May 1st Update: Added the AMD Ryzen 7 2700X (our new CPU in the $300 range), and the AMD Ryzen 5 2600X (a new alternate pick in the $200 range). Note that we have also tested a number of existing processors with the latest Spectre and Meltdown patches when reviewing the Ryzen 5 2600X. While there are measurable performance differences after the patches are applied (which you can see in the review), they are not significant enough to change our CPU picks in any of the categories below.
If you don’t feel confident enough to pick the right processor on your own, we've compiled a simple list of the best CPUs offered for the money. This list is for gamers who want to get the most for their money, so if you don’t play games, the CPUs on this list may not be suitable for you. The criteria to get on this list is a mixture of price and performance, but cost and availability change on a daily basis, and while we can’t offer up-to-the-minute pricing information in text, the prices in green are current. These are new retail CPU prices for the US - prices will most certainly vary in other regions and on used or OEM markets.
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$300+ Best Pick
Flagship mainstream desktop processors come with the highest price tag of our recommendations, but those searching for the best performance to push the beefiest graphics cards will be rewarded with chart-topping performance. Both Intel and AMD offer high-end desktop models that scale beyond 16 cores, but those premium processors often don't deliver the same amount of gaming performance as the mainstream models. Also, they come with expensive platforms and typically support quad-channel memory, which adds yet more cost to the equation. The picture changes if you need more performance for other types of applications, like rendering or encoding, but the mainstream processors offer the best value for strictly gaming.
For most high-end gamers, the flagship mainstream models in Intel's Core i7 and AMD's Ryzen 7 product families offer the best value. Intel's Coffee and Kaby Lake models offer the best absolute gaming performance, but AMD's Ryzen 7 series comes with more cores, which you might find attractive if you have more demanding requirements, such as streaming or intense multi-tasking. You can also often find the Ryzen processors well below MSRP.
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$200 - $300 Best Pick
Mid-range processors typically land in the $200 to $300 price range, and they offer satisfying performance for the majority of gamers. Stepping beyond the $300 price class typically grants less than a 10% overall performance improvement that isn't always worth the higher price tag.
AMD's Ryzen processors have truly reinvigorated this segment and often come with a discount, too. For the overclockers among us, AMD's processors all offer unlocked ratio multipliers that you can exploit on budget-friendly motherboards, while Intel's offerings are split into both locked and unlocked processors. With Intel, overclocking requires a step up to a Z-Series motherboard and a more expensive "K"-series processor.
This price range finds two distinct price tiers, but provided the processor has an unlocked multiplier, you can often find the best value around the $200 mark. It's best to step up to the more expensive models in this class if overclocking isn't in your plans.
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$100 - $200 Best Pick
The lower end of the gaming processor spectrum is incredibly competitive, particularly with the copious core counts, bundled coolers, and unlocked multipliers you can find in the AMD lineup. Intel processors tend to offer the best performance at stock settings, and the locked multipliers in this price range make them suitable for less-expensive B- and H-Series motherboards.
These processors will often find a home in sub-$800 gaming rigs, so bundled coolers, particularly if they can handle overclocking, become more important.
If you have or will soon buy a graphics card, the Ryzen 5 2400G is not the best option, as the processor and graphics cores have to share power. In this price range, if a graphics card is destined for your rig, get the Intel Core i3 8100 instead--especially if Intel's more affordable 8th-gen B- and H-series motherboards are available by the time you read this.
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Sub-$100 Best Pick
You won't find several of the more advanced features on this class of processors, such as AVX or Optane support, but they make a great pairing for sub-$200 graphics cards.
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