It’s been another busy year on the CPU front. AMD shook up the mainstream market with its Vega-equipped “Raven Ridge” chips like the Ryzen 5 2400G, followed by other Second Generation Ryzen CPUs that refined the successful Zen formula. Intel followed up with the stop-gap that is the Core i7-8086K, before unleashing its 9th Generation Core CPUs, including the Core i9-9900K flagship. In the meantime, AMD released a slew of new Threadripper 2 processors, hitting Intel on the high-end, and Intel responded with the iterative (and expensive) Core i9-9980XE.
With all that to keep track of, plus new chipsets from Intel and AMD, how do you shop for a new CPU while being sure you’re getting a good deal this year? If you’re not wedded to either Intel or AMD, you should check out our CPU Buying Guide for general advice, the CPU Hierarchy page to see how given processors compare to the competition, and our Best Gaming CPUs, Best CPUs for Desktop Applications, and Best Cheap CPUs (under $130) pages to help narrow down your search. And if you aren’t sure whether you should choose Intel or AMD, you can check out our face off story that pits AMD’s top-end mainstream chip versus Intel’s new Core i7-9700K. Both Intel and AMD have their merits.
All that said, we wouldn’t expect to see many (or perhaps any) sweet deals on Intel’s new mainstream flagship. The Core i9-9900K is still selling well above its $488 MSRP as of this writing. The Core i7-9700K (which is arguably a much better value for most users, especially gamers), is selling closer to its $385 MSRP, but still usually well above $400. Given this, plus ongoing reports of 14nm production shortages, it seems unlikely we’ll see major price slashes on Intel’s latest processors this holiday season--barring perhaps retail stores like Micro Center of Fry’s selling their inventory at a loss to bring customers in the door.
Keep an Eye on Intel 8th Gen
Still, Intel’s older 8th Generation CPUs are still plenty capable, and now no longer the hot new thing. You might see some enticing sales on a Core i7-8700K, as well as the Core i5-8600K, as both these chips now have next-gen replacements on the market. Lesser 8th Gen Intel chips could also see price drops, although those chips don’t yet have 9th Generation counterparts yet, so there’s less reason for sellers to slash prices there.
The Best Deals Might Be on AMD CPUs
It’s likely that the most sales--and the most enticing sales--will be on AMD CPUs. Second-generation Ryzen chips have been available now since the spring. They already often sell for $10-$30 under their MSRPs (with the biggest price cuts on the higher-end models), so we wouldn’t be surprised to see a Ryzen 7 2700X priced well under $300, or a Ryzen 5 2600X significantly under $200.
Don’t Pass Over Older Ryzens
But also keep an eye out for first-generation Ryzen CPUs (which start with a 1 in their model name, rather than a 2). These CPUs are still readily available, even though they were “replaced” by newer models several months ago. So keep an eye out for sales on the Ryzen 7 1800X (anything below about $230 would be a good deal for this eight-core chip) and the Ryzen 5 1600X (this six-core would be a steal at $160 or less).
If you’re concerned about buying an “obsolete” CPU with a first-gen Ryzen, know that they will work in the same motherboards as the newer models. And aside from some small (though substantive) refinements in the Zen+ architecture used in the newer chips, the main drawbacks to opting for an older Ryzen chip is slightly lower clock speeds, and lower gaming frame rates in some games--mostly at resolutions at or around 1080p. If you prize value more than bleeding-edge performance and features, a first-gen Ryzen CPU is still a good option--especially if you can find one on a sweet sale. Also note AMD has pledged support for the AM4 socket until sometime in 2020. So if you do opt for an older Ryzen and compatible motherboard, your system should still have new upgrade options for another year--if not more.
Don’t Forget About the Cooler
One last thing to keep in mind about newer vs older Ryzen CPUs: All the 2000-series Ryzens ship with a cooler in the box, while that wasn’t the case with some of the 1000-series models. So be sure that you know what you’re getting before buying. If you have to factor in the cost of a cooler, that Ryzen 5 1600X might not be be the deal it seems to be. Intel’s unlocked K-series CPUs also ship without coolers, so keep that in mind when shopping, as well.
Look to Threadripper for Powerful Deals
Also, if you’re in the market for something truly powerful for high-end productivity purposes, keep an eye out for older, first-generation Threadripper chips. The second-generation parts are better to be sure, but a 16-core, 32-thread AMD Threadripper 1950X would be tough to ignore if it falls well below $600. Both newer and older Threadripper chips use the same X399 chipset, so there’s no issues there--save for price. All Threadripper motherboards are pretty expensive.
Avoid Buying Into a Dead Platform
So then, if those are the chips you should be looking out for on the shopping and sales front this holiday season, what CPUs should you avoid? In short, eschew anything that’s part of a dead platform and/or that delivers noticeably worse performance than more modern chips that don’t cost that much more.
This list of chips we think you should skip includes any AMD processor with an FX in its name. These chips weren’t exactly great when they were new (falling well behind Intel in single-thread performance, while being less efficient), and the AM3+ socket/platform they drop into has been dead since the AM4 socket launched in September of 2016. The same is true more or less of AMD’s older “APUs,” which use the FM2+ socket and start with A4, A6, A8, or A10 in their product names.
While there is, apparently, a “new” Carrizzo-based CPU chip floating around out there, these chips are based on an old architecture, on an old less-efficient manufacturing node, and the FM2+ platform won’t likely see any more substantial updates. Given the low price of entry-level AM4 boards (starting at $50 or less), you’re much better off opting for one of those and a Ryzen 3 2200G or a $55 Athlon 200GE than building a new system around a platform that hasn’t seen a substantial feature upgrade since the A88X chipset launched in 2014.
Similarly, unless you have an existing older Intel motherboard that’s in need of a better CPU, we’d avoid Intel chips that are older than 8th Generation at this point. There are still some 7th Generation “Kaby Lake” CPUs available, but they don’t sell for substantially less than newer models. And if you buy one along with a compatible 200-series motherboard, you’ll again be stuck with a dead-end platform, without native USB 3.1 Gen2 support or the extra cores that are the hallmark of Intel’s 8th Generation CPUs.
The best way to tell whether or not a given sale is good or not is to use a site like Camelcamelcamel or PCPartPicker to track prices over time. That way you can see if the current price is the best (or nearly the best) a CPU has ever sold for, or if the price was jacked up before the holiday in order to make a deal appear sweet when it actually leans toward sour.
Bottom Line: Buy Smart
If you’re looking for a deal on a new CPU to build a new PC, there’s a good chance you’ll want to upgrade the CPU or motherboard down the line--or add RAM that’s readily available, rather than having to track down some old DDR3. So avoid opting for chips that lock you into CPU sockets or other key components that are no longer supported. An old chip at a low price might seem like a deal today. But if have to toss the motherboard, processor, and other parts in a year or two to get something better, you’ll wish you’d spent a few more dollars on something that was more current here in 2018.