Most processors can handle just about any workload you throw at them, given enough time. But faster CPUs (with more cores and / or faster clock speeds) chew through heavy workloads faster, which saves time. A CPU that excels at gaming isn't always the best choice if your workload is more productivity-focused. In fact, as highly threaded CPUs become more common, gaming CPUs and work CPUs are increasingly disparate silicon beasts. So we've compiled a list of processors that represent the best bang for your buck in common productivity tasks.
Now that both Intel's 5GHz Core i9-9900KS and AMD's 16 core Ryzen 9 3950X have both arrived and passed through our test regimen, we know that the KS excels at gaming. But the 3950X does nearly as well (and it's generally a wash above 1080p anyway), while that chip's 2x core count means it absolutely stomps any mainstream Intel chip when it comes to highly threaded workloads.
Obviously feeling some heat from AMD, Intel recently announced its upcoming Cascade Lake X high-end desktop processors, along with significant price cuts per core compared to its previous-generation HEDT chips. The price changes are no-doubt influenced by AMD, both from the mainstream Ryzen side, and Threadripper on the high-end front. Speaking of Threadripper, AMD revealed details of a pair of upcoming Threadripper 3000 CPUs as well. So far at least, the company hasn't upped the core count above 32, but the new Threadripper platform will bring with it 72 usable lanes of bandwidth-doubling PCIe 4.0 support, as well as the 7nm Zen2 goodness that hve made the mainstream Ryzen 3000 parts a big success.
Quick Shopping Tips
When choosing a non-gaming-focused CPU, consider the following:
- Know the apps you use: If your apps take advantage of AMD's superior cores / threads per dollar, you might want to get an AMD chip. But if you're using lightly-threaded apps or Adobe products, Intel will perform better.
- Get the latest gen: You don't save a lot by going with an older chip.
- Keep the motherboard in mind: The priciest CPUs require more expensive motherboards than cheaper chips.
- Play it cool: Most expensive chips don't come a cooler, requiring you to buy your own.
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.
Best Workstation CPU
Intel Xeon W-3175X
Best Workstation CPU
Architecture: Skylake-SP | Socket: LGA 3647 (Socket P) | Cores/Threads: 28/56 | Base Frequency: 3.1GHz | Top Boost Frequency: 4.3GHz | TDP: 255W
If you’re a true computing professional for whom time wasted calculating or rendering means lost revenue, then you need the most powerful desktop hardware available. This kind of hardware goes above and beyond what’s available on Intel and AMD’s HEDT processors, to true workstation hardware. Workstation platforms also support ECC (Error Correcting Code memory), as does AMD’s Threadripper platform, to protect against data corruption.
Silicon designed to churn through these kinds of professional workloads as fast as possible and as long as necessary won’t come cheap. But if you truly need it, a top-end workstation CPU will pay for itself.
Intel's overclockable 28-core, 56-thread Xeon W-3175X is the current champ in this realm. Predictable results are a must in professional workloads, and the W-3175X delivers with a superior blend of performance in both lightly- and heavily-threaded applications. As with most of Intel’s high-end processors, you pay a hefty premium for the privilege of owning one. But the this Xeon offers an unbeatable experience in exchange.
Those looking for lots of cores and lower prices should keep a look out for AMD's recently announced Ryzen 3000 lineup, which the company says will arrive on July 7th. AMD promises these chips will deliver a 15% increase in instructions per cycle (IPC) and a top boost clock of 4.6GHz on the 12-core, 24-thread $499 Ryzen 9 3900X. But the biggest news for those in need of lots of cores and threads is the Ryzen 9 3950X that was announced during E3. It sports 16 cores and 32 threads, with a boost clock of 4.7GHz. AMD says it will arrive sometime in September for $749. We'll of course have to wait to run our own benchmarks before passing full judgement. But paired with a lower-cost X570 or X470 motherboard, it could give lower-end Threadripper builds a run for their money.
On the Intel side, the announcement of the Core i9-9900KS, promises all eight cores running at an impressive 5GHz out of the box. But we don't know important details yet, like the price or release date--or how much stock will actually be available of this binned version of the company's existing Core i9-9900 flagship chips.
Also, mention of third-gen Threadripper recently disappeared from recent roadmaps from AMD, leading to some speculation about whether we'd see new versions of AMD's high-end desktop chips at all. But AMD's CEO Lisa Su, at a press reception at Computex in Taipei in May, promised that the company would deliver more Threadripper processors in the future, but didn't say anything about when that might happen.
Read Review: Intel Xeon W-3175X
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Best High-End Desktop (HEDT) CPU
AMD Threadripper 2950X
Best High-End Desktop (HEDT) CPU
Architecture: Zen+ | Socket: TR4 | Cores/Threads: 16/32 | Base Frequency: 3.5GHz | Top Boost Frequency: 4.4GHz | TDP: 180W
If you commonly run workstation-class workloads or fall into the semi-professional category, high end desktop processors (HEDT) are the best solution. Intel's X299 and AMD's X399 platforms come with robust connectivity options, like expanded PCIe lanes that accommodate additives like high-speed LAN, more graphics cards, and quad-channel memory. Intel's Skylake-X family has a wide range of core counts that satisfy almost every use-case, but you'll have to pay a premium. Intel also restricts its Core i9 models to 44 PCIe lanes, which can't compete with AMD's hefty allotment of 60 usable lanes.
AMD's first- and second-generation Threadripper lineups are made up of several models with various core counts, but in general you'll pay far less per core than you do with Intel's processors. Intel still holds the performance-per-core advantage, but AMD's less-expensive price points offset that. And because second-gen Threadripper models have now hit the market, you may find great deals on the first-gen Threadripper models.
While we still recommend the mainstream Ryzen 7 2700X or Core i7-8700K for gaming, they clearly can't keep pace with Threadripper in productivity-oriented applications. Intel's Skylake-X processors are still brutally fast, but you'll also pay a premium for the privilege of owning one. The Threadripper 2950X offers a lot more performance at a lower price than the first-gen Threadripper did at launch, but we wouldn't recommend a direct upgrade from the 1950X. If you're looking to upgrade from an older CPU to this well-balanced processor, AMD's Ryzen Threadripper 2950X does not disappoint.
Read Review: AMD Threadripper 2950X
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Best Mainstream Desktop CPU
AMD Ryzen 9 3950X
Best High Performance Value
Architecture: Zen 2 | Socket: AM4 | Cores/Threads: 16/32 | Base Frequency: 3.5GHz | Top Boost Frequency: 4.7GHz | TDP: 105W
High end desktop processors have long offered the ultimate in performance, as long as you were willing to pay the price. Aside from high MSRPs, the chips also require expensive accompanying parts, like beefy motherboards and fully populated quad-channel memory controllers. Add in the inevitable trade-offs, like reduced performance in lightly-threaded applications and games, and most budget-strapped users who could benefit from the threaded horsepower of a HEDT chip just settle for mainstream offerings.
Now AMD's Ryzen 9 3950X, with 16 cores and 32 threads brings HEDT-class performance to mainstream motherboards, lowering the bar for entry. The 3950X carries a $749 price tag, but that’s downright affordable compared to competing HEDT processors.
As a general rule, we don't recommend HEDT processors for enthusiasts that are only interested in gaming. Gamers are best served by mainstream processors (with fewer cores and higher clocks) that are often faster in games; the Ryzen 9 3950X also falls into the same category. However, if you're after a chip and platform that can do serious work seriously fast, but still be nimble enough deliver high-refresh gameplay at the end of the day, the Ryzen 9 3950X fits the bill like no other CPU before it.
Read Review: AMD Ryzen 9 3950X
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Best Mainstream CPU
AMD Ryzen 7 3700X
Best Mainstream CPU
£280)Architecture: Zen2 | Socket: 1331 | Cores/Threads: 8/16 | Base Frequency: 3.2GHz | Top Boost Frequency: 4.4GHz | TDP: 65W
AMD continues to offer as much backward compatibility as it can given its expanding portfolio, earning kudos from the enthusiast community, and is also staying true to its standard value proposition of offering more for less.The Ryzen 7 3700X comes with a beefy bundled a cooler that can even provide a bit of overclocking headroom, too.
AMD also continues to offer fully unlocked processors for all Ryzen models and allows overclocking on value-centric motherboards, which has long been a sore point for enthusiasts that have to pay a premium for access to Intel's overclocking features. AMD is even expanding on that with the introduction of Precision Boost Overdrive and AutoOC features that bring overclocking to mainstream users through a few clicks in its easy-to-use Ryzen Master utility. Intel still holds the overclocking crown, but that's becoming less of an advantage in the face of processors that come with up to twice the cores at similar price points.
The eight-core 16-thread Ryzen 7 3700X slots in as solid performer for the mainstream that offers incredible power efficiency paired with powerful performance. The fully unlocked processor also supports the PCIe 4.0 interface and comes with a beefy Wraith Spire RGB cooler. The value seekers among us will also appreciate the backwards compatibility with X470 motherboards.
Read Review: AMD Ryzen 7 3700X
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Best Budget CPU
AMD Ryzen 5 2600
Best Budget CPU
£150)Architecture: Zen+ | Socket: AM4 (1331) | Cores/Threads: 6/12 | Base Frequency: 3.6GHz | Top Boost Frequency: 4.2GHz | TDP: 65W
The lower end of the processor spectrum is extremely 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 single-threaded performance at stock settings. And since you can't overclock them, in this price range they're suitable for less-expensive B- and H-Series motherboards that can't overclock.
Retailers have dropped pricing on the Ryzen 5 2600 to a mere $170 / £140, which means you can pick up six cores and twelve threads powered by the Zen+ architecture at an all-time low price. The plucky 2600 has a 3.4-GHz base frequency that boosts up to 3.9 GHz for lightly-threaded tasks, while improved multi-core turbo capabilities help tackle heavier workloads.
Like all AMD Ryzen processors, you can overclock with X- and B-series motherboards. The attractive 65W Wraith Stealth cooler is great for stock cooling but has limited overclocking potential, so plan to invest in a beefier aftermarket cooler if you plan on tuning the processor.
Read Review: AMD Ryzen 5 2600
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Best Entry-Level CPU
AMD Ryzen 3 2200G
Best Entry-Level CPU
£80)Architecture: Zen+ | Socket: AM4 (1331) | Cores/Threads: 4/4 | Base Frequency: 3.5GHz | Top Boost Frequency: 3.7GHz | TDP: 65W
AMD's less-restrictive feature set grants the Ryzen processors the uncontested lead in this segment of the market. The Ryzen 3 2200G dips into the sub-$100 (£80) category, but its support for AVX instructions and four physical cores easily beats the Intel Pentium lineup.
The four-core, four-thread Ryzen 3 2200G is particularly appealing for budget gaming builders and upgraders. In multi-threaded workloads, the comparable Pentium dual-core models are no match for the Ryzen 3 2200G's four physical cores. The 2200G's single-threaded performance is also extremely competitive, and that's before we take overclocking into account. AMD also supports AVX instructions with all of its processors, an important consideration for productivity-focused workloads, while Intel disables the feature in its Pentium family.
The $99 (£82) Ryzen 3 2200G also comes with the powerful integrated Radeon Vega graphics engine and drops into existing inexpensive 300-series motherboards (after a requisite BIOS update), to form the basis of a surprisingly capable low-cost PC. It’s also unlocked, so, with proper cooling, you can tune the graphics or the CPU to best suit your needs.
Read Review: AMD Ryzen 3 2200G
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