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The best CPU for gaming in 2021

Included in this guide:

Best CPU for gaming: Intel and AMD CPUs on a green background
Fire up your rig with the best CPU for gaming. More cores, more clocks, more of everything that matters. (Image credit: Future)

The best CPU for gaming doesn't need to have the most cores, the fastest clocks, the largest caches, or the most advanced architecture. The best CPU for gaming just needs to offer a great gaming experience at a price that makes sense. Simple really. 

The good news is that there are plenty of great processors out there at affordable price points right now, even more so with the Cyber Monday deals in full swing. Indeed, with the launch of Intel's 12th Gen Alder Lake family, the best processor for gaming isn't the all-singing, all-dancing halo chip at the pinnacle of Intel's lineup, but one a little further down the pecking order. You'll find the Intel Core i5 12600K newly installed at the top of our list, and for very good reason—it offers awesome gaming performance at a great price point. 

Value for money is important, if only because it means you can spend more of your budget on other things like SSDs, better motherboards, more memory, or maybe, just maybe, a better graphics card at some point—if the silicon shortage ever ends. Saving a few dollars here and there on the core components can lead to a much better overall gaming PC. That's something we can definitely get behind.

Every chip on this list has been tested through our intense CPU benchmarking suite on our PC Gamer test rig. This is made up of plenty of the latest games as well as 3D and video rendering workloads, just because we're all content creators and streamers now. Games are still the most important tests for us though, hopefully for obvious reasons. 

Make sure you check our best gaming motherboard list if you are planning to do a brand new build.

Our favorite Cyber Monday CPU deals

Intel Core i5 12600K | 10-core (6P+4E), 16-thread | 125W TDP | $319.99

Intel Core i5 12600K | 10-core (6P+4E), 16-thread | 125W TDP | $319.99 $299.99 at Newegg (save $20)
This chip is brand new, but Newegg has already slashed $20 off its retail price. Stunning. This is a seriously impressive chip too—it runs circles around even the 11th Gen Core i9, so you don't want to spend too much on one of those while this chip is available. The only downside here is a higher platform cost, as only the more premium Z690 chipset is currently available to purchase.

AMD Ryzen 7 5700G

AMD Ryzen 7 5700G | eight-Core, 16-thread | 65W | $359 $309.99 at Best Buy (save $50)
This isn't a massive saving, to be fair, but given you don't need a graphics card with this capable APU for some light gaming, it's still a decent bargain. You get a full-fat eight-core, 16-thread chip that will handle serious tasks every bit as well as more expensive offerings. We liked this chip a lot when we reviewed it. It comes with a cooler too.

Intel Core i5 11400 | six-core, 12-thread | 65W | $219.99

Intel Core i5 11400 | six-core, 12-thread | 65W | $219.99 $189.98 at Newegg (save $30.01)
If your budget won't stretch to dropping $300 on a cutting-edge CPU and a new platform, then this six-core, 12-thread Rocket Lake chip still packs a mighty punch for the money. With a max clock speed of 4.4GHz and a pleasingly low TDP of 65W, you can drop this chip into a mid-range B500 motherboard to make for a great foundation for a gaming rig.

The best CPU for gaming

Intel Core i5 12600K retail packaging on grey

(Image credit: Intel)

The best CPU for gaming right now

Specifications
Cores: 6+4
Threads: 16
Base Clock: 3.7 GHz P-core, 2.8 GHz E-core
Boost Clock: 4.9 GHz P-core, 3.6 GHz E-core
Overclocking: Yes
L3 Cache: 20 MB
Processor Base Power: 125 W
PCIe 5.0 lanes: 20
Reasons to buy
+The best CPU for gaming in 2021+Faster than the Core i9 11900K+A more efficient Alder Lake chip
Reasons to avoid
-Still more power hungry than Ryzen-Doesn't play nice with some games

Intel's 12th Gen Alder Lake processors are a vital return to form for Intel. Its underlying hybrid design was seen as a gamble when it was first announced, with its combo of performance and efficient cores not obviously bringing much to the desktop experience. It's a gamble that has unquestionably paid off though, and the gaming performance offered by Intel's latest CPUs is nothing short of incredible. 

The Core i5 12600K is the standout processor for gamers because it not only offers great gaming performance across the board, but it does so at a price point that isn't going to reduce you to tears. It not only beats the similarly priced 5600X in pretty much every game, but it outperforms the $750 Ryzen 9 5950X in plenty of tests too. That it soundly beats the Core i9 11900K is just the icing on the cake. Not bad for a $320 mid-range chip.

As this is a new platform, you will need to pick up a new motherboard and probably new memory while you're at it—Alder Lake supports DDR5 as well as DDR4. That means the initial outlay may be a bit more than you planned, but the performance is worth it, and it isn't a power-draining beast either, so you won't need an outlandish cooler to get the most from it. Throw in future-looking support for PCIe 5.0 and we have a new gaming CPU king. Long live the king.

Read our full Intel Core i5 12600K review.

Intel Core i9 12900K packaging on grey background

(Image credit: Intel)

The best enthusiast CPU for those that need serious power

Specifications
Cores: 8+8
Threads: 24
Base Clock: 3.2 GHz P-core, 2.4 GHz E-core
Boost Clock: 5.2 GHz P-core, 3.9 GHz E-core
Overclocking: Yes
L3 Cache: 30 MB
Processor Base Power: 125 W
PCIe 5.0 lanes: 20
Reasons to buy
+Incredible single-threaded performance+Much improved multithreaded ability+Big leap for Intel's Core CPUs+The best desktop platform with DDR5 and PCIe 5.0 support
Reasons to avoid
-Some games don't play nicely with Alder Lake yet-High power consumption-Potentially high platform costs at launch

That the Core i5 12600K takes the top spot is hard to argue with—awesome performance at a good price will do that—but Intel's top chip hitting the second spot may be a little more surprising. The reasoning here is that the vast majority of gamers should get the Core i5, leaving this second spot covering those that need even more performance.

If you're building a high-end PC not just for high-end, 4K gaming, but for more serious pursuits like 3D rendering and video editing, then this is the chip for you. It's a powerhouse, no question about it, but one that really needs a system built around it to make it shine—you'll need a beefy PSU to get that absolute best from it, and a serious cooler wouldn't hurt either. The fact that there is plenty of overclocking headroom will allow you to push it to a whole new level as well.

When it comes to gaming performance, this is the fastest chip out there, by a considerable margin. The problem is, you only get a few more frames per second over our top recommendation and you have to pay royally for the privelige. And even when you're buying an 'ethusiast' class CPU, you still need to have an eye on overall value for money.

Read our full Intel Core i9 12900K review.

Ryzen 5 5600X processor in box on grey

(Image credit: AMD)

AMD's most affordable, and available, Zen 3 CPU today

Specifications
Cores: 6
Threads: 12
Base Clock: 3.7 GHz
Boost Clock: 4.6 GHz
Overclocking: Yes
L3 Cache: 32 MB
TDP: 65 W
PCIe 4.0 lanes: 20
Reasons to buy
+Awesome gaming performance+Strong value for money+Decent overclocking potential+Wraith Stealth included
Reasons to avoid
-$50 more than the 3600X-Lags behind Core i5 12600K

There's very little between any of the Ryzen 5000 chips in games, which means you'll hit the same frame rates with this chip as you will the more expensive Ryzen 9 5900X. Which is incredible when you think about it—top-tier performance from the most affordable Zen 3 CPU? We'll say yes to that every single day.

This does have half the core count of the 5900X, rolling in as it does with six cores and 12 threads. However, this is only an issue with those more serious workloads, which is more than sufficient for more reasonable stuff. You could argue that gaming could go beyond the 12-threads we have here, but there's no evidence that is the case so far, and that's even though the next-gen consoles are rocking 8-cores and 16-threads. 

The Ryzen 5 5600X also bucks the Ryzen 5000 family's trend by shipping with a Wraith Stealth cooler, so you don't have to drop extra money on a third-party chiller. You don't need to, but if you do, you'll hit higher clocks for longer and also open up the wonderful world of overclocking, which could make it worthwhile. This is a decent little overclocker, and while it won't affect gaming much, it'll help in other areas nicely.

Read our full AMD Ryzen 5 5600X review.

AMD Ryzen 9 5900X processor in box on grey

(Image credit: AMD)

AMD's best CPU for serious performance at a reasonable price

Specifications
Cores: 12
Threads: 24
Base Clock: 3.7 GHz
Boost Clock: 4.8 GHz
Overclocking: Yes
L3 Cache: 64 MB
TDP: 105 W
PCIe 4.0 lanes: 20
Reasons to buy
+Great gaming performance+Fast and efficient architecture+Affordable platform
Reasons to avoid
-Needs a proper 3rd-party cooler

AMD's Zen architecture has improved with each generation, but the fact that AMD managed to knock out a 19 percent IPC improvement with Zen 3 is nothing short of staggering. The key takeaway for us as gamers is that this improvement means AMD pushed Intel to improve, and improve it did with Alder Lake. 

Whatever resolution you are gaming at, this processor can handle it and keep your graphics card of choice fed with many juicy frames. The fact that this is a 12-core, 24-thread monster means that it can cope with anything else you throw at it as well. So if you have dreams of 3D rendering, video editing, or any other serious tasks, you'll know that you have the raw grunt to handle it. That it won't hold you back when gaming makes it even sweeter. 

The only real downside is the pricing and the dropping of the Wraith cooler—don't forget to factor in when you buy. You do get what you pay for, though, and this is a phenomenal chip for gaming and anything else you might want to do. 

If you're in the market for absolute power, you could step up to the Ryzen 9 5950X, which gives you 16 cores and 32 threads. However, it costs $250 more, and for gaming purposes and even most content creation chores, the 5900X is more than sufficient.

Read our full AMD Ryzen 9 5900X review.

Intel Core i5 11600K processor shot on a blue background from the front

(Image credit: Future)

Intel's best last-gen budget gaming CPU

Specifications
Cores: 6
Threads: 12
Base clock: 3.9 GHz
Turbo clock: 4.9 GHz (single core)
Overclocking: Yes, 4.9 GHz typical all-core
L3 cache: 12 MB
TDP: 125 W
PCIe 4.0 lanes: 20
Reasons to buy
+Undercuts 5600X on price+High-end gaming performance+Solid multithreading chops
Reasons to avoid
-iGPU is still quite weak

The Core i5 11600K is my favorite chip of the new Rocket Lake generation, which marks a nostalgic return to the old days of Intel CPU launches. The top processor was always a decent halo product, but the i5 was where the price/performance metrics really sold a new generation. Okay, with the 11900K being a frustrating chip, maybe it's not a total return to the old days, but the 11600K is still an outstanding six-core, 12-thread gaming processor.

It's also affordable too, with a price tag well underneath the Ryzen 5 5600X and performance figures that have it trading blows with AMD's otherwise excellent Zen 3 chip. The Cypress Cove 14nm backport may have made it relatively power-hungry, but that doesn't stop it from being a great gaming CPU and one that delivers a lot of processor silicon for not a lot of cash.

And PCIe 4.0 support on Intel 500-series motherboards. Though that is of dubious benefit at the moment as our testing has not so far gone well with supported PCIe 4.0 SSDs. That will hopefully change, but even so, this is still one of the best cheap gaming CPUs around.

Read our full Intel Core i5 11600K review.

Intel Core i5 10400F processor in box on grey

(Image credit: Intel)

6. Intel Core i5 10400F

A great budget-friendly option for Intel builds

Specifications
Cores: 6
Threads: 12
Base Clock: 2.9 GHz
Turbo Clock: 4.3 GHz
Overclocking: No
L3 Cache: 12 MB
TDP: 65 W
PCIe 3.0 lanes: 16
Reasons to buy
+Affordable mid-range performance+Cooler included in box
Reasons to avoid
-Doesn't support overclocking

The Core i5 10400F is a surprisingly exciting option. It's slightly faster than the previous-gen Core i5 9400, but that F-suffix means it ditches the Intel integrated graphics completely. That's not a problem for gamers unless you want to use QuickSync, although Nvidia's NVENC is arguably better anyway. Overall, it's an excellent budget-friendly choice that doesn't cost much more than a Core i3 part.

There are other compromises, like the locked multiplier—no overclocking here. But you can save money and grab an H470 motherboard. At least you get a cooler in the box, something we'd like to see as an option with every CPU. Most boards will happily run the 10400F at 3.9GHz, so don't worry about the low base clock.

While the i5 10400F may not be as fast as other CPUs in multithreaded tests, in our gaming suite, it's tied with AMD's last-gen 3900X. Future games may start to push beyond its 6-core capabilities, but probably not before you're ready for an upgrade. Right now, the i5 10400F is plenty fast and extremely affordable.

AMD Ryzen 7 5800X processor in box on grey

(Image credit: AMD)

A great mid-range chip for serious work and gaming

Specifications
Cores: 8
Threads: 16
Base Clock: 3.8 GHz
Boost Clock: 4.7 GHz
Overclocking: Yes
L3 Cache: 32 MB
TDP: 105 W
PCIe 4.0 lanes: 20
Reasons to buy
+The same great Zen 3 architecture+Awesome gaming performance+PCIe 4.0 support
Reasons to avoid
-Can fall behind Intel in gaming at this price

If the Intel Core i7 11600K didn't exist, this would be an incredible chip and would have been higher up the recommendations, no sweat. It's excellent for gaming, producing the exact figures that can be seen for the 5900X and 5600X. Still, it also appears to hit the sweet spot in configuration terms, with its eight cores and 16 threads surely seeing it right for the future, seeing as that is what the Xbox Series X and Playstation 5 are rocking. 

Unfortunately for AMD, Intel does exist, and the blue company's latest Core i7 trounces this in plenty of the more critical metrics but has this chip beat in one significant way—value for money. This can be faster in some tasks, and if that's what you've got an eye on, then buy this and don't give it a second thought. But if you're mainly looking at gaming, Intel does better and costs less. And that's hard for AMD to get away from. 

Competition aside, this is still Zen 3 strutting its stuff, and it does that impressively well. Throw in the support for PCIe 4.0 as well, and this is a forward-looking chip that will last you for years.

Read our full AMD Ryzen 5 5800X review.

AMD Ryzen 7 5700G in its packaging on a grey background

(Image credit: AMD)

The best chip with integrated graphics

Specifications
Cores: 8
Threads: 16
Base Clock: 3.8 GHz
Turbo Clock: 4.6 GHz
Overclocking: Yes, 5.0-5.3 GHz typical
L3 Cache: 16 MB
TDP: 65 W
PCIe 3.0 lanes: 16
Reasons to buy
+The best Integrated GPU+Excellent thermals and power consumption+Strong all round performance
Reasons to avoid
-Lacks PCIe 4.0-Needs fast memory to be at its best-Expensive for an APU

AMD's APUs are the best processors to drop into your rig if you're not going to use a discrete graphics card, but still want a modicum of gaming performance out of your system. And the AMD Ryzen 7 5700G is the best of the latest Zen 3 based chips to deliver that.

Unlike previous APU offerings from AMD, the Ryzen 7 5700G is far more of a jack-of-all-trades chip because we are talking about an eight-core Zen 3 CPU component with 16 threads and a powerful Vega-based GPU to back it up. That makes this a chip that's almost up there with the best of the Ryzen 5000-series CPUs in processing power, but with the graphical grunt to deliver 1080p gaming on low settings in some seriously demanding titles.

Board walk

(Image credit: MSI)

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In a GPU drought, that makes the 5700G a tantalizing APU as it will get your new gaming PC up and running. At the same time, you wait for discrete graphics cards to be available and without compromising too heavily on your system performance in the meantime.

The issue is that, as the 5700G is a monolithic design rather than chiplet, there are some performance differences compared to the standard Ryzen 7 5800X, a straight eight-core, 16-thread CPU without graphics. It also lacks PCIe 4.0 support to run the fastest SSDs and demands high-speed memory to make the most of its GPU power. But it's still an excellent all-around AMD processor and a handy option when graphics cards are still so rare.

Read our AMD Ryzen 7 5700G review.

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The best CPU for gaming FAQ

How do you test CPUs?

While gaming resolutions run from 720p to 4K, we largely test at 1080p. This will show the most significant difference in gaming performance you're likely to see and pushes the CPU into the spotlight instead of the GPU—an Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 Ti, in our case.

We've also used high-end G.Skill Trident Z and Flare X DDR4-3200 CL14 memory on all modern platforms, in either 2x 8GB or 4x 8GB configurations. Again, this is to eliminate any potential bottlenecks and let the CPUs reach their maximum performance. Liquid cooling was used on all CPUs, though for stock performance, we saw zero difference between that and the box coolers on those parts that included cooling.

The motherboards used in testing include the MSI MEG Z390 Godlike for Intel LGA1151, MSI MEG X570 Godlike, and Gigabyte X570 Aorus Master for third-gen Ryzen and MSI X470 Gaming M7 for first and second-gen Ryzen CPUs. AMD's APUs were tested on an MSI B350I Pro AC motherboard, as we needed something with video ports. For the HEDT platforms (not that we recommend those any longer for gaming purposes—or most other tasks), we used an Asus X299 Extreme Encore for Intel LGA2066, Asus ROG Zenith Extreme for TR4, and Zenith II Extreme for TRX40.

AMD CPU reviews:

Intel CPU reviews:

What motherboard is right for my CPU?

Alder Lake is the most recent platform to be released, and currently we only have a few Z690 motherboards, which appear to be on the pricey side. These are available supporting DDR5 (new) and DDR4, so pick that side of things carefully.

The latest AMD Ryzen 5000 CPUs still use the AM4 socket and are only compatible with X570, B550, and A520 motherboards (oh, and B450 and X470 motherboards). 

Whereas Intel's Comet Lake chips use the LGA 1200 socket, Rocket Lake has introduced new 500-series boards. Unless you're desperate for the still slightly awkward Intel PCIe 4.0 solution which the latest Intel chips offer, go with either a Z490 or cheaper B460 motherboard at this point for Intel. 

Is Intel or AMD better?

This is a rather loaded question. AMD has held the top spot for a long time, with its Zen architecture making for some incredible leaps in performance, but Intel has stolen the crown with its Alder Lake family, specifically the Core i5 12600K. The fact that it's a completely new kind of Hybrid CPU is almost by the by, it's just a really strongly performing chip. 

It's worth remembering that most games are GPU-limited, which means the graphics card is the limiting factor in terms of performance, and you would likely see the same essential frame rates with either CPU manufacturer when a discrete graphics card is used. This is especially true as you up the resolution, with 4K having little between the top chips.

Should I overclock my CPU?

The honest answer is: no. Overclocking your processor is not necessarily the risky move it once was, but equally, the benefits of doing so have drastically dropped in recent times. When we're talking about gaming performance, having a slightly higher clocked CPU can make a bit of a difference, but arguably your graphics card will be the part that limits the speed of your system.

There is also the point that overclocked CPUs create more heat, require more intensive and expensive cooling solutions, need those coolers to work harder, and are, therefore, often louder.

For us, overclocking your CPU to gain real-world performance benefits is not something we'd recommend most PC gamers do.

Jargon buster

Caching - A small segment of high-speed memory dedicated to storing and executing frequently used commands/instructions to speed up software execution. CPUs contain caches designated as Level 1, 2, and 3, with L1 being the fastest and smallest and L3 being the slowest and largest.

Core - Modern CPUs can contain anywhere from two to 70+ cores (in supercomputers), though CPUs housed in most consumer machines will generally carry between four and eight, with AMD's latest CPUs sporting up to 16 cores.

Clock speed - The speed at which a CPU can execute instructions, measured in hertz. A processor with a 3.7 GHz clock speed can process 3.7 billion instructions a second. Clock speed is one of the most critical factors for determining performance in games and workload functions.

Heat sink - A cooling solution for PCs that utilize fans or liquid cooling (active) or aluminum radiators (passive) that rely on convection to regulate a component's temperature.

Hyper-Threading (SMT) - Intel terminology for a tech that allows a processor to handle two sets of instructions 'threads' simultaneously. AMD and other CPU vendors call this SMT, Simultaneous Multi-Threading.

Socket type LGA (Land Grid Array), PGA (Pin Grid Array), or BGA (Ball Grid Array) - The way a CPU interfaces with the socket on a motherboard. LGA is used on Intel sockets with pins as part of the socket. AMD's AM4 solution, PGA, has the processors' pins, which fit into holes on the socket. AMD's Threadripper CPUs also use LGA sockets. A BGA socket is when the processor is permanently soldered to the motherboard, typically on a laptop.

TDP - Thermal design power, the maximum amount of heat a system or chip can produce that the attendant cooling system is designed to deal with under workload. This term can apply to PCs as a whole, GPUs, CPUs, or nearly any other performance component that generates heat and is in large part an indicator of how much power a part draws.

Thread - A thread refers to a series of CPU instructions for a specific program. Older CPUs and SMT disabled run one thread per core, but most modern AMD and Intel CPUs can simultaneously run two threads, sharing some resources (e.g., cache). 

Turbo Boost - Intel technology that allows processors to run at higher clock speeds under demanding loads. AMD also supports turbo or boost clocks, and we use the terms interchangeably regardless of CPU vendor.

Alan Dexter

Alan has been writing about PC tech since before 3D graphics cards existed, and still vividly recalls having to fight with MS-DOS just to get games to load. He fondly remembers the killer combo of a Matrox Millenium and 3dfx Voodoo, and seeing Lara Croft in 3D for the first time. He's very glad hardware has advanced as much as it has though, and is particularly happy when putting the latest M.2 NVMe SSDs, AMD processors, and laptops through their paces. He has a long-lasting Magic: The Gathering obsession but limits this to MTG Arena these days.