The Best CPUs 2020
The world of CPUs has been notoriously busy the past few years and we’ve been keeping this buying guide up to date with the latest releases as a complement to our day-one reviews and follow up benchmark comparisons. Since our last update that came as recently as September, new CPUs have hit the market from both sides, though AMD still dominates our recommendations. Most notably, AMD’s 3rd generation Ryzen and Intel Cascade Lake-X parts. So let’s get into it.
After all the extensive testing you are familiar with, TechSpot’s CPU buying guide means to answer that question for you in a few easy recommendations you can trust and follow. Of note, we’ve also put together lists for picking Intel and AMD motherboards, including AMD X570, B450 and Intel Z390 platforms.
Best All-Round Value CPU
For just $186, the Ryzen 5 3600 is a direct upgrade over the 2600, our previous best all-around, bang-for-your-buck CPU. With 6 cores, 12 threads, and the included Wraith Stealth cooler, this CPU will handle just about any task you can throw at it with ease; whether you use it for gaming or productivity.
Clock for clock, the Zen 2 architecture brings noticeable improvements at the same price which is great. For those looking to upgrade, if two years ago you bought an affordable B350 motherboard and say a Ryzen 5 1600, you now have the option of slotting in the R5 3600 for up to a 35% performance boost in games and at least a 45% boost in applications, though as we saw in WinRAR it can be over a 100%. This is why we’ve been big proponents of AMD’s AM4 platform.
In an effort to remain competitive Intel has dropped the Core i5-9400F down to $160 and it’s a pretty compelling part at that price. The Core i5-9400F and the Core i5-9600K (both 6 core and 6 thread chips) are the closest blue team competitors, but with twice as many threads and superior single core performance, the R5 3600 offers a lot more bang for your buck.
In head to head benchmark comparisons, against the i5-9400F, the Ryzen 5 3600 destroys it in core-heavy games and applications. It currently costs $25 more, but it was often 50% faster in applications and provided roughly 30% gains in modern games. Then the i5-9600K trades blows on gaming titles, but it got smoked in every single application benchmark we ran in our review.
We saw the Ryzen 5 3600X going for just $15 more during Black Friday sales in the US. If the difference is that small, we’d probably grab it for the better cooler. Granted you could pocket that money and put it towards buying a $30 Cooler Master Hyper 212 Evo, but we think for the small investment the 3600X is probably worth it at that price. In other regions where the X is costs more, simply for the vanilla 3600.
Also, our previous recommendation the Ryzen 5 2600 remains a great choice for anyone who wants to spend as little as $120. If your budget is tight then the 2600 is still a very capable part.
Best Gaming CPU
The Core i9-9900K still offers the highest level of performance for gaming builds. There are chips that come very close to its performance, and others that offer far better value, but for no non-sense peak gaming performance, the power hungry 9900K is as good as it gets.
Builders should note Intel recently released the limited edition Core i9-9900KS which is very similar and speedy, though it’s been largely out of stock. Also Intel’s own Core i7-8700K — which is much cheaper at $380 — comes close, often testing within a few percentage points of its pricier cousin. It’s also remarkably well behaved for a CPU running at over 4GHz by default. Things get even more complicated when you consider motherboard compatibility (the 9900K demands a high-end board) relative thermals, power consumption, and overclockability. Dollar-for-dollar, the 8700k is arguably the better choice and that’s why you’ll often find us recommending it instead.
Extreme PC builders should also take a look at the new Ryzen 9 3950X. It’s a faster CPU for work and very fast for gaming though it costs quite a bit more at $750 and it’s also out of stock for now.
Also worth giving a nod to the Ryzen 3700X. The chip will set you back about $310, while still offering solid gaming performance. Additionally, if you use your PC for any productivity undertakings, you’ll find that the 3700X surpasses the 8700K and closes the gap on the 9900K.
However, if all you care about is pure gaming chops and nothing else, the 9900K is the clear-cut option, and should set you up nicely for some CPU-intensive upcoming games like Cyberpunk 2077.
Best Extreme Desktop CPU
Intel has been unable to claim our best extreme desktop CPU pick since June 2017 when we chose the 10-core Core i9-7900X. A few months later the first-gen Threadripper parts would ship and AMD took over ever since.
Third-gen Threadripper parts are beastly creatures and if you’re after the most extreme desktop CPU then it’s got to be the 32-core monster that is the 3970X. Unlike previous TR releases, we see no weaknesses with excellent single core performance, and when you’ve got 24 or 32 of them, that results in mind-blowing multi-core performance. It’s crazy to think just two years ago Intel dominated this category and they would have done so for the 10 years before that as well.
In our opinion, with third-gen Threadripper AMD is carving a new category beyond what is offered by 2nd-gen and Intel’s Cascade Lake-X which are more your traditional HEDT parts. An even more extreme desktop CPU is also coming in 2020, the Threadripper 3990X a 64-core, 128-thread processor with 288 MB of cache.
Intel had one last go in 2019 with Cascade Lake-X and it’s somewhat of flop, so Intel will need to sort their 10nm process before they can hope to become competitive again in the HEDT segment, a segment that they basically built.
Best Value for Productivity
Picking the best value productivity CPU has become quite the challenge due to the numerous choices AMD has put forth, all 8-core/16-threads or better.
The Ryzen 7 2700X is hard to beat when it comes to productivity workloads for the price. It can be had for $230 right now and that makes paying almost $100 more for the 3700X a little tricky. For productivity the 3700X is 15 to 20% faster, so many won’t want to pay ~35% more for the bump.
Therefore, if you want the best value for work get the 2700X, assuming you can get it for a hefty discount when compared to the 3700X. But if 2nd-gen Ryzen pricing isn’t great in your region, then get yourself the excellent 3700X.
If you need a bit more oomph, there’s the Ryzen 9 3900X and if you need all you can get without going extreme, get the 3950X, if you can find one in stock. You’re paying a 7% premium per core with the 3900X over the 3700X, but you’re also getting 4 more of them. The 3950X comes in at a 13% premium per core, though the biggest issue there is finding one is stock.
Best Budget CPU
For anyone who wants to spend as little as possible while still retaining acceptable (honestly, it’s great) gaming and productivity performance, the six-core Ryzen 5 2600 is a no-brainer. It’s only $120, and though it’s 28 percent slower in Cinebench R20 than its Ryzen 5 3600 successor, it’s also cheaper. Looking at gaming performance, the margin is smaller, with the 3600 claiming only a ~12 percent average FPS advantage over its predecessor.
If you require integrated graphics for an inexpensive build, you can go as low as the $80 Ryzen 3 2200G, though we feel matching the price of the R5 2600, the Ryzen 5 2400G is the way to go for most, thanks to the inclusion of SMT for 8 threads, which makes a massive difference and is well worth the extra $40.
The newer Ryzen 5 3400G is also of consideration at $140. When compared to the 2400G, it’s a soldered part, supports PBO and comes with the upgraded Wraith Spire 95 W cooler. For a small ~$10 premium we’d grab the 3400G everytime, but for $20 or more it becomes a tougher choice.
In case you’re wondering, Intel has nothing to offer here. The Core i3-9100 comes in at $150 and gets trounced by the Ryzen 5 3400G. If you don’t need an iGPU the 9100F for $90 isn’t a bad deal, but you’ll be buying into a dead platform which is a bit of a downer. The box cooler also sucks.
Masthead credit: Computer chip on silicon wafer by Morozov Anatoly