There's never been a better time to buy a processor for under $125. AMD's latest processors have shaken up the low-cost landscape, so now you can find quad-core models with gaming-capable integrated graphics for a mere $100. Intel's response has brought hyper-threading to its low-end Pentium processors and two additional cores to the Core i3 lineup, which vastly improves performance for its budget chips even though they're still limited in the graphics department.
Below you'll find our top budget and mainstream CPU picks topping out at $130, followed by the details of the testing we did to make these determinations.
Quick Shopping Tips
When choosing a CPU, consider the following:
- You can't lose with AMD or Intel: Both companies offer good budget options, and overall CPU performance between comparative parts is closer than it’s been in years. That said, if you’re primarily interested in gaming, Intel’s chips will generally deliver better performance when paired with a graphics card, while AMD’s Raven Ridge chips (like the Ryzen 3 2200G below) do a better job of handling games at modest settings and resolutions without the need for a graphics card.
- Clock speed is more important than core number: Higher clock speeds translate to snappier performance in simple, common tasks such as gaming, while more cores will help you get through time-consuming workloads faster.
- Get the latest gen: You won't save much money in the long run by going with an older chip.
- Budget for a full system: Don't pair a strong CPU with weak storage, RAM and graphics.
- Overclocking isn’t for everyone, but the ability to squeeze more performance out of a budget offering is enticing. Intel doesn't have overclocking-capable processors for the sub-$125 market, but AMD's processors allow for tuning, and in most cases, the bundled cooler is sufficient for the task. Automated overclocking features in most motherboards make the process simple and easy, so even the least tech-savvy users can enjoy the benefits.
For even more information, check out our CPU Buyer’s Guide, where we discuss how much you should spend for what you’re looking to do, and when cores matter more than high clock speeds.
$100 - $130
Intel's Core i3 series provides excellent single-threaded performance for lightly-threaded tasks, such as web browsers and most desktop PC software, and come with integrated graphics. AMD's Ryzen 3 lineup is competitive and comes with unlocked ratio multipliers, so you can overclock at will, but the company’s processors in this price range come without integrated graphics. Intel and AMD processors also drop into value-minded motherboards that help keep costs in check.
$85 - $100 Budget Pick
Integrated graphics become more important as we dive further down the pricing scale, and AMD's budget-minded APUs have shaken up the low-cost range with the powerful integrated Vega graphics silicon. These new processors provide enough graphics horsepower for lightweight gaming, which was impossible with integrated graphics engines on previous-generation products. Intel's Pentium Gold processors also feature integrated graphics, but when it comes to gaming, Intel's graphics in this range aren't comparable to AMD's Vega.
$60 - $85 Entry-Level Pick
AMD doesn't have any of its next-generation offerings in the sub-$85 segment (at least at the time of this writing), so Intel reigns largely uncontested. The new Coffee Lake Pentiums come with higher clock speeds than the previous-gen models and the advantages of the new 300-series chipsets, but at the same price. You can find dual-core processors without hyperthreading that fall below our lower pricing boundary, such as Celerons, but a dual-core processor with four threads is the best option for a desktop PC that can stand the test of time.
Why Trust Us
Tom's Hardware has been reviewing PC components for more than two decades. We put each CPU through a bevy of benchmarks which measure everything from its single- and multi-core performance in applications and games, to its power consumption. We've tested hundreds of models, at both stock and overclock settings where applicable, so we can separate the best from the multi-core disappointments.
Intel’s Coffee Lake Pentium models come with slight frequency improvements, a 3W increase in the TDP rating, and 4MB of L3 cache. These slight adjustments deliver a surprising boost to performance compared to the previous-gen Kaby Lake models. The Coffee Lake Pentium Gold G5600 even beats out the Kaby Lake Core i3-7100 in most of our gaming benchmarks, highlighting the impressive performance gains Intel made within a single generation.
The G5600 grapples with the Ryzen 3 2200G. The Ryzen 3 2200G is relatively simple to overclock with single-click options in the BIOS, and the bundled cooler provides enough headroom for all but the most extreme overclocking efforts. At stock settings, the 2200G trails the G5600, but the advantage of AMD’s unlocked multipliers is clear: At $99, the tuned Ryzen 3 2200G’s performance nearly matches the $117 Core i3-8100.
The Ryzen 3 2200G also comes with powerful integrated graphics that provide surprisingly strong gaming performance at lower resolutions and quality settings. That’s a feat the Core i3-8100 simply cannot match. If you’re seeking the absolute best gaming performance (when paired with a dedicated card) regardless of price, the Core i3-8100 fits the bill. If you want the most bang for your buck or plan on gaming on integrated graphics, the Ryzen 3 2200G is the clear value winner.
We tested with an Nvidia GeForce 1080 FE graphics card to remove graphics-imposed bottlenecks, but the difference between the processors will shrink with the cheaper graphics cards that are commonly found in budget builds. Provided the performance deltas are small, you can select less expensive models and enjoy nearly the same gaming experience with lower-end graphics cards.
The Core i3-8100’s solid mixture of frequency and IPC throughput delivered to our expectations. The agile processor took the lead in several of our lightly-threaded applications, like the Adobe Cloud suite, but it is also surprisingly powerful in threaded workloads. The Core i3-8100 also offers superior performance in applications that use AVX instructions, like HandBrake, which is a great addition to its impressively well-balanced repertoire. Much like we observed in our gaming tests, the Core i3-8100 offers the best overall performance.
The previous-gen Core i3-7100 comes with a higher frequency than the Core i3-8100. That facilitates higher performance in single-threaded applications, but the -7100’s dual-core design leads to underwhelming performance in heavier workloads, creating an unbalanced performance profile that isn’t worth the cash, especially when you can have the faster Core i3-8100 for the same price.
Even after overclocking, the Ryzen 3 1300X isn’t competitive enough with the Core i3-8100 to justify its higher price tag, and the lack of integrated graphics also restricts its appeal.
The Ryzen 3 2200G continues to impress with its lower price point and competitive performance, not to mention the integrated Vega graphics, making it the obvious choice for budget builders who are willing to spend a little extra time on tuning.
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