Utility for tuning and overclocking. The CPU can handle up to 32GB of DDR4 RAM. 

In benchmarking, this CPU proves its worth, and shows that creative productivity is where it really shines. Don’t worry if you game too, as the chip can handle anything you want to play. In gaming tests, some higher-end Intel chips, especially the Xeon class and the i9, surpassed the 3970X, but in productivity, the 3970X routinely came up with top marks. It really does live up to its name as a Threadripper. 

Base Clock/Boost Clock: 3.7GHz/4.5GHz | Cores/Threads: 32/64 | Socket: TRX40

Final Verdict

The AMD Ryzen 9 5900X (view on Amazon) is a powerful chip that provides a good combination of performance features. If you’d prefer an Intel processor, the Intel Core i9-10900K (view on Amazon) is a solid unlocked option for gamers and content makers.

About Our Trusted Experts

Erika Rawes has written professionally for more than a decade, and she’s spent the last five years writing about consumer technology. Erika has reviewed roughly 125 gadgets, including computers, peripherals, A/V equipment, mobile devices, and smart home gadgets. Erika currently writes for Digital Trends and Lifewire.

FAQs

Is Intel or AMD better?
Both AMD and Intel have some really great offerings, and are highly competitive with one another. The better brand often changes with each generation. The best brand can also change based on exactly what you’re looking for in your chip. One AMD CPU may score much higher in productivity, but not as good as Intel in gaming. It's best to research all available AMD and Intel chips in your price range before making a decision.


Should I buy Ryzen or Intel?

This depends on many factors. When deciding what to buy, first think about your current system. What chipset does your motherboard have, how big is your power supply, and what cooling do you currently have? Next, determine what your budget is, and what level CPU you want to buy, especially considering the main purpose for your CPU (gaming, productivity, content, or a combination). Once you have made these decisions and determined if you’re willing to swap out other parts of your rig to best fit your CPU purchase, you can then narrow down which brand to buy.


Which CPU is best for home use?

Many people like to game at home, so you may want to look at the AMD Ryzen 5800X or the Intel i9-10900K CPUs. If you work at home, you may want something that can handle everything, like our best overall choice: the AMD Ryzen 5900X.

What to Look For in a Processor:

Speed

How much speed do you really need? Of course you could go with the idea that more is always better, but you need to make sure you are spending your budget in the right places to get the most out of your dollars. For instance, if you love gaming, you may find that a lower CPU combined with a higher-end graphics card gets you much better performance than just a high-end CPU. 

Locked vs. Unlocked

Unlocked is almost always better than locked, since it is better to have the ability to overclock than to not. However, keep in mind that overclocking will likely void the warranty, so make sure you have enough cooling so you don’t fry your expensive CPU.

Compatibility

Everything from the motherboard, RAM, and even power source needs to be considered when upgrading your CPU, so be sure to do your research and make sure every part of your computer will be friendly with that shiny new CPU. You may find out that the chip does not set properly, or that the computer just won’t boot after your upgrade if you don’t ensure compatibility beforehand.

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