How to choose the right CPU for you
Deciding on a CPU should be one of the first things you do when building a PC.
If you’re wanting to build a new PC right now, one of the first choices to make is which CPU to put in it. Your CPU will be a factor when choosing a motherboard, your RAM, and possibly your choice of storage and graphics card.
As always, you have to decide between the current, on-the-market chips, or the upcoming models. That’s sometimes a balancing act, although we will say that if you can wait, you probably should.
If you can’t wait that long, always choose the latest generation so you don’t get stuck with a dead-end system that won’t be able to be upgraded if a new technology comes along.
A few things to keep in mind:
- There is no clear winner or loser between Intel or AMD, as long as you choose parts from the recent generation (Ryzen 3000-series or Intel 9th gen and above)
- Clock speed is more important than core count
- Get the latest gen
- Budget for the whole system
- If you don’t want to overclock, don’t pay the price premium for chips that can
The age-old question: AMD or Intel?
If you go wading into any internet discussion board, you’ll find vehement supporters of both Intel and AMD that will try to tell you that the other side is terrible and their brand is best. Heck, a few years ago, you’d only find people suggesting Intel as the way to go.
That all changed in 2017 when AMD released Ryzen, it’s newest and greatest architecture. All of a sudden, there was competition again between the two chipmakers, and that’s a good thing for anyone who wants to buy a CPU. AMD’s latest 3000-series chips even beat Intel’s latest in heavily threaded applications and big-name security issues for Intel meant the mitigations brought slower performance.
Intel does still hold a slight lead at 1080P when gaming, but that shouldn’t stop you from choosing whichever of the two brands you feel is better for your budget.
What’s your use case?
It’s always tempting to buy the most expensive CPU on the market, but really you want a fairly balanced mix of hardware inside your computer. Save some room from your budget for the rest of the PC and figure out your CPU cost based on your task load.
- Basic tasks: $50-$100 range: If you just want a PC that can browse the web, or do some word processing, look at the lower end of the market with a processor with two or four cores. The Ryzen 3 range, like the newly released 3300X, the 3200G with integrated graphics, or the Intel Celeron range are all good starting options
- Gaming: $150-$250 range: For gaming, you’ll want at least four cores, from a mid-range processor. The AMD Ryzen 3600X is a good choice, so is the Intel Core i5 range. Sure, you could go all-out with the Intel i9-10900K, but you’ll be better off spending the extra few hundred on a better graphics card
- Creative media work or overclocking: $250-$350 range: If you need more power for video editing or other tasks, look for a Core i7, or Ryzen 7 chip
- Workstation muscle: $400+: If you need all the power you can get, look no further than the Intel Core X-series, or AMD’s Threadripper. Both will give you all the cores and threads you could want to hasten up render times, chop up 4K video, or deal with humongous databases. You could also go for a Ryzen 9, and save a few bucks, but you might want the higher PCI-E lane count of the Threadripper
Which generation should you get?
Pretty much every year, both AMD and Intel bring out new generations of processors. Sometimes it’s a big change, like when AMD moved to the Ryzen architecture from the prior Bulldozer one, but generally speaking, they’re incremental improvements to the prior chips.
Intel just came out with its 10th generational Core chips, like the flagship i9-10900K, and the i7-10700K. AMD’s latest chips are the 3000-series from the Ryzen line, like the AMD Ryzen 3900X and Ryzen 3600X.
Note that the current prosumer, or HEDT chips, often lag behind the mainstream architecture. Intel’s latest Core X chips are still based on 7th gen tech, and AMD’s Threadripper is on second-generational Ryzen cores.
A word to the wise here about older processors. While they might look good value, particularly if you get them at steep discounts, don’t. You won’t save much overall, you’ll have trouble finding motherboards, RAM, and your bargain will show its age very quickly once games start coming out.
A short explainer on model names
Whichever CPU manufacturer you choose, they now break their stack of mainstream processors into four segments. Good, Better, Best, Ultimate. Those translate to Core i3/Ryzen 3, Core i5/Ryzen 5, Core i7/Ryzen 7, and now Core i9/Ryzen 9. The only weird crossover is that Intel’s HEDT chips also use the i9 name, but use the XE suffix to show they’re not the mainstream type.
Then there’s the budget end of the market. Intel has its Celeron and Pentium chips, and AMD has its Athlon line. High-end, the prosumer stack is Threadripper from AMD, and Intel’s Core X series, along with the Xeon W.
The rest of the model number after the 3, 5, 7, or 9 is fairly straightforward. The first digit is the generation that it’s from, like Intel’s i9-9900K is from the 9th generation, and the AMD Ryzen 5 3600X is from the third generation of Ryzen chips.
The rest of the numbers mark the different models, with larger numbers generally being better, and the K at the end of an Intel product name means it can be overclocked. On AMD Ryzen, the X means it has a slightly higher clock speed than the non-X version.
To overclock or not?
It used to be that in order to really push your hardware and get the most out of it, you had to learn how to overclock it. That’s less of a concern nowadays, with auto-overclocking at the chip level at an advanced state that you can really just plug in and forget about it.
The only real use case for overclocking on modern chips is when you’re trying to beat records, usually done under liquid nitrogen and sub-zero temperatures. If you still want to overclock on your daily chip, that’s fine, just know you’ll spend more if you are buying Intel, as you’ll need a “K-series” processor. You’ll also want to add better cooling, and a more feature-packed motherboard to the build.
Once you start adding the additional costs up, it’s often cheaper to just buy a better CPU with higher clock speed, to begin with. And yes, you can damage your hardware by overclocking, or maybe you’ll get a lemon that won’t overclock well, no matter what you try.
Which specifications do I actually need to worry about?
CPU specification sheets are confusing, even to the techies that read them every day. Here’s what you need to pay attention to:
- Clock speeds: This is the speed your CPU operates at, measured in gigahertz (GHz). Higher numbers mean a faster chip, which should mean a faster PC. It gets confusing on modern chips as they both boost or downclock depending on the task or temperature, so you’ll probably see multiple values for this such as base (minimum), turbo (maximum), and lately, all-core boost
- Cores: This is the number of processing units inside the processor. Most modern CPUs have between two and 32 cores, with most mainstream processors having between four and eight. Each core can handle its own tasks, and you’ll want at least four unless you’re on a tight budget
- Threads: This is the maximum number of processes that a chip can handle at once. In the old days, this number was the same as the number of physical cores, but thanks to a trick called multi-threading, cores can now essentially double up their output. Intel calls this Hyper-Threading, and AMD calls it SMT (Simultaneous Multithreading) but it’s essentially the same thing. Just like adding more cores, adding more threads means better multi-tasking and better performance on apps such as transcoders or video-editors that are built to take advantage of those extra threads
- TDP: Ah, the elephant in the room. TDP seems simple, as it’s the Thermal Design Profile/Power for the chip. Basically it’s the maximum amount of heat your chip will create at stock speeds. It’s measured in different ways by both chip manufacturers though, so you’ll often see reviews mentioning that the processor went above this value under load. Use this figure to match up the rating of whatever cooler you buy for your CPU, and you shouldn’t have overheating issues
- Cache: This is a small amount of on-chip memory that basically speeds up how quickly your cores are fed data to munch on. Don’t worry too much about the values quoted, as it’s hard to translate that to any real-world use case
- IPC: You might see this value mentioned a lot on product reviews. IPC stands for Instructions Per Clock Cycle, and it’s a good way to measure how different generations of computer processors have improved over time. It’s very dependent on the CPU’s architecture, so newer models will invariably have higher numbers than older ones
Which of these numbers informs your buying choice depends on your use case. Higher clocks are beneficial to audio editing, gaming, anything Adobe makes, and program load times. Higher core counts are beneficial to almost anything, from editing to multitasking. The main bulk of computer users fall right in the middle, so a chip with clock speeds between 3-4 GHz with four to eight cores should be plenty.
Which motherboard socket do I need?
The main thing you need to know here is that different processors need a socket type that was created to work with them. If you want to upgrade your existing setup, you have to look for a CPU that matches your motherboard’s socket. If you’re starting fresh, you just need to make sure that the motherboard you buy is compatible with your new chip.
If you’re buying an AMD chip from the current Ryzen or Athlon lines, the main thing to note is that all AMD motherboards currently use the same socket – AM4. That may change soon, as AMD only promised to support that socket until 2020, and well… we’re in 2020. That support means that you should be able to put a first-, second- or third-generation Ryzen chip into a first-, second-, or third-generation motherboard, and have it work. You might need to update the BIOS of the motherboard first, but it should work.
Intel has a history of requiring a new motherboard change with every generational change of their CPUs, frustrating enthusiasts who have to replace multiple components yearly. That said, Intel has committed to supporting the 11th generation of its Core chips on the just-released Z490 motherboard range so maybe AMD’s current position in market share has forced Intel to be more forward-thinking.
The current Socket and Chipsets list:
- AMD mainstream – AM4: B350, X370, B450, X470, B550 (avail. June 12), X570
- Intel mainstream 9th Gen – LGA 1151: B360, B365, H310, H370, Q370, Z370, Z390
- Intel mainstream 10th Gen – LGA 1200: Z490
- AMD HEDT – TR4: X399
- Intel HEDT – LGA 2066: X299
The skinny when it comes to deciding on a CPU
When you’re on the market for a new CPU, there is one question that is more important than anything else. That is, what am I going to do with this computer? Just like it’s no point buying the most expensive CPU for a web-browsing computer for grandma, there’s also no point skimping on the CPU for a gaming PC.
Then it’s time to figure out how much of your budget is going to be used on the CPU. PCPartPicker is a great resource for seeing how much of your budget will be left after purchasing all the other necessary components, and it’s got a growing section of pre-picked PC builds for various budgets and use cases.
Just remember that, while your CPU is the brain of your computer, it’s all about balance. You wouldn’t put a fast chip with a weak graphics card, and you wouldn’t pair slow, mechanical hard drives as your main storage either. As always, read multiple objective reviews before you buy them.
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