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The best CPU for gaming in 2021: get the best parts for your build

The best CPU for PC gaming in 2021: get the best gaming CPU for your build
(Image credit: Future)

When considering the best CPU for PC gaming, it's wise to do so in the context of your build. This means you can ignore some of the least and most powerful-by-numbers-alone options and narrow it down to one of the best CPUs for gaming that'll be right at home for you and your rig. 

While the best graphics card will always be the focus and highlight of most gaming PC build (especially with the new RTX 30 series), CPUs are absolutely critical for a number of things that modern games lean on: enemy AI; modeling complex systems like the weather; these things rely more heavily on your central processor as opposed to your graphics card.

Given they provide that bit of 'oomph' for pretty much everything that computers do, it's not just games that will benefit from a beefier CPU - finding the best CPU for PC gaming also means a huge bump for normal, everyday tasks, and beyond - if you partake in design or workstation tasks then a boost to your CPU will be right up your street. If you're the sort of person who likes a hundred tabs of your favorite browser open at once, or if you do any kind of video and audio editing or encoding, a quality CPU is essential. If your priority is gaming, something in the Core i5 - though the i7 does prevail - or Ryzen 5 range will be sufficient, but if you're working with a high-end system or you do a significant amount of extra, demanding work, you're probably going to need a high-end chip like one of Intel's 9th gen Core i9s. It's also worth bearing in mind that if you want to future proof yourself at all, then you'll want to try and stretch the budget and aim for something further up the scale.

You'll find a refined handful of the best CPUs for gaming below and we'll look to update this in a big way when we know more about the 10th-gen Intel processors and AMD's 4000 range once we, well, know more.

Since some of the tech jargon that pops up when discussing PC performance parts can be pretty confusing, we wrote up a comprehensive hardware glossary to simplify some of the most complex terms. 

Would you prefer to skip this step and grab a pre-built machine? The Prime Day laptop deals are definitely worth a look.

Intel 10th-gen CPU

(Image credit: Intel)

1. Intel Core i7-10700K

The best CPU for gaming right now

Cores: 8 | Threads: 16 | Base clock: 3.8GHz | Turbo clock: 5.1GHz (single core) | Overclocking: Yes, 5.1GHz typical all-core | L3 cache: 16MB | TDP: 95W | PCIe 3.0 lanes: 16

Great stock performance
Full HyperThreading
Solid overclocking

There's a lot to like about the 10th-generation Intel chip series as a whole, with quality running up and down the range. However, the i7-10700K is the best overall, all things considered, caveats included, broad outlook chip for gaming. The i9 chips might offer speedier, well, speeds, but the performance change won't be noticeable when you're playing games.

It's a solid and terrific performer for games, but also productivity and easily keeps up with its Ryzen competitors which often outpunch in a productivity capacity. One final string to the bow is the ability to push the chip somewhat, enabling you to get over the 5GHz mark on all cores, and without blowing it up too. Which is nice. Definitely the best bang for buck, all-round CPU for gaming you can buy right now.

Intel Core i7-8700K

Intel Core i7-8700K

2. Intel Core i7-8700K

For the power gamer, but without breaking the bank

Cores: 6 | Threads: 12 | Base Clock: 3.7GHz | Overclocking: Yes, 4.9-5.0GHz typical | L3 Cache: 12MB | TDP: 95W | PCIe 3.0 lanes: 16

Tailored for gaming
Powerful and efficient
Expensive compared to the competition

Teetering perfectly on the balance line between price and performance sits Intel's 8th generation Coffee Lake Core i7-8700. It's a very powerful, modern processor that will happily manhandle any gaming-related tasks your software throws at it, but it won't require you to take out a second mortgage to afford. Currently hovering right around the $300 price point, the 8700 is a great value proposition, and will keep your rig ahead of any CPU bottleneck for some time to come. Packing six hyper-threaded cores and Intel's performance enhancing, leakage reducing 14nm++ process, the 8th gen Coffee Lake flagship still offers plenty of power to navigate gaming's most challenging tasks and handle any of your workload/'mega-tasking' needs. 

AMD Ryzen 9 3900X

AMD Ryzen 9 3900X (Image credit: AMD)

3. AMD Ryzen 9 3900X

The best AMD option for your gaming rig

Cores: 12 | Threads: 24 | Base Clock: 3.8GHz | Boost Clock: 4.6GHz | Overclocking: Yes, though PBO is better | L3 Cache: 64MB | TDP: 105W | PCIe 4.0 lanes: 16

Great gaming performance
Brilliant for non-gaming requirements
Good cooler included
Limited overclocking

Bursting out of the latest crop of AMD's biggest and best processors, this third generation CPU has quickly become one of our favourites. While it may not be the blisteringly fastest of all gaming-focused CPUs, its right up there when optimised properly and with the right settings and resolutions ticked. Outside of gaming its pretty much the fastest, however, which is an excellent bonus.

The Ryzen 9 3900X demands a robust pricetag but the cost still bags you a good cooler (Wraith Prism) and you get 50 percent more cores and threads. This means that there's an excellent extra boost in performance on busy workloads away from gaming like 3D rendering and video editing. However, if you're only worried asbout gaming - and that's likely given you're on this page - the trade off you have to endure (around an 8 percent slower gaming performance according to our friends at PC Gamer) only demonstrates itself and makes itself known on lower settings and a lower resolution with the fastest GPU available (RTX 2080 Ti). This kind of differnce may well only be of concern if you're a pro gamer aiming for the stratospheric realms of c.240fps at lower quality, however for everyone else, this is a fine CPU that will deliver excellent performance.

Intel Core i5-9400F

Intel Core i5-9400F (Image credit: Intel)

4. Intel Core i5-9400F

A great budget CPU for Intel-centred builds

Cores: 6 | Threads: 6 | Base Clock: 2.9GHz | Turbo Clock: 4.1GHz | Overclocking: No | L3 Cache: 9MB | TDP: 65W | PCIe 3.0 lanes: 40

Cooler included in package
Good balance of price and power
Only 6 cores
No potential to overclock

The Core i5-9400F is a little faster than the previous model - the Core i5-8400 - but it completely sheds itself of the the Intel integrated graphics. That's not a problem for games, and all in it's a great choice that won't break the bank.

You won't be able to overclock this processor - but you can redirect the money you save to a beefier motherboard like an H370 board - though a lot of mobos will happily run the 9400KF at 3.9GHz, which gives you no reason to be concerned with the low base clock. At least you get a cooler thrown in the box which is not oft seen with processors.

While the i5-9400F may not be as fast as other CPUs it is still a strong model if you're putting together a machine on a shoestring. Bigger, larger and more detailed future games may be too much for its 6-cores, but probably not before you're ready for an upgrade. Therefore, if you're after something that's affordable, reliable and powerful enough, look no further than the i5-9400F.

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AMD Ryzen 7 3700X

AMD Ryzen 7 3700X (Image credit: AMD)

5. AMD Ryzen 7 3700X

An excellent mid-range gaming CPU

Cores: 8 | Threads: 16 | Base Clock: 3.6GHz | Turbo Clock: 4.4GHz | Overclocking: Yes, 4.2-4.3GHz | L3 Cache: 32MB | TDP: 65W | PCIe 4.0 lanes: 16

Brilliant performance to value ratio
Solid cooler included
Excellent multi-use CPU
Limited overclocking

Slightly in the shadow of its bigger brother the 3900X, the Ryzen 7 3700X is still brilliant. It is basically as fast in games and still offers all the other other benefits of AMD's Zen 2 architecture - some of which might become useful during the coming years. The 3700X is a sensible choice, considering for its price tag, you bag an extra Wraith Prism cooler with an 8-core/16-thread CPU. Compared to a close Intel rival - Intel's i7-9700K - our friends at PC Gamer tell us that it's about 9 percent slower in gaming performance, though this is only visible again at those lower settings with a mega GPU like an RTX 2080 Ti. If you go for an appropriate graphics card companion like AMD's RX 5700 XT, the difference will be basically negligible and meaningless. For other demanding tasks and applications like 3D rendering and video editing you'll receive a nice boost of 18 percent, so all of that combines to make a seriously good package. Purely for gaming, you might pass on the 3700X, but taking everything onto account and its value for money, it is definitely one of the best CPUs you can buy right now.

Best CPU for gaming

(Image credit: Intel)

6. Intel Core i9 10900K

The fastest gaming CPU overall

Cores: 10 | Threads: 20 | Base Clock: 3.7GHz | Turbo Clock: 5.3GHz | Overclocking: Yes, 5.0-5.3GHz typical | L3 Cache: 20MB | TDP: 95W | PCIe 3.0 lanes: 16

Supreme performance
Can be overclocked
Pretty expensive
Needs a Z490 motherboard

The guide can't be complete without one of the latest from Intel's, err, latest generation of processors that came out this year. If you have a hankering for the extreme and a desire to future proof yourself up the wazoo, then the best CPU for gaming, for you, is the Core i9 10900K. If one is being ruthlessly realistic and honest, then the i9 10900K will be far and away too much for most people and most builds but for those chasing the best. 

A small downside is that you'll need a Z490 motherboard to go with this processor - though you might well know this if you're considering one of these beasts, and some effort and attention to cooling and a very capable power source will be most welcome.

Pure performance, power, and capability are here in abundance, and this will probably see you right for a good long while (you'd hope so with the price of admission).

I'm one of the Hardware Editors for GamesRadar+, and have been for nearly three years; before that I was a freelance games writer for years too for the likes of Eurogamer, RPS, PCGN, and more. Day to day, I take care of a whole host of gaming tech reviews, buying guides, and news and deals content that pops up across GamesRadar+. I'm also a qualified landscape and garden designer so do that in my spare time, and use it to write about games' landscapes and environments too, including an upcoming book on the topic!