Best gaming CPU 2020: the top Intel and AMD processors

A chip off the old block

Buying a new gaming CPU is often one of the biggest and most time-consuming upgrades you can do on your PC, as you’ll probably have to re-build the entire thing from scratch if your PC’s more than a couple of years old. However, upgrading to one of today’s best gaming CPUs can make a surprising difference to your PC’s overall gaming performance, particularly if you tend to play games at a resolution of 1920×1080. The question, of course, is which gaming CPU you should go for, as there are now loads of AMD Ryzen CPUs and even more Intel Coffee Lake ones as well. A lot of your decision making will be determined by what kind of motherboard you have, but to help make things nice and easy for you I’ve listed all my best gaming CPU recommendations from AMD and Intel below across a range of different price categories. Whether you’re building a budget PC or a high-powered mega machine, here are my best gaming CPU recommendations for 2020.

Generally speaking, picking the best gaming CPU boils down to this: Intel CPUs are generally better for overall gaming performance, but AMD CPUs are cheaper and come with their own (and generally superior) coolers, making them better picks for those of you who are more budget conscious. To help make things easier, I’ve listed my top picks for each type of processor, telling you what the best Intel CPUs are for gaming, as well as what the best AMD gaming CPU is in the same price category.

You will, of course, need a compatible motherboard for your new gaming CPU. If you’re building a new PC from scratch, then you can simply pick the best gaming CPU you like the sound of and buy the appropriate motherboard to match. It becomes a bit harder if you’re looking to keep your current motherboard and simply swap out your existing CPU. If you’ve got on old Intel CPU, chances are you’ll have to buy a new motherboard anyway, as current Intel CPUs aren’t compatible with older boards. Going down the AMD route is a bit easier, as even today’s latest Ryzen 3000 CPUs will work with older AM4 motherboards, but it’s always better to check what you’ve got first in order to make sure everything’s going work or not. For more information, check out our What motherboard do I need for my Intel or AMD CPU? article.

You’ll also find everything you need to know about how to build a PC in our dedicated guide, including how to install your CPU, and I’ve also put together a list of everything you need to know about upgrading your PC in 2020 if you need a bit of a refresher. With all that in mind, let’s have a look at my best gaming CPU recommendations for 2020.

Best gaming CPU 2020

These are my best gaming CPU picks at a glance, and you can either click the relevant links above to go straight to the CPU in question, or you can carry on scrolling to read the whole thing. As well as being important for gaming, having a good CPU is equally vital if you’re a budding streamer, too, as running and streaming a game simultaneously can often be very CPU intensive. If you fall into this category, I’d recommend starting with my mid-range picks as an absolute minimum.

Below, you’ll find my list of all the best gaming CPUs I’ve tested here at RPS, from entry-level Core i3 and Ryzen 5 CPUs all the way up to the top brass Core i9s and Ryzen 9s. I’ve picked the best CPUs for gaming in each price category, so whatever your budget, there’s a best gaming CPU for you. And while you’re here, make sure to have a look at our best graphics card, best gaming monitor and best SSD for gaming lists as well to help you pick more of today’s best components to go inside your new system. With all that in mind, here are the best gaming CPUs for 2020:

AMD Ryzen 5 2600 – the best budget AMD gaming CPU

AMD’s Ryzen 5 2600 may be a bit long in the tooth now, what with it being one of their 2nd Gen Ryzen chips rather than one of their new 3rd Gen Ryzen 3000 series, but at this price, it really doesn’t get any better than this – for now, anyway. As of April 21st 2020, AMD have announced they’ll be releasing two new budget AMD Ryzen 3000 CPUs next month – the Ryzen 3 3100 and Ryzen 3 3300X – for roughly the same kind of money as the Ryzen 5 2600, so I’d strongly recommend waiting for those instead of buying the old Ryzen 5 2600. I’ll be testing these CPUs very shortly, so watch this space.

In the mean time, though, the Ryzen 5 2600 isn’t just faster than its similarly-priced Intel competition, the Core i3-8100 and Core i3-9100, but its gaming performance is also pretty much on par with the more upmarket Intel Core i3-8350K, the latter of which is both more expensive than the Ryzen 5 2600 and doesn’t come with a cooler in the box. The Core i3-8350K still has the edge in some games, truth be told, but when you factor in its extra cost and the additional expense of a cooler, it simply isn’t as good value for money as its Ryzen rival.

In my eyes, the Ryzen 5 2600 is also a much better buy than its Ryzen 5 2600X sibling, too. The 2600X might have better multicore performance for creative applications and the like, but its gaming prowess is surprisingly similar to the regular 2600, so you’re not really going to feel the benefit of its X-rated sibling unless you’re also going to be using your PC for lots of photo and video editing.

Intel Core i3-8100 – the best budget Intel gaming CPU

There’s not a huge amount of choice when it comes to good, cheap Intel CPUs, but if you’re really on a strict budget then the best one to go for is the Intel Core i3-8100 or, indeed, its slightly newer, but more expensive sibling, the Core i3-9100 (or cheaper Core i3-9100F, which doesn’t come with any integrated graphics and thus must be paired with a graphics card before you can use your PC).

Then again, I’m hesitant to really recommend any of those CPUs in this particular category, as they’re not only considerably slower than their respective AMD competition – even the Ryzen 5 2600 runs rings around the i3-8100 – but they also don’t allow for any kind of overclocking. That may not be a particular problem if you’re only building a very basic gaming PC, of course, but it does mean you won’t be able to get any more out of it further down the line if you decide you want to try and squeeze a bit more performance from it.

Intel’s low-end Core i3 CPUs are a decent foundation for a 1080p gaming PC, but you’ll get a lot more for your money by switching to AMD and spending just a teensy bit more on something like the Ryzen 5 2600, or indeed opting for my AMD mid-range pick below.

AMD Ryzen 5 3600 – the best mid-range AMD gaming CPU

If you’re after the best value gaming CPU available today, then the AMD Ryzen 5 3600 is hands down the CPU for you. Available for just £160 / $175 at time of writing, it’s significantly cheaper than all of its Intel rivals, including the Intel Core i5-9600K below.

Admittedly, the Ryzen 5 3600 can’t quite match the Core i5-9600K in terms of overall gaming speed, but its vastly superior general desktop performance (and, of course, its cheaper price) makes this a much better buy than any of Intel’s other Core i5 CPUs right now, both 8th Gen and 9th Gen alike. Plus, it comes unlocked for overclocking and its own, very good cooler in the box, making it much better value for money overall. You’ll get a bit more desktop performance from its more expensive sibling, the Ryzen 5 3600X sibling, but in terms of gaming performance they’re both pretty much neck and neck. Plus, the Ryzen 5 3600’s lower TDP of 65W means it’s also more energy efficient as well.

It’s fantastic all-rounder for mid-range PC builds, which is why it’s my current CPU of choice for our RPS Rig build, which covers everything you need to build a gaming PC for less than £1000. If you’re building a new PC from scratch, this is the CPU to buy.

Intel Core i5-9600K – the best mid-range Intel gaming CPU

With prices for Intel’s Core i5-8600K now having gone through the roof, it’s Intel’s Core i5-9600K that takes its place as our new go-to best gaming CPU for mid-range gaming PCs. Sure, you’ll need to buy your own cooler to go with it, but the Core i5-9600K comfortably sees off competition from both of AMD’s Ryzen 5 3600 / 3600X CPUs, as well as their older Ryzen 7 2700 / 2700X chips, which have now fallen in price.

There’s still an argument for going with the cheaper (and slightly older) Intel Core i5-8400, mind, as its gaming performance isn’t a million miles behind the Core i5-9600K, but personally, I think it’s worth stretching to the i5-9600K if your budget allows for it. Not only is it faster and better for general desktop duties, but the i5-9600K is unlocked for overclocking, too – and you can get pretty great speeds from it with just a standard tower cooler, too. For example, my BeQuiet BK009 Pure Rock cooler managed to push it all the way up to a massive 4.9GHz before my PC conked out, which is pretty darn handy. Admittedly, overclocking your CPU won’t make a massive difference to your overall gaming performance – my results only showed an average improvement of one or two frames in most cases – but it will give it a nice boost for your everyday desktop applications.

AMD Ryzen 7 3700X – the best AMD gaming CPU

If you’re looking for the best AMD gaming CPU money can buy, then look no further than the AMD Ryzen 7 3700X. Technically, there are better Ryzen CPUs available, such as the Ryzen 7 3800X and the Ryzen 9 3900X, but they’re also insanely expensive and vastly overpowered for your average gaming PC. Instead, I think the Ryzen 7 3700X offers the best balance between top notch gaming performance and overall value for money, which is why it’s my top AMD pick right now.

While not quite as fast as the Core i7-9700K, the Ryzen 7 3700X still offers exceptionally good gaming speeds and absolutely stonking desktop performance, too – all for a considerably smaller sum of £259 / $300 at time of writing to boot. Plus, you don’t have to worry about finding an appropriate cooler for it, as the Wraith Prism cooler that comes in the box is more than up to the task of keeping this chip nice and chilly. You may want to opt for something more substantial if you’re going to be overclocking it, but for the vast majority of people, this is the simplest and easiest high-end CPU to use straight out of the box.

Intel Core i7-9700K – the best Intel gaming CPU

For the best gaming CPU money can buy, the Intel Core i7-9700K is the way to go. Again, Intel’s Core i9-9900K might technically be the fastest and bestest best gaming CPU you can throw a bucket of cash at, but when you look at the figures, I’m just not sure it’s worth spending another hundred-odd quid on it compared with the excellent Core i7-9700K.

At least not when you’ve only got a standard tower cooler at your disposal, because man alive do these CPUs get hot. As such, I’d really recommend getting a liquid cooler for this particular chip, especially if you’re hoping to overclock it. I was only able to get as far as 4.7GHz before I started to see signs of thermal throttling with my BeQuiet BK009 Pure Rock tower cooler, so a liquid cooler is an absolute must for overclockers here.

That’s not to say the Core i7-9700K isn’t worth buying if you don’t have a liquid cooler, though. This is still one very nippy CPU indeed, offering substantial gains across the board over its Core i7-8700 and Core i7-8700K predecessors as well as its Ryzen 7 competition. Its single core and multicore performance are also exceptional (even if all of AMD’s Ryzen 7 CPUs still have the edge on multicore), and it offers a tangible step up from Intel’s Core i5-9600K.

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