You couldn't have guessed how things would end up for AMD or Intel's best CPUs at the start of the year. Twelve months ago AMD was struggling to meet the demand for its new Ryzen 5000 chips, and basically, everything from the wonderful Ryzen 5 5600X right up to the Ryzen 9 5950X was completely out of stock this time last year. Intel, meanwhile, was struggling with its first bloodied nose in the gaming arena, having lost its gaming crown to AMD's Zen 3 family.
Since then, chips have come back in stock for both sides, and we've seen not one, but two new architectures from Intel as well as AMD's much-anticipated APU range finally making an appearance. The Ryzen 5000 APUs were initially solely for OEMs back in April, but with stock returning to reasonable levels, AMD made these chips available to DIY builders in August. Since then, the surprisingly capable onboard graphics have made them a bit of a hit, which isn't too surprising in these GPU-starved times.
Intel's Rocket Lake desktop chips launched at the end of March 2021, to little fanfare. The 14nm backport of what should have been a 10nm architecture got the blue corner upright again but didn't do enough at the high-end to give them a real edge in gaming. Bizarrely, its 11th Gen Core series did make Intel the go-to option for budget builders, as Intel managed to sell its chips much cheaper than the AMD equivalent.
Things have shifted as the year comes to a close though, with Alder Lake finally giving Intel something serious to shout about. These are the first desktop chips to employ its hybrid design, which also just so happens to put in some incredible performance numbers. Support for DDR5 hasn't been without its issues of course, as DDR5 is basically impossible to find in the wild, but the architecture still supports DDR4, which happens to be more affordable anyway.
Here are the standout CPUs from the last twelve months.
The best CPU of 2021: the nominees
AMD Ryzen 7 5700G
Having the best integrated graphics around, may not sound like a heady claim for a CPU, but when it translates to smoothly playing games at 1080p, that's enough power for plenty of gamers. Add in that it's an eight-core, 16-thread chip with a Boost clock of 4.6GHz and you have an impressive package. It may only support PCIe 3.0, but in all other respects, this is an unbeatable APU in these GPU-starved times.
Intel Core i9 12900K
This is the flagship chip of Intel's 12th Gen Core family and features eight performance cores alongside eight efficient ones. Altogether you're looking at 24 threads with 30MB of L3 cache to play with and a Max Turbo frequency of 5.2GHz. It also just happens to be an absolute house when it comes to performance—managing to create some serious space between and AMD's top offering in games. It's a bit power hungry, but otherwise a phenomenal chip.
Intel Core i5 12600K
The Core i9 12900K may be the high-end chip for those who don't want to compromise, but for the vast majority of gamers, it's this Core i5 you'd want in your next gaming PC. Game performance is on par with the top-tier CPU, and importantly often faster than AMD's best offerings, all without being quite so greedy when it comes to power or anywhere near as expensive. The configuration of six performance cores and four efficient ones works well too, offering up 16 threads in total.
The winner of the PC Gamer Hardware Award for the best CPU will be announced on New Year's Eve. It's all to play for, and any one of these three is completely deserving of the crown.