What’s the best CPU for gaming? AMD and Intel picks for 2021

Buying a processor for a gaming rig isn’t as hard as it used to be. Now that Ryzen 5000-series and Intel’s 11th-gen Core CPUs come with more performance and cores than ever before, it’s hard to buy a stinker these days—especially because most games favor graphics firepower over CPU oomph. All that said, there are specific chips that stand out from the horde as the best gaming CPUs due to their price, performance, or nifty extras.

Whether you’re on a budget or willing to pay for sheer face-melting speed, these are the best CPUs for gaming PCs that you can buy.

Editor’s note: We constantly updated this article as necessary. The latest iteration adds various tidbits to the news section below.

Latest gaming CPU news

  • It’s not related to desktop gaming, but Intel just released its hotly anticipated 11th-gen Core “Tiger Lake H” processors for gaming and production laptops, and they deliver massive improvements over their 10th-gen predecessors. Check out our Core i7-11800H and Core i9-11980HK performance reviews for all the nitty-gritty details on how these chips stack up against AMD’s awesome Ryzen mobile processors.
  • Back in desktop land, CPUs are seeing some of the same shortages that have been plaguing graphics cards in recent months, leading to low availability and higher prices of many AMD Ryzen processors in particular—especially at the high end. Fortunately, supply is becoming more available for the Ryzen 5 5600X and Ryzen 7 5800X, and there’s hope on the horizon for the Ryzen 9 5900X too.
  • After a two-year drought, modern versions of AMD’s ultra-popular Ryzen APUs are on the horizon. The Ryzen 5000G series wields significantly faster Radeon graphics and up to twice as many Ryzen cores than before, but they’ll come to prebuilt systems first before launching in DIY retail form later this year. Our guide to everything you need to know about Ryzen 5000 can help you wrap your head around AMD’s APUs and CPUs alike.
  • Intel’s latest chips are here now, and while the 11th-gen “Rocket Lake” Core processors are still built on the ancient 14nm manufacturing process, the architecture itself is built from the company’s newer 10nm “Ice Lake” cores. It’s an interesting, perhaps desperate idea that yielded mixed results, as you can see in our Core i9-11900K review and suggestions below.
  • The performance-boosting PCIe Resizable BAR feature continues to become more widely available after debuting in the form of AMD’s Smart Access Memory. AMD introduced the feature with Ryzen 5000, but it has since spread to Intel’s newer Rocket Lake chips. BIOS updates are adding it to older processors and motherboards from both chipmakers, though you shouldn’t expect the feature (or any Ryzen 5000 support) to extend back to AMD’s older x370 motherboards.

The best gaming CPU for most people

Intel Core i5-11600K ($270 on Amazon)

Midrange CPUs are the sweet spot for PC gamers. In fact, if you don’t need the additional cores of pricier CPU options, this class of chip offers essentially the same gaming experience of processors that cost hundreds more. The bigger question is: Intel or AMD? The answer is complicated.

intel core i5 Intel

After a decade of Intel dominance, AMD came back with a vengeance in recent years. Its Ryzen 5 2600 and 3600 offerings conquered mainstream gaming. The company’s newer 6-core Ryzen 5 5600X delivers killer gaming speed for the class and solid productivity results. However, Intel’s solid Core i5-11600K earns our nod for two simple reasons: price and availability.

AMD raised prices by $50 over previous generations for the Ryzen 5 5600X thanks to its newfound gaming supremacy, then got hit by the same semiconductor shortages and logistics woes plaguing the GPU industry. Supply of the chip has been hit and miss since its November launch, though it’s finally starting to loosen up. When you can find it at retailers, it’s usually going for $350 (or more!) rather than its $300 MSRP.

Enter Intel’s $270 Core i5-11600K. Launched in late March, it offers the same 6 cores and 12 threads as the Ryzen 5 5600X and top-notch gaming performance, per reviews from TechPowerUp, Tom’s Hardware, and PC Gamer. It doesn’t win every battle—the Ryzen chip comes out slightly ahead on average in TechSpot’s gaming tests—and Intel’s aging 14nm process makes the 11600K less power-efficient than AMD’s 7nm 5600X. Still, the chips offer effectively similar experiences, especially at the higher visual settings and resolutions that most PC gamers play at. They’re both excellent.

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