When it comes to building a computer there is nothing more important than finding the best CPU. After all, the CPU is the brain of your machine, and if you don’t have a powerful enough one, all the other parts you want to utilize won’t matter.
In 2020, building a gaming PC isn’t as difficult as it used to be. It’s become a much more modular, plug-and-play process than before, and has more people becoming first-time PC assemblers. There’s even less chance for catastrophic error with CPUs moving away from individual pins for connection. But just because it’s easier to do, doesn’t mean it’s easier to decide what parts to pick.
Some CPUs are better for those who want to overclock their computers for maximum performance while others just want a CPU to play the latest games as smoothly as possible on higher settings. A good rule of thumb for most is to get the CPU that’s powerful enough to handle the graphics card you want, even if you aren’t getting that GPU just yet. You don’t want a CPU that you’ll have to replace in just a year; a powerful one will last you three-to-four years, minimum. However, don’t go above your budget. If you spend too much on your CPU at first, you’re going to have to concede on other important items like your RAM.
With all that in mind, let’s get into the best CPUs for your gaming rig in 2020. If you missed our guide on the best graphics cards for your gaming build, you can check that out as well. If you find yourself overwhelmed, and want to avoid building a PC for yourself altogether, we’ve put together a list of the best pre-built machines you can buy right now.
As with the graphics card guide, CPUs like the $750 AMD Ryzen 9 3950X aren’t listed because if you are looking at a processor like that, you don’t really need to look elsewhere.
All CPU prices are listed in USD.
Socket: AM4 | Architecture: Zen 2 | Cores/Threads: 6/12 | Base Frequency: 3.8GHz | Maximum Frequency: 4.4GHz | Maximum Power : 95W
Average Price: $199
At an average price of less than $200, the 3600X is among the best “bang for your buck” processors available. At stock, AMD’s mid-range CPU performs better in both productivity and gaming performance than the 9600K.
Overclocking is available with the 3600X, but it’s not something to write home about. There’s such a limited benefit from doing it, that it just may not be worth it for most users especially when you consider the fact that that packaged cooler won’t be able to handle any sort of consistent overclocking. If you want to overclock and have a strong benefit from it, the i7-9600K is going to be your better option for performance.
The downfall of wanting to take advantage of the PCIe 4.0 support is that motherboards will be a bit on the pricier side. But that’s okay because of the affordability of the 3600X. One thing to note with AMD CPUs, you’ll want faster memory timing in order to really get the performance.
Socket: 1151 | Architecture: Coffee Lake | Cores/Threads: 8/16 | Base Frequency: 3.6GHz | Maximum Frequency: 5.0GHz | Maximum Power: 95W
Average Price: $529
For most of you, this processor is going to be overkill. While it’s surely going to get any job you need for gaming done — and do it well — the i9-9900K is much more than that. A CPU that can handle pretty much anything you throw at it, the i9-9900K will handle the best GPUs you can buy today, and even last you through the next few years of graphics card releases at the very least.
As with all high-level Intel CPUs, you’ll need to provide your own cooler. At 95W, a liquid cooling solution is likely your best bet to keep the temperatures down, especially if you want to take advantage of that 5.0GHz max clock.
If you’re just going to be playing games, you should probably look at cheaper options. However, if you plan on playing games at high quality as well as streaming and recording, you can’t do much better than this CPU.
Socket: 1151 | Architecture: Coffee Lake | Cores/Threads: 8/8 | Base Frequency: 3.6GHz | Maximum Frequency: 4.9GHz | Maximum Power: 65W
Average Price: $385
If you want top-level gaming performance without the top-level price, the 9700K is a great option. When it comes to gaming, you’ll find that the 9700K performs about equal to the 9900K at nearly $150 less on average. With eight cores and stronger single-thread performance than most options on this list, the 9700K can handle almost anything a modern game can throw at it.
This CPU will support consistent overclocking, and can even be stable at a 5.0 clock. And at a 65-watt power consumption with no Hyper-Threading, you don’t need to go crazy with your cooling. If you wanted to stick with air cooling, you can get by.
If you want to stream or do heavy video editing, you’re going to want to step up to the 9900K or even the AMD Ryzen 9 3900X. Just make sure you can fit that cost in your budget before making the leap.
Socket: AM4 | Architecture: Zen 2 | Cores/Threads: 8/16 | Base Frequency: 3.6GHz | Maximum Frequency: 4.4GHz | Maximum Power : 65W
Average Price: $299
If you are just looking for an upper mid-range CPU that you can push a bit towards the higher end, the Ryzen 7 3700X from AMD is an excellent choice.
Delivering twice the threads of the i7-9700K, the 3700X allows for more processes to be run than its blue team rival. For those wanting to build a budget-friendly streaming rig, this processor will get the job done more often than not. From a pure gaming standpoint, it comes up a bit short compared to the 9700K at 1080p, but for everything else it offers it’s hard to go against what the red team is offering.
If you want to start taking advantage of 1440p gaming without breaking the bank the 3700X is the best choice. There’s also the PCIe 4.0 support, allowing you to be ready for the new peripherals that utilize the new interface in the coming years.
Socket: 1151 | Architecture: Coffee Lake | Cores/Threads: 6/6 | Base Frequency: 2.9GHz | Maximum Frequency: 4.1GHz | Maximum Power : 65W
Average Price: $160
If you want a decent build within a limited budget, you’ll do no better than the i5-9400F. This entry-level CPU from Intel can handle modern-day games with no problem and can utilize mid-range GPUs to their fullest extent. Whatsmore is that it even comes with a cooler in the box, a rarity for Intel CPUs.
It lacks the ability to overclock, but if you’re on a lower budget with only about $150-$160 to spend on a processor, overclocking likely doesn’t matter to you anyway. Just be aware that with a CPU like this, you’re likely looking to upgrade it within a two-year window.