Best Processor (CPU) for Your Custom PC Windows Central 2021
The central processing unit (CPU), usually called the processor, is the main brain of your computer. When looking for a new CPU, it's easy to automatically go for the more expensive options expecting a return in performance, and you'd be correct in that assumption. However, the question is whether or not you need that kind of power and whether or not you really need to pay that much. For a lot of people, the AMD Ryzen 7 3700X should be an ideal mix of performance and price. This CPU from AMD's third-generation lineup has eight cores for stellar multitasking power, whether you're working with productivity tasks, specialized design or editing work, or serious gaming. If it's not quite what you're looking for, there are plenty of other CPU options that we've rounded up here.
- Best Overall: AMD Ryzen 7 3700X
- Performance Runner-Up: AMD Ryzen 9 3900X
- Great For Productivity: Intel Core i5-10400
- Best Budget: AMD Ryzen 3 3200G
- Best Intel: Intel Core i9-9900K
- Best AMD: AMD Ryzen Threadripper 3960X
Best Overall: AMD Ryzen 7 3700X
AMD's Ryzen 7 3700X is part of the Zen 2 microarchitecture and uses a 7nm process, helping to propel this series ahead of similar Intel chips. This CPU utilizes eight cores and 16 threads for strong multitasking performance, and its base clock of 3.6GHz can be boosted up to 4.4GHz when needed. And thanks to just a 65W thermal design point (TDP), the CPU is going to suck up less power while delivering high-end performance.
This CPU is unlocked and ready for overclocking, though you might want to invest in something other than the stock Wraith Prism cooler that is included with the CPU. It will do fine for most work, but if you're pushing the CPU higher than intended, more cooling is always preferred. Note that this CPU does not include integrated graphics, so you will need to add a dedicated GPU to your PC build.
Pairing the Ryzen 7 3700X with an X570 or B550 chipset motherboard will land you PCIe 4.0 and Wi-Fi 6 support, though if you're upgrading a custom PC with X470 or B450 motherboard, rest assured it will be compatible. If you're in search of a well-rounded, high-performance CPU for just about any task and don't want to overspend, the Ryzen 7 3700X should prove to be a wise investment for most people.
- Eight cores, 16 threads
- Unreal price for performance
- Wraith Prism cooler included
- Good for a wide variety of tasks
- Supports PCIe 4.0
- Might be overkill for general productivity work
- No integrated graphics
Performance Runner-Up: AMD Ryzen 9 3900X
Released alongside our top overall pick, the AMD Ryzen 9 3900X is a better pick if you're in search of the performance to handle specialized design and development work or serious gaming. It relies on the same Zen 2 microarchitecture and 7nm process as the Ryzen 7 3700X, and it will work with motherboards using the B450, B550, X470, and X570 chipsets. Opting for the B550 or X570 board will land you PCIe 4.0 and Wi-Fi 6 support.
This CPU has a whopping 12 cores and 24 threads, with a base clock of 3.8GHz and boost clock up to 4.6GHz. All this, yet it runs at a 105W TDP. If that's not enough, the CPU is unlocked for overclocking, though you might want to invest in something a bit better than the included Wraith Prism for cooling purposes.
Paired with a potent dedicated graphics card (GPU), this CPU is going to easily handle modern AAA games at a high, smooth framerate. Like the Ryzen 7 3700X, this CPU does not include integrated graphics. And thanks to all those cores, it's also an excellent pick for anyone editing video or working with design and development software.
- 12 cores and 24 threads
- Great price to performance ratio
- Included cooler
- PCIe 4.0 and Wi-FI 6 support
- Likely overkill for most people
- No integrated graphics
Great For Productivity: Intel Core i5-10400
Intel has been wounded by AMD's third-generation Ryzen desktop CPUs, but that doesn't mean its "Comet Lake" line is not still a viable option for anyone sticking with Team Blue. If you're in search of a solid mid-range CPU for a home PC, the Intel Core i5-10400 should be a solid choice. It has six cores, 12 threads, and a base clock of 2.90GHz that can max out at 4.30GHz for short bursts. A 14nm process and 65W TDP round out the specs.
The Core i5-10400 includes integrated UHD Graphics 630 so you can put it in a PC without a dedicated GPU, though pairing it with a dedicated GPU would make for an excellent mid-range gaming PC. As for standard productivity work like word processing, web browsing, and even some light photo editing, this CPU will stand up well.
This chip is locked, so there's no chance for overclocking, but that's OK for most people. The stock cooler that is included with the CPU will also be enough to handle thermals. If you're interested in this CPU, it will need to be paired with an Intel 400-series chipset motherboard using the LGA 1200 socket.
- Six cores and 12 threads
- Includes integrated graphics
- Good for mid-range gaming and productivity
- Includes stock cooler
- Not compatible with older motherboards
- Not unlocked for overclocking
Best Budget: AMD Ryzen 3 3200G
Building a high-end, expensive custom PC is always going to be the most fun, but unfortunately, it's not really something that most of us can afford to accomplish. And besides, not everyone needs a 12-core behemoth that can run modern AAA games at 200 frames-per-second (FPS). If you just need a solid budget PC around the house for casual use and a bit of light gaming, the AMD Ryzen 3 3200G should be a good pick.
Considering the low cost, you're getting a lot of performance for the price. The Ryzen 3 3200G is a part of AMD's second-gen desktop lineup using the Zen+ microarchitecture and 12nm process. It has four cores, four threads, and a base clock of 3.6GHz that can be boosted up to 4.0GHz, running at a 65W TDP. It's not as impressive as the third-gen Zen 2 AMD chips, but it's still a great little CPU that will shine in a budget build.
This CPU includes integrated Radeon Vega 8 graphics, allowing you to forego adding a dedicated GPU to the custom PC. It's not going to match up to the performance from most dedicated GPUs, but it's still going to make a splash for light gaming. It'll also work well for light productivity in your home or small office. Pair this CPU up with a motherboard using the AM4 socket.
- Truly attractive price
- Four cores
- Integrated Vega 8 graphics
- Included Wraith Stealth cooler
- No multithreading
- Not ideal for intensive tasks
Best Intel: Intel Core i9-9900K
While the 10th Gen Intel Core i9-10900K has been released and is a beast of a CPU, it's almost impossible to find at the suggested retail price. You might be able to get your hands on one, but you can expect to pay close to double the money. That will no doubt change again at some point, but for now, the 9th Gen Intel Core i9-9900K remains an attractive option for anyone who wants high-end Intel performance.
This eight-core, 16-thread CPU has a base clock of 3.60GHz and a turbo clock up to 5.0GHz. It employs a 95W TDP for those cores, and it uses a 14nm process. Integrated Intel UHD Graphics 630 are included here, though this is a CPU that's best paired up with a high-end dedicated GPU to prevent any bottlenecks in the system. This is a CPU meant for top-tier gaming or specialized design performance, and it has a cost to match.
The CPU is unlocked for overclocking, and you'll no doubt want to add a beefy cooler if that's the direction you're going. The Core i9-9900K pairs up with Intel 300-series chipset motherboards using the LGA 1151 socket.
- Stellar performance for gaming or design work
- Eight cores, 16 threads
- Unlocked for overclocking
- Competitive pricing
- Not the most recent Intel generation
- Too much power for most builds
Best AMD: AMD Ryzen Threadripper 3960X
The AMD Ryzen Threadripper 3960X enters into territory that is out of bounds for most people building a PC, both in terms of price and power. It is part of AMD's third-gen lineup of desktop CPUs, using Zen 2 microarchitecture and a 7nm process. The base clock hit 3.8GHz, and it can boost up to 4.5GHz, plus it is unlocked for overclocking if that's not enough. Perhaps the most impressive part is the 3960X's whopping 24 cores and 48 threads. It all runs with an understandable 280W TDP.
You're going to need to invest in a rather pricey TRX40 motherboard, but support for PCIe 4.0 and Wi-Fi 6 make this platform modern and ready for the future. Support for up to 512GB of quad-channel RAM is absolutely nuts and ensures you're not going to see any bottlenecks.
This CPU comes in well above the grand mark, yet it still delivers an excellent performance to price ratio if you really need it. Whether you're dealing with high-end design and development work or just want to destroy any modern games when accompanied by a powerful dedicated GPU, this is the right CPU for the job.
- 24 cores and 48 threads
- Absolutely ridiculous power
- Great price to performance ratio
- PCIe 4.0 and Wi-Fi 6 support
- Motherboards are expensive
- Not needed for most PC builds
That's why we recommend overall the AMD Ryzen 7 3700X as the top pick for most people. Despite its truly competitive pricing, it delivers eight cores, 16 threads, and a clock speed that can boost up to 4.4GHz. Thanks to AMD's Zen 2 microarchitecture and a 7nm process, the TDP sits at just 65W despite the impressive specs.
Paired up with the right motherboard, this CPU will introduce PCIe 4.0 and Wi-Fi 6 connectivity to your custom build to keep it relevant long into the future. Overall this is a well-rounded chip that will handle just about anything you throw its way, including gaming, design, and productivity.
Credits — The team that worked on this guide
Cale Hunt is a staff writer at Windows Central. He focuses mainly on PC, laptop, and accessory coverage, as well as the emerging world of VR. He is an avid PC gamer and multi-platform user and spends most of his time either tinkering with or writing about tech.
Rich Edmonds is a staff reviewer at Windows Central, which means he tests out more software and hardware than he cares to remember. Joining Mobile Nations in 2010, you can usually find him inside a PC case tinkering around when not at a screen fighting with Grammarly to use British words. Hit him up on Twitter: @RichEdmonds.
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