Best CPU Processors

Updated September 2019
Why trust BestReviews?
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.
We may earn a commission if you purchase a product through our links.
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We may earn a commission if you purchase a product through our links.
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.
We may earn a commission if you purchase a product through our links.
Bottom Line
Pros
Cons
How we decided

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

22 Models Considered
7 Hours Researched
1 Experts Interviewed
198 Consumers Consulted
Zero products received from manufacturers.

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

Why trust BestReviews?
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.
We may earn a commission if you purchase a product through our links.
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We may earn a commission if you purchase a product through our links.
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.
We may earn a commission if you purchase a product through our links.

Buying guide for best CPU processors

Last Updated September 2019

If you’re building a computer, there’s one decision that matters more than all the others: which central processing unit (CPU) you’re going to buy for it. The CPU determines how fast and capable a computer is, so picking the right one is critical to having a PC that will last as long as you need it to.

Thankfully, you don’t have to be an engineer to pick out the right CPU for your custom computer – you just need to be able to sort through the hoopla of technical specifications and marketing hype to find one that’s fast enough for your needs. Whether you need a powerhouse computer for editing 4K videos or a modest machine for everyday web browsing, we’ve got you covered.

Here’s everything you need to know about buying the right CPU, as well as a few of our top recommendations.

Built-in graphics processing units (often referred to as CPUs with on-board graphics) are great if you don’t have a lot of video needs, but if you play PC games or plan to use your computer to stream video, plan on buying a separate video card.

Key considerations

Intel and AMD

As you’re shopping for a new CPU, you’ll quickly notice that there are really only two brands on the market: Intel and Advanced Micro Devices (AMD). Despite the fact that both manufacturers make CPUs for computers, they’re really quite different. Most important of all, Intel CPUs only work with motherboards designed for Intel processors, and vice versa. When you pick a CPU, you’re also committing to using compatible parts. Here’s what you need to know about each brand.

  • Intel processors come in four product lines: i3, i5, i7, and i9. The number associated with each line indicates its relative speed. For example, i3 CPUs are the most modest and i9 CPUs are the fastest. The important thing to know is that Intel releases new generations of its product lines every 18 to 24 months, so when you see an Intel processor, it’s crucial to know which generation it’s from. Start by searching online to find out what the current generation is, then limit your CPU search to those so you can avoid buying a CPU that’s already outdated.

  • AMD processors come in two types: their traditional FX series and the newer Ryzen lines. The older FX series is worth avoiding. On the other hand, AMD’s Ryzen CPUs have made them the king of the CPU hill again, and with good reason: they’re fast, they have enough cores to handle tough applications, and they’re better at handling simultaneous tasks than many Intel CPUs. AMD CPUs also come in product lines: Ryzen 3, Ryzen 5, and Ryzen 7. Ryzen 3 is the slowest and Ryzen 7 is the fastest. If you’re planning on building a computer for some serious media editing or PC gaming, consider going with a Ryzen CPU.

Great value, great specs

The Ryzen 5 is the perfect sweet spot between speed and cost. If you need to build an above-average machine, consider putting a Ryzen under the hood. It’s an incredible value, especially when you consider the included heatsink. It’s got full support for Windows 10, and it even works with Linux-based machines.

CPU features

Selecting the best CPU for your needs will largely depend on what you’ll be using your computer for. Here is our best advice for a few of the most common scenarios.

If you’re building a gaming PC, your best bet is an AMD Ryzen CPU. These are designed for hard work, so one will be right at home powering your high-end gaming titles without a problem. For best results, buy the best one you can afford, and don’t forget to check online for user reviews of how different models perform before you buy.

If you’re building a server for hosting your files and not much else, you can buy either an Intel or an AMD processor – both will be completely fine. Serving up files doesn’t require a lot of horsepower, so unless you need your server to perform other tasks (like transcoding video), a low-end CPU like a Ryzen 3, Intel i3, or even a Celeron-based processor will do the job.

If you’re building a basic desktop computer, use either a Ryzen 5, an i5, or better. By choosing a “middle of the road” CPU, you’re not overbuying but still giving yourself enough power so that your computer will never feel slow.

DID YOU KNOW?

Before you buy a motherboard to go with your CPU, make sure it explicitly supports your CPU’s connectivity standard. For example, if you’re buying an Intel i5 processor, you’ll need an motherboard that supports Intel’s LGA 1151 standard.

DID YOU KNOW?

CPUs have one big enemy: heat. If your computer gets too hot, it can cause software problems – or worse, permanently stop working. To avoid overheating your PC, install enough fans in the case and position the PC in an area with proper ventilation.

DID YOU KNOW?

Intel’s Celeron processors are great for low-intensity applications like a kiosk or point-of-sale system, but most PC builders find them too slow to compete with other modern CPUs.

CPU prices

Budget-friendly

You’ll find budget CPUs and models that are a few years old or more for between $50 and $249. Processors in this price range aren’t very powerful and are often built on older standards. If you’re building a computer for low-intensity tasks (for example, if you’re building a server), you can find a good deal in this price range, but if you need a computer for anything more, you’ll need a faster CPU.

Mid-range

If you spend between $250 and $499, the CPUs range from decent to great. CPUs in this price range are fast enough for typical PC gaming or everyday office work. More than that, you’ll find the best value in this price range. There are definitely speed gains to be had by spending more, but unless you work with high-intensity applications like Adobe Photoshop or Adobe Premiere, spending more isn’t worth it.

Expensive

Expect to find the CPUs designed for professionals and hardcore gamers between $500 and $1,000. CPUs in this price range are great for anything and everything: encoding video, processing large amounts of data, or supporting triple-A video game titles. If you’ll be doing a lot of intense work on your computer, you’ll save a lot of work time by buying a CPU that can keep up with you.

Affordable with onboard graphics

Celeron CPUs are good for low-needs applications, so these are perfect for situations where you don’t need bleeding-edge speeds. If you’re building a kids’ computer or a machine you’ll use infrequently, this is the best value available. However, it only works with a limited number of motherboards, so you have fewer options than you would with other models.

Tips

  • Wash your hands before handling a CPU. And try and avoid situations that create static shock. CPUs are extremely sensitive to dirt, dust, and even electric shock, so use care when handling yours. Start with a clean pair of hands, and avoid walking around in bare feet on carpet whenever you’re touching or working with your CPU.

  • Make sure your computer is powered down and completely unplugged before installing your CPU. Computers draw a lot of power, and even if you’ve got it turned off, keeping it plugged in can result in severe electric shock or injury. Play it safe: when installing your CPU, keep it unplugged from the wall, and only plug it back in when you’re ready to turn on your PC.

  • Find experienced help to install your CPU. If you’ve never installed a CPU before, watch a few online videos first, and consider getting an experienced friend to help if you can. Installing a CPU is fairly straightforward, but there are definitely a few “gotchas,” like the challenges of working with thermal paste or troubleshooting imperfect installations. Before you unbox your CPU, make sure you’ve watched a few demonstrations of how to install it, and if possible, find a friend who’s done it before to consult.
CPUs are often sold as part of a bundle with a heatsink, thermal paste, or even motherboard. Bundles are useful if you’re building your first computer because the different components are guaranteed to work together.

FAQ

Q. Can I update the CPU in my laptop?

A. No. Most laptops are not designed to be upgraded or disassembled, and you’ll definitely void the warranty if you try. If your laptop is running slow, try upgrading the RAM or consider buying a faster model.

Q. When is the best time of year to buy a new CPU?

A. Unfortunately, most CPU price drops aren’t very predictable. When a new CPU generation comes out, the prior generation gets cheaper, but CPU release schedules are entirely at the manufacturer’s discretion. If you’re looking for a good deal on a CPU, keep an eye out during all of the holidays with sales.

Q. What is liquid cooling and how does it work with CPUs?

A. CPUs must maintain a low temperature in order to operate. All CPUs must have a cooling mechanism (called a heatsink) attached so they can function. Heatsinks sit directly on top of the CPU – separated only by a thin layer of thermal paste – and dissipate the heat that the CPU generates. Some heatsinks use liquid cooling, so they contain liquids that stay cold even in warm situations. Liquid cooling is completely safe, and in many cases it’s more effective than traditional heatsinks, although liquid-cooling heatsinks are typically more expensive than traditional ones.

The team that worked on this review
  • Alvina
    Alvina
    Photographer
  • Amos
    Amos
    Director of Photography
  • Branson
    Branson
    Videographer
  • Bronwyn
    Bronwyn
    Editor
  • Ciera
    Ciera
    Production Assistant
  • Devangana
    Devangana
    Web Producer
  • Eliza
    Eliza
    Production Manager
  • Jaime
    Jaime
    Writer
  • Kyle
    Kyle
    Writer
  • Melinda
    Melinda
    Web Producer
  • Vukan
    Vukan
    Post Production Editor

BestReviews wants to be better. Please take our 3-minute survey,
and give us feedback about your visit today.

Take Survey