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Intel’s Latest ‘Alder Lake’ 12th Gen Processors Topple Ryzen 5000 for Top Spot
Last Updated: November 17, 2021
Second only to your graphics card in importance, the CPU you choose has a direct say on gaming performance as well, so it pays to do a little research before buying in order to select the best gaming CPU for your price range. In this guide I will simplify the CPU market, hand pick the current best gaming CPUs for the money in terms of maximum bang for buck as a gamer, and finish up with an FAQ on CPU specs.
Choosing the right CPU for your PC build doesn’t have to be difficult: if you simply buy within the latest 1 or 2 generations of AMD or Intel, making sure to balance your combination of CPU and GPU based on your resolution and refresh rate, it’s hard to go wrong as you generally get what you pay for when it comes to CPUs.
But only a Sith deals in absolutes, and certain CPUs can actually perform the same (or better) for less money when it comes to games, so there is strategy involved in choosing the best CPU. Also, investing in an expensive CPU isn’t always worth it if you mostly care about gaming. After a certain price segment, you’ll get diminishing returns from buying an even more expensive, faster processor (the difference in performance may not be big enough to justify the added cost).
Unless you’re aiming for consistently high frame rates of 144FPS and above, and/or you’re playing more CPU demanding games, a modern mid-range CPU is all you probably need to take full advantage of most gaming GPUs. So unless you have above average CPU requirements, forking out hundreds on a high-end CPU may be a total waste. But enough generalizations and let’s get into specific CPU recommendations based on 3 price categories, starting with a quick overview of how the Intel vs AMD battle currently stands.
AMD vs Intel in November 2021 (Overview)
For most of recent history, choosing the best CPU for gaming could be easily summed up by the following: if you wanted the highest frame rates possible, you bought Intel, and if you wanted to save money, you considered AMD instead. But over the past few years, with each new iteration of their groundbreaking Ryzen series, AMD stepped up their game to the point where they literally overtook Intel for the gaming performance crown with their impressive Ryzen 5000 series (5600X, 5800X, etc).
However, Intel have just fired back this month with a very strong showing: Intel 12th gen CPUs, codenamed Alter Lake, have turned the tide back towards team blue. In other words, the latest 12600K, 12700K, and 12900K processors (and their KF variants) are now the fastest CPUs, beating Ryzen 5000 fair and square in most games but also in many non-gaming applications (though AMD still holds the edge in certain use cases).
So does that mean that all gamers should just buy Intel 12th gen and be done with it? Not necessarily. If you want the highest frame rates possible then sure, Intel’s latest CPUs are your new best friend. But there are other factors at play. First of all, these new Intel CPUs are based on an entirely new CPU socket (LGA 1700) which requires a new Z690 motherboard which don’t come cheap.
AMD has the more affordable motherboard options with their mid-range B550 platform. Secondly, Intel 12th gen is more power hungry than AMD Ryzen 5000, meaning you’ll need a slightly better cooling solution – especially if eyeing off the top of the stack (12700K and 12900K). Thirdly, as mentioned, AMD can still win out in certain applications, and even in certain outlier games.
Also, if building a cheaper PC on a tight budget – territory where Intel 12th gen doesn’t exist right now (at the time of writing the cheapest 12th gen chip is the 12600KF) – AMD may be the better buy depending on your region (such as the 3600, 3100, or 3300X, assuming you can find them at or below MSRP). That sad, Intel does also have compelling options in the budget market as well, with their 10th gen i3 10100/10100F and i5 10400/10400F being prime examples of excellent value budget CPUs.
But in the upper-mid to high-end market right now, there’s no debating that Intel has the clear edge right now, at least for now until AMD responds with their next launch sometime in 2022. Ignoring the 12600K or 12600KF as your choice for a upper mid-range to high-end gaming PC would be avoiding logic, as it beats the AMD competition (5600X, and sometimes even the 5800X) fair and square.
All that said, keep in mind that when we (tech reviewers/writers etc) say that X CPU beats Y CPU, we’re usually talking slim margins, meaning that choosing a modern Intel or modern AMD processor for your system isn’t likely to make a discernable difference to the average PC user. A few extra frames here or there is hardly noticeable unless you’re a hardcore gamer who can notice these things. Getting a recent CPU from either company will get you very fast performance.
Anyway, if you are the perfectionist type and want to tailor your CPU choice to maximize frame rates for your budget, enough generalizations and let’s get into specific CPU recommendations. If you also want examples of how to include these CPUs in a full custom PC build, see the best gaming PC builds for the money article as well.
Note: Any prices mentioned are in USD (US Dollars)
Best Cheap Gaming CPUs in 2021 (Budget PC Builds)
As it stands right this moment in the US market, Intel has the best budget gaming CPUs simply because AMD’s offerings are inflated in price and difficult to find in stock. In the last edition of this guide, I recommended the Ryzen 3 3100 as the best bang for buck in this category, but in most regions you won’t find it anywhere near MSRP, giving the Intel i3 range a clear win for the time being. The i3 10100F and 10100 can be found at normal prices, at least at the time of writing this, and come very close to the 3100 in terms of gaming performance.
See Also: How to Install a CPU
The 3100 is slightly faster in most games, and is also the better performer in non-gaming applications, but the 10100F and 10100 do win in certain specific titles such as Cyberpunk 2077 and Red Dead Redemption 2 just to name a random couple I’ve seen from benchmarks. As for choosing between the i3 10100F vs 10100, they’re the exact same except the 10100F does not have integrated graphics (any Intel CPU with a “F” at the end of the model name does not have integrated graphics). Since the 10100F is slightly cheaper, if you’re building a PC with a dedicated graphics card as almost every gamer does, the 10100F is the best overall value.
But if you’re building a PC without a graphics card for now, and want to be able to display graphics onto your monitor in the meantime, consider the 10100 instead otherwise you’ll be stuck without any display until you install a graphics card in your rig. Just note that the built-in graphics of the 10100 is not good, and not suitable even for light gaming. If you want decent built-in graphics from a CPU, look at AMD’s 5300G and 5600G instead, which have far superior integrated graphics that are actually capable of some light modern gaming (at 1080p low settings).
Best Value Gaming CPUs in 2021 (Mid-Range PC Builds)
It’s not just budget AMD CPUs that have been hard to find recently, and the mid-tier market is also very much unavailable at normal pricing these days, opening the door for Intel as a viable bang for buck option here as well. The AMD Ryzen 5 3600 has been this category’s top pick for a long time since, but it’s too expensive right now often selling for well north of $200 USD (and hard to find in stock).
At the time of writing, the Intel Core i3 10400F and 10400 are hard to ignore if you want the best value. Remember the “F” means no integrated graphics which isn’t a big deal for most, since chances are you’ll be buying a GPU from the get-go.
The 10400F and 10400 don’t support overclocking (you need an unlocked Intel CPU with a “K” in the model name for that), but overclocking isn’t worth it if you’re a typical gamer who doesn’t want to spend time tinkering around with their system too much. I’d also say that right now these 10th-gen i5 processors are also better value than the recently released 11th gen i5 range, the 11400 and 11400F. Unless you manage to find these newer models for roughly the same price as the 10th gen range in your region, I would personally favor the 10th gen chips as the performance difference of 11th vs 10th gen is very minimal.
Just note that with 11th gen you do get PCIe 4.0 support, allowing for faster next-gen storage setups, but this won’t apply to most who are building a mid-tier PC anyway that is focused on value (chances are you’ll be sticking to more affordable PCIe 3.0 SSDs, and not more expensive 4.0 drives). Also, if you buy a 10th gen Intel like a 10400F and pair it with a newer B560 motherboard (which is backwards compatible with 10th gen), you can always upgrade to Intel 11th gen later down the track should you ever want to upgrade your CPU (such as going from your 10400F to say a 11700F in future or whatever).
Related: Choosing the Best SSD for Gaming
Fastest Gaming CPUs in 2021 (VR, 144Hz, 240Hz)
Before getting into the absolute best gaming CPUs available right now, just a heads-up. For most gamers, there’s honestly no strong need to get anything faster than a 10400F or Ryzen 5 3600, as modern mid-range processors like these will easily reach 60FPS and higher in modern titles (of course, assuming your GPU is good enough for the particular title and your resolution/settings).
They will also fair decently well for 144Hz monitors in many games, allowing you to reach 100FPS+ unless it’s a very CPU intensive game, and they’re also enough for reaching 90FPS in most VR games (90Hz is the standard for VR). I want to make this point because some people understandably assume that an Intel i5 or Ryzen 5 range is not good enough for a high-end gaming PC.
This way of thinking is fairly common, and makes sense given there are two higher CPU tiers above them (the i7 and i9 for Intel, and the Ryzen 7 and 9 for AMD). Some people see a gaming rig with a Ryzen 5 or i5 in the spec sheet and may rule it out as not fast enough. But if you buy a recent model, an i5 or Ryzen 5 can be absolutely plenty in terms of processing power for gaming.
But if you do want the highest frame rates you can, to take full advantage of a 144Hz monitor and reach that magical 144FPS mark (and do so consistently), or to simply better handle CPU intensive titles and eliminate the potential for any stuttering whatsoever, the best value high-end CPU on the market right now is the Intel Core i5 12600K (or its cheaper, iGPU-less 12600KF brother). Which, funnily enough, is “only” an i5.
See Also: The Best PC VR Headsets (SteamVR)
Benchmark after benchmark from trusted tech reviewers all show the fresh new 12600K/KF outclassing the Ryzen 5 5600X, which was the previous value king in the high-end market. But, the 12600K even often beats the Ryzen 7 5800X as well, a chip that sells for much more money. It also comes close to the Ryzen 9 5900X in some games. As mentioned earlier, this latest 12th gen launch from Intel is a smashing success, following the disappointing 11th gen launch. Intel have clinched back the gaming performance crown from AMD, who have held it for the past year or so.
Going higher than the 12600K, such as the even more blazing fast 12700K or chart-topping yet very costly 12900K, will give you even higher frame rates, but you’ll get diminishing returns over the 12600K. In other words, I can’t recommend them unless you’re splurging and don’t care to get the most value for money. For everyone else seeking value, the 12600K will not disappoint and you’ll be set with top gaming performance for years to come, even if you don’t overclock it (which isn’t recommended for most people anyway). For more on the 12600K and choosing optimal components for it, see the main gaming PC build guide, but now let’s get into a bit of QnA on choosing CPUs.
How to Choose a CPU (Beginner FAQ)
If you’re new to hardware, let’s cover some common beginner questions on choosing your first CPU.
What is a CPU? How Much Does it Matter for Gaming?
Let’s start at ground zero if you’re completely new to the world of PC hardware. The CPU (Central Processing Unit), also called the processor, is one of the most important components in any computer, and what you could consider the brains of your system. It’s responsible for making all the quick mathematical calculations that your games and other programs rely on, and the power of your gaming computer’s CPU will have a direct correlation with overall gaming performance. It’s the second most important component in a gaming PC, only trailing the graphics card in its influence on your frame-rate.
So with that said, when upgrading or building a computer for gaming you want to get the best CPU that you can afford, assuming that you’ve saved aside a similar or larger chunk of your overall PC budget to a good (or great) graphics card. However, while you do want the best CPU possible for gaming, there is a point of diminishing returns where you may be better off skipping on a high-end CPU (for a mid-range CPU) and allocating that extra money you would have spent elsewhere in your parts-list. Building a PC is a balancing act.
Do You Need a High-End CPU for 144Hz Gaming?
144Hz monitors have become increasingly popular in recent years to the point where they are now considered the standard for any competitive gamer playing fast-paced eSports or FPS shooters like CSGO, Overwatch, Warzone, and even League of Legends and DOTA 2. For these highly competitive, every-millisecond-counts games, seeing the fastest image on screen is important to allow for the most Jedi-like reflexes and reaction times. But to take full advantage of a 144Hz monitor, your PC needs to perform at 144FPS or thereabouts, and ideally even higher so that your frame rate doesn’t drop below that 144FPS mark. To get 144FPS requires a stronger CPU compared to getting say 60FPS on a standard monitor, so you need to pay more close attention to your CPU selection if using a 144Hz screen.
Related: Best CPU GPU Combos for 144Hz
That said, you don’t necessarily need a high-end CPU to achieve 144FPS, because when you run competitive graphics settings (ie lower settings, a common thing to do in order to get the highest frame rate possible which is more important than graphics quality during competitive gaming) it’s not as hard for your PC to reach such high frame rates. But how good your CPU needs to be all depends on the specific game, as requirements can vary wildly. Getting 144FPS in CSGO is quite easy, and even a cheap gaming CPU will do the trick, whereas getting that type of performance in a more CPU intensive modern competitive shooter like Warzone will require a much better CPU. It’s all about doing your research and analyzing benchmarks online for your specific CPU and the game in question.
Are i3 or Ryzen 3 CPUs Good Enough for Gaming?
Intel’s Core i3 and AMD’s Ryzen 3 range of CPUs are their entry-level offerings aimed at gamers on a budget, though they can still pack a surprisingly decent punch despite being the entry-level chip of any Intel series, and depending on the situation may actually be plenty of processing grunt for the games you play. For the most demanding, CPU intensive games on the market though (think Red Dead Redemption 2 or Cyberpunk 2077), or if wanting to get super high frame rates of 100FPS and beyond, you really do want an i5 or Ryzen 5 instead if at all possible. But on a budget, a R3 or i3 can be well worth it, so I wouldn’t discount them just because they’re on the lower end of the CPU stack and comparably cheaper than other CPU families.
What Are CPU Cores and Are They Important for Gaming?
CPUs have varying amounts of cores, which are basically like microprocessors within a processor allowing for a CPU to run more efficiently and multi-task better. A CPU with 2 cores is called a dual-core processor, 4 cores is quad-core, 6 cores is hexa-core, and 8 cores is octa-core. But we’ll stop there, because for gaming, cores aren’t that important, so long as you have a certain amount. Modern games don’t utilize that many, and a good quad-core or 6-core CPU goes a long way when paired with a good graphics card.
You’d only need higher than 6 cores if you’re buying one of the absolute best gaming graphics cards and you want to avoid bottlenecking it (ie prevent it from performing at its absolute best). Put another way, anything more than 6 cores (ie 8 cores) is just a nice-to-have luxury when it comes to building a gaming PC. For more CPU-heavy non-gaming applications, that’s when having really high core counts like 10, 12, or even 16 cores can be more beneficial and/or important (but it depends on your specific workflow).
What Are CPU Threads?
Whilst a core is the physical hardware that does the processing, a thread is a single line of commands that a core works on, with each program/application having at least the 1 thread. Normal CPUs can have one core only work on the one thread at a time, whereas hyperthreaded CPUs can work on up to two threads per core which generally means faster multitasking performance.
What Are Locked vs Unlocked CPUs
A locked CPU means that the clock speed is set and can’t be changed by overclocking, whereas an unlocked CPU is, you guessed it, an overclockable CPU. Unlocked Intel processors have a “K” in their model number, such as the Intel Core i5 8600K. AMD don’t have this naming system, but most of their CPUs are unlocked. If you want to overclock your processor, or plan on potentially doing later on, then you’ll need an unlocked model. However, if you’re not overclocking, which is what we’d recommend to first-time PC builders and hardware beginners in general, you can get either a locked or unlocked model as locked CPUs can still be a good buy even if you never plan to overclock.
What is the CPU Socket Type?
This is the type of CPU, and will need to be matched against the socket type of the motherboard you choose for your build. In other words, if you decide to go with an AMD Ryzen CPU, they have a socket type of AM4. Therefore, you’ll need to get an AM4 motherboard. For the latest Intel i3s, i5s, and i7s, they all have a socket of “1151”, so you’ll need to get a motherboard that mentions socket “1151” in the model number/specs sheet somewhere.
What is CPU Clock Speed?
The stock speed that the processor runs at, measured in GHz. Not the only factor, but a good baseline of how fast a CPU is. However, when choosing the best CPU for gaming, you should not confuse yourself with having to compare clock speeds of different processors, as you’re better off (to stay sane and for practicality) just comparing CPU benchmarks in various gaming situations if you want to compare different CPUs.
What is CPU Cache?
CPUs have varying amounts of what is called cache memory, which is memory that stores information your CPU will likely need next that it can quickly and conveniently access for better performance. If that doesn’t make sense, no worries at all, as it simply does not matter when choosing the best CPU as you should just be comparing models (and not minutia) as mentioned before.
Is the Stock CPU Cooler Good Enough for Gaming?
The best CPUs produce quite a bit of heat when put under load and require high-performance cooling in the form of a heatsink and fan. Most processors come with their own stock CPU cooler (which consists of a heatsink and fan) so in that case you’re not required to buy your own CPU cooler, which is technically known as an aftermarket CPU cooler (as in, it’s not an Intel or AMD cooler).
Though keep in mind some CPUs do NOT come with a cooler, such as Intel’s unlocked processors like the 10600K, 10700K, 9700K, etc (any CPU with a “K” on the end) as these processors are generally intended to be overclocked at least a little and require an aftermarket cooler.
Related: How to Install a Stock CPU Cooler
Speaking of overclocking, if you’re gonna be delving into that (for those who don’t know it’s basically when you manually increase the speed of your CPU past its stock speed to squeeze out more performance) then you’ll need an aftermarket CPU cooler as your chip is going to produce a lot more heat when pushed beyond its normal stock-standard speeds.
Even if you don’t plan on overclocking your CPU, which isn’t recommended for newbies to be honest, getting an aftermarket cooler (ie replacing the stock fan) may still be a good idea (depends on your specific build) to maximize cooling, increase the lifespan of your CPU, reduce noise as much as possible, oh and for looks as well – stock coolers can be plain/ugly and when you buy your own you can get one that fits your build’s look and feel.
Getting your own cooler is also a little more important in general with Intel CPUs, as their stock coolers are typically not as good as AMDs (this is fact, not opinion, though that’s not to say that AMD stock coolers are significantly better; only slightly). However, if your CPU comes with a stock fan then you don’t NEED to buy your own, and you could get away with using it to save money on your build (again, especially if it’s one of the latest Ryzen stock coolers which are generally great), and you could just test out the stock cooler to see if your CPU runs cool and quiet enough for your liking, and then decide later on to get an aftermarket cooler (although it’s annoying having to uninstall the stock cooler and install a new one).
See Also: Installing the NH-D15 Black
To summarize this sometimes confusing conundrum of a choice (if I had a galactic credit for every time someone asked me this I’d name my wallet Jabba) – if you’re overclocking, you really should buy your own CPU cooler, unless your CPU doesn’t come with a cooler in the first place in which case you have no choice but to buy a cooler. Otherwise, if not overclocking now or in future, you can choose either to stick with the stock cooler (if your CPU comes with one) or still buy your own better cooler anyway for improved cooling performance, lower noise, and better longevity for your system overall.
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VPNs are fast becoming must-have software these days to improve the security and privacy of your PC when online. There’s lots of VPNs but NordVPN is objectively one of the best and the one I use. VPNs also help for online gaming as explained here.
Indie game programmer currently working on my first official game release (after years of hobby projects), an atmospheric story-driven VR FPS built with Unreal Engine to be announced once I’m ready here and here (for anyone into VR FPS’s). Also likes writing about tech, which helps to fund development of the game.
My favs of all time are OOT, Perfect Dark, MGS1 and 2, GE007, DKC2, THPS3, HL1, WC3, Vice City, and KOTOR, with the most recent addition to my list of immortals being the VR masterpiece Half Life Alyx. If you want help with a new build or upgrade feel free to ask on the main PC builds guide. I try to respond to every comment. – Julz