Choosing the right CPU is one of the most important decisions you’ll make when building your new computer or upgrading your existing one. It does not matter if you are planning to buy something high-end or something more budget-oriented, we got you covered. The CPU is the beating heart of the entire system and it has a very direct impact on your computer’s performance across the board.
By reading this you will learn how to choose a CPU based on your budget and usage. You will also get some recommendations for 2020 and learn what the important specs are when buying a new CPU. And if you are into video games, we will have some excellent options for everyone from casual gamers to professional streamers. Without further ado, how to choose a CPU?
Specs to Consider
CPUs have a few different specifications that you should take into account. So, how to choose a CPU based on specs alone?
The number of cores is the single most important spec that you should always look at first. You want to have the right number of cores for your usage scenario. If you are someone a professional who needs to get stuff done fast on a workstation build, then you want to have as many cores as possible. Photo or video editing, rendering, 3D modeling, simulations, and other demanding programs all take advantage of multithreading. The more cores and threads, the better.
But if you are someone who only needs to do some lightweight work, then four cores will be just fine. Even two cores can be all right. If you are on a tight budget or need a cheap laptop, a CPU with two cores will be fine for basic web browsing and MS Office work. But how to choose a CPU for gaming?
For gamers, it is strongly recommended to get something more powerful than a four-core CPU. Ideally, you want to get six or eight. Again, if you are on a tight budget, going with a four-core CPU is fine but at least try to get one with 8 threads. Threads are essentially virtual cores that work the same as physical cores. This is why a Ryzen 3 3300x can outperform the Ryzen 5 2600 from the previous generation in some games despite its lower core count.
The CPU frequency is another important spec. It is measured in gigahertz (GHz). Some time ago, CPU frequency was the most important spec, but that is no longer the case. It remains one of the most important things to consider nonetheless. The faster a CPU is, the better it will perform in all usage scenarios. This is why many enthusiasts love to overclock their CPU – they want to get the most out of their hardware.
When it comes to choosing the right CPU, frequency is a bit tricky. Most games still cannot utilize all CPU cores, which means that their frequency is more important. Once again, that is why the Ryzen 3 3300X outputs 10% more FPS than the Ryzen 5 2600 despite being a weaker workstation CPU. However, everything indicates a future where CPU frequency will be less important than the core count or cache.
The cache on the CPU is its primary volatile memory. Cache on CPUs is measured in megabytes (MB). Your CPU uses its cache to store everything that it needs to access frequently because it is much faster than fetching it from the system RAM. It is more important than you think because it has a direct impact on the CPU’s performance. Just like with cores and frequency, the bigger the cache, the better it is for the CPU.
Thermal Design Power
The Thermal Design Power, or TDP for short, is a spec that tells you how much heat your CPU outputs. This directly relates to how much cooling you need to get for the CPU to work efficiently. All new CPUs ship with stock coolers that are made for that model. This is why you might have seen AMD Ryzen processors ship with different Wraith coolers based on what CPU you get. If you are buying a used CPU, checking the TDP is very important because you may need an aftermarket cooler.
Once upon a time, integrated GPUs were a standard part of a CPU. But if you are buying a new CPU today, you’ll need to check if the CPU has integrated graphics. An integrated GPU allows you to use the computer without the need for a dedicated graphics card. If you are a gamer, you can ignore this spec unless you do not have a dedicated graphics card at the moment. For people who only want a basic computer for browsing, this spec is the most important one.
On AMD’s side, only the Ryzen CPUs that have the letter “G” in the name have built-in graphics. On Intel, most of their CPUs have integrated graphics, excluding Xeon workstation CPUs as well as i9s. It is always worth double-checking to make sure. Note that the AMD Ryzen CPUs that do have an integrated GPU is quite solid. You can even play some esports titles on CPUs like the Ryzen 3 3200G. If you play games only occasionally, that can be a true godsend and money saver.
Last but not least, socket compatibility is something that you must take into account. Both your CPU and motherboard must be in the same socket to work properly. They have to be completely compatible because some CPUs will not work on certain motherboards and vice versa despite being the same socket. Intel in particular is notorious for not supporting different generations of CPUs and motherboards working together despite being the same socket.
If you are building a new PC, you can check CPU compatibility on the motherboard’s website. Always choose a motherboard that goes with your CPU, not the other way around. And if you are just planning to upgrade your CPU, you can check what is the best CPU that your motherboard supports to save money.
How to Choose a CPU?
AMD or Intel?
Intel has been dominating the market up until 2017, with only a few hiccups here and there caused by AMD. But after AMD released Ryzen, nothing has been the same for Intel. In short, if you are building a PC from the ground up, go with AMD. Intel’s current offering is just not good. They cost more, perform worse, and run hotter. Intel keeps delaying their 7nm process which has led to the entire gaming community making fun of them.
Since Intel has announced a delay of their 7nm process until 2022, you can expect that this trend of Intel being the second choice to last for at least another few years. By the time Intel gets to 7nm (where AMD is currently), AMD will already be pumping out 5nm processors for an entire year. In case you do not know what those numbers stand for, they are used to describe the transistor size. While their size does not mean everything, it is a good indicator nonetheless.
Just to be clear, Intel is still an okay choice. It just does not make sense to pay on average $20-50 more for nothing. And with AMD’s new Ryzen 5000 series coming out very soon, it is best to wait and see what the reviewers will say. Hint: It is going to be in AMD’s favor by a long shot. AMD also has the advantage of greater compatibility and availability of motherboards, all Ryzen CPUs are unlocked, and the stock cooler is much better and slicker.
AMD also has the upside that their CPUs can take advantage of faster RAM speeds. While it does not matter what RAM you get with Intel whatsoever, You can expect a pretty solid bump in performance with team red. Some tests show that the difference between DDR4 2400MHz and 3200MHz can be around 10 FPS. Note that you can easily overclock your RAM so do take advantage of that if you have a Ryzen CPU.
The only time when you should even consider going with Intel is when building a super cheap second-hand computer. Since AMD has been pretty bad until 2017, the majority of PCs were running Intel up until that point. What this means for you is that there is an abundance of very cheap or even free Intel CPUs on the second-hand market that are not even bad or slow.
For example, if you are planning to buy a low-end CPU, it’ll make much more sense to go with an old Intel CPU. Processors like the Intel Core i7-4790K and the i5-6600 are very popular, common, and dirt cheap. Not only that, but they will outperform or be very close to most budget CPUs from 2020. But beware of the risks that come with buying a used CPU. Always test the CPU if the seller lets you and never trust strangers from the Internet blindly.
Basic PC (Under $80)
If you only plan to use the PC for the most basic tasks, such as web browsing, MS Office, or watching videos, then you do not need to splurge on something expensive. If you do not mind going with something second-hand, then it will be the most bang for the buck. Even a $30 CPU like an Intel Core i3-3240 will be more than enough for such tasks.
If you want a new CPU with a warranty, then an AMD Athlon 200GE will do just fine. The Athlon 200GE has a built-in GPU, 2 cores + 4 threads, and runs at 3.2 GHz. The MSRP is only $55, making it the cheapest new CPU that you can get right now. Intel also has a decent offering here with the Celeron G5900. It costs and performs about the same so just buy the cheaper one. If you want to buy a newer Athlon CPU, you will have to buy a prebuilt machine, which is fine as well.
Budget PC ($80-$130)
This is the range where you can get a very decent CPU for some budget gaming. You can expect CPUs at this price to be competitive in esports titles and run all new games at a playable framerate. So, how to choose a CPU at this price point? First, if you already have a graphics card, then you can get a Ryzen 3 series or Intel Core-i3 processor.
We will start with Intel here. This is one of those instances where Intel pulls out a slight lead with the Intel Core i3-10100. It is a 4-core 8-thread CPU that costs around $114. The performance and price are nearly identical to the Ryzen 3 3300X with the only advantage in Intel’s favor being the integrated GPU. Even if you do not need the integrated GPU, it is still a nice-to-have. The problem with Intel are the motherboards that cost slightly more on average than AMD’s and the CPU is locked.
The AMD CPU to buy in this price range is the Ryzen 3 3300X without any doubt. At $120, you can’t go wrong with it. It is a 4-core 8-thread CPU that can trade blows with the Ryzen 5 2600. You can get a cheap B450 motherboard to go with this CPU and you will be happy with the performance and the price you paid. There is also the slightly less powerful Ryzen 3 3100 at $119 which is an amazing value as well. AMD’s advantage over Intel here is that their chips can be overclocked.
If you want to get a CPU that has a decent integrated GPU, then ignore Intel. AMD’s integrated Vega graphics are well-known in the community for their amazing performance. While Intel got close this year with their new Intel UHD graphics 630 chipset, AMD still pulls ahead with the Ryzen 3 3200G. The Ryzen CPU is unlocked, meaning it can be easily overclocked for a performance gain. Nonetheless, you can do some lightweight gaming on either without a graphics card.
Gaming PC (Around $200)
These CPUs are the sweet spot. They are a great value for gaming but can also be used for demanding productivity tasks. You can use these CPUs to get the most out of even the best graphics cards. This is why everyone is buying these CPUs. Both Intel and AMD have decent offerings here but, like always, AMD is cheaper and performs just as well. How to choose a CPU for gaming without breaking the bank?
In AMD’s corner, we have the Ryzen 5 3600 and 3600XT. The 3600 will set you back $200 and the 3600XT is around $230. The Ryzen 5 3600 is so popular that it has increased in price this year and we can see why. 6 cores and 12 threads clocked at 3.6 GHz. Not only that, it can be easily overclocked for even more performance, coming very close to the 3600XT. It is currently the best bang for the buck CPU and you won’t lose much by not getting a Ryzen 7.
Intel is once again very close with their Core i5-10400, 10500, and 10600. They perform roughly the same as the Ryzen 5 CPUs from AMD but they cost about $20-30 more on average. Both the Core-i5 and Ryzen 5 trade blows in video games and productivity. It is hard to recommend Intel over Ryzen here simply because AMD’s new lineup is coming very soon and it will sink Intel into the ground. Do not forget that AMD CPUs are unlocked and have better coolers in addition to all that.
Streaming and Creative Work PC ($350-$400)
If you are a streamer or plan to start streaming, you will want to get an AMD Ryzen 7 or Intel Core-i7. These CPUs are great for video editing and rendering as well. You can expect to get an 8-core 16-thread CPU at this price that can do everything you throw at it. How to choose a CPU for streaming and editing?
The best CPU in this bracket would be the Ryzen 7 3800XT. We once again see a tie here when compared against the Intel Core i7-10700K. The difference is that the AMD Ryzen 7 3800XT can be found for around $20 less and it has a lower TDP.
AMD has already announced their Ryzen 5000 series lineup, so it would be wise to wait a bit longer to see how they will perform. Even if the current Ryzen 7 3000 series looks appealing, you should wait nonetheless as retailers will start selling the old generation at cheaper prices.
Cream of the Crop ($500+)
These are the top of the line Ryzen 9 and Intel Core i9 CPUs that perform excellently in both games and productivity. AMD has announced their new Ryzen 9 5900X CPU recently and seems to be a better value than the Intel Core i9-10900K. It has 12 cores and 24 threads, compared to Intel’s 10 cores and 20 threads. In addition to that, AMD has much more cache (70MB vs 20MB) and a lower TDP (105W vs 125W).
AMD’s benchmarks indicate that the 5900X outperforms the i9-10900K by up to 20% in Cinebench, meaning it is much better in multithreaded workloads. The Ryzen 9 5900X costs $549 and the i9-10900K will set you back $579. This means that Intel is pretty much knocked out until they can come back with a response. By the way, the Ryzen 9 3900XT from the previous generation is also excellent value at $450. You should wait for it to get even cheaper once the new generation is out.
The Ryzen 9 3900XT outperforms the Intel Core i9-10900K already in synthetic benchmarks at a much lower price. Intel does pull out a slight lead in games, but it does not matter much at this price point because most people buying these CPUs want to do rendering first and gaming second. Besides, the difference between 180 FPS and 190 FPS is not meaningful in the first place.
Workstation (Around $4000)
A workstation CPU is designed for maximum productivity and insane rendering speeds. People who buy these CPUs are serious professionals who need to maximize their productivity at work without any sacrifices. These are the AMD Threadrippers and Intel Xeons that cost four digits. Spoiler alert: AMD decimates Intel at this price point.
You might have seen headlines earlier this year where the AMD Ryzen Threadripper 3990X is compared against the Intel Xeon Platinum 8280 CPU. The Threadripper costs around $3,849 now and comes with 64 cores and 128 threads with a max boost frequency of 4.3 GHz. The funny thing is that it outperforms the 28-core 56-thread Xeon Platinum 8280 workstation CPU that costs over $10,000.
So, how to choose a CPU? Buying the right CPU might seem like a daunting task at first, but once you know how much you want to spend, it is not hard at all. Just make sure that you are not buying something too powerful or not powerful enough for your usage scenario. Striking a nice balance between all your components is key to building a solid PC.
In 2020, it is hard to recommend Intel for pretty much anyone unless you are looking for a dirt-cheap second-hand CPU that can do basic work or some low-end gaming. AMD’s new Ryzen 5000 series will push the prices of all CPUs down, so be on the lookout for that. How to choose a CPU based on specs alone?
Remember that the most important spec for choosing the right CPU is the core count. You do not need more than six cores for gaming unless you want to have the absolute best performance money can buy. The clock speed is also important, but it is no longer the determining factor as it used to be. You should also consider the TDP because you want to make sure that your CPU is adequately cooled.
Don’t forget that buying the right motherboard is also important. Make sure that your CPU and motherboard are compatible beforehand by checking the specs list. Always choose a motherboard based on your CPU choice and not the other way around.