Putting together a computer allows you to pick precisely which screen, system, and other components you want. Making the final result unique to your needs and desires is crucial, and selecting the best processor is an essential step in your efforts.
Some processors boast high speeds or great power, while others impress us with value based on what they deliver. AMD Ryzen processors do all of the above, so they dominate our list as a result. If you’re building a PC for the first time, don’t forget to read through our guide on how to build a computer.
The best processors in 2020 at a glance
- The best budget processor: AMD Ryzen 5 2600
- The best entry-level processor: AMD Ryzen 5 3600
- The best enthusiast processor: AMD Ryzen 7 3700X
- The best high-end processor: AMD Ryzen 9 3900X
- The most powerful processor: AMD Threadripper 3990X
The best budget processor: AMD Ryzen 5 2600
AMD might have a new range of third-generation Ryzen processors which are stealing the limelight, but at the budget end of the CPU spectrum, you can now find some of its best bang-f0r-your-buck chips from the last generation. The Ryzen 5 2600 is arguably the best of that bunch. It has six-cores and 12 threads, and though it doesn’t automatically boost above 4GHz, with a little tweaking, overclocks in excess of 4.1GHz are easily possible on air cooling.
If your budget has you stuck with spending around $100 on a CPU, there are alternatives worth considering.
is around that price and enjoys onboard Vega graphics for some entry-level gaming ability. It only has four cores and four threads, making it a less capable CPU than the Ryzen 5 2600, but it’s a great little chip at a very affordable price.
Intel has some alternatives at a similar cost, like the tenth-generation Core i5-10400F featuring the same core and thread count. It has a slightly lower base speed but a higher single-core boost for nearly the same cost. However, Intel’s chip does not include onboard graphics — that’s included in the Core i5-10400 for roughly $25 more.
The best entry-level processor: AMD Ryzen 5 3600
The successor to our favorite budget CPU, the Ryzen 5 3600 is an astounding achievement for AMD. It enjoys the same Zen 2 architecture improvements as the rest of the Ryzen 3000 range, and the same six cores and 12 threads as its more expensive sibling, the 3600X. Yet while its clock speed falls behind its new-generation brethren, AMD’s automated overclocking gets it very close in performance to its bigger brothers at a much-reduced cost. But it does it all for under $200.
It’s comparable to Intel’s more-expensive 9600K (and 10600K) in gaming and is able to punch above its weight in productivity workloads thanks to its 12 threads. This is a CPU that delivers the kind of performance that just a few years ago would have been the reserve of the best of the best. When you factor in the affordable upgrade path presented by AMD’s multi-generational socket AM4 motherboards, the 3600 is a great starting point for a new build, no matter what you plan to do with it.
If you’re sold on an Intel chip at a similar price, the Core i5-10600 has an identical core and thread count. However, its base speed is slightly lower while its single-core boost hits 4.8GHz. This chip costs around $50 more than AMD’s CPU.
The best processor for enthusiasts: AMD Ryzen 7 3700X
If you were just looking for a gaming CPU, we’d probably recommend the Ryzen 5 3600. However, if you want to do anything else on your PC (or in addition), then the Ryzen 7 3700X is the chip for you. With eight cores and 16 threads, it decimates the Intel competition in multithreaded workloads, even taking the fight to top-tier chips like Intel’s Core i9-9900K.
Although the 3700X doesn’t have as many cores nor hit quite the same clock speeds as its bigger brothers in the 3000-series, it’s arguably the best all-rounder. With its eight-core configuration, it is more future-proof than the more common six-core chips of today.
An Intel alternative at this price point would be the new Core i7-10700F packing the same core and thread count. Its base speed is lower at 2.9GHz while its single-core boost reaches up to 4.8GHz. Costing just over $20 more, Intel’s chip does not include onboard graphics.
The best high-end processor: AMD Ryzen 9 3900X
The crown jewel in AMD’s Ryzen 3000 series is the Ryzen 9 3900X. While the 3950X is more impressive, it’s 50% more expensive, making it more Threadripper-lite than a true mainstream CPU. With 12 cores, 24 threads, and a boost clock that creeps close to 4.6GHz at times, the 3900X is an astoundingly powerful CPU considering its price. In gaming, only the Intel Core i9-9900K can keep up, but it’s a close race. Our review suggested the AMD chip should pull ahead in many scenarios.
It’s in productivity workloads like Photoshop, video transcoding, and video editing that the AMD Ryzen 3900X really shines. With so many threads to bring to bear, it is head and shoulders above the nearest competition, and it does so at a price that’s hotly competitive.
If you’re a pure gamer and do nothing else, Intel’s Core i9-9900K is still the better chip. The more recent Core i9-10900K, introduced in April 2020, is a good candidate too if you’re opting for a newer CPU at an affordable price.
Still, for sheer all-round performance, the 3900X is the best CPU in the world — especially considering its recent price reductions.
The most powerful processor: AMD Threadripper 3990X
If AMD changed the conversation with its mainstream Ryzen 3000-series processors, it flipped the script with Threadripper 3000. Even among that ridiculously powerful generation of high-end CPUs, the Threadripper 3990X stands alone. It is a genuinely ludicrous and unnecessary CPU. But if you can take advantage of its 64 cores and 128 threads, there’s no other CPU out there quite like it, outside of the server space.
First, this CPU has more cores and threads than most applications will know how to use. But its single-threaded performance is simply fantastic. It can hit up to 4.3GHz on just one core, which means it will work well in limited thread tasks like gaming. Of course, that would be complete overkill. But that means that even when you can’t use all of its cores, you’re still getting an unmatched performance.
The price is high at almost $4,000, making it one of the pricier options on our list. Still, it’s tens of thousands of dollars less than Intel’s 50+ core offerings. If you don’t need as many cores, you can always get the 32-core Threadripper 3970X for half the price (and still beat out less competitive processors).
Though some processor options are a bit overkill, there’s nothing like custom-building a system to ensure you get what you need. Technology isn’t going away so you will be doing yourself a favor to build your own setup. Not only will you develop a useful skill that is in demand, but your system will be easier to maintain and upgrade in the future. A DIY build allows you to put together a superior system on a fraction of the budget that the same specs would cost you prebuilt.
Whether you’re on a budget or looking for something more powerful, we’ve got excellent recommendations to fit your specs. As your needs change, you can always revisit your build and adjust it to suit. Price, compatibility and user need all drive the demand for a wide range of processors – deciding which one you need takes a little research; hopefully, our list helps with that.