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

Our recommended CPU picks

Even with ongoing silicone shortages, it’s a much better time to upgrade to one of the best CPUs for gaming than it was a few months ago. Besides stock generally being more readily available, and not held hostage by resellers for laughably inflated prices, the Intel 12th Gen Alder Lake series has shaken up gaming CPUs for the better. There are still some great AMD chips to choose from, but Alder Lake is comfortably Intel’s best effort in years.

But what’s the difference between a decent gaming CPU and one of the best? Generally it’s finding the right balance of the processor’s core speeds, and the number of cores that are available. A chip with faster cores can more effectively crunch data from your GPU which in turn lets your PC pump out more frames per second; too slow, and even the best graphics cards will be bottlenecked. Having loads and loads of cores isn’t as vital when most games can only use a small few at a time, but then some are increasingly able to take advantage of additional cores and threads, so it’s also useful if you can spread the workload around.

AMD’s Ryzen range started with a philosophy of “more cores good” before ramping up clock speeds across subsequent generations, making the Ryzen 3000 and Ryzen 5000 series their best for gaming yet. Intel have traditionally focused on pure speed, but its Alder Lake chips have finally altered the formula. Instead of all cores being identical, they’re split up in big, fast Performance cores (P-cores) and smaller, less power-hungry Efficiency cores (E-cores). This lets the 12th Gen chips get more horsepower out of their P-cores by redirecting background processes and some in-game calculations to the E-cores.

You’ll find our picks of the best CPUs for gaming below, all based on our testing. Remember that you’ll also need to pair your new CPU with a compatible motherboard, as different chips will fit into different sockets. When you’re ready, check out our guide on how to install a new CPU, as well whether air cooling or liquid cooling will be better for your build.

Best CPU for gaming 2021

Intel Core i5-12600K

The best Intel CPU for gaming, and the best CPU for gaming overall

The Intel Core i5-12600K CPU next to its box.

If Intel’s 11th Gen Rocket Lake range was simply a stopgap, the Intel Core i5-12600K is what many will have been waiting for. While slightly pricier than the Core i5-11600K (and its biggest rival, the AMD Ryzen 5 5600X below), it’s worth it, thanks in no small part to the new hybrid architecture. The addition of E-cores up the total core count without muscling in too much on the thermal and power requirements of the main P-cores; as a result, the Core i5-12600K gets a major single-core performance boost compared to previous generations, and an even bigger enhancement to its multicore potential.

Granted, this doesn’t translate into drastically better gaming performance, but there’s still an improvement to the extent that this chip outpaced the Ryzen 5 5600X in our games benchmarks. Temperatures also run low enough for the Core i5-12600K to pair well with a basic air cooler, so your only other installation concern will be getting an Intel 600 series motherboard.

On top of superior performance, the Core i5-12600K also offers better futureproofing than the Ryzen 5 5600X. It supports DDR5 RAM as well as DDR4, and will be compatible with PCIe 5.0 hardware once it becomes available. Like all 12th Gen Alder Lake chips, it also ups the number of available PCIe 4.0 lanes compared to Rocket Lake. All in all, it’s the best all-round CPU we’ve tested yet.

Read more in our Intel Core i5-12600K review

AMD Ryzen 5 5600X

The best AMD CPU for gaming

It may have been knocked off the top spot, but the AMD's Ryzen 5 5600X is no less of an effective gaming CPU now that the Core i5-12900K is around. In a lot of games you probably wouldn’t even notice the FPS difference between the two, and Ryzen’s chip manages that while using a lot less power.

Indeed to AMD's Zen 3 CPU architecture, the Ryzen 5 5600X is both fast and highly efficient, reducing heat buildup and leaving more PSU power to go towards the graphics card. 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 - something 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).

Read more in our AMD Ryzen 5 5600X 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.

Again, mind, 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 series replacement for the 3300X later this year (presumably named the Ryzen 3 5300X or something similar), so we'd 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

Intel Core i9-12900K

The best high-end CPU for gaming

An Intel Core i9-12900K CPU next to its packaging box.

Let me start by saying that you absolutely do not need a CPU as powerful as the Intel Core i9-12900K just for gaming. Still, if you are willing to pay top dollar for only the very finest of central processing units, there's nothing on the market that beats this 16-core goliath on pure power.

Not even the Ryzen 9 5950X – which is, to credit Intel, even more expensive – can match the primo 12th Gen’s mix of single core and multicore performance. As such, there is a genuine argument to make for it if you’re also using your gaming PC for endeavours like streaming or video editing. And while the Core i5-12600K remains far better value for games specifically, the i9’s extra P-core speed will help squeeze a few more frames out of top-tier graphics cards.

The Core i5-12600K also runs a lot cooler, and uses much, much less power under load, so you’ll need to make sure the Core i9-12900K is accompanied by a quality liquid cooler and a high-wattage PSU as well. That’s a lot of hurdles to jump, but at the end of it all you’ll be rewarded with the fastest gaming CPU of the current generation.

Read more in our Intel Core i9-12900K 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

James Archer avatar

James Archer

Hardware Editor

James retired from writing about Dota for RPS to write about hardware for RPS. His favourite watercooler radiator size is 280mm and he always takes advantage of RGB lighting by setting everything to a solid light blue.

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