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Best CPU for gaming 2021: the top Intel and AMD processors

Our recommended CPU picks

When it comes to buying the best CPU for gaming, it can be very tempting to go for the one with the highest number of cores and fastest clock speeds. The truth is, though, bigger isn't always necessarily better. Indeed, most gaming PCs don't need CPUs that powerful, as most games simply don't need that many cores to run smoothly. Instead, you can often save yourself a lot of time and money by going for something a bit cheaper. To that end, I've put together this list of all my top Intel and AMD recommendations for your average gaming PC. Whatever you're looking to build, these are the gaming CPUs that should be at the top of your list.

Before we begin, I must stress that it's not exactly a great time to be buying a new CPU right now, as many of AMD's Ryzen 5000 CPUs are caught up in the ongoing hardware shortages affecting graphics cards, consoles and everything else at the moment. As such, CPU prices are much higher than they should be at the moment, while some chips are out of stock altogether. As such, I'd recommend waiting a couple of months before doing any major upgrades on your PC, as hopefully prices and stock levels will have returned to normal by then.

That said, there is some good news in the world of CPUs right now. Intel have just launched their 11th Gen Rocket Lake CPUs, which replace their 10th Gen Comet Lake chips. These finally add in their long-awaited PCIe 4.0 support, and also allow for memory overclocking on a much wider range of motherboard chipsets than ever before. It's a much more attractive platform than their 10th Gen Comet Lake CPUs, even if their overall performance is only just about on par with their Ryzen rivals.

That said, Intel's Rocket Lake CPUs still feel like a bit of a stop-gap at the moment, as Intel have also committed to launching their 12th Gen Alder Lake CPUs in the second half of this year as well. Why they've decided to launch two generations so close together is anyone's guess, but given that my test results put Rocket Lake on par with AMD's Ryzen 5000 chips rather than above them, I'd probably recommend waiting until Alder Lake arrives in six to nine months time rather than jumping on board right now.

As for what to look out for when buying a new gaming CPU more generally, there are a couple of things to bear in mind. First, you'll need to make sure you pair it with the right motherboard, as Intel and AMD processors both use different sockets to slot into their respective boards. We cover all this in our dedicated motherboard and CPU guide, so make sure to have a read of that if you're unsure what to go for. You'll also find everything you need to know about how to install your CPU in our step by step How to build a PC guide.

Secondly, it's important to think about what you actually want to do on your PC. The focus of this list is on finding the best CPU for everyday gaming PCs, but if you regularly stream games online, for example, or use your PC for professional creative tasks such as video editing or use demanding animation software, then you will want a CPU with lots of cores. The more cores you've got, the better your PC will be at multi-tasking so you can stream, edit and render quickly. If that sounds like you, I'd recommend AMD's Ryzen 7 5800X or Ryzen 9 5900X.

If all you're after is a good value gaming CPU, though, then read on. The processors I've selected below have everything you need to get great gaming performance, and they've all got more than enough power to handle general desktop duties, too. Remember, this list isn't set in stone, and it will change over time as new CPUs get released and older models go end of life. It's constantly evolving, but I'm confident that all of my choices below will provide a great foundation for your new gaming PC for years to come.

All pricing info is correct at time of writing, but if you want to try and bag yourself a CPU bargain, then you can keep track of all the latest CPU prices by reading our regularly updated CPU deals page.

Best CPU for gaming 2021


AMD Ryzen 5 5600X

The best AMD CPU for gaming and best overall CPU for gaming

If there was one processor that really knocked our socks off at the end of last year, it was AMD's Ryzen 5 5600X. Offering buckets of performance for almost half the power cost of Intel's Core i5-10600K and Core i5-11600K, the Ryzen 5 5600X isn't just our pick for the best AMD CPU for gaming; it's our choice for the best overall CPU for gaming as well.

Thanks to AMD's new Zen 3 CPU architecture, the Ryzen 5 5600X is fast and highly efficient, allowing both its gaming and general desktop performance to soar above its Intel competition. It also comes with its own cooler in the box, and you don't need mega expensive or massively fast RAM to get the best out of it, either - which isn't always true over on Intel's side of the fence. What's more, the Ryzen 5 5600X is also compatible with all of AMD's X570 and B550 chipset AM4 socket motherboards, and most X470 and B450 motherboards will support it after a BIOS update, giving you loads of flexibility when it comes to picking a motherboard.

Yes, AMD's Ryzen 7 5800X and Ryzen 9 5900X CPUs are technically a bit faster and better-suited for things like video editing and streaming and the like, but if all you're after is a solid foundation for a good old-fashioned gaming PC, the Ryzen 5 5600X offers everything you need (especially when our tests show its gaming performance really isn't that far behind its more expensive siblings). It's a fantastic CPU, and our number one pick for those building a new PC right now.

Read more in our AMD Ryzen 5 5600X review


Intel Core i5-11600K

The best Intel CPU for gaming

Intel's Core i5-11600K CPU

Out of all of Intel's new 11th Gen Rocket Lake processors, the Core i5-11600K is definitely the pick of the bunch. Yes, the Core i9-11900K is technically the best Intel gaming CPU you can buy right now, but it's phenomenally expensive and is massive overkill for anyone building a regular gaming PC. If you're an avid streamer, there may be a case for opting for the Core i9-11900K or the Core i7-11700K, but if you're just playing games for your own enjoyment, then there's really no need to go for anything more powerful or expensive.

Indeed, my benchmark results show the Core i5-11600K is actually more powerful than many of Intel's older Core i7 CPUs these days, which is good news for would-be upgraders considering this has traditionally always been a mid-range gaming CPU. It's also just as fast as AMD's Ryzen 5 5600X, too, offering nigh-on identical speeds for £100 / $100 less at time of writing.

So why isn't this our best overall gaming CPU? Well, the Core i5-11600K is a lot more power hungry than the Ryzen 5 5600X thanks to its much higher TDP of 125W, so you'll need to pair it with a decent CPU cooler and power supply to get the best out of it. It also performs best with faster RAM. When paired with slower RAM, it's actually not that much faster than its 10th Gen predecessor, the Core i5-10600K. Taken together, all these extra 'requirements' can end up adding quite a bit more onto its overall cost. Still, provided you've got the budget for it, this is by far the best value Intel CPU around right now.

Read more in our Intel Core i5-11600K review


AMD Ryzen 3 3300X

The best budget CPU for gaming

It's been pretty much out of stock for much of the last year, but the AMD Ryzen 3 3300X remains the best value CPU around right now if you can get your hands on one. It's significantly cheaper than all of its Intel rivals, and offers a surprising amount of power for its modest price. Indeed, in our tests, it's pretty much on par with AMD's more expensive Ryzen 5 3600 and Ryzen 5 3600X CPUs, making it a much better buy for cash-strapped PC builders.

The Ryzen 3 3300X's general desktop performance is great for a quad-core CPU as well. In fact, its single core performance actually outranks the Core i5-10600K in my benchmark tests, cementing its status as one of the best value CPUs around. It's a fantastic choice for both gaming and daily desktop tasks alike, and it also comes with its own, very good cooler in the box, making it even better value for money.

However, as previously mentioned, the Ryzen 3 3300X has been very difficult to get hold of since it first came out, and it's currently unknown when or if it will come back in stock. We're hoping AMD will release a new Ryzen 5000 model of the 3300X later this year (presumably named the Ryzen 3 5300X or something similar), so we'd strongly advise waiting for that instead of opting for one of their older Ryzen 5 3600 or 3600X CPUs instead. The latter are still excellent CPUs in their own right, and would be fine choices for budding PC builders, but if you want to make sure your PC is as future-proofed as possible, we'd recommend waiting a little while longer to see what else AMD have in store for the rest of their Ryzen 5000 family.

Read more in our AMD Ryzen 3 3300X review


For more RPS recommended hardware, here's a complete list of our best hardware guides:
Best graphics cards Best SSD for gaming Best gaming monitors Best gaming headsets
Best gaming keyboards Best gaming mouse Best VR headsets

About the Author

Katharine Castle avatar

Katharine Castle

Hardware Editor

Katharine writes about all the bits that go inside your PC so you can carry on playing all those lovely games we like talking about so much. Very partial to JRPGs and the fetching of quests. She's also RPS' resident deals herald.

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