Best CPUs for Gaming: February 2021by Dr. Ian Cutress on February 3, 2021 8:00 AM EST
In our series of Best CPU guides, here’s the latest update to our recommended Gaming CPUs list. All numbers in the text are updated to reflect pricing at the time of writing. Numbers in graphs reflect MSRP.
Since our last guide, the market for CPUs has changed quite a lot. We’re moving into opposite land. For the last couple of years, AMD processors have been widely available, and Intel processors have been in short supply – in Q1 2021, we are very much experiencing the reverse, and this is due to a number of factors.
The initial reason Intel processors were in short supply this time last year, and before that even, was due to unprecedented demand of its server-grade hardware. This meant that Intel spent more of their manufacturing capabilities making its high-margin server processors, because it made them more money, meaning that consumer offerings were hard to come by. As we move forward to today, Intel is no longer in that situation – it has ramped up its production facilities and now has stock to sell. Even beyond that, Intel has seen a massive spike in demand for its education focused silicon due to the pandemic. While this is mostly mobile silicon, it does mean that it is using its manufacturing for the low-end of the market.
By contrast, AMD is experiencing a new peak in demand. At the end of last year, the company was manufacturing several different product lines at once: Ryzen 5000 for desktop, Ryzen 5000 Mobile*, Xbox processors, Playstation processors, Radeon RX 6000 graphics, Radeon RX 6000 Mobile* graphics, and EPYC Milan*. AMD’s limits in what it can manufacture are based on the orders it placed with its manufacturing partner TSMC six months ago. Due to the high-performance of the Zen 3 processors leading to high demand, graphics being in high-demand, AMD needing to fulfil contractual obligations to Sony and Microsoft, and the upcoming EPYC Milan launch being hotly anticipated by the enterprise market, the company is being pulled in many directions. So much so in fact that when asked, CEO Dr. Lisa Su stated that there is a squeeze on its lower performance products at a time when AMD is pushing more for server/enterprise business and commercial business, such as Dell and HP type business customers, rather than end-user / consumers. To top this off, there are also reports of substrate supply constraints also causing delays with specific product lines.
*Launched/to be launched in 2021, but manufacturing started in 2020
In AMD's defence, the company reported that it has $1.4 billion of product currently in some state of manufacturing, which is $400m higher than this point last year, waiting to be completed. AMD predicts its Q1 revenue to be +70% higher compared to Q1 last year.
But financials aside, we are entering into an era where Intel options seem to be plentiful, and AMD options would appear to be limited. CPUs, power supplies, and graphics cards all seem to be in high-demand, and prices on all are rising due to two main factors: miners, and tariffs/exports.
The launch of the new graphics cards at the end of last year has shown that some of those products are good compute cards for cryptocurrency miners, and as a result there is a lot of demand for that hardware, and the high-performance systems that need it – namely power supplies and graphics cards over everything else.
The tariffs/exports issue affects every segment of hardware though. At the beginning of January, some of the tariff relief measures in place on electronics to help imports to the US had expired, resulting in an all-round increase in anything made in China/Taiwan. We saw motherboards increase in price from +$10 to +$100, and graphics cards even more so. Some companies stockpiled product inside the US before this relief expired, and so can continue to sell at the lower rate, but these supplies are drying up already. On top of this, the rate of the increase in the pandemic has led to additional costs relating to shipment of hardware – a lot of high-performance components are being distributed by air, and the costs of that distribution are themselves increasing. Add all this on, and the short term looks very expensive for gamers wanting to find something special.
Nonetheless, I’ve gone through all the latest retail pricing at Amazon and Newegg to see if there are any deals to be had on retail products.
On the whole though, there are several takeaways:
- Almost everything is more expensive than our last guide
- Especially Lower-end CPUs, up to +129%
- All AMD is more expensive, with Zen 3 up to +70% or more when in stock
- All Intel is more expensive, except Comet Lake 10th Gen
Intel at a Glance
Due to the mix of the market changing significantly since our last guide, Intel is making a very substantial dent into Amazon’s best sellers list. Not only are there three processors in the top ten for the first time in what seems like a long time, as well as ten in the top twenty, but the top product is sitting at number four: a very attractively priced Core i5-10400, which has risen from #16 to #4 and come down in price from $180 to $160.
Almost everything in Intel’s line-up from Core i5 and upwards is green in my spreadsheets, and green means it is cheaper than our last guide. The big drops come in the form of the Core i5-10600KF (down to $235), and the top Core i9-10900KF, now only $500. A number of other products in that line have dropped 5-10% in price. As far as positions gained on the best seller list, the $410 Core i9-10850K is up from #37 to #19, the $230 Core i5-10600K is up from #36 to #10, and the $152 Core i5-10400F is up from #33 to #11.
Anything Core i3 and below from this generation is more expensive. The Core i3-10100F, labelled once as the ‘$100 quad-core’, is doing well as Amazon’s #26 best seller, but is currently at $117, above the $103 we saw it for back in early December. Even the Pentiums and Celerons, traditionally in the $60 to $80 region, are above $100 right now. With the market getting a squeeze, the demand for entry level processors is high, driving up the price.
In the past few guides, Intel’s older platforms have been doing well, especially in light of how rare it was to find a new generation processor. These offerings are also changing – the popular Core i5-9600K was #14 on the Amazon list, is now at #48, for example, and costs an extra $25. The Core i7-9700K is doing relatively well by comparison, only dropping to #9 from #6, but this price has also increased from $290 to $305. There are some slight price drops, such as the Core i7-9700 (up from #28 to #21) is now $8 cheaper at $278, and the Core i9-9900K (up from #18 to #16) is $6 cheaper at $374, but it is ever so slight. Anything older than this is slowly dropping traction.
Moving to Intel’s HEDT, we’re seeing very little difference compared to our last guide. There seems to be no updates coming to the high-end desktop for Intel, with almost all the products now being consumed by AMD with higher performance, lower power draw, and also cheaper to boot.
The next big question from Intel is going to be if users should wait for Rocket Lake. Intel’s next generation is set to come by the end of March, promising +19% performance (from Skylake), new integrated graphics, PCIe 4.0 support, new AI instructions, but a cut in cores from 10 to 8 and big question marks over power. Normally we would be excited for a new platform and tell our audience to wait given that we are this close to Rocket Lake’s launch. But Intel’s 10th Gen pricing is attractive, and those question marks on Rocket Lake are big ones that need additional consideration when building a system.
AMD at a Glance
Since the launch of AMD’s Ryzen 5000 processors, where AMD took the performance crown from Intel, to say that these parts are a hot commodity is an understatement. At a time when people are stuck at home, some with excess $$ from not going outside, ready to build a new gaming system, AMD can’t build enough to meet demand. As I stated in the opening paragraphs, this is partly due to AMD launching so many products at once, as well as prioritizing console and OEM contracts over consumer, but also the supply chain needs strengthening. All that means for end-users is that what is being made probably isn’t the exact hardware you want, and when it is, isn’t being sold on the shelves, but direct to OEMs that already have contracts.
In times of high-demand, the first products to be left are the low-cost consumer hardware. This usually means education and mobile focused silicon, but AMD’s product portfolio and unprecedented demand has pushed it further up the stack. Ryzen 5000 processors are running at a slow trickle – you’re more likely to find one by casually searching online at secondary retailers, or wandering into a local retailer, than religiously checking Amazon and Newegg at third-party inflated prices. Ryzen 3000 is built on the same manufacturing node, so there’s no additional luck there – while there seems to be extra stock, Every CPU I track in that series has had its price increased since the last guide, except one, which is the same price. The average price increase of Ryzen 3000 from our last guide is +27%.
That same price CPU is actually Amazon’s best seller: the Ryzen 5 3600 at $200. This is a very popular CPU, it takes only one chiplet from AMD’s production, and it’s only a 6-core chiplet, not an 8-core that might fetch a premium. Number 2 on the best seller list is the Ryzen 5 1600AF, the remake of the first generation version, although that’s still quite expensive at $150, up from the $85 we saw this time last year.
Despite increased prices and high demand, all of AMD’s Ryzen 5000 series CPUs are in Amazon’s top 15 best sellers, even though all are well above the recommended selling price.
- Amazon #14, Ryzen 9 5950X, SEP $799, Retail $1390
- Amazon #7, Ryzen 9 5900X, SEP $549, Retail $880
- Amazon #5, Ryzen 7 5800X, SEP $449, Retail $535
- Amazon #3, Ryzen 5 5600X, SEP $299, Retail $381
These are all best sellers because they sell out almost as quickly as they come into stock. Those prices are absolutely nuts, and no-one in their right mind would recommend them at this price. The only one that might even sound vaguely reasonable is the Ryzen 7 5800X, which is only a +20% increase over the suggested retail. That top end 5950X is a whopping +74% over retail. OUCH.
The biggest losers in all of this, aside from the customers struggling to get their hands on anything reasonably cost efficient, are the Ryzen 3000XT processors. These were introduced last year as a clock speed increase over the standard X versions, for the same price. At the time they weren’t too good of a deal, as they sat alongside the X versions that had been in the market for months and had associated deals and price decrements. There was one of our guides where there were enough 3000XT parts in the market where they scored well for price and Amazon best seller lists, but now due to lack of stock, they’ve almost disappeared again. In our last guide, the Ryzen 5 3600XT was the #1 Amazon Best Selling processor, at $236. It now sits at #41, with a 28% price increase to $303 at Newegg.
Beyond this, we’re seeing AMD’s cheapest processors also getting very expensive – the $55 Athlon 3000G is now retailing at $100, for example. The Ryzen 3 3200G is $179. These prices are nuts, and so highly variable based on the days stock. Now that AMD’s in a position to prioritize its most expensive hardware, we won’t be seeing products like these any time soon.
Users looking for a silver lining to all of this might be surprised to hear that Threadripper seems to have come down in price. Users looking for the 24-core TR 3960X will get a bargain with around 15% off compared to our last guide, now $1366. The 32-core version is also down almost $200, only $2060 for the 3970X. Unfortunately the 64-core version is still around its recommended price.
Best CPUs for Gaming February 2021
Sometimes choosing a CPU is hard. So we've got you covered. In our CPU Guides, we give you our pick of some of the best processors available, supplying data from our reviews. Our Best CPUs for Gaming guide targets most of the common system-build price points that typically pair a beefy graphics card with a capable processor, with the best models being suitable for streaming and encoding on the fly.
With the prices of graphics increasing, we have to be cognizant that this puts pressure on other parts of the system, and namely where exactly the $$ are going to go.
|AnandTech Gaming CPU Recommendations
(Prices correct at time of writing)
|The $1500 Gaming PC||Ryzen 5 3600||$200||Core i5-10600K||$230|
|The $1000 Gaming PC||-||-||Core i5-10400F||$152|
|The $700 Gaming PC||-||-||Core i3-10100F||$117|
|The $500 Gaming PC||A Console (if you can find one)|
|The $300 Gaming Potato||-||-||
|Ones to Watch||CPU, CPU, Where For Art Thou CPU?|
|To see our Best CPUs for Workstations Guide, follow this link:
The majority of our recommendations aim to hit the performance/price curve just right, with a side nod to power consumption as well.
The $1500-$2000 Gaming PC
Our top build PC recommendation usually flits around the $275-$325 mark, to give enough room for everything else in the system to be beefy. For this month’s guide, not only are GPU prices expensive enough that we should look lower down the CPU stack, but CPU prices are crazy anyway, so any sense of normality goes out the window. At a result, I’m saying around the $200-$225 mark this time around.
The only AMD processor that’s somewhat suitable for pricing here would appear to be the AMD Ryzen 5 3600, which sits as Amazon’s #1 best seller. At $200 retail, it sits exactly on its suggested retail price, and comes with six Zen 2 cores, twelve threads, and a 65 W TDP that should keep everything in check. Paired with a 500-series motherboard, users can look forward to a Zen 3 based upgrade next year which should be simple as a drop in. Compared to the Intel CPU here, the AMD is more power efficient, and the CPU performance is about 50:50. On gaming, when paired with an RTX 2080 Ti, Intel has a slight lead in all of our games/settings except for those that are CPU bound, such as Civilization and Strange Brigade.
The Intel option, because the prices of Intel’s hardware seem really good right now, is the Core i5-10600K. This is also a very popular processor, also with six cores, twelve threads, but comes in at a 125 W TDP. This means higher frequencies, boosting up to 4.8 GHz with a base of 4.1 GHz, whereas the AMD can only boost to 4.2 GHz. This gives this Intel processor a lead in single threaded performance and in almost all our gaming results. The upgrade path for this processor is to a next generation Core i7 or Core i9, although using the same motherboard will limit it to PCIe 3.0.
Between the two, the Intel wins overall on performance, mostly due to its ability to drive more power – users will have to be wary when they build their cooling. AMD’s option comes with a suitable stock cooler, although users wanting to overclock either CPU will need better cooling. I’d argue that the AMD’s upgrade path is easier, thinking down the line, but ultimately with a system purchased today, the Intel Core i5 has the performance upper hand.
The $1000 Gaming PC
Intel Core i5-10400F ($152)
With the prices of AMD’s processors, there wasn’t one that fit quite right into this category – either we’d look at an anemic quad-core well above its retail price, or spend too much to look at the Ryzen 5 3600 again. In our last guide, we suggested the Ryzen 5 2600 which was $150 at the time. It now retails at $187, a staggering +25% increase. As a result, from my perspective, the only real option to think about is from Intel, and it’s the Core i5-10400F for $152.
This is a six core processor with twelve threads, offering a 2.9 GHz base frequency and a 4.3 GHz turbo frequency, rated within 65 W. It is an F processor, which means no integrated graphics, but this is really intended for a gaming system with a mid-range graphics card anyway. The i5-10400F sits at #11 on Amazon’s best seller list, despite being cheaper than the i5-10400 which sits at #4 (same specifications, but integrated graphics). The $152 price is $22 cheaper than our last guide, making a complete reversal with AMD. Another option we considered last month was the Core i5-9400F, which was $145 but comes without hyperthreading. That sits slightly higher at $148 today, making the $152 a lot more suitable.
This leaves $848 left for the rest of the system, and assuming there’s a good graphics card to be had (somewhere), expect to run $350 for a case, power supply, motherboard, NVMe SSD, at least 16 GB of DRAM, and a CPU cooler. The Core i5 10th generation processor we have tested actually peaked at 130 W, but at much higher frequencies, so any good cooler should be sufficient.
The $700 Gaming PC:
Intel Core i3-10100F ($117)
For this system, I almost stopped short and didn’t recommend a processor. One of the features right now is that the low-end hardware is very expensive. The processor recommended here, the Core i3-10100F, is actually the same one I recommended in our last guide, but has increased from $103 to $117. That’s a non-insignificant increase. But really this is kind of where modern processors are starting in price it seems, and with the price cost of graphics cards, it did make me wonder if I should recommend anything at all.
The Core i3-10100F is a quad core with hyperthreading, with a 4.3 GHz turbo, with a 65W TDP rating. For this class of system it should do plenty, and also scale should a user plan to upgrade in the future either up the 10th Gen stack or to the new Rocket Lake processors coming by March.
The only option worth looking at in this price from AMD was the Athlon 3000G, at $100. Normally we only choose that if it’s $55, and only for the potato PC. It’s not worth it here.
The $500 Gaming PC
Get a Console (if you can)
As short and shrill as this recommendation is, I really can’t see an option for our users here that is worth looking at – at least when buying online from retail. There might be some options on the second-hand market. But typically our $500 PC build is for a system that relies on its integrated graphics as its main source of graphical power. The CPU here costs a bit more than the $700 build, but doesn’t have to worry about a discrete card. The problem here is that normally we look at the $120 price range for the CPU, but there are no tangible options.
I normally don’t bother entertaining Intel’s integrated graphics options at this price, as Intel hasn’t been competitive in that space at this price bracket for several generations. The onus is on AMD to offer something with a good chunk of Vega graphics, but in light of price movements and demand, that isn’t an option here. The only other option is to get a console, if you can find one for sale.
If we look at the Ryzen 3000 APU family, aside from the 3000G at $100, the 3200G is $179 and the 3400G is $241 – this is despite the 3400G being one of our options in October, at $145!
If we then look down the stack to the Ryzen 2000 family, the 2400G comes in at $186, whereas the 2200G is slightly cheaper at $180. This is all a joke, right? The 200GE, the lower power dual core variants with Vega 3, are $75. That’s sort of ok, but the performance on a Vega 3 isn’t right for this sort of build.
Get a console if you want to game here. Or try and grab a bargain on the second hand market.
The $300 Minimum Spec Potato
Intel Celeron G4930 ($67)
I almost listed this recommendation as ‘forget it’. There didn’t seem to be anything on offer here worth buying, especially as we’re looking in that $50-$60 CPU market where a bare minimum is a good start.
But there was one processor that managed to get in under the wire out of the ones we look for. The Intel Celeron G4930 is a base dual core Coffee Lake processor with no hyperthreading and entry level graphics. The MSRP is $42, and it currently sits at retail for $67.
Actually no, this is probably the worst recommendation on this list. I don’t know what to say. Perhaps brand-new sub-$500 gaming machines aren’t going to be a viable option in 2021?
On The Horizon: CPU, CPU, Where For Art Thou?
This is by far the most depressing CPU guide I have ever written. The PC industry as a whole is getting a lot more expensive. If it’s not tariffs or supply, then it is other components like power supplies or graphics cards being so expensive it suppresses the rest of the system cost. On top of that, the cheapest processors are now ridiculously expensive. There’s nothing suitable for a $500 or cheaper gaming PC on the market. For the high-end parts, particularly from AMD, stock is both rare and up to +80% on suggested retail pricing. You have to be lucky to get one at a reasonable price.
OK, plus sides – Intel seems to have good pricing and good stock on the Comet Lake 10th Generation Core platform. In previous guides these parts were above suggested cost, but we’re seeing some nice pricing on the Core i5 side of things, which is perhaps most poignant to this guide. Users looking at something more powerful, the Core i9 and Core i7 are getting some good discounts in.
So here is a vital question: are things going to get better?
On AMD, they have said that the demand they have for hardware is causing everything to sell out – it’s mostly going to consoles, OEMs, and enterprise rather than end users to buy at retail. AMD has said that they are solving issues in the supply chain (i.e. better substrate supply, more wafers) to meet that demand, but they do not see it easing until the second half of the year. Until then, we hope that they patchy CPU supply for end-users gets better. We are likely to know more when AMD has its Q1 2021 financial call in April.
For Intel, 2021 looks to be a bit of a crazy year on the desktop. Aside from the astronomic low-end pricing, we’re set to see the company launch Rocket Lake at the end of Q1 (March). We already know a lot about it, as in it will have +19% performance increases over the current products, AI instructions, new integrated graphics, but also two fewer cores at the high-end and question marks on power. This is very much a wait-and-see moment as to whether Intel can execute Rocket Lake in volume and competitively.
However, later in 2021, Intel is also expected to launch another generation of processors: Alder Lake, on 10nm. The company demoed a system running Windows at CES in a desktop chassis (nothing to say if what was inside was a desktop LGA chip or a laptop BGA system in a case), stating that it will be launched in 2021. A lot of analysts are expecting that launch to be a laptop launch first, with perhaps a desktop launch coming this time next year. This is longer than the 6 months some media keep quoting between Rocket and Alder, but it also puts users on the back foot as to whether to update – if they’re willing to wait a year, see what Alder Lake brings, and perhaps what AMD might be doing by then.
The AnandTech CPU Coverage
Our big CPU reviews for the last 12 months have covered all the launches so far, and are well worth a read.
|AnandTech Recent CPU Coverage|
|September||TR3 3990X at 4 GHz||Core i7-1185G7|
|October||AMD CTO Interview
|Rocket Lake Detailed|
|November||Ryzen 9 5950X
Ryzen 9 5900X
Ryzen 7 5800X
Ryzen 5 5600X
|December||Xbox One APU
Ryzen 7 Pro 4750G
Ryzen 5 Pro 4650G
Ryzen 3 Pro 4350G
Zen 3 MultiThreading
|Special||CEO Lisa Su Interview||CEO Bob Swan Interview|
|January||Ryzen 9 5980HS||Core i9-10850K
|Upcoming||TR Pro 3995WX||Looking for Jasper Lake|
|All of our processor benchmarks can be found in Bench, our database.