Best Computer Processors

Updated September 2020
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BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We only make money if you purchase a product through our links, and we never accept free products from manufacturers. Read more  
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.Read more 
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Why trust BestReviews?
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We only make money if you purchase a product through our links, and we never accept free products from manufacturers. Read more  
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We only make money if you purchase a product through our links, and we never accept free products from manufacturers. Read more  
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.Read more 
How we decided

We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.

10 Models Considered
6 Hours Researched
1 Experts Interviewed
387 Consumers Consulted
Zero products received from manufacturers.

We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.

Buying guide for best computer processors

Last Updated September 2020

If you’re building a new PC, shopping for a prefabricated one, or just want to learn more about computers, the processor is the perfect place to start. A processor (CPU) is literally the brain of a computer, determining how quickly it can run programs, execute commands, process data, and, well, “think.” Much like the human brain, a CPU defines a computer’s personality. The efficacy of every other component ultimately relies on how competent a processor is.

A processor’s speed, responsiveness, and multitasking abilities are measured by its number of cores and clock speed. Put simply, more cores enable a processor to interact with more applications at once, and faster clock speed determines how quickly those interactions are carried out. Brands like Intel and AMD offer consumer-grade CPUs with up to eight cores and clock speeds exceeding 5.0 gigahertz, but in reality most users need far less than that.

Before you decide, focus on the type of computing you do. Are you a casual home user, gamer, or video editor? Are you interested in animation or data mining? Every processor is best suited to a particular task, so keep your end goals in mind as you check out our buying guide and favorites.

A strong CPU is a key component in any computer but take care to avoid performance bottlenecks. If your GPU, RAM, and cooling are subpar, you won’t be getting your money’s worth from the processor itself.

Key considerations

Cores

Within a CPU, there are several smaller independent processors called cores. Modern examples have between 2 and 32 of these cores (consumer products often cap out at 16); each core can handle its own tasks. If a CPU has more cores, it’s more adept at multitasking and juggling various applications at once.

Clock speed

Cores determine how many programs a computer can handle simultaneously, but the clock speed determines how quickly each task is executed by the processor. Clock speed is measured in gigahertz (GHz), and it specifically measures the frequency of electrical pulses coming from the motherboard to the processor. Along with the number of cores a processor has, clock speed is extremely important for high-end gaming performance.

Contemporary CPUs can adjust their clock speeds up and down based on the particular task as well as temperature. These speeds are often listed as “minimum” clock speeds and “maximum,” “boost,” or “turbo” speeds.

Threads

If a CPU is a computer’s brain, and each core is its own lobe, then the processor threads essentially act like nerves, controlling individual command lines. Each computer application likely utilizes multiple threads, which is why some new processors boast multithreading capabilities to expand multitasking performance. In layman’s terms, more threads equals better performance during high-intensity tasks like video editing, rendering, and animation.

TDP

Computer processors use a significant amount of energy, and thus they create a significant amount of heat. A CPU’s heat output is measured by its thermal design profile (TDP), and this refers to the maximum amount of heat in watts a chip puts out at stock speed. This is vital to know because you need a CPU cooler able to dissipate that amount heat or you risk damaging your system and reducing performance.

Cache

Each processor has an onboard cache of temporary memory to facilitate quick communication between the CPU and random access memory (RAM). Three levels of cache work together inside a processor. The speediest is L1, but it has the least memory storage. L2 is larger and slower by contrast, and L3 is even larger and slower. L3 feeds instructions to the L2 cache, which sends instructions to L1 to fully complete a task. The more memory you have across all three levels (measured in gigabytes), the faster your CPU will be.

EXPERT TIP

Your CPU must mesh well with other components. For instance, CPUs work with specific motherboards, so your CPU choice may dictate the rest of your build. Similarly, if you decide to upgrade your CPU to a different brand, make sure your motherboard is compatible.


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Features

Overclocking

The term “overclocked CPU” is often used in computing discussions, but it’s commonly confused with “boost” and “turbo” CPU speeds. They’re very different, though.

Boost and turbo: These speeds exist within a processor’s stock clock speed range and are opened up depending on computer temperature and current energy use.

Overclocked: An overclocked CPU involves modification of the motherboard to force the processor to operate faster than it did out of the factory. This can unlock significant performance potential if done correctly, but it can also place additional stress on other components and generate more heat. Before you consider overclocking, research your components thoroughly and consider additional cooling to prevent issues.

Intel vs. AMD

The Intel vs. AMD CPU debate has raged for years, and while it’s sure to continue moving forward, both brands produce exceptional products at a variety of price points.

Historically, AMD has been the low-cost, high-value option. AMD is still the best “bang for your buck” choice in some respects, but the company has achieved near performance parity with Intel with its Threadripper series, modern architectures, and pricier options. For instance, the AMD Ryzen 9 3950X boasts 16 cores, 32 threads, and a 3.5 GHz base clock with a 4.7 GHz boost. Intel’s i9-9900K has 8 cores, 16 threads, and a 3.6 GHz base clock with a 5.0 GHz boost.

At the end of the day, both brands have excellent offerings for a variety of tasks. Rather than strictly adhering to one brand, we recommend you judge each CPU on its specifications, performance, and price, and make your final decision on a case-by-case basis.

Depending on your setup, you may want to consider a dual-chambered design for your PC tower. This allows you to isolate your power supply from your CPU, GPU, RAM, and other components, improving aesthetics as well as heat management for maximum performance.

Computer processor prices

Inexpensive: Computers get expensive fast, but believe it or not, you can find powerful, capable CPUs for far less than $100. For $50 to $100, expect processors in the range of 3.5 GHz and two to four cores. These aren’t recommended for new, resource-intensive games, but they can play titles like Fornite and Minecraft without struggle. They’re also fine for basic productivity tasks and video streaming.  

Mid-range: If you’re looking to multitask, play new games, or do creative media work, you need to explore the mid-range price points of $200 to $300. These options provide more cores, more threads, and higher clock speeds. Examples include the Intel i5 and AMD Ryzen 5.

Expensive: At the top of the range, you’re into some serious processing muscle. CPUs that cost $400 to $500 are common in this territory, but you’ll get your money’s worth by rendering 3D animations and 4K videos quickly, playing new games smoothly on max settings, and enjoying a very high-level and responsive experience overall. Processors like Intel’s i9, AMD’s Ryzen 9, Intel’s Core X, and even AMD’s Threadripper occupy this lofty space.

EXPERT TIP

A CPU sits in the CPU socket slot of your motherboard and pops in and out easily for replacement and maintenance. However, CPUs can change shape when new generations are released, so keep the socket design of your motherboard in mind if you decide to upgrade. If it won’t fit, it won’t work.


Staff  | BestReviews

Tips

  • Know your numbers. CPU model numbers can be hard to decipher, but here’s a quick breakdown. Most chips fall into a “good, better, best,” format, with Intel’s i3, i5, and i7 processors slotting into each respective category. The same goes with the AMD Ryzen 3, Ryzen 5, and Ryzen 7. The number that follows refers to the product generation, with an Intel i7-7700K being a seventh generation CPU, and an AMD Ryzen 5 2600 being a second generation CPU. The rest of the numbers that follow designate various sub-models within that particular lineup.
  • Maintain your PC. A clean PC is a healthy PC. Maintain the inside of your machine by opening the case and spraying it gently with compressed air. Doing this periodically will remove dust, reduce friction, and maintain airflow inside the case. Do not use vacuum cleaners or blow on any components with your mouth.
  • Install a heat sink. Another way to maintain CPU health is to install a heat sink inside your computer. Heat sinks are thermally conductive metal devices that absorb heat and disperse it away from key components like the CPU. These often have built-in fans for even greater efficiency.
Some computer processors have integrated graphics processors. These products are called accelerated processing units (APU), and while they’re convenient and space efficient, they can’t compete with the performance of separate CPUs and GPUs.

FAQ

Q. How do I determine if my CPU is fast enough for what I want to do?
A. When you’re trying to gauge what equipment you need for the goals you have, it can be easy to get lost in the slew of numbers and specifications. Thankfully, for gaming, websites like Can You Run It? and PC Game Benchmark make the process easier by comparing your PC’s specs to the specs required for certain games. Even if you haven’t started your build yet, you can search for anticipated games and use their recommended specs as a guide for CPU shopping. For video editing and heavy multitasking, remember that multicore processors with high thread counts are fantastic for tackling multiple processes at once. 
 

Q. I want to build a gaming computer. Outside of the CPU, what other components should look out for?
A. The CPU has long been the cornerstone of high-end computing, but in some ways modern games are more dependent on the graphics processing unit (GPU or graphics card) than the CPU. With that in mind, a healthy CPU and GPU marriage is essential for quality gaming experiences, as well as at least 16 GB of RAM. In addition, a fast solid-state drive (SSD) can dramatically improve the overall responsiveness of your machine, but keep in mind they’re more expensive than a hard disk drive (HDD) of equivalent size. Finally, you need to consider heat management, as gaming PCs use an abundance of energy to perform well. Some gaming rigs are air-cooled, utilizing a number of fans to maintain airflow. Others use more expensive liquid cooling systems, or a blend of both.
 

Q. What’s more important, a processor’s clock speed, the number of cores, or the number of threads?
A. As with many computing tasks, this answer greatly depends on your performance goals and day-to-day computer usage. A CPU with a high clock speed generally translates to quick reactions and short load times, assuming your RAM and hard drive are up to snuff. Multithreaded gaming is on the rise, but on the whole, a high clock speed will result in a solid experience at your PC as well. For multitasking, video editing, and time-consuming CPU-heavy projects, however, prioritize the number of cores and threads. As a benchmark, a clock speed of 3 to 4.0 GHz with four to eight cores will satisfy most consumer computing needs.

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